Ambrose 1 – the twisting path to war

Heard of Band of Brothers?  You’ve heard of the late Stephen Ambrose.  Unfortunately plagued by accusations of plagiarism later in life, a scholar of Eisenhower and Lewis and Clark he was best known , like AJP Taylor, as a sort of popularizer of history.

His colleague, Douglas Brinkley, a scholar of FDR and Cold War history also taught a very popular class, “The Majic Bus” wherein he traveled across the country with his students listening to period music and visiting historical sights.  Aaaah college.  You’ll get there.

Look in the book jacket at the other titles the two have authored.  Take a look on the Internet to find out more about your two authors.  Any “fun facts”?

My point though is that these two men want you to like history.  The Kissinger and Pipes books, and Spence to come, are serious scholarly pieces dedicated to nuanced detail, analysis and argument.  This little book is not exactly a “survey” (that’s your text book from last year, a “survey” of the current scholarship on history) it is based on their own research, but obviously its a different animal than “Diplomacy”. Its intended use is as a freshman or introductory course in history text.

So what does it say?  To my eye it says that not until his election of 1940 did FDR show any sympathy at all to the Brits and not until November 1941, less than a month from Pearl Harbor, was his tone one of “unrestrained belligerence, in public and private”.  Before that though, despite the fact the we actually have troops in Iceland and Greenland and a raging battle in the Atlantic defending the merchant ships supplying Britain, he cannot and will not bring the isolationist USA into war.  Keep that in mind when you read Kissinger’s view of FDR.

There are two footnotes that you should not skip, one on Hitler’s decision to declare war on us and the other is on the myth of FDR’s knowledge of Pearl Harbor.  The Intro in the eighth edition is worth a look as well. Sort of sad written in those heady days of victory in the Cold War, Clinton’s second term (first Democrat to win re-election since…?), and prior to 9/11.  The ninth edition which some of you have I have not seen.  I suspect it has been updated.



“The Revolution was in the gutter” Chapter 6


In early 1941, just after the end of this chapter, the US state department asked Disney to do a “Good will tour” of South America which resulted in four films, including the one pictured above, in 1944.  The claim at the end of the chapter that WWII required closer collaboration between the two countries has good support from this evidence.

Also of course FDR’s tepid response to the nationalization of US and British oil companies, which in the hands of another leader in another time (Think Teddy R) may have resulted in military intervention, did not.  The threat of another general war in Europe and the rise of radical forces on the left and right through the Americas kept FDR’s response in check and ultimately pulled Cardenas out from his left leaning social reforms to a more centrist position.

His reforms made some great gains.  50 million acres redistributed, double the amount to date, a reformation of the political party, strengthening of labor unions and the nationalization of oil are the “quartet” of success under Cardenas for our authors.  Other, more humble success, such as many Mexicans enjoying their first beer or Coke also stand as evidence for author’s claim of the popularity and success of Cardenas.

Still the successes mask some failures.  The ejido, or collective farms, are compared to Stalin’s, do not provide ownership or wealth for the poor peasants, and their low output in part drives soaring food prices in the depths of the Great Depression.  Investors’ response to the nationalization of oil drives the value of the peso deeply down and and politically we see the rise of a deeply conservative the PAN which will eventually unseat the revolutionary PRI party, albeit not until the election of 2000.

I did enjoy the authors’ efforts to put the Mexican Revolution in an international perspective.  For the Mexican government to give support to the anti-Fascist Republicans in the Spanish Civil war and to see an increase in communist and fascist interests in its own borders sort of reflects the US experience at the time with folks like Father Charles Coughlin (remember him?)    The Father of Hate Radio.

Finally I couldn’t help reflecting on this article from today’s NYT.  The print edition headline is “Work Freed Her.  Then it Moved to Mexico.” The woman is from near where I grew up, in Indiana, in fact her daughter gets a scholarship to the university, Purdue, where my brother works.  But she is a high school drop out who landed a job in a factory at age 23 and I suppose thought she would work there forever.  She won’t.  The company sold the factory and moved it to Mexico where a worker she is training claims they will be able to hire six of him for what they paid her.  The relationship between these two countries and their people is more important today than ever IMHO.  Reading about the origins of those relations here i hope you realize, is a small first step to understanding them today.

A New Nation


I was really struck by the title here.  The title of the chapter is longer, but the abbreviation they chose for the page headings says a lot.  How does one forge a new nation?  How does one create a national identity?  Think about it.  If you have a land as vast as Mexico, or the United States for that matter, or China, how do you get all of it’s people, illiteracy and all of the challenges therein, to hold on to a singular national identity?

Think of all the songs, flags and holidays devoted to upholding our national identity.  Think of Columbus day.  Columbus never heard of the USA when he died because it wouldn’t exist for 100s of years.  No one much noted the 100th anniversary of his first voyage in 1592,nor the 200th in 1692.  By the 400th anniversary the USA, and many new nations, like Germany, had created great heroic national histories, and in the USA Columbus emerged as part of that heroic march to freedom and democracy.

Think about that.  They created their own history. We (historians) have been trying to get out of that box for a long time.

Here, in this chapter, we see Mexico going through the same process.  Identifying their five martyrs, creating ballads and even inventing their own racial identity, the “cosmic race”.

Education and public art are a big part of this process and so here we are briefly introduced to Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and the educational reformer Vasconcelos.  There will be a test question on the impact of the revolution on art and education so pay attention here.

Have fun!


The Climax of the Revolution

pancho villa.jpg

So let’s take this one step at a time.  General Huerta generally seen as a return to Porfirio Diaz, though some historians have tried to redeem him, is not recognized by the new president of the USA, Woodrow Wilson, and finds himself forced to resign amid pressure from opposing forces, yet those forces soon split between the “Constitutionalists” (Carranza et. al., and the “Conventionists”, Pancho Villa et al).  Carranza will be recognized by the US, will move the seat of power to the port of Vera Cruz keeping important trade open during WWI, will wear down the opposition, but in the end finds himself gunned down after suggesting a political lackey to run instead of supporting his General Obregon’s presidential aspirations.  Along the way the “Jacobians” will help draft a new constitution, Pancho Villa will invade the United States, and the Spanish flu will ravage its way across the population.  That seems to be the broad strokes of chapter 4.

Many interesting stories and questions emerge here.  What is the role of women in the Mexican Revolution?  To what extent does the US and other foreign powers influence the revolution?   What difference would any of this make in the life of Mexican citizens?

The right to collectively bargain, to strike and to be paid overtime is a very practical and substantive difference in the life of a working family.  The right to own land is also pretty substantial and some would say also reigning in the power of the Catholic Church. What about women’s rights?  They fought on all sides in the revolutionists, the suffragettes in England and the USA have had some wins.  What about the women of Mexico?

Inquiring minds want to know.


The revolution comes (and goes)

plan de ayala

So according to our authors, according to Diaz’s undersecretary of education, there were not one, but two revolutions going on in 1910.  Madero’s revolution was trumpeting democracy, and other revolution he labeled as anarchy.  They pillaged, and murdered caused general disruption and they were the real revolution to fear.  “Defeating the insurgency (anarchists)  was of the greatest importance…(and he) believed it would require the co-optation of the political revolution (Madero) by granting its participants some access to power.”

This to me is the most damning statement in the chapter.  If Diaz co-opts Madero’s “revolution” which as you read few see as living up to its revolutionary promises, and Madero, under siege from left and right brings in Diaz’s old general Huerta, how revolutionary is it?  This is where the “fiesta of bullets” comes from.  Those in the real seat of power are never really representing the peasants, the agrarian forces behind Zapata.  Even after Huerta you have Carranza who as a “constitutionalist” is more of a gradualist.

Carranza and other middle class leaders had joined Madero because they had been denied political opportunities under Diaz. When it is obvious to the world that Madero has been co-opted by the old regime Zapata throws down the “plan of Ayala” to overthrow Madero.  Interesting to see it commemorated on a stamp.  I’d like to know when it was from.  Zapata is of course murdered by the government.  When and where does he become worthy of a stamp?

So according to flickr the stamp was issued in 1935 on the 25th anniversary of the plan, and 13 years after Zapata’s betrayal and murder. By 1935 had his reputation been so rehabilitated?  In 1934 Cardenas had taken power and as we saw in our student presentations,his is described as “the most radical phase of the post revolution social revolution”. (wikipedia) So by 1934-1940 has the revolution finally turned to really support the agrarian roots of Zapata revolutionaries?  We shall see.


Porfirian Modernization


What struck me in re-reading this account, I know the general outline, Diaz stays in power too long, things are bad, Madero takes up the challenge of the 1910 elections and wins… are a few things.

1 – Diaz maintained stability  by relying on the federal army, federal rural constabulary (police), state police and militias, private hacienda based forces, private security detectives, gun thugs, and then finally the Rangers from Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.  Talk about a police state!

2 – With an average life expectancy of 30 and rural wages a quarter of what hey were a century ago you have a large population in very bad shape undoubtedly clamoring for some real change.

3 – He says in the end though, the trigger was political and with the tacit support of US government and business interests the Mexican revolution began.

If you lose the support of your biggest trading partner who you share a massive border with, have a large population in genuine crisis and you need a field of armies to keep things in control, well, your time is numbered.

On top of that members of the upper and middle classes were turning on him, significantly also calling the “mixed-race” mestizos the “real Mexicans” and then Madero rises out of the upper/middle class ranks and, again with tacit support of the US, takes power.  Diaz lost.  Why then, does this difficult struggle for power, which eventually goes in the favor of Diaz’s critics, turn in to the “fiesta of bullets”?

Revolution and the negotiation of rule in Modern Mexico

mex rev.jpg*

Well it’s not Kissinger but there is still plenty to look up!  Endogamous. Exogenous. transnational vs. international and postnational. “statist notions of social property”.  Welcome to academia!  Some professors just love throwing around those $5 words.

Have we talked about three close reads?  Its a good strategy with books like this.  1st – take a glance.  What’s it about?  It’s an introduction.  At the end it summarizes each chapter.  As such it is not likely to be a narrative start in year x and ending in year z.  2nd – read as you normally do and look stuff up, like the words above.  Finally, ideally a day or two later, re-read in its entirety and think of questions you still have.  This practice will generate a great class discussion.

So what was the Mexican Revolution?  A lot of characters are brought up here that will be treated with much detail later.  Some are probably familiar to most of you, like Pancho Villa, others not so.  Like the American revolution before it the Mexican revolution has been complicated by much mythologizing.  Unlike the American revolution this was not a war of Independence.  Mexico had its own war of independence back in the early 19th century, briefly mentioned here.

Like the American revolution the Mexican revolution results in a radical new constitution.  Like the American revolution the extent to which the constitution is implemented is debatable.

Though this introduction outlines the broad scope of the book up to the 21st century our interests for the purposes of the IB exam only go up to 1940.  What is interesting to me that is an undercurrent to this introduction and this book, is to what degree was the revolution successful?  Diaz got ready for “another rigged election” in 1910 as he had stayed in power for decades though sometimes stepping aside so a figurehead would take power for the optics of it.  After the revolution the party which will ultimately emerge as the PRI will stay in power for seven decades.  How is that possible without the occasional rigging of elections? How much have things really changed for the Mexican people?

*from Encyclopedia Britannica “insurrections in 1911 with a home made cannon”.  How do you make a cannon at home?