Gisela Mateos and Edna Suárez-Díaz
On December 8, 1953, in the midst of increasing nuclear weapons testing and geopolitical polarization, United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched the Atoms for Peace initiative. More than a pacifist program, the initiative is nowadays seen as an essential piece in the U.S. defense strategy and foreign policy at the beginning of the Cold War. As such, it pursued several ambitious goals, and Latin America was an ideal target for most of them: to create political allies, to ease fears of the deadly atomic energy while fostering receptive attitudes towards nuclear technologies, to control and avoid development of nuclear weapons outside the United States and its allies, and to open or redirect markets for the new nuclear industry. The U.S. Department of State, through the Foreign Operations Administration, acted in concert with several domestic and foreign middle-range actors, including people at national nuclear commissions, universities, and industrial funds, to implement programs of regional technical assistance, education and training, and technological transfer.
Latin American countries were classified according to their stage of nuclear development, with Brazil at the top and Argentina and Mexico belonging to the group of “countries worthy of attention.” Nuclear programs often intersected with development projects in other areas, such as agriculture and public health. Moreover, Eisenhower’s initiative required the recruitment of local actors, natural resources and infrastructures, governmental funding, and standardized (but localized techno-scientific) practices from Latin American countries. As Atoms for Peace took shape, it began to rely on newly created multilateral and regional agencies, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the United Nations and the Inter-American Nuclear Energy Commission (IANEC) of the Organization of American States (OAS).
Nevertheless, as seen from Latin America, the implementation of atomic energy for peaceful purposes was reinterpreted in different ways in each country. This fact produced different outcomes, depending on the political, economic, and techno-scientific expectations and interventions of the actors involved. It provided, therefore, an opportunity to create local scientific elites and infrastructure. Finally, the peaceful uses of atomic energy allowed the countries in the region to develop national and international political discourses framing the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean signed in Tlatelolco, Mexico City, in 1967, which made Latin America the first atomic weapons–free populated zone in the world.
The Mexican government’s civil aviation program implemented elite development strategies during a period of national reconstruction. In the decades following the revolution, political leaders and industrialists attempted to strike a balance between preserving a unique national identity and asserting their country’s place in global affairs as a competitive, modern nation. Nation builders were primarily concerned with improving the nation’s communication and transportation capabilities, although they quickly learned to exploit the spectacle of aviation through the mass media and in public ceremonies, as well. The symbolic figure of the pilot proved an adept vessel for disseminating the values championed by the country’s ruling party. Aviators validated the technological determinism underpinning the government’s development philosophy, while projecting an image of strength abroad.
This article traces the trajectory of aviation development from 1920s through the 1950s. In the process it demonstrates how the social and cultural significance of technology in Mexico changed over time. The establishment of the Department of Civil Aeronautics under the Secretariat of Communications and Public Works (SCOP), in 1928, reflected the ambitions of reform-minded officials who were intent on modernizing the country. Although the onset of the Great Depression slowed aviation development for about a decade, policymakers recommitted to the technology during World War II. President Manuel Ávila Camacho (1940–1946) used it to achieve two of his primary goals: securing the country from the threat of international fascism and shifting the nation from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Wartime aid alleviated material obstacles hamstringing national aviation development, and the rapid growth of tourism to the country in 1940s and 1950s benefited commercial airlines. Presidents Miguel Aléman (1946–1952) and Adolfo Ruiz Cortines (1952–1958) touted the success of the aviation industry as a consequence of their development policies. The near financial collapse of the country’s largest airline, Compañía Mexicana de Aviación (CMA), at the end of the decade nevertheless hinted that the country’s sustained economic growth was less miraculous than officials and foreign observers liked to believe.