- Myths of Demilitarization in Postrevolutionary Mexico, 1920−1960 by Thomas Rath
For many years I have used a quote attributed to General Alvaro Obregón to introduce undergraduates to the role of the army in postrevolutionary Mexico: “No general can resist a 50,000 peso cannonball.” I then explain that Obregón relied on such cannon shots during his presidency to curb the power of the generals who had fought in the 1910 Revolution, and that his successors maintained that policy to consolidate the revolutionary state. The monograph under review offers a compelling corrective to this [End Page 765] interpretation; it shows that the “demilitarization of Mexican politics was [a] far more protracted, conflictive, and uneven” (p. 5) process than heretofore believed.
Rath first explains how Lázaro Cárdenas’s administration broke with his predecessors’ approach toward the army because it tried to “impose a new version of revolutionary citizenship on the military … based on class identity and revolutionary engagement” (p. 32). To do so, Cardenista officials utilized military magazines, major celebrations like the Day of the Soldier, peasant militias (defensas rurales), and the Escuelas Hijos del Ejército. This last tool, the centerpiece of Cardenista policies, sought to immerse military children “in the vanguard of socialist education” (p. 52). In the long run, however, these innovations had limited impact because they were either discarded or brought into line with official rhetoric after 1940.
Rath next sheds light on government efforts to correct a problem that had bedeviled the Mexican army since the early republic—the lack of an effective method of recruitment. Late in 1942 the regime launched a conscription program with the purported goal of protecting national sovereignty, but the project had a political agenda as well: to promote a sense of citizenship, particularly among indigenous Mexicans. Yet, as in the past, numerous obstacles hindered full implementation of the law, and by the 1950s public antipathy had convinced authorities to replace “conscription with a less onerous and less ambitious system of military training” (p. 168).
The post-revolutionary state also proclaimed that it had successfully curbed the intrusion of Mexican military officers in national politics, and again Rath shows the chasm that separated rhetoric and reality. While official discourse held that civilian rule had been institutionalized, many officers retained “the power to lobby, graft, politic, and resist policies of military institutionalization, particularly in the provinces” (p. 82). Rath’s examination of General Maximino Ávila Camacho’s endeavors to turn the state of Puebla into his private fiefdom aptly illustrates this point.
Such residual autonomy by the military, Rath argues, became an integral component of Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) rule. The Mexican government utilized violence (with the army as its primary tool) to control, if not crush, dissident, mass political movements; such instances of military policing help dispel the commonly-held perception that Mexico—because of its supposed stability and peaceful transfers of power—vastly differed from the military regimes that emerged in South America during the Cold War and terrorized their citizens.
The final topic Rath examines, the revolutionary state’s policy regarding veterans, is particularly timely given the upsurge of scholarly interest in the politics of historical memory. He shows how government officials attempted to tie the army into “a larger narrative of patriotic military history,” and to shape as well public recollection of its role as “heir to a coherent, national revolution” (p. 165). Such efforts were not entirely successful. Women and enemies of Constitutionalism—to name but two groups—gained recognition for their revolutionary military service, while in the 1940s some veteran groups began to adopt political stances that challenged the idea of a reified revolution. [End Page 766] Rath’s meticulously researched monograph will appeal to Latin Americanists interested in the process of nation building and the region’s military forces. The book will also prove useful in a classroom setting given its brevity, readability, and nuanced analysis of the Mexican army’s historical role, something that is...