Mexico – forgotten World War II ally

articles History & People

Shep Lenchek

Asked to name the Allies in World War II, very few people would include Mexico in the list. Largely ignored by historians, it is time that Mexico’s aid to the U. S. and the Allies is brought to the attention of both Mexicans and the world. Although their participation in actual combat was minimal, those Mexicans who were given the opportunity to show their mettle did so with bravery and elan. Mexicans should be proud of them, the Allies grateful to them. Had Mexico thrown in its lot with the Axis, the consequences might well have changed the entire course of history.

In a sense, Mexican commitment to the Allied cause rather than the Axis powers, had its origins in internal Mexican politics. In the late 1930’s, President Lazaro Cardenas had declared Mexican neutrality, but even before the 1940 presidential election campaign between conservative candidate Juan Almazan and P.R.I. designate Avila Camacho, tensions between pro-fascist and pro-communist groups that had simmered since the middle 1930’s began to erupt into violence.

Alarmed by the possibilities of an unstable pro-fascist or pro-communist government below the Rio Grande, the U.S. began to offer both overt and clandestine aid to the established government. A financial crisis in Mexico had brought some economic co-operation as the U.S. Government had come to the aid of the Cardenas regime by purchasing silver and granting U.S. government backed loans. Attempting to solve the economic problems, in 1938 the Cardenas-led government had nationalized the Mexican oil industry. Because U.S. Ambassador Josephus Daniels was willing to accept this in principal, as long as compensation was paid to the oil multinationals, a new era of co-operation between the Mexican and American governments was to begin. Largely, this was based on the desire to maintain the status quo on the part of both nations. Although both Germany and Japan made overtures to Mexico and did purchase some oil in 1939, by 1940 it was obvious that neither one of them could deliver the raw materials they had agreed to furnish in payment. After the election of Avila Camacho to the presidency in 1941, Mexico agreed to compensate the multi-nationals for their losses and a new market for Mexican oil opened, i.e. the United States.

Elected in July of 1940, the new President did not take office until December of that year. During the five month hiatus the right wing forces of the defeated candidate, Almazan, continued to struggle to overturn the election results. His followers in the U.S. started buying arms and agents of the fascist Spanish Falange headed for Mexico to foment subversive activities. Elected to a second term, President Roosevelt, always a friend to Mexico, used both the F.B.I and U.S. military intelligence to assist the Mexican Army in their struggle against the pro-Almazan forces.

By quickly recognizing the newly elected Mexican President, he gave legitimacy to the Camacho presidency. Sending Vice-President-elect Henry Wallace to the December inauguration, was the first public demonstration of how close the Avila Camacho camp and the Roosevelt Administration had become in the struggle against pro-fascist forces. It also presaged the abandonment of the Cardenista foreign policy that called for a Latin-American trade bloc aimed against the United States. Even before President Camacho took office, U.S undersecretary of State Sumner Wells had met with Mexican officials and the foundations for settlement of most of the issues dividing the two republics had been laid. Soon, most of the major problems that had plagued U.S.- Mexican relations for the last 20 years were resolved. Among new issues, the question of how to handle Mexican citizens who chose to join the U.S. Armed Forces was resolved and Mexico became the beneficiary of Lend-lease assistance, thus allowing the country to modernize its Air Force, Army and Navy. The improved climate now permitted U.S. petroleum technology and expertise to again become available below the Rio Grande. In fact, Mexican raw materials fueled over 40% of the U.S. war industries, a fact that historians have chosen to ignore. This in itself was a great contribution to the American and Allied war effort and merits acknowledgment.

But the road to a continual alliance was not a smooth one.

By 1943, when it became obvious that Mexico was no longer in danger of an invasion by Japan, forces in both the United States and Mexico became critical of the close economic ties that were developing. Radical politicians in Mexico were claiming that soon the U.S. would establish a lasting control over their entire economy. North of the border there was grumbling about the cost of the aid being given to support the Camacho government. While Mexico had broken off relationships with the Axis after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they had stopped short of a declaration of war. They were still being wooed by both by Germany and Fascist Spain. Large Italian minorities also exerted pressure on the government. The treaty between Stalin and Hitler had cooled the anti-fascist fervor of the Mexican Communist Party and had indeed made some of them pro-German. Thus the Mexican Government was caught between its own left and right wing partisans and was frozen into inaction.

Now, a miscalculation by Germany provided the impetus to break the stalemate. Numerous submarine attacks on Mexican ships, coupled with a massive propaganda campaign launched by the U.S., British and French began to turn the tide of public opinion. Fearful that an invasion by either Germany or Japan would lead to a massive invasion by the U.S. and turn Mexico into a battleground, the Mexican government, albiet secretly, had permitted U.S. agents to enter the country to train Mexican counter-intelligence forces and to help secure both of Mexico’s coasts against possible incursions by saboteurs. There is some evidence that Germany, Italy and Spain did maintain extensive spy networks and had planted saboteurs in the Federal Republic who were planning to take over Acapulco and launch attacks against aircraft factories in San Diego. Prompt action by the joint Mexican-U. S, counterintelligence forces nipped several such plots in the bud. The final straw was the sinking of a Mexican oil tanker, the Potero de Llano and in June 1942 Mexico declared war against the Axis.

Now the leaders of the Mexican military, seeking the glory that can only come to generals from war, began to clamour for an active part in the fighting. Even President Camacho is said to have expressed a desire to lead the Mexican Army into combat, saying that only the Presidency was keeping him from doing so.

However, only the already modernized Mexican Air Force was to actually engage in combat. Mexican pilots received additional training in the United States and in 1945 fought valiantly in the air war in the Phillipines. Only one squadron, Number 201, actually saw combat. Nicknamed “The Aztec Eagles,” they flew P-47 Thunderbolt fighters and offered close ground support for U.S. and Philipino ground forces as they struggled to liberate the islands from the Japanese. Decorated by the United States, Mexico and the Phillipines, its 31 pilots and approximately 150 ground support personnel were the only Mexican military force to serve outside of Mexico. Of the squadron’s 31 pilots, 5 were killed in action. Its personnel, both pilots and ground support elements certainly deserve to be regarded as heros by both Mexico and the United States.

Also unrecognized, untold numbers of Mexicans, particularly those with relatives in the U.S., flocked across the border and served in all branches of the U.S. military. How many of them were killed is unknown. For those who chose to become U.S. citizens, citizenship was automatic. However, over the years, many returned to Mexico despite their new citizenship.

Although the role of Mexicans in combat was minimal, the denial of Mexico as a safe harbor for German submarines was of great importance. Mexican oil also helped fuel the U.S. war machine. With over 16 million American men in the armed forces and thousands of women in the factories, Mexican agricultural workers kept the food chain moving and, as we have already noted, Mexican raw materials were vital to the war effort. The supply was secure from submarine attacks and did not tie up warships in convoy duty.

Finally, although they depended on U.S. help to do so, the determination of the Mexican Government to resist the forces that might well have created either a Fascist or Communist Government next door to the U.S., removed the threat of sabotage or across-the-border forays that would, in essence, have necessitated either an American invasion of Mexico or the deployment of large forces to guard its southern border. Either one of these alternatives would have seriously hampered America’s march to victory.

We can only hope that the U.S. and the Allies will more publicly acknowledge Mexico’s assistance during WW II. The Mexicans who shed their blood in the skies over the Philippines, as well as those who volunteered to fight for freedom under the Stars and Stripes deserve no less.

Muchas gracias al pueblo mexicano. We who know you, salute you.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2001 by Shep Lenchek © 2008
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