The Agrarian Dispute: The Expropriation of American-Owned Rural Land in Postrevolutionary Mexico.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Van Young, Eric
Pub Date: 06/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4
Topic: NamedWork: The Agrarian Dispute: The Expropriation of American-Owned Rural Land in Postrevolutionary Mexico (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Dwyer, John J.
Accession Number: 230778733
Full Text: The Agrarian Dispute: The Expropriation of American-Owned Rural Land in Postrevolutionary Mexico. By John J. Dwyer (Durham: Duke University Press 2008. xiii plus 387 pp.)

Between 19207 and 1940 the Mexican government, principally during the regime of President Lazaro Cardenas (1934-1940), expropriated more than six million acres of prime agricultural land, most of it from the American-owned Colorado River Land Company and the Richardson Construction Company, in the Mexicali Valley of Baja California and the Yaqui Valley of the State of Sonora, respectively, but also from individual American owners. At the very end of this period, in 1938, foreign petroleum companies were similarly expropriated. The agricultural holdings were mostly distributed to peasants (agraristas) in the form of the collectively-owned farms (ejidos) envisioned by Mexican land reformers and mandated by the revolutionary constitution of 1917, while the petroleum holdings were taken over by the national state, both with compensation to the aggrieved American owners. It is one of John Dwyer's main contentions that, stressful as the 1938 petroleum expropriation might have been for relations between Mexico and the United States, it was relatively peaceful since the ground had been prepared by the earlier seizure of agricultural holdings and the eventual settlement of American claims by a bi-national commission established for this purpose, Behind these protracted but effective negotiations lay a sympathetic attitude on the part of the Roosevelt administration and adroit diplomatic maneuvering by Mexican officials in the Cardenas government. In tracing the intricate history of these events, Dwyer has given us an empirically rich, thoughtful, and very clearly written account of the social and economic history of the Mexicali and Yaqui Valleys, and of the diplomatic imbroglio, that ties the positions of the two parties not only into the history of their long-term relations, but also to the domestic political realities of the time, chiefly in Mexico.

Dwyer sees the two regions as "case studies" in the politics of agrarian reform (although what the range of other cases is he never quite specifies), particularly emphasizing in both instances the upward ripple of peasant agency as significantly influencing international relations. Against these forces he deploys four central issues: the reasons (primarily economic) for peasant mobilization, the ideological and domestic political motives for President Cardenas's actions, Washington's reactions to the loss of American-owned properties, and the diplomatic tactics (mainly delay) employed by Mexico to gain the most advantageous possible position in the negotiations over compensation. He thus creates a sort of matrix of cross-cutting factors that serves him well in integrating narrative and analytic approaches. To take the case of Baja California and the Colorado River Land Company as an example of Dwyer's findings, he shows that on the Mexican side bad working conditions, low wages, underemployment, and the competition of Chinese immigrant labor provoked petitions for the creation of ejidos in the 1920s and early 1930s, accompanied by peasant squatting on CRLC lands. The state governor's support of the Company and its CEO Harry Chandler (of the Los Angeles Chandlers) increased the militancy of rural workers in favor of land redistribution and aggravated the xenophobic tone of their rhetoric. A full-scale invasion of CRLC lands early in 1937 forced Cardenas's hand, eventually producing bi-national agreement for an indemnification that was not completed until 1955. On the U.S. side, the "Jeffersonian idealism" of FDR and Ambassador Josephus Daniels induced sympathy for agrarian, reforms, supported by a more general strain of "agrarian romanticism" among Roosevelt's fellow travelers. Nor was an element of Realpolitik absent from FDR's policies, however, since many in his administration viewed land redistribution, albeit at the expense of American owners, as a means to repatriate Mexican workers during the Depression, and support of Cardenas as preferable to more radical alternatives. Dwyer makes it very clear that the pressures of the Depression on both sides of the border, and not the advent of World War II, stood behind Washington's sympathy to (or tolerance of) land reform and expropriations of American-owned properties.

Dwyer's book is a nice read, moving along quickly not because of any superficiality, but because of straightforward writing and judicious compression in the deployment of evidence. The author is very good at keeping the relevant historiography in view, and especially gracious in crediting previous authors who have worked on these issues (although there are some odd bibliographic omissions, among them Clifton Kroeber's 1983 book on state irrigation policies in Mexico in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). The text is accompanied by useful maps, a nice selection of newspaper editorial cartoons, and some haunting photographs. Interesting as Dwyer's account of the Mexicali and Yaqui Valleys, the American ownership of lands there, and the cardenista expropriation are, it is perhaps the last hundred pages or so of the book that make the most original contribution. Here be gives us a careful reconstruction of the negotiations between Mexico and the U.S., in which the major issue was less the right of Mexico to expropriate foreign-owned properties than the level of indemnification to be paid to the owners of those properties. Dwyer provides a detailed and very interesting treatment of the Special and General Claims Commissions, the global settlement of 1942 (eventually some $40,000,000 was paid to former U.S. owners), and the major players in the diplomatic struggle (Cordell Hull and his fellow hardliners the villains on the U.S. side, Josephus Daniels and FDR the heroes). Given the empirical detail and the plausible narrative that Dwyer gives us, his pressing of the maneuvering by the Mexican government and its diplomatic representatives into the procrustean bed of "everyday resistance" and the "weapons of the weak" seems a bit gratuitous, since it does little work in adding to the reader's understanding of the history. Still, this is finally a minor flaw in a book that considerably illuminates not only Mexico's internal politics during the 1920s and the Cardenas era, but also the state-to-state relations of Mexico and the United States, a relationship that while still fraught with difficulties has remained basically cooperative (if not exactly friendly) for a very long time.

Eric Van Young

University of California, San Diego
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