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Posted on Nov 11, 2010 in War College

The Mexican Revolution – Ralph Peters’ Recommended Reading List

By Ralph Peters

The January 2011 edition of Armchair General magazine has a cover story by renowned analyst Ralph Peters titled "Long Live Death!", an examination of Mexico’s violent and often misunderstood 1910 revolution. As an online bonus, he provided ACG with a list of 10 books that will increase readers’ understanding of that period of Mexico’s history.

Although a great deal has been written about the Mexican Revolution over the decades, it can be surprisingly hard to find unbiased, serious works that explain, rather than complain. The ten books listed below are key works, ranging from great, straight history to a brilliant short novel, from campaign descriptions to psychological analysis. Some view the revolution through a US lens, while others represent the Mexican viewpoint. Taken together, they offer a good foundation for understanding why the bloody interlude that began in 1910 occurred—and how the revolution continues to influence Mexico and Mexican-American relations a century after the first shots were fired.

1. The Life and Times of Pancho Villa, by Friedrich Katz. This 985-page monster may be the finest work ever written on any aspect of or figure from the Mexican Revolution. Professor Katz dedicated his life to studying Mexico. The result is an exhaustive-yet-lively portrait of Villa that ranges from a brilliant recreation of the era to sound battlefield analysis. Stick with this big book until the final page — and you’ll find that your understanding of Mexico is incredibly enriched.

2. Intervention! The United States and the Mexican Revolution, 1913-1917, by John S. D. Eisenhower. While this smoothly written popular history focuses on U.S. military actions during the Mexican Revolution, it also provides a sound, accessible overview of the revolution itself. Excellent reading, although very much the gringo view of events.

3. The Great Rebellion, Mexico 1905-1924, by Ramon Eduardo Ruiz. This one isn’t for the casual reader, nor is it strong on the military side of the revolution. If, however, your interest runs to the deep study of revolutions and their underlying causes, you’ll find this book exceptionally valuable. The author’s bias is somewhat left of center, but his research is brilliant and his reasoning is sound. No other book I’ve encountered in over four decades of reading about the Mexican Revolution provides such a detailed, helpful portrait of the social and economic situation that exploded into savage violence.

4. The Wind That Swept Mexico, by Anita Brenner (with photographs assembled by George R. Leighton). The short text provides a decent, “old-timey” summary of the revolution, but the real treasure here is the collection of photographs (184 in my edition) from the revolution. The participants didn’t look much like the Hollywood versions.

5. The Underdogs (Los de abajo), by Mariano Azuela. This short novel — only 149 pages in the old Signet paperback edition — should be required reading in every U.S. staff college and war college. I know of no other novel about any revolution that captures so clearly and chillingly how common people are drawn into revolution; how ideals are perverted and betrayed; and how revolutions degenerate and, inevitably, eat their young. Azuela was a volunteer doctor with Pancho Villa’s army, so the reader gets first-hand reporting disguised as a grisly campfire tale.

6. An Affair of Honor, Woodrow Wilson and the Occupation of Veracruz, by Robert E. Quick. Another short, but effective book, this well-done work concentrates on the first American intervention in the Mexican Revolution.

7. The Oxford History of Mexico, edited by Michael C. Meyer and William H. Beezley. It’s astonishing and discouraging that the average educated US citizen knows so little about our massive, complex and fascinating southern neighbor. This book is as close as you can get to an essential education in one volume. This isn’t “fun” narrative history, but the contributions are generally well-written and it helps us see events from the other side of la frontera.

8. The Labyrinth of Solitude, by Octavio Paz. Okay, we’re getting into the heavyweight stuff now: Paz was a serious, entrancing intellect who was, essentially, Mexico’s great national thinker of the 20th century — and a Nobel Prize recipient. Usually packaged with other lengthy essays on “Mexican-ness” and its peculiar qualities, Labyrinth was first published in English five decades ago, but remains extremely valuable — not least, in understanding narco culture, a phenomenon Paz did not specifically foresee, but which this brilliant man would have understood immediately.

9. Positivism in Mexico, by Leopoldo Zea. This is deep intellectual history and not for those who just want to focus on who did what when. It explains the philosophical movement behind the Diaz regime (which the revolution overthrew). An attempt to apply the late-19th-century version of scientific analysis to social and economic problems in a country prone to morbid emotionalism (see Paz), Positivism was an attempt to compete with the progress frustrated Mexican intellectuals saw north of the border — and it worked, but only to a fatal point.

10. The Buried Mirror, Reflections on Spain and the New World, by Carlos Fuentes. This fine book, two-decades old, offers a clearly written and well-organized overview of the impact Spain, with its own historical and cultural baggage had on the lands seized for Madrid by the conquistadors. After a whirlwind tour through Latin American history, Fuentes, a Mexican who’s something of a renaissance man of letters, brought the book (and his educational-television series of the same title) full circle to modern Spain and to the Hispanic presence in the USA. While events may have moved on from some of his conclusions about contemporary events, this nonetheless remains a terrific overview of five centuries of rich history — from a viewpoint that will challenge many of the readers’ longstanding assumptions.

This short reading list certainly isn’t meant to be exhaustive. I’m always finding new, interesting books on Mexico and Latin America. The “mission” here is simply to offer some particularly valuable choices to those who just want to learn more on the military side — or who decide to plunge deeper into the study of the most-important foreign country, for better and worse, to the destiny of the USA.

3 Comments

  1. ¡Bravo! Is a nice surprise to read this breaf list of books about The Mexican Revolution, specially now, when the mexicans are celebrating the first centennial conmemoration of that decisive period of our history. Hopefully the visitors of your Web Site would be interested in take a serious look of the Revolution reading some of the recommended books. I want to add three more titles to the list:

    Insurgent Mexico, by John Reed. 1969 International Publishers Co. Inc. New York.
    Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, by John Womack Jr. 1969 Alfred A. Knopf Inc. New York.
    Pancho Villa. Una biografía narrativa, by Paco Ignacio Taibo II. 2006 Editorial Planeta. (I don’t know if there is already an english version).

  2. I read “The Wind That Swept Mexico” and have recommended it to others. However, I did find the book had a very Liberal bias as the journalist appears to be an outright Communist. Peters is correct that the photographs are a true treat.

    I would also recommend “Revolution and Intervention: The Diplomacy of Taft and Wilson with Mexico, 1910–1917.” While this book does not explain battles, it really does a really good job of explaining the disease of Wilsonian intervention and Liberalism. This is the legacy that has been left in our schools of diplomacy and politics (Yale, Georgetown, Harvard, etc.), and regardless of whether Republican or Democrat, we are infected with this disease. Such is Wilson’s legacy.

    The Mexican revolution is well worth study. I have been to many of the historical sites lately on my motorcycle to include the birth towns of Francisco Madero (Parras de la Fuente) and Venustiano Carranza (Cuatro Cienegas). These are nice peaceful towns. Only takes a day to ride to the border from Houston and then another day’s ride south. It’s a nice adventure for a solo ride and the security is not as bad as we read in the press.

  3. Hi,
    I’m very happy to find this list and the recommended lists from the two other posters. My great grandfather was murdered by Carranza in SLP. It was a tragedy that just has boggled my mind. I am American. Depending on which side of the family I start with I’m either second or third generation American. I discovered the tragedy as I’m doing my family tree. I have been trying to understand the whole reasoning behind the murders of the civilians and trying to find unbiased book recommendations is difficult. Glad to have found your sight.

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