History 118: State Department documents assessing the Mexican student movement (1968)

Declassified US State Department and CIA cables published by the National Security Archives reveal how closely the US government watched the Mexican student movement in 1968, sometimes measuring it to the French uprising of that year. Crucial to Washington DC was security during the Mexico City Olympics scheduled for that summer.

Here is a Department of State cable from June 1968:

“2. IN OUR JUDGMENT
(A) THERE ARE NOT NOW PRESENT IN MEXICO CONDITIONS SUCH AS APPEAR TO HAVE CAUSED THE FRENCH CRISIS, AND IT IS MOST UNLIKELY THAT SUCH CONDITIONS WILL RAPIDLY DEVELOP HERE TO CRITICAL PROPORTIONS, AT LEAST UNTIL AFTER 1970 WHEN PRESIDENT DIAL ORDAZ’ TERM ENDS, AND
(B) MEXICO FACES IN THE LONGER TERM A NUMBER OF EXTREMELY SERIOUS AND DIFFICULT PROBLEMS WHICH IF UNRESOLVED WILL PROBABLY LEAD TO A CRITICAL SITUATION. IT IS NOT POSSIBLE NOW TO DETERMINE WHEN IN THE MEDIUM FUTURE SUCH SITUATION MIGHT COME TO A HEAD, BUT THE DEGREE OF EFFECTIVENESS OF THE NEXT ADMINISTRATION IN ITS MEASURES TO COP WITH THESE PROBLEMS WILL BE A KEY FACTOR.”

But by August the State Department is obvious more worried. This cable notes with some approval actions by “GOM” (the Government of Mexico) to crack down on “student activities”:

“ALL INDICATIONS ARE THAT GOM HAS JOINED ISSUE WITH STUDENT. TONE OF PRINCIPAL PAPERS HAS CHANGED RADICALLY FROM MORE OR LESS OBJECTIVE REPORTING STUDENT ACTIVITIES TO BANNER HEADLINES DENOUNCING THEIR EXCESSES. PUBLIC SAFETY FORCES HAVE APPARENTLY BEEN GIVEN GREEN LIGHT TO USE FORCE TO BREAK UP MANIFESTATIONS. GOM IMPLICITLY ACCEPTS CONSEQUENCE THAT THIS WILL PRODUCE CASUALTIES. LEADERS OF STUDENT AGITATION HAVE BEEN AND ARE BEING TAKEN INTO CUSTODY INCLUDING HERBERTO CASTSILLO. IN OTHER WORDS, GOM OFFENSIVE AGAINST STUDENT DISORDER HAS OPENED ON PHYSICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL FRONTS.”

But the morning after the Tlatelolco massacre, State Department dispatches indicate that the US didn’t see the crisis coming:

“2. SITUATION CLEARLY MORE SERIOUS THAN ANYTHING PREVIOUS IN CURRENT STUDENT UNREST. 24 CIVILIANS AND 8 ARMY MEN KNOWN DEAD, BUT THESE FIGURES INCOMPLETE WITH POSSIBILITY AS MANY AS 100 KILLED, GENERAL JOSE HERNANDEZ TOLEDO, HEAD OF PARATROOP BATTALION, SERIOUS WOUNDED AND MAY NOT SURVIVE. NO US CITIZENS REPORTED DEAD OR HOSPITALIZED. SOME PRESS REPS INCLUDING US WERE DETAILED BRIEFLY AND HAD PHOTO EQUIPMENT AND FILM SEIZED. ITALIAN WOMAN CORRESPONDENT WOUNDED THOUGH NOT SERIOUSLY.

7. ON BALANCE, EMBASSY REAFFIRMS ITS PREVIOUS CONCLUSION IN EMBTEL 7239 THAT QUOTE EMB DOES NOT BELIEVE THAT SIGNIFICANT DISRUPTION OF GAMES WILL OCCUR OR THAT VISITORS WILL BE SERIOUSLY ENDANGERED OR INCONVENIENCED BY STUDENT AGITATION. UNQUOTE. ISOLATED ACTS OF VIOLENCE CANNOT, OF COURSE, BE RULED OUT.”

 

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