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Intervention! The United States and the Mexican Revolution: 1913-1917.

Perhaps no topic in American foreign policy has proven more captivating and yet received more criticism than the nation's numerous interventions in other countries' internal affairs. Time and again, the United States has intervened in another country's domestic concerns in the name of democracy. The Philippines, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Panama, Cuba, Germany, Japan, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Vietnam - all these countries and more have come under some form of American intervention. Certainly the twentieth-century prototype for these policies has been the various interventionist episodes engineered during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson from 1913 to 1921 - all under the banner of freedom.

John S. D. Eisenhower, son of the former president and author of a recent work on the Mexican War entitled So Far From God, here examines America's intervention in the Mexican Revolution during the critical years of 1913-1917. Colorful, dynamic, and often cruel people roamed the revolutionary stage in Mexico: the liberal reformer and naive and tragic Francisco Madero; the earthy, drinking, and cunning assassin, Victoriano Huerta; the professorial, bespectacled, and bearded mediocrity, Venustiano Carranza; the daring, sadistic, and yet highly romanticized Robin Hood who stole from (and often killed) the rich (and others as well), Pancho Villa; the cold and humorless land reformer, Emiliano Zapata; and the politically astute, master of organization, Alvaro Obregon, whose rise to the presidency in late 1920 marked the end of a decade of revolution. Among those Americans attempting to steer Mexican events were the idealistic proponent of republican ideals, President Wilson, and the realistic, somber, and sorrowful leader of the ill-fated "Punitive Expedition," Gen. John J. Pershing.

Eisenhower's sprightly account of this defining period in U.S.-Mexican relations is a welcome addition to the growing list of books aimed at the general, literate audience. His penetrating depictions of the people on both sides of the international border will appeal to a wide readership. His incisive descriptions of events and deft character portraits are replete with anecdotes that reveal the human side of this pivotal period. This is a finely crafted narrative, humorous and serious at the right times, and balanced in presentation - in short, a highly readable blend of domestic and foreign history. According to the author, this long period of massive social and political upheaval cost over a million lives but served as a crucible for the birth of a new Mexico, which wrote a new constitution in 1917 and declared itself free from outside exploitation.

Twice in four years, the United States forcefully intervened in Mexico, allegedly seeking to share the freedoms already enjoyed by Americans. According to Eisenhower, the roots of U.S. intervention in Veracruz in 1914, followed by the Pershing expedition's eleven-month chase of Pancho Villa in 1916-17, lay in a combination of idealistic and realistic considerations by the Wilson administration. Democracy in Mexico and a safer American border in the southwest were the fundamental objectives of the White House. Few leaders in Washington favored a military occupation of Veracruz and a nightmarish trek through hundreds of miles of desert in pursuit of an elusive bandit. Still fewer wanted an all-out war with Mexico. But the president's best intentions, supported by distorted, exaggerated, and often erroneous first-hand information, combined to make the twin interventionist episodes as close to inevitable as most historians would be willing to accept. Washington's leaders got swept up in a maelstrom of activity pushing the two nations into a nearly disastrous situation that neither side wanted or expected. Wilson nonetheless considered the Veracruz intervention correct in purpose though admittedly tragic in results since the Mexican people did not recognize the righteousness of his cause and therefore put up stiff resistance. His inability to comprehend the potential for resentment resulting from the intervention becomes clear in his grief-stricken words: "I cannot get it off my heart. It was right. Nothing else was possible, but I cannot forget that it was I who had to order these young men to their deaths" (p. 122).

America's initial involvement in the Mexican Revolution began in early 1913, when Huerta's henchmen murdered Madero and President Wilson began a campaign of moral pressure ("watchful waiting") intended to compel the new president to resign. As this program fluttered and failed, Wilson took advantage of the revolution to seize and occupy Veracruz after the Tampico incident of April 1914. The discovery of oil close to Tampico had made the sleepy village into an important objective of the revolution; but even more important was its location: Carranza's Constitutionalist forces wanted Tampico as a base for capturing Veracruz and thereby winning control of the Gulf coast.

With tensions mounting in the Tampico area, nine American sailors entered port waters to buy gasoline from a German businessman and were arrested and taken to jail for infiltrating a forbidden zone. The Mexican commander immediately recognized the mistake and made an oral apology. But this was not enough for the gruff and self-righteous American naval commander, Admiral Henry May. He demanded a written apology, punishment for the Mexicans involved, and a formal twenty-one gun salute to the Stars and Stripes. Huerta was willing to grant the oral apology, but would go no farther. With each nation's honor on the line, neither man would retreat and both thereby helped to foment a Mexican-American crisis that no one wanted. Mayo angrily notified Washington of the insult to the American flag and even the isolationist Republican senator from Idaho, William Borah, did not balk at intervention in demanding retribution. "If the flag of the United States is ever run up in Mexico," he defiantly declared, "it will never come down. This is the beginning of the march of the United States to the Panama Canal!" (p. 103).

But how to justify such a drastic move that it had every right to take - or so worried the Wilson administration. As Eisenhower shows, intervention as a step in foreign relations did not come up for debate. Indeed, it was widely accepted as an instrument of policy. The U.S. consul in Veracruz provided a justification for a decision already made when he informed Washington that a large supply of German arms on board the freighter Ypiranga would soon reach Huerta. Wilson declared that military action was in order to deny that murderer (as he called Huerta) the means to stay in office. But such a stern measure constituted an act of war with Germany: to intercept one of its vessels would seriously endanger relations. Wilson nonetheless appeared before Congress in the late afternoon of April 20 to assure his listeners that "our quarrel was with Huerta, not the Mexican people." The United States was being "singled out . . . in retaliation for its refusal to recognize the pretensions of General Huerta to be regarded as the Constitutional President of the Republic of Mexico." Wilson received a standing ovation after assuring congressional members that there would be "none of the grave complications of interference if we deal with it promptly, firmly, and wisely" (p. 105).

The rest of the story is familiar, and not only because many readers are aware of the outcome in Mexico. The script has been the same in nearly every military intervention by the United States (and perhaps by other nations pursuing the same program elsewhere): initial elation about the government finally taking action, total faith in the righteousness of the cause and the strength of its firepower, and ultimate disenchantment caused by the complicated realities. Although the assault on Veracruz ended in American victory (though taking more time and lives than expected) the military occupation had the ironic impact of succeeding in the short run while failing in the long run.

Americans found themselves engaged in bitter street fighting that united most Mexicans (even draft dodgers released from jail fought the Americans) against their unwelcome intruders. The American soldiers had to clear out the entire city in an effort to counter snipers and all forms of local resistance, much of which came from people at first not actively involved in the revolution. The president's advisers urged him to call up 400,000 reservists. He refused to go this far but did approve a force of 5,200 to occupy the city for an indeterminate period. And then, as often happens, politics entered the military picture: the American civilian appointed by Brig. Gen. Frederick Funston and Adm. Frank Fletcher as mayor of occupied Veracruz was Robert Kerr, a lawyer who had a lengthy, successful record of dealing with local Mexican officials, but who was also a Republican and fierce opponent of Wilson's foreign policy and therefore utterly unacceptable for the position. Wilson declared that he was protecting American honor in holding onto the city; Huerta proclaimed that he was protecting Mexican honor in attempting to liberate the city. And yet, he was not angry with President Wilson. To Nelson O'Shaughnessy, the American charge d'affaires and the major link between Mexico and Washington (the President had recalled Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson for consorting too closely with the Mexican dictator), Huerta offered the most telling words about Wilson's behavior: "He has not understood" (p. 130).

The Wilson administration had not thought out the certain consequences of its harsh actions. It had approved an act of war against Mexico while never dreaming that war would result. It had not considered the possibility of uniting all warring factions in Mexico against the Yankee imperialists. It had not pondered the enormous complexities of engineering the occupation and sanitation reform of a foreign city - particularly one well known for its filth and disease. It had not contemplated the likelihood of alienating neighboring countries. And it had not taken into account the possibility of ongoing European troubles deteriorating into a war that dragged in the United States and forced it to withdraw from Mexico in disgrace. Sheer American firepower, racial superiority, and pure motives would resolve all problems - or so Americans believed. William Harding Davis, a newspaperman who was not there during the Veracruz invasion, imaginatively described the Mexican reaction to American soldiers: "Except in bronze on their monuments the [Mexicans] had never seen such supermen of such heroic aspect. . . . This morning they could have marched not only from the wharf to the plaza, but from the harbor to Mexico City" (p. 135).

If White House strategists even considered the above questions, they would not have been concerned about the answers because they did not label either American entrance into Mexico as an invasion. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan assured Carranza that Americans had landed at Veracruz to seek "American redress for a specific indignity perpetrated by Huerta" (p. 127). Carranza was not convinced and warned of war if the United States did not withdraw. Fortunately, he first recommended "direct and friendly negotiations" and Wilson immediately accepted the offer in July 1914. As the revolution continued, Pancho Villa became irate with the president's recognition of Carranza's regime in October 1915 and launched a series of raids along the Mexican-American border that culminated the following March in an assault on Columbus, New Mexico. As was the case with the first introduction of American troops onto Mexican soil, the president insisted that the second entry likewise did not constitute an invasion. He ordered that "an armed force be sent into Mexico with the sole object of capturing Villa and preventing any further raids by his band, and with scrupulous regard for sovereignty of Mexico" (p. 231). William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal did not miss the opportunity to sensationalize events. In calling for a full-scale invasion of Mexico, he wrote in June 1916: "Is it not time for the soldiers of the U.S. to do something PERMANENT? . . . Nothing worthwhile will be accomplished by occasional 'punitive expeditions.' . . . The way to IMPRESS the Mexicans is to REPRESS the Mexicans . . . The way to begin is to say to them: 'We are no longer planning to catch this bandit or that. We are GOING INTO MEXICO. And as far as we GO, we'll stay'" (p. 292).

Eisenhower's account affirms the wisdom of John Quincy Adams's nineteenth-century admonition to go "not abroad in search of monsters to destroy." Neither the military occupation of Veracruz nor the quest for Pancho Villa affected the outcome of Mexican affairs. The many noteworthy reforms instituted by Americans during the occupation disappeared soon after the withdrawal, and Pershing's soldiers alienated the domestic populace (especially his military encounters with Carranza's forces) while never catching a glimpse of Villa. At one point in the chase, a scout, who was dressed in a red shirt and portrayed the image of a border figure, looked up from his squatting position while chewing on a straw and drew laughter from the usually taciturn general by commenting in a drawl that, "As I figure it, General, we've got Villa entirely surrounded - (appropriate pause) - on one side" (p. 258). Eisenhower concludes that, "U.S. efforts to interfere notwithstanding, the Revolution was started by Mexicans, conducted by Mexicans, and resolved in a wholly Mexican fashion" (p. 328). Revolutionary events in Mexico rolled on as if the Americans had never been there - except for the deaths on both sides and the residue of bad feeling toward the United States by many Latin American states as well as Mexico.

If Eisenhower's story is short on analysis, it is nonetheless accurate and engagingly written. Over thirty years ago, Robert E. Quirk published two superb books dealing with many of these same events: The Mexican Revolution, 1914-1915 (1960) and An Affair of Honor: Woodrow Wilson and the Occupation of Veracruz (1962). Eisenhower's work does not supplant these two earlier books, but it provides a startling example of the dangers inherent in intervention. The story is worth telling again, and Eisenhower's account is well worth a careful reading.

Howard Jones, Department of History, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, is the author of Union in Peril: The Crisis over British Intervention in the Civil War (1992).
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Author:Jones, Howard
Publication:Reviews in American History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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