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A Brief History Of U.S.-Mexican Relations


In 1947, President Harry Truman visited Mexico. He was the first sitting American president ever to do so, and people were very excited.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: President of the United States visits the Mexican capital. The goodwill visit proved very popular and drew a great holiday crowd that voted Mr. Truman muy simpatico.

INSKEEP: One of those old movie newsreels there. Now Truman visited during one of the high points of U.S.-Mexico relations. That relationship between the United States and Mexico is what we're talking about this week with commentator Cokie Roberts, who joins us every week to talk about how politics and the government work. It's a segment we call Ask Cokie.

Hi, Cokie.


INSKEEP: And here's a listener who's asking.

TIFFANY MENDOZA: My name is Tiffany Mendoza from New Jersey. What is Mexico's president's and the U.S. president's relationship throughout history? And how has this history affected their economic, political and ally relationship past and present day?

ROBERTS: Well, the history of the relations between the presidents is pretty much - it mirrors the relationships between the countries. And I'm not one of these people who can do 200-plus years in 20 seconds, but I'll point out some of the familiar moments - war between the countries in the 1800s, revolution in Mexico leading to Wilson sending troops to try to capture Pancho Villa, Mexico playing footsie with the Germans in World War I - Germany had sent the infamous Zimmermann Telegram, offering to return parts of the U.S. to Mexico after the war - and then American presidents, starting with Hoover, instituting the Good Neighbor policy. And that's been the fundamental policy since then.

INSKEEP: A couple of listeners wanted to know more about how it was that a very large part of Mexico became a very large part of the United States.

ROBERTS: Well, again, that's a complicated history. The U.S. offered to buy California and New Mexico after Texas seceded from Mexico and was annexed by the United States in 1845. Mexico rejected that offer. And the U.S., which had been itching for war to fulfill its manifest destiny of occupying land all the way to the Pacific, went in with troops, eventually occupied Mexico City. And the treaty ending the war in 1848 gave the United States 55% of Mexican territory - the states of Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada, Utah, parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Kansas.


ROBERTS: Incredible amount of land, Steve - a half a million square miles. And then in 1854, the U.S. bought southern slivers of New Mexico and Arizona for $10 million, mainly to build a southern transcontinental railroad.

INSKEEP: One last question bringing us to the present day.

JOHN RAY AHO: My name is John Ray Aho, and I live in Phoenix. How is border policy different now regarding migrants who worked the fields than in the 1950s?

ROBERTS: Well, of course, the question of Mexican immigrants coming to the U.S. has been at the heart of so many of the tensions. During World War II, the Braceros program started bringing in farm laborers under contract to U.S. growers. That lasted until 1964, attracted some 4.5 million workers. But there were many instances of abuse - people not getting paid, having terrible housing, awful situations.

Now agricultural workers can come in on a one-year visa, renewable up to three years. In 2018, almost 200,000 visas were given. But that's not enough for farm work, and many farmers hire undocumented workers. And, of course, that's the political problem.

INSKEEP: Cokie, thanks.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's commentator Cokie Roberts. And you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and the government work by tweeting us with the #AskCokie.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly say President Harry Truman was the first U.S. president to visit Mexico. In fact, President William Howard Taft was the first.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 13, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
We incorrectly say President Harry Truman was the first U.S. president to visit Mexico. In fact, President William Howard Taft was the first.