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How Yankee businessmen sparked Mexico's 1910 revolution

Revolutionary Mexico: The Coming and Process of the Mexican Revolution, by John Mason Hart. Berkeley: University of California Press. 478 pp. $35. Some historians play it straight and fair, strafing the bad guys, yet respecting the shadings and complexities of history. Others write moralistically, with history as the bully pulpit of good vs. evil. So it is with this book, whose underlying thesis is the ruthless exploitation of Mexico by buccaneering American entrepreneurs from the 1880s onward, and the resulting destabilization that triggered the Mexican Revolution of 1910 to 1921.

Ruthless these businessmen certainly were, but this fits that social Darwinist, dog-eat-dog era. Business pioneers in fact were commended as agents of change, progress, civilization itself, invited in by the Porfirio D'iaz regime to make the desert bloom - literally - and not merely because they knew whom to bribe. Only when modernization turned sour after 1900 did influential Mexicans begin denouncing the Yankees for grabbing prime land and impoverishing the peasantry. Ignoring these nuances, Hart often functions more as a crusader, imposing 1980 judgments on an 1880 world, than as a judicious historian.

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So much for methodological objections. This is an important book, nevertheless, valuable for both policymakers and concerned citizens in presenting the Mexican nationalist side of the tense Mexican-American relationship, and equally so for the questions it raises about the dangers of headlong economic development.

Most Americans still think that dollars, factories, foreign investments, and consumer goods can only help the third world; less poverty certainly means less radicalism. Hart tacitly suggests the exact opposite may be true, that intensive change is itself revolutionary in tradition-ridden countries, undercutting the local economy, siphoning off wealth, and isolating the ruler from his people. And Hart points to the revolutions in Russia, Iran, and China during the early 1900s as parallels to the Mexican backlash against capitalist intrusions. True enough, but in his eagerness to give the Mexican Revolution a global dimension, Hart underestimates the vast differences among these countries. As elsewhere, he uses the blunderbuss where a rapier is required.

The revolution is the book's capstone. Hart summarizes it briskly, also offering much new data on the substantial - perhaps decisive - American intervention of diplomacy and troops, dollars and especially arms transfers: Arming the contras had its hemispheric precedents. Mexico experienced guerrilla war, but also pitched battles between the old army and impromptu peasant formations, and then among the revolutionaries themselves. So arms imports were crucial, and this gave Washington immense leverage.

Hart's principal concern, and two-thirds of his text, falls on American economic penetration, i.e., imperialism (a word he never uses). This he chronicles in detail, unearthing intriguing data from untapped sources about the actions of New York and especially Texas businessmen and politicians. They profited richly from Mexican mines, oil, big haciendas, and particularly railroad building, which opened the backlands to both foreign investors and D'iaz's centralizing power.

Hart's Who's Who of Texas imperialists includes the famous Colonel House, Woodrow Wilson's chief lieutenant, and William F. Buckley Sr., the ambitious father of the William F. Buckley Jr.whose brief service with the CIA in Mexico City can now be seen in a new light. Other Americans may dismiss Texans as simply flamboyant wheeler-dealers. Mexicans have felt differently since Texas revolted against Mexico in the 1830s, and Hart shows us why. Clearly, this is not the benign, wealth-enhancing business history propagated by Alfred Chandler, Mira Wilkins, and other Harvard Business School practitioners, but a throwback to the angry populism of Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair.

What does it all mean? The huge disparity in power between a weak, third-world Mexico and the dynamic, historically blind United States - who in Washington remembers the Mexican war? - creates inescapable tensions. ``Poor Mexico,'' D'iaz allegedly remarked, ``so far from God, so close to the United States.'' Since D'iaz couldn't beat the Yankees, he chose to join them, building up Mexico in the process. He failed nevertheless: The Revolution of 1910 nearly destroyed Mexico, stirring fears that the US would grab the pieces.

The D'iaz legacy of dictatorship is continued by the Party of Revolutionary Institutions, whose rule since 1929 puts it close to the Soviet Communist Party as the oldest party dictatorship on earth. Many leading Mexicans equate democracy with anarchy; only strong rule can ensure unity, order, and defense against Washington. Anyone tempted to dismiss these attitudes as mere Latin emotionalism should read John Mason Hart's account; then think again.

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Leonard Bushkoff is a free-lance book reviewer specializing in history and politics.

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