Thursday, August 18, 2016

Prelude to the Great War: The United States and Mexico

“Never before has any political assembly heard so fine a sermon on what human beings might be capable of accomplishing if only they weren’t human…He leaps forward far beyond the limits of time and space…way above material things, whose inferiority resides in the mere fact of there existence.”
-        Georges Clemenceau, commenting on Woodrow Wilson’s January 22, 1917 speech, proposing “peace without victory.”

Sadly for humanity, we remain cursed with the results of numerous of Wilson’s utopian-laced dreams.

It has been reasonably argued that the Great War would likely have ended in something closer to “peace without victory” had the United States not entered.  The people of both sides had grown tired of the fighting.  The Russians were soon enough going to withdraw from the battlefield.  A true stalemate might have resulted in something closer to a treaty designed for peace. 

Instead, we continue to reap the harvest of 1919 Paris.

I understand the role the United States played in this story, but Mexico?  I was barely familiar with the ongoing war in Mexico – Pancho Villa, Huerta, etc. – as well as the US interventions, most notoriously, Veracruz.  But what did any of this have to do with the US entry into the Great War?

The Telegram

I will start at the end.  Venustiano Carranza, the “First Chief of the Constitutionalist Army in Charge of Executive Power,” threatened war if Wilson did not evacuate “our territory.”  In January, 1917, a telegram was intercepted – Zimmerman’s telegram – proposing that Mexico join with Germany against the United States.  In exchange and after a successful outcome, Mexico would recover Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

Once made public, many in the United States were enraged by this treachery from Germany.

According to Ray Stannard Baker, the journalist Wilson chose to write his biography, “No single more devastating blow was delivered against Wilson’s resistance to entering the war.”

Why would Germany have reason to believe that Mexico would care to join the fight against the United States?  Now we move to the beginning of the story….


Revolution had been raging in Mexico since 1910 – an uprising of the landless peasants.  For European and American mining and oil companies, fortunes were at risk.  For Wilson, Mexico was a moral proving ground.  Falling in with the little guy, Wilson fell in with Pancho Villa, who cast himself in whatever graven image Wilson wanted to see.

In 1913, Huerta had claimed to Taft that he had restored the government.  Before negotiations toward recognition of this government could be completed, Taft was out of office and Wilson was in.  Wilson was not satisfied with the situation, for example insisting on an election in order to determine the proper government (an election to bring an end to an ongoing revolution?).  Wilson did not recognize the Huerta government.

In early 1914, Wilson lifted the arms embargo to Mexico, previously imposed by Taft:

No sooner had the president reassured a doubting senator that this step would not trigger a “bloodbath” than Pancho Villa bathed his name in blood.

It seems this idea of arming moderate terrorists did not begin with Hillary Clinton.

A Matter of Honor…or Imperialism?

A Mexican federal officer briefly detains American sailors.  The Mexican Commander of this federal officer sets the sailors free, jails the errant officer, and apologizes to the American Admiral.  This was not enough for the Admiral.  To make a long story short, Wilson exploited this incident as irreverence by Huerta and his “disregard for the dignity and rights of this Government.”

Hence, the US occupation of Veracruz.  In one stroke, Wilson turned a divided Mexico into one focused on the imperialism of the American government.  Of all of the leaders of all of the factions, only Pancho Villa praised this occupation of Veracruz by US Marines.

“Three years of fratricidal war was forgotten in a day,” the London Daily Telegraph reported from Mexico City…

Many of those with Villa and formerly against Huerta now sided with Huerta – factory workers, railroad workers, beggars; all united against the American imperialists (and seeing Villa as a tool of those same Americans).  Anti-American demonstrations were regularly on display.  In Europe, this action by Wilson was seen as nothing but economic imperialism:

“For the first time the veil is torn away from the pretense behind which the designs of American imperialism have been hiding,” the Paris Journal thundered.

There is an interesting backstory to this imperialism: in November, 1913, one William F. Buckley, Sr. wrote to Colonel Edward House regarding the damage inflicted by Mexican rebels on American oil companies.  Buckley demanded intervention.

Whether for honor or imperialism, Wilson set the stage for Mexico to look to a European power for salvation.


Next came the telegram.

And Pancho Villa, the loser as a result of Veracruz, named his mule Woodrow Wilson.

Beatty suggests the possibility that had Wilson not thrown in his lot with Villa and instead just stayed out of the Mexican war as Taft had done, there would have been no cause for the telegram and therefore no pressure on Wilson to enter the Great War.  I am not so sure, as Wilson’s idealism (and other political pressures) would likely have driven him to the same end one way or another.

But what an interesting story!


  1. From Harry Browne's 'The War Racket, Part I'
    Myth: The Zimmermann telegram proved that the Germans intended to fight America.
    However, the telegram actually said the opposite:
    We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. (whole book at $9.95)

  2. RE: Mexico
    I think you need to read some more b/4 boldly dissecting the two [2] Mexican Revolutions . . . that of 1910 and 1912 [actually there were multiple counterrevolutions so the 1912 date could be 1913 or something else]. The PRI of course claims that The Revolution has never ended . . .
    I suggest you read "The Life and Times of Pancho Villa" by Friederich Katz [Stanford University - 1998].
    It was much more that a landless peasant revolution.
    Moreover I find the first 130 or so pages relevant w/ what the US is experiencing [revolutionary sentiment gaining traction now that the economic picture is undeniably bad]. This triggered by a wealthy landowner coming out of nowhere to capture popular sentiment and eventually becoming president w/ no governmental experience. Sound familiar??!!
    Balance your research w/ some Pro-Villista research.

  3. A fine article. Thanks. I remember reading of Wilson's involvement in Mexico somewhere - maybe something from Ralph Raico? Hold on... ... ... yep - I just checked. It was in his book, 'Great Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal'.

    I learned a great deal about Mexico from another book, 'Santa Anna of Mexico', by Will Fowler. Very informative, both politically and historically.

  4. How about the war loans and munitions dealing by the House of Morgan. Could this have impacted Wilson's decision?