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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 15

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Life of Woodrow Wilson

Josephus Daniels

in the
Greenwood Press edition,
New York, 1971

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 17

This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p175  Chapter XVI
The Wilson policy in Mexico

"If I am strong, I am ashamed to bully the weak" — Taft had "no sympathy with exploitation" — Wilson refused to approve election by assassination — No recognition for Huerta — Vera Cruz landing followed by Huerta's flight — Policy of "watchful waiting" bore fruit in better situation in Mexico

"We are glad to call ourselves the friend of Mexico." — Wilson

"There is one thing I have got a great enthusiasm about, I might say a reckless enthusiasm, and that is human liberty. I want to say a word about our attitude toward Mexico. I hold it as a fundamental principle that every people has the right to determine its own form of government; and until this recent revolution in Mexico, until the end of the Diaz reign, eighty per cent of the people of Mexico never had a 'look in' in determining who should be their governors or what their government should be. Now, I am for the eighty per cent. It is none of my business, and it is none of your business, how long they take in determining it. It is none of my business, and it is none of your business, how they go about their business. The country is theirs. The liberty, if they can get it, and God speed them in getting it, is theirs. And so far as my influence goes while I am President nobody shall interfere with them."

This was the defiance Mr. Wilson hurled at the  p176 critics of his Mexican policy in his celebrated Jackson Day speech at Indianapolis, January 8, 1915. He went on to say: "I am proud to belong to a strong nation that says: 'This country which we could crush shall have just as much freedom in her own affairs as we have.' If I am strong, I am ashamed to bully the weak. In proportion to my strength is my pride in withholding that strength from the oppression of another people." He took this shot at his critics: "When some great dailies thunder at watchful waiting, my confidence is not shaken for a moment. I know the temper and principles of the American people."

Mr. Wilson inherited the Mexican problem. When he came into office he found that his predecessor had sent war ships to Mexican waters where they remained. The revolution in Mexico that ended the long sway of Diaz had given hope that Francisco Madero, elected president October 2, 1911, would be able to organize a democratic government for the weal of the Mexican people. The usurpation of Gen. Victoriano Huerta and the proclamation on February 18, 1913, by the troops under his control that he had been made Provisional President, was followed next day by a military-controlled election by the Mexican Congress. Four days thereafter, Madero and Suarez, deposed president and vice-president, were assassinated — shot dead "while attempting to escape," as the assassins caused it to be stated. These events occurring upon the eve of the expiation of his term of office, President Taft deemed it just to the incoming administration to leave it a free hand. In a statement made February 26, a few days after Huerta had caused the assassination of Madero, President Taft said: "We must avoid in every way that which is called intervention, and  p177 use all patience possible, with prayer that some power may arise there to bring about peace throughout that troubled country," and added, "But I have no sympathy — none at all, and the charge of cowardice does not frighten me — with that which prompts us for purposes of exploitation and gain to invade another country and involve ourselves in a war, the extent of which we could not realize, and the sacrifice of thousands of lives and of millions of treasure." That utterance of Taft's was in line with Lincoln's when he declared for the same "forbearance and generous sympathies" toward the Mexicans which Wilson later exercised.

In a message to Congress, August 27, 1913, President Wilson reviewed the circumstances existing in Mexico, and told how he had in May, 1913, sent ex-Governor John Lind, as his personal spokesman and representative, to the City of Mexico, with instructions to endeavor to secure a satisfactory settlement on these terms:

"(a) An immediate cessation of fighting throughout Mexico, a definite armistice solemnly entered into and scrupulously observed;

"(b) Security given for an early and free election in which all will agree to take part;

"(c) The consent of General Huerta to bind himself not to be a candidate for election as President of the Republic at this election; and

"(d) The agreement of all parties to abide by the results of the election and co‑operate in the most loyal way in organizing and supporting the new administration."

President Wilson had refused to recognize Huerta though Henry Lane Wilson, the American Ambassador, appointed by Taft, favored recognition. Later he had declared, "So long as the power of recognition rests with  p178 me, the Government of the United States will refuse to extend the hand of welcome to any one who obtains power in a sister republic by treachery and violence. The proposals were rejected by "the iron-handed" Huerta, as he was termed. Mr. Wilson said the rejection was probably due to misunderstanding of our position, and so long as it continued, "we can only await the time of their awakening to a realization of the actual facts. We cannot thrust our good offices upon them," though it was "our duty to offer our active assistance." He declared that "impatience on our part would be childish." He believed "we should earnestly urge all Americans to leave Mexico at once, and should assist them to get away in every possible — not because we would mean to slacken in the least our efforts to safeguard their lives and interests, but because it is imperative that they should take no unnecessary risks when it is physically possible for them to leave the country."

As to Americans remaining in Mexico, "we shall vigilantly watch their fortunes" and "shall hold those responsible for their sufferings and losses to a definite reckoning." He said he would "see that neither side to the struggle now going on receives any assistance" by "forbidding the exportation of arms or munitions of war of any kind from the United States." He concluded his message with these words: "The steady pressure of moral force will before many days break the barrier and prejudice down, and we shall triumph as Mexico's friends sooner than we could triumph as her enemies — and how much more handsomely, with how much higher and finer satisfaction of conscience and honor!"

 p179  In his message to Congress, December 2, 1913, he declared "There can be no certain prospect of peace in America until General Huerta has surrendered his usurped power." Huerta had "declared himself dictator." A popular election had been set in Mexico for October 23, to elect a Constitutional President. On October 10 Huerta had sent a strong force of soldiers to the halls of Congress in Mexico City and arrested 110 members of the lesser chamber, making himself supreme and rendering the election farcical. "Every day," said Wilson, "Huerta's power and prestige are crumbling and the collapse is not far away." He followed that review by saying, "We shall not, I believe, be obliged to change our policy of watchful waiting." His critics seized upon these last words to seek to destroy his policy by ridicule but that policy continued without change. Early in 1914, after a number of conferences with John Lind, President Wilson was more than ever convinced that the force opposing Huerta represented the popular will in Mexico, and he made known to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that he intended to raise the embargo on the shipment of arms into Mexico. March 14, 1912, President Taft had issued an order forbidding all export of arms except to the government of Madero. President Wilson, on assuming office, had issued an order for a complete embargo. He had made up his mind, after that careful and searching study which marked all his decisions, that the time had come to deliver a stroke that would hasten the coming of better times in Mexico. He lifted the embargo. His statement accompanying the order is interesting as showing how the President's sympathy was always enlisted when he saw what he regarded as a real movement toward a government based on "consent  p180 of the governed." "There is now no constitutional government in Mexico," he said in this statement, "and the existence of this order (the one forbidding the shipment of arms) hinders and delays the very thing that the government of the United States is now insisting upon; namely, that Mexico shall be left free to settle her own affairs and as soon as possible put them on a constitutional footing."

On April 9, Paymaster Copp of the USS Dolphin landed at the Iturbide bridge at Tampico with a whale-boat and crew to get supplies for his ship. While engaged in loading the boat the Paymaster was arrested by an officer and squad of men of General Huerta's army. Neither the Paymaster nor any of the crew was armed. Two of the men were in the boat when the arrest was made, and were obliged to leave it and submit to being taken into custody, notwithstanding the boat carried, both at her bow and her stern, the flag of the United States. The officer who made the arrest was proceeding up the street of the town with his prisoners when met by an officer of higher authority; he was ordered to return to the landing and await orders. Within an hour and a half from the time of arrest, orders were received by the commander of the Huertista forces at Tampico for the release of the Paymaster and his men. The release was followed by apologies from the commander and also by an expression of regret by General Huerta himself. General Huerta urged that martial law obtained at the time at Tampico, that orders had been issued that no one should be allowed to land at Iturbide bridge, and that our sailors had no right to land there. Our naval commanders at the port had not been notified of any such prohibition, and, even if they had, the only just  p181 and free course open to the local authorities would have been to request the Paymaster and his crew to withdraw and lodge a protest with the commanding officer of the fleet. Admiral Mayo regarded the arrest as so serious an affront that he was not satisfied with the apologies offered, and demand that the flag of the United States be saluted with special ceremony by the military commander of the port.

After thus recounting the situation, President Wilson, in a special message to a joint session of Congress, April 20, said,​a "The incident cannot be regarded as a trivial one, especially as the ten men arrested were taken from the boat itself — that is to say from the territory of the United States; but if it had stood by itself, it might have been attributed to the ignorance or arrogance of a single officer," and he went on to say that "Unfortunately, it was not an isolated case" and he proceeded to relate a series of incidents showing that "the Government of the United States was being singled out, and could be singled out with impunity, for slights and affronts in retaliation for its refusal to recognize the pretensions of General Huerta to be regarded as the Constitutional President of the Republic of Mexico." He pointed out that "such offenses might grow from bad to worse until something happened of so gross and intolerable a sort as to lead directly and inevitably to armed conflict." The President said he had felt it his duty to "sustain Admiral Mayo in the whole of his demand and to insist that the flag of the United States should be saluted in such a way as to indicate a new spirit and attitude on the part of the Huertistas." The President said, Huerta having refused, he had come to Congress "for approval and support in the course I now propose to pursue." He  p182 asked and received (April 22) approval of his request "to use the armed forces of the United States in such ways and to such extent as may be necessary" to enforce the demands. He said "there can be no thought of aggression," and he reiterated that "the people of Mexico are entitled to settle their own domestic affairs in their own way, and we sincerely desire to respect their right," and he added his belief that "the present situation need have none of the grave complications of interference if we deal with it promptly, firmly, and wisely." The Congress having approved the policy of force when necessary, President Wilson was therefore authorized to prevent Huerta's successful defiance. The next attempt of the dictator to sustain his power, and to be in position to defy America, was seen in his importation of ammunition from Europe.

Two hours after midnight, April 21, 1914, the news came to Washington that the Ypiranga, carrying munitions for Huerta, had sailed from Havana for Vera Cruz. When this message was communicated to Secretaries Bryan and Daniels, the former called the President up on the telephone, read him the message and recommended that the Navy be directed to prevent the landing. "What do you think, Daniels?" asked the President, for the Secretary of the Navy was on the other end of the phone. "The munitions should not be permitted to fall into Huerta's hands," was the answer. "I can wire Admiral Fletcher to prevent it and take the custom house. I think that should be done." Mr. Bryan had urged the danger of letting such supplies reach Huerta. The President hesitated, but after further exchange of views with the Secretary of State, gave the order for the Navy  p183 to land. The thing that determined the action, as well as the recommendation of both Secretaries, was the feeling that if the ammunition was landed it would strengthen the usurping president and increase the loss of life in Mexico, and that the guns might later be turned upon American youths. "There is no alternative but to land," said the President. The guns in 1333 boxes had been shipped from Hamburg and the cargo transferred at Havana to the Ypiranga.

This message was sent immediately after the telephone conference:

"Washington, D. C., April 21.

"Fletcher, Vera Cruz, Mexico:

"Seize custom house. Do not permit war supplies to be delivered to Huerta government or to any other party."


The message went swiftly. Admiral Fletcher landed at Vera Cruz in the presence of sniping. Eighteen Americans were killed. The loss of that important port was a severe blow to Huerta. There was severe criticism of the taking of Vera Cruz and it was incorrectly broadcasted that it had been done "to compel a salute of the flag." The armed forces, after the first sniping, had little trouble. They treated the people well, interested themselves in sanitation, and as soon as the Mexicans understood there was no thought of occupation, friendly relations prevailed. A short time after Huerta's flight, and the orderly election of a President, the American forces withdrew. The incident, as regrettable as it was necessary, showed the Mexican people that the President was resolved that Mexicans should control their own country and that he had no selfish thought in the policy to which  p184 he was committed. The purpose of the landing was accomplished in the weakening and undoing of Huerta's reign of terror.

The success of Wilson's policy of "watchful waiting," with force where imperatively demanded, in the long contest with the Mexican dictator, was recognized when on July 15, 1914, shortly after the Vera Cruz occupation, Huerta quit his office and fled the country. Prior to his flight in disgrace and defeat, there came into existence a mediating agency that was known as the ABC Conference, the Ambassadors from Argentine, Brazil, and Chile undertaking to bring Mexico and the United States into accord. All along in his dealings with the Mexican situation Mr. Wilson kept in mind his policy announced in an address in Mobile, Alabama, October 27, 1913, with reference to "our neighbors, the Latin-American States," which was summed up in "We must prove ourselves their friends and champions upon terms of perfect equality," emphasizing the statement by the assertion: "You cannot be friends upon any other terms than upon the terms of equality. You cannot be friends at all except upon the terms of honor. We must show ourselves friends by comprehending their interest whether it squares with our interest or not." Nothing pleased Mr. Wilson so much, therefore, as to welcome the participation of the representatives from great Latin-American nations in securing the best relations with Mexico. He named Justice Joseph R. Lamar and Frederick W. Lehmann to represent the United States in the conference that consumed the summer of 1914. In accepting the offer of the ABC powers, Mr. Wilson said: "This Government will be glad to take up with you for discussion in the frankest and most conciliatory  p185 spirit any proposals that may be authoritatively formulated, and hopes that they will be feasible and prophetic of a new day of mutual co‑operation and confidence in America." The decamping of Huerta simplified the task of the ABC commissioners. It was their opinion that Carranza should be recognized, and President Wilson's recognition in pursuance of their view was hailed as the first fruits of the closer co‑operation which Mr. Wilson had proposed in his Mobile address — it was a precedent having good promise. The independent press recognized its significance. "It is worth a dozen Pan-American Conferences," said the Springfield Republican. "For an act like this crystallizes fine words and eloquent periods into a landmark of Pan-American diplomacy. It establishes a precedent; possibly opens a new era." This was complete answer to the jeremiads charging that Wilson's course was a blow to national prestige.

Carranza was an improvement on Huerta but left much to be desired as a chief magistrate. He was suspicious and opinionated and some of President Wilson's most anxious moments over Mexico came while Carranza was in authority. These were caused in part by the raiding activities of Francisco Villa, who fought Huerta along with Carranza but turned on the latter when he became Mexican executive. Conditions on the border became so bad that tremendous pressure was brought on Wilson to intervene. Matters reached the crisis stage when Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico, and killed a number of American soldiers while they were asleep. But even then President Wilson would go no further than to send troops into Mexico with instructions, in the common vernacular, to "get Villa." His critics were most severe. He heard their arguments patiently, but  p186 budged not an inch from his position. He was thinking about the tragedy of war. "The thing that daunts me and holds me back," he is quoted as saying, "is the aftermath of war, with all its tears and tragedies. I came from the South and I know what war is, for I have seen its wreckage and terrible ruin. It is easy for me, as President, to declare for war. I do not have to fight, and neither do the gentlemen on the Hill who now clamor for it. It is some poor farmer's boy, or the son of some poor widow away off in some modest community, or perhaps the scion of a great family, who will have to do the fighting and the dying. . . . I know they will call me a coward and a quitter, but that will not disturb me. Time, the great solvent, will, I am sure, vindicate this policy of humanity and forbearance. Men forget what is back of this struggle in Mexico. It is the age-long struggle of a people to come into their own, and while we look upon the incidents in the foreground, let us not forget the tragic reality in the background which towers above this whole sad picture."

In a review of his first administration made in the campaign of 1916, Mr. Wilson gave this additional striking defense of his position: "The people of Mexico are striving for the rights that are fundamental to life and happiness — fifteen million oppressed men, overburdened women, and pitiful children in virtual bondage in their own home of fertile lands and inexhaustible treasure! Some of the leaders of revolution may often have been mistaken and violent and selfish, but the revolution itself was inevitable and is right. The unspeakable Huerta betrayed the very comrades he served, traitorously overthrew the government of which he was a trusted part, impudently spoke for the very forces that had driven his  p187 people to the rebellion with which he had pretended to sympathize. The men who overcame him and drove him out represent at least the fierce passion of reconstruction which lies at the very heart of liberty; and so as they represent, however imperfectly, such a struggle for deliverance, I am ready to serve their ends when I can. So long as the power of recognition rests with me the government of the United States will refuse to extend the hand of welcome to any one who obtains power in a sister republic by treachery and violence. No permanency can be given the affairs of any republic by a title based upon intrigue and assassination. I declared that to be the policy of this administration within three weeks after I assumed the presidency. I here again avow it. I am more interested in the fortunes of oppressed men and pitiful women and children and than in any property rights whatever. Mistakes I have no doubt made in this perplexing business, but not in purpose or object."

It turned out that the President's Mexican policy was not only humane and Christian but the best policy that could have been adopted in view of developments in the early part of 1917, when it became known that the German government was actively at work to embroil Mexico in a war with this country. German propaganda undoubtedly accounted for a part of the pressure on Mr. Wilson to intervene in Mexico. With a war on Mexico on hand of course the United States would have been handicapped in the effort it was to make to aid the Allies in putting down the German menace in Europe. The Zimmermann note (dated Berlin, January 19, 1917) proposed an alliance with Mexico "to make war together and together make peace" on the basis "We shall give general financial  p188 support and it is understood Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in New Mexico, Texas and Arizona."

After his return from Europe, President Wilson, who had been severely criticized because he would not send troops into Mexico in 1913‑14 upon the appeal of investors and others, withheld recognition from Obregon in the absence of assurance that the honestly acquired rights of Americans would be protected in Mexico. The Mexicans later giving the guarantees demanded, Obregon was recognized by the new administration. President Coolidge issued orders late in 1923 permitting arms to go to Mexico to the Obregon Government, but not permitting insurgents to transport arms from this country when there was an insurgent force seeking to overthrow Obregon. Mexico's pathway to prosperity and quiet still has obstacles. But its prospects are immeasurably better because of the policy pursued by Woodrow Wilson. His attitude as to Mexico was thus stated by him at the service in honor of the dead at Vera Cruz: "We have gone down to Mexico to serve mankind if we can find the way. We do not want to fight the Mexicans. We want to serve the Mexicans if we can, because we know how we would like to be free, and how we would like to be served if there were friends standing by in such case ready to serve us. A war of aggression is not a war in which it is a proud thing to die, but a war of service is a thing in which it is a proud thing to die."

"I am willing," said Wilson, "no matter what my personal fortunes may be, to play for the verdict of mankind."

The verdict on his Mexican policy, even by many who doubted and dissented and criticized, in the calm light of history is "well done."

He was vindicated.

Thayer's Note:

a The full text, apparently, or something very much like it, of Wilson's message to Congress is online at Mount Holyoke College International Relations Program.

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