Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Mexico

Latin American nation comprising 769,000 square miles, bordered by the United States to the north and Guatemala and Belize to the south. A culturally and geographically diverse nation, Mexico's climate zones range from high desert to tropical jungle, and its population is 90 percent Roman Catholic. During World War II, Mexico cooperated closely with the Allied powers to meet the Axis threat. In fact, Mexico was one of only two Latin American nations to provide combat forces during the war. Mexico even permitted the United States to draft Mexican citizens residing in the United States and to recruit in Mexico itself, resulting in some 250,000 Mexican citizens serving in the U.S. armed forces. After 1945, Mexico, with a population of 22 million, saw its ties to the United States weaken, especially in foreign affairs. Throughout the Cold War, in fact, Mexico often found itself at odds with U.S. foreign policy.

In the postwar world, Mexico wanted to maintain close economic ties with the United States but was not enthusiastic about maintaining close military ties in the name of hemispheric defense. While U.S. policy focused on containing communism, Mexico was more concerned with issues of economic development. Mexico did not view the Soviet Union as a particular threat, and furthermore, the Mexican government boasted a long and successful history of quashing indigenous communist movements. Traditional Mexican foreign policy principles often worked against U.S. Cold War policy. Mexican policy revolved around self-defense, belief in the equality of all nations, peaceful resolutions to conflicts, participation in international organizations, nonintervention, and the search for counterbalances to U.S. domination.

Mexico's response to the Korean War showcased the divergent concerns of the United States and Mexico in the early Cold War. Mexico supported the U.S. position within the United Nations (UN). Nevertheless, the Mexican government steadfastly resisted U.S. pressure to commit troops to the conflict. The United States wanted Mexico to commit one military division to the war, hoping that Mexican participation would encourage troop commitments by other Latin American countries. The U.S. request was unrealistic, however, given Mexico's limited resources and combat experience. Furthermore, Mexico did not view the Korean War solely through the eyes of communist containment.

Mexico also disagreed with U.S. Cold War policy toward Latin America. Mexico's own history made it generally sympathetic to left-wing revolutions, even when communists played a prominent role. And Mexico's traditional foreign policy principles prevented it from supporting U.S. efforts to block such revolutions. The Mexicans refused to support America's covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operation in Guatemala, which ousted that nation's leader in 1954. Fidel Castro's successful 1959 revolution in Cuba also put Mexico and the United States at loggerheads. Even when Castro proclaimed himself a Marxist-Leninist in 1960, the Mexicans continued to defend Cuba's right to self-determination.

Mexico's independent position in foreign affairs reflected its political stability and economic growth in the quarter-century following World War II. Political stability was the product of the dominant role played in Mexican politics by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the official party that controlled all branches and all levels of government. While other parties were permitted, the only real contests for political power took place within the PRI itself, not between the PRI and other parties.

The Mexican government had committed itself to an economic development policy that after World War II became known as import-substitution industrialization. This policy encouraged domestic industrialization through a variety of measures such as tariffs and import quotas. In the 1940s and 1950s, this approach produced spectacular economic growth known as the Mexican economic miracle.

Although the economic policy had nationalist elements, the role of U.S. investors in the economy increased. At the same time, U.S. influence in cultural affairs became so great that Mexicans began to complain about U.S. cultural imperialism even as they embraced fast-food franchises and other aspects of American popular culture. By the late 1960s, the end of the economic boom and growing demands for democratization forced a rethinking of Mexico's foreign and domestic policies.

In the 1970s, Mexico diverged even further from U.S. Cold War foreign policies. Mexican President Luis Echeverría (1970–1976) wanted Mexico to assume leadership among developing nations and was a major player in establishing the Latin American Economic System, aimed at promoting and protecting Latin American regional economic interests. In 1973 the Echeverría administration refused to recognize the American-backed military regime in Chile that had overthrown the Marxist Salvador Allende. Mexico also prompted the Organization of American States (OAS) to soften its stance toward Cuba. In 1975 the OAS passed a resolution allowing each member to determine its own relationship with Cuba.

U.S.-Mexican disagreement continued under Echeverría's successor, José López Portillo (1976–1982). By then, Mexico's growing oil industry allowed it to pursue an even more independent foreign policy. Americans and Mexicans parted company once more, this time over U.S. policy in Central America. The 1979 Sandinista victory in the Nicaraguan Civil War had greatly alarmed the United States because of its communist leanings. By January 1981, U.S. President Ronald Reagan's administration transformed Nicaragua into a Cold War litmus test, vowing to overturn the Sandinistas. Much to America's dismay, Mexico began providing the Sandinista government with food, oil, and credit. López Portillo further strained relations with the United States by recognizing the Marxist guerrillas in El Salvador as a representative political force. Mexico's assertive independence was, however, short-lived. As oil prices declined sharply in the early 1980s, Mexico found itself in the midst of a serious economic crisis by 1982. For the remainder of the 1980s, Mexico's financial problems dictated closer ties with the United States. As the Cold War came to a close, Mexico looked to the United States to help jump-start and modernize its economy. It thus moved briskly toward linking its economic future with the United States through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other bilateral and hemispheric economic arrangements.

Don M. Coerver


Further Reading
Meyer, Michael C., William L. Sherman, and Susan M. Deeds. The Course of Mexican History. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.; Niblo, Stephen R. War, Diplomacy, and Development: The United States and Mexico, 1938–1954. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1995.; Raat, W. Dirk. Mexico and the United States: Ambivalent Vistas. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1992.
 

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