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by Robert S. Robinson

It’s not only the federal government that makes and implements foreign policy. Especially as societies and economies become increasingly globalized, other actors, including state and local governments, are becoming ever more involved. Border regions offer particularly abundant examples. This study focuses on the Texas-Mexico border and Mexican immigration, with a case study from the 1940s and a look at Texas’ efforts to square its need for migrant labor with the Jim Crow social system of the time— Ed.

During the last two decades, diplomatic historians have made great strides in incorporating the role of non-state actors into their accounts of American foreign relations. These efforts have provided a depth and richness to a literature that has always skillfully treated high-level policy-makers, but has sometimes neglected how forces beyond national governments have shaped the foreign policy between the United States and other nations. One set of non-state actors that has received scant attention is the state governments of individual U.S. states. Together with city, county, and other government units below the federal level, these might be termed sub-national state actors. There are moments when the priorities, interests, and policies of a particular sub-national state actor either do not align with national policy, or are simply ignored by national policy. In these cases sub-national state actors have sometimes worked to establish direct ties to foreign nations, create institutions to manage their foreign policy interests, and lobby the U.S. national government to pursue particular policy agendas with respect to other nations.

This study centers on one such case by examining the relationship between the United States and Mexico. It argues that the presence of the long shared border between the two nations created a situation in which sub-national state actors could have a significant effect on national policy. This short piece is not meant to be a comprehensive exposition of my work, but rather a brief overview that I hope will highlight the importance of understanding the role of U.S. states in the formation of foreign policy. The following pages will provide an overview of my research and methodology, a case study that demonstrates the utility of this approach, and finally some conclusions regarding my research as well as the concept of examining sub-national state actors more generally.

In ways unique to this relationship, U.S. state governments joined the federal government in its interest in foreign policy toward Mexico. The movement of money, workers, and material into and out of border states made Mexico impossible to ignore for the governors of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California, and other states beyond the border itself. Local leaders, such as the mayors of towns like El Paso, Brownsville, or San Diego were also vitally interested in what happened in Mexico, and how Mexico and Mexicans affected their communities. Outside of government, private organizations such as labor unions, chambers of commerce, advocacy groups, and churches were deeply concerned with and affected by this binational interaction. Finally, individual U.S. citizens interacted with Mexico and its people as tourists, friends, relatives, and in numerous other ways. In perhaps no other U.S. foreign relationship were more people at more levels so deeply concerned and involved.

This research captures some of the complexity of this relationship in the 1940s and early 1950s by focusing on interactions between the two nations at multiple levels. I consider the goals, thoughts, and actions of federal leaders, and to this traditional perspective I add the actions, programs, problems, and worldviews of state and local leaders in an effort to show that meaningful foreign policy decisions were made not only in Washington and Mexico City. Border states such as Texas maintained active foreign policies with Mexico and other nations independent of the concerns of national leaders in the State Department and the White House. This work has focused on Texas to a large extent as a case study within which to examine these issues.

Mexican Migration

Within the broad realm of U.S.-Mexican relations, my focus has been on perhaps the single most significant issue between the United States and Mexico, the migration of Mexican citizens to the United States for work. The 1940s and early 1950s is a useful period to study when considering migration issues. This period marked the beginning of the immigration trends that have become so important over the last half-century, characterized by high levels of both legal and illegal immigration. Immigration from Mexico had been significant in the first three decades of the twentieth century, but the Great Depression reversed the flow during the 1930s, with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans streaming southward either by choice or compulsion. This trend reversed itself again with the beginning of World War II. In 1942, the U.S. and Mexican governments created the bracero program to bring Mexican workers onto American farms, thus beginning a policy of legal immigration that would allow tens of thousands of Mexican men legally to enter the United States every year. In addition, illegal immigration began to skyrocket to hundreds of thousands of persons per year, a number that included women and children, as opposed to the almost exclusively male character of the legal immigration.

The bracero program had particular importance for the government of Texas after 1943, when the Mexican government decided to exclude Texas from receiving agricultural workers under the program due to reports of rampant racial discrimination. This labor embargo was an affront to the pride of Texans. It belied their self-conception of having a special relationship with Mexico. It also represented an economic hardship for several important interest groups. This unique hardship provides an opportunity to examine how a state deals with its own unique foreign policy challenges, independent of the rest of the nation.

Texas’ Good Neighbor Commission

In response, the state government launched a series of programs that included direct contact with Mexican officials in an effort to have the blacklist lifted. In a striking and urgent manner, the government of Texas was thus thrust into an effort to influence Mexican government policy following the introduction of the 1943 labor embargo. Texas officials worked to convince Mexican leaders to rescind the embargo through a wide variety of policies including investigating cases of discrimination, reforming aspects of the state education system, negotiating directly with Mexican officials, enlisting the cooperation of the U.S. federal government, and working to improve the image of Texas among the Mexican public. Governor Coke Stevenson quickly coupled these programs under the umbrella of the Good Neighbor Commission of Texas (GNC), created in 1943. Collectively, these efforts represent a striking effort by Texas leaders and private citizens to influence the foreign policy between their state, and sometimes their individual community, and the Mexican government. Despite the GNC’s efforts, the embargo would last in some form into the 1950s.

These efforts yielded some fruit, but progress was distressingly slow for Texas officials. The labor embargo was in effect for four years before the Mexican government agreed to a temporary legalization program that would include Texas, and after that brief interlude the embargo would remain in effect for two more years before finally being lifted in 1949. After 1949, some Texas communities still faced local embargoes. This slow progress was due less to the intransigence of the Mexican government than to the inability of Texas leaders to effect the kinds of changes within Texas society, such as passing legislation to punish acts of discrimination, which would have convinced the Mexican government that their embargo was no longer necessary.

First, the existence of the Jim Crow system in Texas was a constant brake on the nature of programs that could be considered by Texas officials for Hispanics in their state. Jim Crow presupposed a certain degree of comfort with racially motivated policies, making it harder for Texas leaders to experience real outrage over the existence of “No Mexicans” signs or over incidents of discrimination. White Texans’ commitment to maintaining the legally approved discrimination that African Americans suffered made them hesitant to improve the lot of Hispanics. Texas leaders feared precedents that could ultimately be used by advocates for black civil rights to pressure the government for change. Texans’ tortuous efforts to define Hispanics as Caucasian, while at the same time they faced rampant racial discrimination, testify to that ambivalence. They might be able to urge equal treatment for fellow whites but not for a different ethnic group.

Texans were also quite conservative. The state was solidly Democratic during the whole period covered here, but it was a conservative southern Democratic party that had a strong feeling of reverence for personal liberty and a limited role for government. For many Texans, the idea that discrimination could be subject to legislation and punishment was simply anathema. Their view of government’s appropriate role in society left them with the feeling that educating, investigating, and persuading marked the extent of government reach.

Thus, the labor embargo persisted because cultural factors within Texas prevented that state’s leadership from adopting the type of solutions that the Mexican government demanded. Specifically, attitudes toward race relations, including the institutionalized Jim Crow system, and attitudes toward the proper role of government made Texas leaders unwilling to consider legal restrictions on discriminatory practices despite all of their efforts and seemingly sincere desires to eradicate discrimination against Mexicans in Texas. On a somewhat different conceptual plane, this study also shows that analysis of the formation of foreign policy needs to incorporate a diffuse group of actors, particularly when the presence of a frontier between two nations gives local actors an unusually large stake in the process. Texas government officials and even non-governmental actors actively worked to shape the state’s foreign policy toward the government of Mexico.

This research examines the interrelationship of state and federal governments by mining material from the U.S. and Mexican national archives as well as the Texas state archive. At the U.S. national level, it includes papers from the Department of State, the Department of Labor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and White House files from the Truman administration. From the Mexican side, documents from the presidential files for Manuel Avila Camacho and Miguel Alemán Valdez were consulted, as well as files of the Mexican Foreign Ministry. From the Texas archives, material from the files of Governors Coke Stevenson, Beauford Jester, and Allan Shivers, as well the records of the Good Neighbor Commission of Texas, provided an invaluable lens into the Texas state perspective.

In addition to government sources, public discourse surrounding issues relating to the border was highlighted through examining a variety of local and national newspapers in the United States and Mexico.

Case Study: Burying Felix Longoria

The next pages will present a brief case study that highlights the importance of considering sub-national state actors in the creation of foreign policy. What might be called the “Longoria Incident,” and others like it, show how the same event could create different priorities, solutions, and outcomes for the federal and state governments. It also provides an example of how the actions of individuals and groups in the border region could create dilemmas for national policy.

This case revolved around one of the most significant incidents of discrimination during the late 1940s, the dispute over the burial of Felix Longoria. Longoria was a U.S. citizen who had served in the Pacific theater during World War II and had been killed while fighting on Luzon. He was a manual laborer before the war, a fence builder like his father. His body was transported back to Three Rivers, Texas, to be buried near where his family lived. The problems began when the local director of the funeral home refused to participate in preparing the body for burial, apparently out of fear that catering to a Hispanic family would hurt his business in the white community. Denial of service in public facilities to Hispanic citizens was common in Texas at this time, but Longoria’s status as a war hero who had given his life for his country quickly made this into a national and international scandal.

Administration officials in Washington were deeply concerned by the potential rift this incident could cause in U.S.-Mexican relations generally. One government official opined with alarm that “the further we go into this question of United States-Mexican relations the more we are convinced that the problem is of such magnitude as to constitute a force, and that unless it is carefully studied we are in for a continuing series of incidents which will lead to worse and worse relations.”[2] When arrangements were made for the funeral at Arlington, Truman officials considered having the president fly the family to Washington on an Air Force plane, perhaps having them visit the president while in the capital, or at least having the president make a statement.[3]

In Texas, advocacy groups rallied around the issue and the family. The League of United Latin American Citizens raised money to help the family afford the trip to Washington.[4] The new G.I. Forum also raised funds to help finance the family’s trip.[5] G.I. Forum director Hector Garcia would be one of the major forces in bringing the issue into the press as an opportunity to press the Texas government to do more to protect its Hispanic citizens. The G.I. Forum, as a veterans group, was particularly concerned about the treatment of this former serviceman.

This incident brought down upon Texas a wave of invective from periodicals, newspapers, and other media across the United States and Mexico. For example, Walter Winchell, a well known political and entertainment commentator, prominently featured the incident in his popular radio program.[6] The Dallas Morning News, in an article lamenting the poor publicity that this incident brought upon Texas, quoted the major Mexico City daily Excelsior in what was perhaps the deepest cut of all. The article cautioned readers to understand that “acts of discrimination against Mexicans in Texas should not be interpreted as a general sentiment of the North American people” and went on to say “against the incomprehensible attitude of the Texans, there is increasing understanding of other important sectors of the neighboring country and the sympathy of the Mexican should be focused toward them.”[7]

This singling out of Texas as the problem area was all too familiar to those in the state who had spent the years since 1943 trying to erase precisely such sentiment. The Longoria case brought to light all of these familiar accusations and undoubtedly undid much of the work accomplished by the GNC.

Lyndon Johnson’s Intervention

The issue was resolved to the federal government’s satisfaction through the intervention of then newly-elected Senator Lyndon Johnson. Johnson spoke with the family and arranged for Longoria to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, where he could be given the full honors that he deserved. While the solution was acceptable to the family and seemed to diffuse the crisis, it seemed like a significant setback for leaders in Texas who felt like moving the funeral to Arlington took away any opportunity that they had to erase the public-relations damage the incident had cost.

Texans in the Three Rivers community and in the state government worked to resolve the problem by appealing directly to the family to bury Longoria in Texas, and by securing the belated cooperation of the funeral home. Early in the process, Beatrice Longoria, Felix’s widow, wrote a gracious but deflating letter to the funeral home in question. While acknowledging the belated offer to prepare her husband for burial she said, “I feel that it is still too late. My husband will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery Washington D.C. My thanks and gratitude to the people of Three Rivers for their sentiment on the matter. I want to let you know that I bear no grudge and still think greatly of all the people from Three Rivers. I am sorry about the whole matter.”[8]

Unfortunately in their zest to save the image of Texas, some Three Rivers officials ended up harassing the family even further during a difficult time. For example, locals inaccurately published notes in the paper over the father’s name stating that the family wanted Felix buried in Texas. Carolina Longoria also hastened to correct rumors that the family opposed efforts to raise money for their trip to Washington, D.C., explaining instead that her father had worked with Dr. Garcia of the G.I. Forum regarding fund-raising. Carolina lamented that “Daddy got sick and on Dr. Garcia’s instructions I made the men go away whenever they came to the house. It all got so bad finally, though, that Alberto had to take Daddy away to [L]aredo to get some rest.”[9]The GNC itself would have no more luck resolving this issue than did the local officials in Three Rivers. Much of the GNC’s efforts as an agency involved ad hoc responses to particular incidents such as this one. The GNC would attempt to gather information, resolve disputes, and smooth over differences in the hopes of demonstrating to the Mexican government their commitment to provide a hospitable work environment for Mexican laborers. In this case, the GNC’s efforts reveal the complexity and difficulty of its task. Its eventual report of the outcome of the investigation, which was distributed to the press, amounted to a frustrated diatribe against interest groups in Texas that elevated problems out of proportion, citizens whose discriminatory practices besmirched the image of the state, and finally to the state government whose limited financial support for the GNC made it impotent to resolve issues like this one.[10] The GNC specifically condemned Garcia for having gone immediately to the press rather than attempting to solve the problem through the GNC. The report asserted that sensationalizing the incident damaged “United States prestige and goodwill” in the international community.[11] Specifically, the report alleged that diplomatic negotiations over a new labor contract were stopped in the aftermath of the incident.

One of the most significant passages of this report demonstrated how Texas efforts, although substantial, were still hamstrung by cultural factors that prevented the commission from going too far in creating a non-discriminatory atmosphere in the state. According to the report:

Texas must choose either to provide the means of settling its own problems or to have the Federal Government provide that means in the national defense. Specifically, the Texas Legislature must pass legislation to allow effective work in this field or surrender any claim to state’s rights in the field. The sum of legislative action has been an $8000 annual budget for a Good Neighbor Commission of Texas. With such a small budget the Commission cannot spread itself effectively in 254 counties among 7 million people, nor can it give everywhere the needed guidance that it has been giving within its limits toward adjustment of Mexican relations in Texas.[12]

This comment nicely sums up the collective frustrations of six years of effort that had produced only limited results. One of the continual battles for Texans was whether anti-discrimination legislation would be an appropriate solution to the problem, and this report is also significant for including one of the first signs of softening by GNC officials on the key issue of legislation. It is interesting that this language is couched in the context of an argument regarding states rights.

The Longoria case demonstrates the political frictions that discrimination could create within Texas, and how those incidents could complicate the federal government’s policy with Mexico as well.

Conclusions about the Border in Foreign Relations

As I hope this brief exposition shows, focusing on the creation of foreign policy at the state level catches the significance of the border in ways that traditional methodologies would likely miss. Individuals, interest groups, state and local governments, geography, and other factors from within the border region complicate and shape national policy.

Beyond explaining the immediate crisis, this study also leads to some interesting conclusions about the border in the study of foreign relations. Imagining a border region, rather than a bright line, offers more room for nuance and understanding. Borders are zones where ethnic groups, polities, economies, and other group identifiers change. However, the change is rarely a stark transformation, but rather a blurring and mixing that creates in the border region new identities and new realities that are not entirely one or the other. The degree to which this mixing occurs is predicated upon the interaction of multiple complex factors. The size of the population in the border region, the degree of economic interaction, similarities or differences in political or economic realities, geography, and a host of other factors shape the nature of the resulting mixture.

The blended nature of border regions is readily evident along the U.S.-Mexican border. That region has long had a significant population, from the first influx of U.S. settlers in the early nineteenth century and especially in the twentieth century where the Rio Grande gave life to cities, towns, and agricultural sites on both sides of the border. This border has also been the site of significant and constant economic interaction. By the mid-twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of people crossed the border every year in both directions, the economies on both sides of the Rio Grande were tightly interconnected, and the region could not be completely controlled by either government. Indeed, both governments working in concert would often fail to exert even joint sovereignty over the border region. This complexity formed the backdrop for the negotiations and actions surrounding the movement of Mexican labor to Texas in the 1940s and early 1950s. The resulting study leads to a number of conclusions about the nature of Texas, Mexico, the United States government, and the relationship between them.

The nature of the national political environment in the late 1940s meant that there could not be any serious consensus for advancement. Truman faced a conservative Congress and a serious political divide within his own party on the issue of Mexican labor. Entrenched, southern, conservative Democrats who depended on cheap agricultural labor faced unions, New Dealers, and others who advocated for better treatment of the downtrodden. Thus, even when Truman put his whole credibility behind seeking some change to the pattern of migratory labor in the United States, such as was the case when he established his presidential commission and urged the Congress to enact its suggestions, recalcitrant politicians such as Clinton Anderson or Allen Ellender were able to stall or dilute the president’s proposals.

Political Tension in Mexico

Another theme that became evident is the continual political tension within Mexico created by the treatment of Mexican nationals in the United States. Mexico was unique among nations in this period for requiring formal, negotiated government-to-government agreements with the United States before it would allow its workers to cross the border. Other nations simply allowed agricultural workers to enter the United States under existing immigration laws. Mexico’s insistence on these negotiated agreements was in large part an effort to ensure just conditions for its citizens, who frequently experienced discriminatory treatment in the United States. Mexican officials insisted on minimum wages, adequate health care and housing, and freedom from harsh or disrespectful treatment by either U.S. employers or government officials. Violations of these agreements were numerous, and Mexico’s efforts to defend its citizens’ rights while maintaining its ever-important relationship with its northern neighbor constituted a continual tightrope act for Mexican officials.

Beyond their desire to protect Mexican nationals, Mexican leaders were also worried about their domestic public image. Intellectuals and opinion makers within Mexico, particularly in the capital, frequently and vocally criticized the bracero program for allowing the degradation of Mexican people in the United States. The Mexican government, as the heir to the Mexican Revolution, had to maintain its credibility at home as it dealt with these problems abroad. It could not be seen as ignoring the needs of the masses of its citizens whose economic well being depended on the success of this program.

Next, the story of the GNC and the supporting efforts by Texas governors and other state agencies also allows for a deeper understanding of the way in which officials along the border conducted their own foreign relations. The crisis of the labor embargo against Texas was felt at the national level, and the State Department did work to see it lifted. However, the national government was consistently willing to put the issue on the back burner if that helped them keep the rest of the bracero program running smoothly. Not content to allow key local issues to be slowly resolved by federal officials distracted by other goals, Texans did a remarkable amount to take their case directly to the Mexican government.

The GNC was, in a sense, a State Department for Texas as it interacted directly with Mexican officials, worked to solve problems that affected the bilateral relationship between Texas and Mexico, and tried to negotiate a solution to the labor embargo. It also served as a public relations office for Texas by creating speeches, articles, and other material designed to show the concern of state officials for the problems facing Hispanic Americans and Mexican nationals in their state. The existence of the GNC itself was designed in large part to be a living symbol of Texas’ commitment to eliminating discrimination. But eliminating discrimination was never the ultimate goal for Texas officials, but rather a means to an end as they sought to acquire legal access to Mexican labor. That resolving the labor embargo was the single overriding goal for the GNC was clearly demonstrated, as the agency became increasingly irrelevant in Texas after the labor situation had been normalized. It continued for several decades as a largely ceremonial position and a frequent place to appoint prominent Hispanic citizens, but in the 1980s it was finally eliminated as an anachronism that had long outlived its usefulness.

Truman Administration Approach

This study also reveals something about how the Truman administration approached foreign relations with those nations on the periphery of the Cold War struggle. Although U.S. officials were always aware of the potential for Communist encroachment anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, for the most part they considered Mexico to be safe. Even so, Cold War concerns affected this bilateral relationship as U.S. leaders sought Mexico’s approval and vocal support for its Cold War efforts. To help ensure that support, and to eliminate what threats of communist incursion there might be in Mexico, U.S. leaders supported loans to the Mexican oil industry, military aid, and other programs to help with Mexican security and development. The Cold War was relevant to the issue of migratory labor in particular as the border emerged as a possible source of threats.

Primarily, however, the issue of migratory labor provides an interesting case study for having been considered largely outside of the confines of the Cold War. As such, it gives a glimpse to perhaps what would have been Truman’s greater priorities in the realm of foreign policy if the Cold War had not emerged. For Truman, his approach to the issue of migratory labor seems to have grown naturally from his convictions regarding domestic policy. Truman hoped to protect vulnerable groups of laborers, both U.S. and Mexican. His approach to the issue revealed the part of himself that supported the Fair Deal, rather than the part that enunciated the Truman Doctrine.

During the 1950s, the bracero program continued and Texas was able to get access to laborers using that program. Efforts at eliminating illegal discrimination also continued sporadically, perhaps most dramatically in the so-called “Operation Wetback.” However, never during this period, or after the program was finally discontinued in 1964, did leaders succeed in finding global solutions to the issue of migratory labor.

The border region, since the immediate post-World War II period, only increased in importance as the population skyrocketed. The succeeding decades saw ever-greater economic interdependence as the border became the site not only of large-scale agricultural concerns but also, increasingly, a place for U.S. industries to set up their base of operations. The 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement would blur the border still further by allowing those U.S. industries to set up shop south of the border, taking advantage of inexpensive Mexican labor and relatively lax labor and environmental regulations. However, the interactions that have sprung up since 1994 are not a new phenomenon, but rather a continuation of a long process whereby the border region has increasingly taken on an identity of its own, neither wholly of one nation or the other. A perspective that focuses on the border has the promise of bringing some of that complexity into sharp relief.End.

[1] This piece is a somewhat revised version of a conference paper presented at the New Faces Conference of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies. The author wishes to thank the participants of that conference for their useful comments and suggestions.

[2] Mitchell to Garber, January 17, 1949, Student Research File, Problem of Migratory Labor, Folder 18 of 19, Truman Library.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5]“Texas Would Bury Longoria in Native Soil,” The Austin Statesman, January 18, 1949, Texas Good Neighbor Commission, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

[6] Mitchell to Garber, January 17, 1949, Student Research File, Problem of Migratory Labor, Folder 18 of 19, Truman Library.

[7]“Latin Lawmakers Say All U.S. Not at Fault in Discrimination,” Dallas Morning News. Jan 19, 1949, Student Research File, Problem of Migratory Labor, Folder 18 of 19, Truman Library.

[8] Beatrice Longoria to T.W. Kennedy Jr., January 14, 1949, Texas Good Neighbor Commission, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

[9] Statement by Carolina Longoria, March 7, 1949, Texas Good Neighbor Commission, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.


[11] Memorandum for the Press, Good Neighbor Commission, February 11, 1949, Texas Good Neighbor Commission, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

[12] Ibid.

Robert S. Robinson is a visiting assistant professor of U.S. foreign relations history at Ohio University. In 2007, he received his Ph.D. in history from the Ohio State University. His research centers on the political, cultural, and security challenges posed by Mexican migration to the United States. Grants from the Harry S. Truman Library Foundation, the Mershon Center for International Security Studies, and the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) have supported his research. He has presented his findings at a number of conferences including the SHAFR Annual Meeting; the Ohio Latinamericanist Conference; the “Crossing Borders, Spanning Regions: the Movements of People, Goods, and Ideas” conference hosted by the Center for International History at Columbia University; and the “Envisioning Bracero History Conference” at the University of Texas at El Paso.

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