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Summary Article: Calles, Plutarco Elías
From Encyclopedia of United States - Latin American Relations
  • Keywords
  • Mexico
  • Mexican Heads of State

Plutarco Elías Calles (1877–1945), who served as president of Mexico from 1924 to 1928, was one of the most important leaders of revolutionary Mexico and a very significant figure in U.S.-Mexican relations. He hailed from the northwestern border state of Sonora and rose to political significance during the first decade of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920). In February 1913 he joined the constitutionalist alliance of Venustiano Carranza, Alvaro Obregón, and Pancho Villa to fight against the dictatorship of Victoriano Huerta. His most significant contribution to that cause came in provisioning constitutionalist forces with arms, food, and money from the United States in violation of U.S. neutrality laws. After the disintegration of the constitutionalist coalition, he used his cross-border connections in Arizona to help Carranza and Obregón defeat Villa. In August 1915 First Chief Carranza named Calles governor of Sonora. At the height of World War I Calles antagonized the U.S. government by maintaining friendly relations with German agents and by levying production taxes on the U.S.-owned copper mining companies. At the same time, however, he continued to cultivate his relationship with U.S. supporters of the constitutionalists.

Beginning in September 1919 Calles enhanced his reputation as a nationalist reformer in successive positions in the national government. In particular, he forged a strategic alliance with labor leader Luis Napoleón Morones, who in turn enjoyed close ties to Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). With Morones and Gompers, Calles advertised the Mexican Revolution abroad as a socially progressive movement similar to European social democracy. He also helped the Obregón administration procure U.S. diplomatic recognition in August 1923. The following month he announced his presidential candidacy on a prolabor and nationalist platform. He won election in July 1924.

As president, Calles challenged the U.S. government over two issues: the privileges of the foreign-owned oil industry and U.S. military intervention in Nicaragua. In his quest to implement Article 27 of the 1917 revolutionary constitution, which stipulated that land and subsoil were the property of the Mexican nation, he attempted to force the oil companies and other foreign mining and land companies in Mexico toapply for confirmatory concessions that would have resulted in higher tax rates. In response U.S. Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg strenuously objected to these attempts and, in June 1925, suggested that the Mexican government was “on trial before the world” for its nationalist policy. In January 1927 Kellogg's rhetoric intensified amidst Calles's support for a Nicaraguan faction opposed to U.S. intervention in that Central American country, causing Calles and his advisers to fear a U.S. invasion. Indeed U.S. military intelligence correspondence intercepted by a Mexican spy in the U.S. embassy appeared to confirm the validity of these fears. Shortly thereafter, however, Kellogg named the conciliatory Dwight Morrow as the new U.S. ambassador to Mexico, and Calles and Morrow succeeded in normalizing U.S.-Mexican relations. In the end Mexico's nationalist laws remained on the books but eluded enforcement, and the U.S. government imposed its preferred situation on Nicaragua. Nevertheless Calles's nationalist stance of the years 1924–1927 joins the 1938 oil expropriation under President Lázaro Cárdenas as the most significant Mexican challenge to U.S. interventionism and economic imperialism in the interwar period.

Following his presidency Calles remained involved in Mexican politics as the so-called “Jefe Máximo,” or informal arbiter of political events, and he founded a ruling party that (albeit under three different names) would not be ousted from the presidency until 2000. The elder Calles was conciliatory toward the United States, and he frequently visited the country for medical and family reasons. Several of his children studied in the United States and from 1936 to 1941 Calles resided in San Diego following his flight to exile during the Cárdenas administration.

See also Cárdenas del Río, Lázaro; Hughes, Charles Evans; Mexican Revolution, 1911–1917, U.S. Policy toward; Mexico, U.S. Relations with; Morrow, Dwight W.; Oil, Expropriation of Foreign Companies

  • Buchenau, Jurgen. Plutarco Elías Calles and the Mexican Revolution. Lanham, MD: Scholarly Resources, 2006.
  • Meyer, Lorenzo. The United States and Mexico during the Oil Controversy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.
  • Smith, Robert F. The United States and Mexican Revolutionary Nationalism, 1916–1932. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972.
Copyright © 2012 by CQ Press, an Imprint of SAGE Publications, Inc.

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