Eric Zolov is Professor of History at Stony Brook University. He is coeditor of Fragments of a Golden Age: The Politics of Culture in Mexico since 1940, also published by Duke University Press, and author of Refried Elvis: The Rise of Mexican Counterculture. In his newest book, The Last Good Neighbor, Zolov presents a revisionist account of Mexican domestic politics and international relations during the long 1960s, tracing how Mexico emerged from the shadow of FDR’s Good Neighbor policy to become a geopolitical player in its own right during the Cold War.
You mention that The Last Good Neighbor marked a “new direction” in your scholarship. What about this project inspired you to shift your research focus?
I have always gravitated towards the 1960s and early 1970s in my research interests, dating back to college. I’ve also always been very interested in international relations (IR). In fact, before entering the PhD program at Chicago I was in a joint MA program for Latin American Studies/IR, and initially considered entering the Foreign Service. Yet my first monograph, Refried Elvis, while deeply transnational, largely failed to engage at the level of geopolitics. When I first began research on what eventually evolved into The Last Good Neighbor, way back in 2001, I became very intrigued with trying to understand the dynamic between local and international forces at the level of diplomatic history. I had spent a summer conducting research at the National Archives in Maryland, pouring through State Department and other such documents, and then nearly a year in Mexico, where they had just opened up the materials of the internal security agencies (DFS, DGIPS). At the time, I was still focused mostly on the dynamic between Mexico and the United States, since the U.S. seemed to be the most obvious external actor. But the historiography was shifting as was my own thinking, and I needed a way to make clearer sense of references I was finding in the primary sources, to terms such as “neutralism,” on the one hand, and to foreign policymaking by López Mateos, on the other. It became clear to me that I needed to expand my conceptual framework beyond the US-Mexican relationship, to place that central axis within a wider global understanding. I then got a grant to visit the U.K. archives in Kew Gardens and gained an invaluable perspective into British and European interpretations. The project by that point had become heavily influenced by Cold War diplomatic history, which both brought me back to my earlier interest in IR, but also drew me toward a new field of scholarship that was trying to connect culture and geopolitics, the Global Sixties.
Your research diverges from what you refer to as “a singular focus on repression” in Mexican domestic politics to one that considers the aspirations of Mexican leadership. Why does this singularly-focused scholarship need to be challenged?
It’s not so much that it needs to be challenged as balanced. If you look at the vast majority of the literature on Mexico for this period, the focus is mostly on highlighting the repressive apparatus of the state and internal security forces. This is important work, to be sure, but we now know quite well what the state was capable of and how a strategy of repression was central to retaining control by the ruling PRI. Left out of this picture, however, are the aspirational aspects of the Mexican state, both domestically (in terms of cultural production, for instance) and internationally. When other authors write about Mexico’s progressive international stances, for instance, toward Cuba or Echeverría’s “Third Worldism,” it’s generally explained away in terms of a strategy to coopt domestic opposition. What I try to show in The Last Good Neighbor is that Mexican leadership—with the notable exception of Díaz Ordaz, as I explain in the book—genuinely sought to take advantage of a fluid geopolitical environment in an effort to reshape international politics and, especially, to influence the debate over what form a new political economy of trade and development should take. Those very important aspects of the narrative—global aspects, to be sure—have been overshadowed by the focus on state violence and impunity at the domestic level. I don’t ignore the question of repression, but at the same time I try to redirect our attention to other parts of the narrative. I also spend considerable time, for instance, focusing on the implosion of the Mexican left and the ways in which internal factionalism was linked to ideological splits globally, between the positions of an “Old” versus “New” left, on one hand, and competing currents within the New Left itself, on the other.
Considering the role of aspiration is a decidedly qualitative approach in international relations. You mention the lack of personal writings during López Mateo’s presidency. What challenges did you face in the research process and what approaches did you take to overcome them?
The U.S. and British diplomatic sources raise all sorts of concerns about Mexican intentions during this period, for instance, regarding López Mateos’ goals in visiting Eastern Europe or Asia. They also provide great insights into the motives of foreign leaders who courted Mexico, such as French President Charles De Gaulle or Yugoslavia’s leader, Josip Broz Tito. So, one way I was able to access the question of aspiration was to integrate the rich narratives and detailed analysis provided by these external sources with the equally rich, though often more piecemeal, documents acquired from the Mexican Foreign Ministry. Yet I also needed to incorporate a strategy of discourse analysis, for instance by analyzing photographs, posters, and cartoons. Ultimately, my methodology combines an eclectic integration of diverse approaches and a wide spectrum of sources. Ultimately, the documents never jumped out to say, “This is our plan,” but the aggregate of evidence allows me to establish a credible interpretation, that of an aspirational foreign policy which coincided with—and sought to harness, in my argument—shared aspirations among left-wing social forces for a rejuvenated internationalism.
Combating a historical narrative that downplays Mexico’s international expansion during the 1960s, you describe the country’s acquisition of new diplomatic and trade partners a “global pivot.” How does this framework challenge perceptions of Mexican political culture?
A common trope, propagated at the time and picked up by most historians, is that by the late 1950s the Mexican revolution had “died.” This image was reinforced by the repression of the railway workers’ movement in early 1959, the assassination of Rubén Jaramillo in 1962, and, of course, the massacre of students in 1968, alongside a litany of examples of political monopolization by the ruling party. Yet undo focus on these episodes has detracted us from recognizing the broader, progressive foreign policy aspirations under López Mateos. This was a moment of tremendous geopolitical fluidity, with the birth not only of new nations in Africa and Asia but of new proposals for global collaboration, namely in the Non-Aligned Movement and the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). López Mateos, I show, actively sought to take advantage of that fluidity not only to affect a global pivot away from dependence on the United States, but to shape the terms of those emergent global proposals. A key paradox, I argue, was that Mexico’s strategic relationship with the United States deepened at the same time that the relationship became a springboard for enhancing Mexican prestige abroad. The attempt to diversify Mexico’s diplomatic, economic, and cultural relations was put aside by President Díaz Ordaz, for a variety of reasons, but continued in fervor under President Luis Echeverría in the 1970s. The fact that this pivot failed is testament to the dilemma of Mexico’s geographic marriage to the United States. But we risk reproducing a limited history of Mexico for this period if we dismiss or overlook the significance of that attempt. It’s not only that the attempt itself matters. We need to recognize how foreign policy aspirations—by the government but also for various social actors—became a transcendent factor across the body politic. By doing so we are led to an important reexamination of Mexican political culture for this period, to really think through how and why the domestic is imbricated by the foreign.
How does your work contribute to the evolution of historical scholarship?
Scholars of Mexico and historians of Latin America in general have tended to examine national histories in isolation from international relations. There are of course some notable earlier exceptions, such as Friedrich Katz’s masterful The Secret War in Mexico (1984), and the groundbreaking collection edited by Gilbert Joseph, In From the Cold (2007). More recent scholarship, notably by Tanya Harmer, has opened up new avenues of investigation and presented new frameworks of analysis for us to consider. This is especially true for the burgeoning field of the Global Sixties, which takes as a given that political, social, and cultural forces at the national level are deeply embedded within transnational networks. The monumental collection edited by Chen Jian, et. al., Routledge Handbook of the Global Sixties (2018) is pathbreaking in that regard. My contribution, hopefully, will be to encourage Latin Americanists to recognize the imperative of linking national narratives to a larger global framework. One of the central facets of my book, for instance, follows the diverging trajectories around the proposal of a “New Left”: how that idea briefly cohered and subsequently fragmented within the Mexican context. There are many points of entry into this era, as the collaborators of a new edited volume, Latin America and the Global Cold War (2020), demonstrate. The Last Good Neighbor, however, is the first full-length monograph to examine a particular national context from this global perspective in great depth.
What do you hope readers will take away from The Last Good Neighbor?
I hope the book shakes up readers’ presumptions about Mexico in the 1960s. For a long time, 1968 has exerted a powerful historiographic pull on scholarship. We need to transcend that influence, as the editors of the important recent book, México Beyond 1968 (2018) argue. The Last Good Neighbor mostly skips over the 1968 student movement, not because of its lack of importance but because it has sucked so much oxygen out of the room. I want readers to see what happens when we approach Mexico in the 1960s from an entirely different angle, one that links domestic political culture to global ideological influences, and simultaneously examines the country’s relationship with the United States from the perspective of agency rather than subordination. Ultimately, The Last Good Neighbor is an effort to integrate these different levels of analysis into a coherent argument, one that I hope readers will see as thought provoking.