The Agrarian Dispute

The Expropriation of American-Owned Rural Land in Postrevolutionary Mexico

The Agrarian Dispute

American Encounters/Global Interactions

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Book Pages: 388 Illustrations: 26 photos, 7 tables, 2 maps Published: September 2008

Author: John Dwyer

History > Latin American History, U.S. History, Latin American Studies > Mexico

In the mid-1930s the Mexican government expropriated millions of acres of land from hundreds of U.S. property owners as part of President Lázaro Cárdenas’s land redistribution program. Because no compensation was provided to the Americans a serious crisis, which John J. Dwyer terms “the agrarian dispute,” ensued between the two countries. Dwyer’s nuanced analysis of this conflict at the local, regional, national, and international levels combines social, economic, political, and cultural history. He argues that the agrarian dispute inaugurated a new and improved era in bilateral relations because Mexican officials were able to negotiate a favorable settlement, and the United States, constrained economically and politically by the Great Depression, reacted to the crisis with unaccustomed restraint. Dwyer challenges prevailing arguments that Mexico’s nationalization of the oil industry in 1938 was the first test of Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy by showing that the earlier conflict over land was the watershed event.

Dwyer weaves together elite and subaltern history and highlights the intricate relationship between domestic and international affairs. Through detailed studies of land redistribution in Baja California and Sonora, he demonstrates that peasant agency influenced the local application of Cárdenas’s agrarian reform program, his regional state-building projects, and his relations with the United States. Dwyer draws on a broad array of official, popular, and corporate sources to illuminate the motives of those who contributed to the agrarian dispute, including landless fieldworkers, indigenous groups, small landowners, multinational corporations, labor leaders, state-level officials, federal policymakers, and diplomats. Taking all of them into account, Dwyer explores the circumstances that spurred agrarista mobilization, the rationale behind Cárdenas’s rural policies, the Roosevelt administration’s reaction to the loss of American-owned land, and the diplomatic tactics employed by Mexican officials to resolve the international conflict.


The Agrarian Dispute is one of only a handful of books that combines an in-depth analysis of domestic social history with a diplomatic historian’s sensitivity to the nuances of US-Mexican relations. It succeeds beautifully and on an impressive scale. . . . Dwyer’s marriage of social and diplomatic history suggests that historians interested in the expropriation of foreign properties cannot ignore either domestic or international elements of the story. This is in itself a significant contribution, but it also allows him to refine our understanding of the Cárdenas presidency in ways that subsequent historians will need to take into account.” — Christopher R. Boyer, Bulletin of Latin American Research

“[Dwyer’s] discussion of Cardenista agrarian policy is one of the best ever written. . . . [A] superbly conceived and researched study of Mexican agrarian history.” — Henry C. Schmidt, Agricultural History

“[Dwyer’s] findings are interesting, insightful, and very bold in a number of areas. . . . Dwyer’s text is easy to read because it is clearly outlined and argued. . . . Dwyer has made his case very clearly and intelligently, and I intend to assign this monograph in my classes.” — JOSÉ ANGEL HERNÁNDEZ, History

“[E]xhaustively researched, absorbing. . . A book that should prove accessible to beginning students as well as specialists, The Agrarian Dispute is an important contribution to the historiographies of Mexico and US-Mexican relations.” — Kenneth F. Maffitt, Canadian Journal of History

“Between January 1927 and October 1940, Mexico expropriated more than six million acres of land owned by some 319 Americans and redistributed the properties to the nation’s campesinos. . . . The give-and-take between the arbiters makes for suspenseful, dramatic reading, and in The Agrarian Dispute John J. Dwyer tells the story well. . . . [T]he real merit of his work lies in his detailed deconstruction of the multifaceted forces on both sides of the border that shaped the roiling agrarian dispute itself.” — Paul Vanderwood, Hispanic American Historical Review

“By linking domestic political pressures on both sides of the border to the diplomatic strategies adopted by political leaders, Dwyer is able to demonstrate that everyday people were not just the pawns of elite powerbrokers, but rather influential actors in their own right. . . . In sum, Dwyer's book offers foreign policy experts new tools to understand U.S.-Latin American relations and should become a standard in upper-division and graduate courses. My hope is that other scholars will use his methods to test their limits in other foreign policy settings.” — Andrae M. Marak, The Latin Americanist

“Dwyer aims for a holism in analysis that transcends boundaries between national history and domestic politics, international relations and diplomatic history, studies of elites and subalterns, and economic, political, social and cultural processes. The result is an innovative multi scalar and multi dimensional search for more complete explanations of why history took the course that it did. . . . This is the kind of historical project to which anthropologists can contribute and might embrace profitably in their own thinking.” — John Gledhill, Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology

“Dwyer has assembled a fascinating weight of documentary evidence from both sides of the border to corroborate his story. Using this material, he has constructed a powerfully holistic argument that captures well the tense patterns of accommodation and resistance that marked Mexican–US relations, to say nothing of the complexities and fissures on both the Mexican, and particularly the US, side. The Agrarian Dispute thus relates the diplomatic/agrarian history of the cardenista 1930s in a more nuanced and convincing way, and describes a model of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic interaction in which both diplomatic initiative and material advantage move back and forth. All told, the book is a valuable study that should be read by all students of modern Mexico; it will also interest students of US history and of diplomatic relations in the Americas.” — Matthew Butler, Social History

“Dwyer has given us a splendidly researched, superbly organized, and well-written book volume that can be commended to any author seeking an example of how to address a complex topic.” — Irving W. Levinson, The Americas

“Dwyer’s handling of the intricacies of federal policy, state politics, and peasant agency is truly masterful. . . . Overall the book is extremely impressive, one of the best recent books on Cardenismo, and a must read for scholars, graduates, and even undergraduates. Sources are impressively broad and handled with sensitivity and care. Despite the book’s multidirectional complexity, the style is always clear and concise. . . . His conclusion. . .is a meaningful and important call to arms.” — Benjamin Smith, Journal of World History

“Dwyer’s study scores many successes. It joins a growing body of works that reevaluate the watershed 1934-40 presidency, and it judiciously weighs points from many of these. The author is always careful to attribute multiple motives to Cardenas: not simply a quest for political power, but also genuine concern for national development and for improving the lives of the Mexican lower class. . . . Finally, the work is meticulously researched and lucidly written.” — Terry Rugeley, Ethnohistory

“In his very enlightening monograph, John J. Dwyer has provided a crucial correction to the Cárdenas story and helped to balance the analysis of U.S.-Mexican relations in the 1930s. It is a fascinating, indeed essential, addition to the growing body of scholarship about the transformations of the Mexican state in the postrevolutionary period.” — Aaron W. Navarro, Diplomatic History

“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 realities of the time, chiefly in Mexico. . . . 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.” — Eric Van Young, Journal of Social History

“John Dwyer’s well-researched and carefully argued book successfully links the interplay between local politics and international affairs, enriches our understanding of the agrarian reform process, and provides new evidence of Lázaro Cárdenas's political and diplomatic skills. It is essential reading for those interested in modern Mexican history and United States–Mexican relations.” — Michael Gonzalez, Culture and Agriculture

“John J. Dwyer’s The Agrarian Dispute represents an impressive effort to demonstrate how local, state-level, national, and international factors interacted to shape the course of the land reform process in Mexico during the administration of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940). . . . Given the differences in approach and emphasis that tend to characterize regional studies and social histories on the one hand and national political histories and diplomatic histories on the other, a work such as this one that manages to bridge those divides is a remarkable achievement. . . . Indeed, Dwyer’s most valuable contribution may simply be his embrace of an approach that allows him to examine his subject from many angles, taking into account the impact of both elite strategies and subaltern actions, of both local idiosyncrasies and broad transnational forces. It is to be hoped that other scholars will find it possible to emulate his example.” — Halbert Jones, The Latin Americanist

“The intricate, nuanced study of the disputes reveals both the complex interplay of many actors, ideas, and political goals on all sides, and how those actors, from large imperial government to landless farmers, act differently depending on the particulars of each case.” — K. C. Chambers, Choice

“This book is a serious, thoughtful cross-border history that is the fruit of years of meticulous archival research. Dwyer’s narrative. . .often leads the reader to fascinatingly counterintuitive conclusions that are sure to inform discussions and debates for years to come.” — Stephen E. Lewis, American Historical Review

“This is an impressive first book that places Dwyer in frank dialogue with scholars of foreign policy, peasant studies, Mexican history and postcolonial studies that focus on agrarian issues. Moreover, this study is certain to become required reading for anyone seeking to understand US-Mexico relations and the crucial influence that local agency had in shaping domestic and international land policy.” — Gabriela Soto Laveaga, Journal of Agrarian Change

"Professors teaching courses on US-Mexican relations should definitely add this to their syllabi, and it should become standard for all graduate students of twentieth-century Mexico or US diplomatic relations. It should also shape lectures and scholarship on Cardenas, agrarians, US-Mexican relations as well as the broader implications of local agency for decades to come." — Jason Dormady, H-Net Reviews

The Agrarian Dispute is a tour de force. John J. Dwyer ties international relations and domestic politics in Mexico together in an exciting new way, demonstrating that the expropriation of United States–owned land by the Cárdenas regime was of crucial importance for the relationship between the two countries, Mexico’s overall economic development, and agrarian reform. Few scholars cover both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border as well as Dwyer does.” — Ben Fallaw, author of Cárdenas Compromised: The Failure of Reform in Postrevolutionary Yucatán

The Agrarian Dispute will force scholars to reconsider U.S.-Mexican relations during the Cárdenas years. John J. Dwyer shows how powerful domestic and international events were affected by the actions of ‘subalterns’ and how Mexico, a relatively weak power, deftly bested the United States with creative diplomatic tactics. He also makes a convincing case that the U.S. response to Mexico’s oil expropriation in 1938 was largely determined by the earlier controversy over the land confiscations.” — Timothy J. Henderson, author of The Worm in the Wheat


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

John J. Dwyer is Associate Professor of History at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction: The Interplay between Domestic Affairs and Foreign Relations 1

Part I. Domestic Origins of an International Conflict

1. The Roots of the Agrarian Dispute 17

2. El asalto a las tierras y la huelga de los sentados: How Local Agency Shaped Agrarian Reform in the Mexicali Valley 44

3. The Expropriation of American-Owned Land in Baja California: Political, Economic, Social, and Cultural Factors 77

4. Domestic Politics and the Expropriation of American-Owned Land in the Yaqui Valley 103

5. The Sonoran Reparto: Where Domestic and International Forces Meet 138

Part II. Diplomatic Resolution of an International Conflict

6. The End of U.S. Intervention in Mexico: The Roosevelt Administration Accommodates Mexico City 159

7. Diplomatic Weapons of the Weak: Cárdenas's Administration Outmaneuvers Washington 194

8. The 1941 Global Settlement: The End of the Agrarian Dispute and the Start of a New Era in U.S.-Mexican Relations 232

Conclusion: Moving away from Balkanized History 267

Notes 85

Bibliography 343

Index 371
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Honorable Mention, 2009 Thomas McGann Award, Rocky Mountain Council on Latin American Studies

Winner, 2008-2009 Alfred B. Thomas Book Award

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4309-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4295-3
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