On a daily basis, President Donald Trump hurls threats at Mexico – close the border, levy new tariffs, arrest millions. But history shows it’s smarter to recognize our neighbor as a natural ally.
During World War II, Mexico joined the United States in declaring war on the Axis, even though Germany was well-ensconced in Latin American markets. Mexico then supplied U.S. industries with more strategic resources than any other Latin American country. This included copper for ammunition, ships and aircraft; mercury for explosives; zinc, cadmium, graphite and lead for other uses; and, most importantly, oil. Other Latin American nations followed Mexico’s lead.
Mexico also weighed in with manpower. Fifteen thousand Mexican nationals joined the U.S. military, along with half a million first- and second-generation Mexican-Americans, fighting in every significant battle of the war. The Mexican “Aztec Eagles” squadron piloted their P-47D Thunderbolts in the Pacific campaign, including the liberation of the Philippines.
Critically for the U.S. home front, more than 300,000 Mexicans answered the call of the “bracero” agreement to work in U.S. fields, taking a key role, as President Roosevelt put it, “in the war of production, upon which the inevitable success of our military program depends.” They raised food for U.S. troops but also for kitchen tables. Americans did not experience the radical reduction in calories, even starvation, suffered by residents of other countries at war.
Today, in sunny Baja California, U.S. citizens live cheaper, less stressful lives while telecommuting to their jobs in the north. In the elegant Mexican colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, American retirees heat up the real estate market. In fact, the flow of Americans going to Mexico is now greater than Mexicans coming to the States.
Why should we trash-talk a country where at least a million and a half of our countrymen live, and 30 million of us visit every year?
Mexico already shares the burden of migrants, issuing temporary visas, deploying troops, and sending Central Americans home, 80,000 in the last six months. The nation’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is not likely to treat migrants with an iron fist. Mexico’s tradition of support for people fleeing violence goes back to the 19th century, when it took in slaves escaping from the southern United States. (Mexico abolished slavery in 1829, 34 years before the United States.)
When the CIA organized a Cold War coup in 1954 against Jacobo Arbenz, the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Mexico welcomed its exiles – former government officials, intellectuals, artists and leaders of civil society. My Guatemalan friends who were children at the time thank Mexico for providing them with shelter, and the education that serves them today.
Remember the Central American wars of the 1980s? Tens of thousands fled for Mexico from brutal armies supported by the United States. Residents of entire indigenous Maya villages arrived on foot in the southern state of Chiapas, threadbare and desperate for safety. The countries that sent those refugees – El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala – never fully recovered, and today asylum-seekers flee them for the United States.
We will always be next to Mexico on the map. After a recent Trump ultimatum, López Obrador pointed out the obvious fact that the migration issue is best addressed at its source in Central America, by “development aid and productive investments to create work,” not threats or retaliation. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, he wrote, only leaves us all “one-eyed and toothless.”
Mary Jo McConahay is the author of “The Tango War, The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America During World War II” (St. Martin’s Press). This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.