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Jumping the gun… May 1942

22 May 2020

In World War II, where was the first US counter-attack on Japan?

Would you believe… Mexico?

Despite tense relations with the United States and Great Britain over the oil expropriation in the late 1930s (when Britain briefly broke diplomatic relations with Mexico), having a militantly anti-Fascist foreign policy (unlike the United States, the British, and the French, Mexico had backed the Spanish Republic and refused to recognize Francisco Franco’s government, as well as having opposed both the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and the German annexation of Austria in the League of Nations), it strenuously argued in January 1942 for a hemispheric front against the Axis powers and cooperation with the United State (which had already declared war) at a gathering of American foreign ministers held in Rio.

After a Mexican oil tanker, the Potrero de Llano, was sunk by a German U-Boat on 14 May, killing 13 Mexican sailors. By the 15th there were reports around the country of protests outside German businesses. In Mexico City, the German social club was mobbed, and a German teenager was arrested after stabbing a Mexican teen. Mexican diplomats delivered an ultimatum to Germany on the 20th, which was rejected on the 21st. 22 May 1942, Mexico…despite not having been directly attacked by Italy or Japan… declared war on all three Axis states.

As far back as the 1890s, when the Porfirian dictatorship was rushing towards modernization, Japan was seen as both a model of a modernizing society, and as a likely replacement for an over-dependence on European and US markets. And, Japan had, even after the Revolution, shown an interest in obtaining a naval base (or at least a naval fuel station) in Baja California. Add to that, while there were relatively few Japanese immigrants in Mexico, they tended to live along the Pacific coast.

While anti-Asian bigotry in Mexico was mostly directed at the Chinese, there was always suspicion of the Japanese as “cultural outsiders”. Coupled with long-term paranoia in the United States about possible Japanese designs on California (famously, William Randolph Hearst had produced “Patria”, a silent film in which Lilian Gish fights off Pancho Villa and Samuris bent on dominating the “white race” of California). a rumor that Japanese migrants had buried caches of weapons in the Baja was taken seriously by the US military.

Mexico, of course, even as an ally of the United States (or… rather… in solidarity with the nations of the hemisphere, which sounded a little less servile) was not about to allow even a “friendly” incursion. The inevitable happened. 100 US soldiers, were surprised by Mexican soldiers, the night of 28 May, both searching for the (non-existent) Japanese weapons. Were in not for former president and sitting Secretary of War, Lazaro Cardenas, history might have been quite different.

Mexico neither forgive nor forget easily, and the 1916 “Punitive Expedition”… Pershing’s tragicomic hunt for Pancho Villa (supposedly at the behest of the Carranza government) was not exactly ancient history. And, minor as it might have seemed to the United States at the time, it was taken very seriously indeed by the Mexican government. Cardenas had played hard-ball with the United States before… as President when he nationalized the oil companies, he forced the US government to accept the expropriation rather than see Mexican oil going to Japan and Germany (which, for a time, it did). Not that Cardenas threatened to switch alliances, but if the US wanted Mexican help, they needed to ask, and… more importantly… remind the US that if Mexican wanted help, they were perfectly capable of asking themselves, and defining the rules under which such assistance was accepted. US military personnel would be permitted to operate in Mexico, but only under the express approval of the Mexican government, and — more importantly — only in coordination with their Mexican counterparts.

The established rule more or less is still accepted today, although more in the breach than the honor. See “Fast and Furious” or the recent US television show “Narcos: Mexico” for that sorry story.


Pruitt, Sarah: “The Surprising Role Mexico Played in World War II” (

Turner, Ashley, “Mexico Declares War on Axis Powers After U-Boat Attacks” (WorldWar2.0)

Pérez Montfort, Ricardo. Lázaro Cardenas: un mexicano del siglo XX. Debate, 2019.

McConahay, Mary Jo. The Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America. St. Martin’s Press, 2018.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris Louro permalink
    22 May 2020 6:38 pm

    Is it true that the Mexican Oil Monopy sold oil to Germany during the invasion of Poland later of France?

  2. 22 May 2020 8:51 pm

    Excellent corrective to US understanding of Mexico and her history.

    • Chris Louro permalink
      22 May 2020 9:02 pm

      After Mexico expropriated foreign oil companies Mexico, was not able to sell oil to the US companies. They then sold oil to Germany until 1942 when forced to stop by the US.

      • 23 May 2020 5:59 pm

        Whether it was official or not, there were some sales to the German state oil reserve. Mary Jo McConahay’s book has the (sordid) details. The sleaze-bag setting up the deal died under “mysterious circumstances” apparently at the hands of British intelligence.

      • Chris Louro permalink
        23 May 2020 6:37 pm

        Thanks for reminding me of where I read it.

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