A Review of The War Has Brought Peace to Mexico: World War II and the Consolidation of the Post-Revolutionary State
In November 1945, fighter pilots from Mexico’s Air Force Squadron 201 received a hero’s welcome upon returning home after their brief participation in World War II. While theirs had been an essentially symbolic contribution, fought thousands of miles away in the Pacific, they were greeted by admiring crowds. In the preceding years, President Manuel Ávila Camacho had taken great pains to convince the population of the war’s importance, committing his country to fight alongside the Allies. The crowds at the squadron’s homecoming indicated the president’s success in placing a distant conflict of seemingly little relevance at the forefront of the Mexican imagination.
Halbert Jones brings Mexico’s participation in World War II to life in The War Has Brought Peace to Mexico. He uncovers the complex history of how Ávila Camacho’s administration managed to get Mexico to participate in the war—only after convincing a skeptical population that the war was theirs to fight—and the effect of this involvement in engendering the political system that shaped the country for many decades to come. While the book focuses on a very specific episode of Mexican history, it is above all a story of the relationship between war and state formation, making it of interest to scholars from a variety of disciplines.
Jones conveys how President Ávila Camacho faced a polarized and complex political landscape upon coming to power in 1940. Radical elements on both the left and right enjoyed popular support from key sectors of Mexican society. In the aftermath the large-scale social revolution that began in Mexico in 1910, the Army still maintained considerable political clout while institutions lacked muscle and experience. During his presidency (1940-46), Ávila Camacho managed to modernize the army and divorce the military from politics, consolidate the power of the executive, appease radical political factions, build a strong security apparatus capable of repressing potentially disruptive activities and bolster Mexico’s standing in the international arena.
The Ávila Camacho administration achieved notable accomplishments that paved the way for a strong centralized state. How did the Mexican president manage this substantial list of achievements? And what, if any, relation did it have to a war being fought halfway across the world? These are the questions addressed in The War Has Brought Peace to Mexico. Jones asserts that the political transformations unfolding during Ávila Camacho’s tenure were inextricably linked to the country’s direct participation in the World War II. It was during the war—and because of the war—that President Ávila Camacho was able to neutralize domestic opposition, consolidate executive power, and effect institutional reforms that shaped the Mexican state in subsequent decades, Jones contends.
Mexico officially declared war against the Axis powers on May 28, 1942, elevating Ávila Camacho to the special position of the country’s wartime leader. Soon after, he submitted an initiative, swiftly approved by Congress,that granted him the power to suspend a long list of constitutional rights. These actions gave the president’s call for national unity unprecedented moral authority.
The war also propelled the modernization of the armed forces. Investment in military equipment and the prospect of direct engagement in war served to focus the attention of military officers on matters of national defense. Furthermore, when the war ended, the president announced plans to reorganize the Army to allow upward mobility for younger officers with professional military training, while making provisions for the retirement of older and more politically inclined generals. With the country at war, Ávila Camacho expanded the security apparatus and consolidated intelligence and law enforcement under a single ministry. The ministry’s authority to investigate all matters related to subversive activity gave the president the unprecedented ability to monitor the opposition and a tighter grip on power both during and after the war.
Undoubtedly, some of the most important transformations of this period occurred in the electoral arena. During the 1943 legislative elections, President Ávila Camacho informed contenders that given that the country was at war, premature agitation and electoral politics should be avoided and campaigning should be limited to fixed dates. Furthermore, El Partido de la Revolución Mexicana (PRM), the incumbent and dominant party, centralized control over the naming of its own candidates, who were then guaranteed election. This procedure, the PRM leadership said, responded to the need to limit agitation during a wartime election. Jones argues that after the 1943 elections the PRM’s grip on political power was stronger than ever. In this fashion, the war was used by the president to secure his own influence within the party as well as his party’s hegemony in the political system. Both factors would play a central role in Mexican political life for many decades to come. A mere three years after these elections, the PRM was reconstituted as el Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the party that maintained control of Mexico’s executive branch until the year 2000.
A significant portion of the book is devoted to examining this process through which the president slowly but efficiently pushed the conflict to the forefront of the popular imagination, convinced key sectors of Mexican society of the war’s relevance and the need to engage, and appeased popular fears that greater involvement would mean sending Mexico’s youngsters to fight on foreign soil. The media played a prominent role in Mexico’s participation in World War II and the centralization of power by gauging and helping to shape public opinion. Thus, periodicals are often at the forefront of Jones’ narrative and constitute a cornerstone of his primary-source base. Readers might be surprised to learn about the myriad periodicals and plurality of opinions that circulated in Mexico at the time. Unfortunately, Jones does not give much context to the publications that he cites nor does he address the degree of independence they might have enjoyed from the government.
Halbert Jones provides an important service by pulling Mexico’s involvement in World War II out of the dustbin of history. By elucidating President Ávila Camacho’s success in bringing the war to Mexico, Jones shows a president who was not merely the beneficiary of an opportune situation but also an adept politician, capable of molding perceptions of the international situation to further his own ends. The book reminds its readers that while people may well be a product of their times, the times are also the product of the people who shape them. Furthermore, in demonstrating the pivotal importance of World War II in the formation of the modern Mexican state, this work sheds light on the pertinent yet often overlooked reality that the fate of countries is often shaped by how they respond to international crises of seemingly little relevance. Mexico in World War II is merely one in a long list of historical examples of how fighting wars abroad can help leaders consolidate power and advance their policies at home.
Andrea Oñate is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American history at Princeton University. Her forthcoming dissertation, “Insurgent Diplomacy: The Global Politics of El Salvador’s Revolution, 1970-1992,” examines the diplomacy of the Salvadoran revolutionary movement (FMLN) in the last decades of the global Cold War.
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