Mexican Involvement in World War II

Joining the war, Mexico helps push the allies over the top

Aztec Eagles
USAFF/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Everyone knows the World War Two Allied Powers: the United States of America, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Canada, New Zealand...and Mexico?

That's right, Mexico. In May of 1942, the United States of Mexico declared war on the Axis alliance. They even saw some combat: a Mexican fighter squad fought valiantly in the South Pacific in 1945. But their importance to the Allied effort was much greater than a handful of pilots and airplanes.

Mexico in the 1930s

In the 1930s, Mexico was a devastated land. The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives; as many more were displaced or saw their homes and cities destroyed. The Revolution was followed by the Cristero War (1926-1929), a series of violent uprisings against the new government. Just as the dust was beginning to settle, the Great Depression started and the Mexican economy suffered badly. Politically, the nation was unstable as Alvaro Obregón, last of the great revolutionary warlords, continued to rule directly or indirectly until 1928.

Life in Mexico did not start to improve until 1934 when the honest reformer Lázaro Cárdenas del Rio took power. He cleaned up as much of the corruption as he could and made great strides towards re-establishing Mexico as a stable, productive nation. He kept Mexico decidedly neutral in the brewing conflict in Europe, even though agents from Germany and the United States continued to try and gain Mexican support.

Cárdenas nationalized Mexico's vast oil reserves and the property of foreign oil companies over the protests of the United States, but the Americans, seeing war on the horizon, were forced to accept it.

The Opinions of Many Mexicans

As the clouds of war darkened, many Mexicans wanted to join on one side or the other.

Mexico's loud communist community first supported Germany while Germany and Russia had a pact, then supported the Allied cause once the Germans invaded Russia in 1941. There was a sizeable community of Italian immigrants who supported entry in the war as an Axis power as well. Other Mexicans, disdainful of fascism, supported joining the Allied cause.

The attitude of many Mexicans was colored by historical grievances with the USA: the loss of Texas and the American west, intervention during the revolution and repeated incursions into Mexican territory caused a lot of resentment. Some Mexicans felt that the United States was not to be trusted. These Mexicans did not know what to think: some felt that they should join the Axis cause against their old antagonist, while others did not want to give the Americans an excuse to invade again and counseled strict neutrality.

Manuel Ávila Camacho and Support for the USA

In 1940, Mexico elected conservative PRI (Revolutionary Party) candidate Manuel Ávila Camacho. From the start of his term, he decided to stick with the United States. Many of his fellow Mexicans disapproved of his support for their traditional foe to the north and at first, they railed against Ávila, but when Germany invaded Russia, many Mexican communists began supporting the president.

In December of 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, Mexico was one of the first countries to pledge support and aid, and they severed all diplomatic ties with the Axis powers. At a conference in Rio de Janeiro of Latin American foreign ministers in January of 1942, the Mexican delegation convinced many other countries to follow suit and break ties with the Axis powers.

Mexico saw immediate rewards for its support. US capital flowed into Mexico, building factories for wartime needs. The US purchased Mexican oil and sent technicians to quickly build up Mexican mining operations for much-needed metals like mercury, zinc, copper and more. The Mexican armed forces were built up with US weapons and training. Loans were made to stabilize and boost industry and security.

Benefits up North

This invigorated partnership also paid great dividends for the United States of America.

For the first time, an official, organized program for migrant farm workers was developed and thousands of Mexican “braceros” (literally, “arms”) flowed north to harvest crops. Mexico produced important wartime goods such as textiles and construction materials. In addition, thousands of Mexicans – some estimates reach as high as a half-million – joined the US armed forces and fought valiantly in Europe and the Pacific. Many were second or third generation and had grown up in the US, while others had been born in Mexico. Citizenship was automatically granted to veterans and after the war thousands settled in their new home.

Mexico Goes to War

Mexico had been cool to Germany since the start of the war and hostile after Pearl Harbor. After German submarines began attacking Mexican merchant ships and oil tankers, Mexico formally declared war on the Axis powers in May of 1942. The Mexican navy began actively engaging German vessels and Axis spies in the country were rounded up and arrested. Mexico began to plan to actively join in combat.

Eventually, only the Mexican Air Force would see combat. Their pilots trained in the United States and by 1945 they were ready to fight in the Pacific. It was the first time that Mexican armed forces were deliberately prepared for overseas combat. The 201st Air Fighter Squadron, nicknamed the “Aztec Eagles,” was attached to the 58th fighter group of the United States Air Force and sent to the Philippines in March of 1945.

The Squadron consisted of 300 men, 30 of which were pilots for the 25 P-47 aircraft that comprised the unit.

The squad saw a fair amount of action in the waning months of the war, mostly flying ground support for infantry operations. By all accounts, they fought bravely and flew skillfully, seamlessly integrated with the 58th. They only lost one pilot and aircraft in combat.

Negative Effects in Mexico

World War Two was not a time of unmitigated goodwill and progress for Mexico. The economic boom was mostly enjoyed by the rich and the gap between the rich and the poor widened to levels unseen since the reign of Porfirio Díaz. Inflation raged out of control, and lesser officials and functionaries of Mexico’s immense bureaucracy, left out of the economic benefits of the wartime boom, increasingly turned to accepting petty bribes (“la mordida,” or “the bite”) to fulfill their functions. Corruption was rampant at higher levels, too, as wartime contracts and the flow of US dollars created irresistible opportunities for dishonest industrialists and politicians to overcharge for projects or skim from budgets.

This new alliance had its doubters on both sides of the borders. Many Americans complained of the high costs of modernizing their neighbor to the south, and some populist Mexican politicians railed against the US intervention – this time economic, not military.

Legacy

All in all, Mexico’s support of the United States and timely entry into the war would prove highly beneficial. Transportation, industry, agriculture and the military all took great leaps forward. The economic boom also helped indirectly improve other services such as education and health care.

Most of all, the war created and strengthened ties with the USA that have lasted to this day. Before the war, relations between the US and Mexico were marked by wars, invasions, conflict, and intervention. For the first time, the US and Mexico worked together against a common enemy and immediately saw the vast benefits of cooperation. Although relations between the two nations have undergone some rough patches since the war, they have never again sunk to the disdain and hatred of the nineteenth century.

As for the war, it is unfortunate that Mexico’s significant contributions are often overlooked. Even before their official declaration of war, Mexico closed its ports to German ships and submarines: had they not, the effect on US shipping might have been disastrous. Mexico’s industrial and mineral production was an important part of the US effort, and the economic importance of the thousands of farm workers manning the fields while the American men were away cannot be overstated. Also, let us not forget that while Mexico officially only saw a bit of aerial combat, thousands of Mexican grunts did fight, bleed and die for the Allied cause, all the while wearing an American uniform.

Source:

Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.

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Minster, Christopher. "Mexican Involvement in World War II." ThoughtCo, Jul. 13, 2017, thoughtco.com/mexican-involvement-in-world-war-two-2136644. Minster, Christopher. (2017, July 13). Mexican Involvement in World War II. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/mexican-involvement-in-world-war-two-2136644 Minster, Christopher. "Mexican Involvement in World War II." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/mexican-involvement-in-world-war-two-2136644 (accessed November 22, 2017).