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