Failures of Woodrow Wilson: Mexico and Latin America by Peter Moon

There were several key figures in Wilson’s foreign policy creation hub. First was the leader of the State Department, William Jennings Bryant. According to The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson, Bryant wasn’t chosen based on his ideals or mind; he was chosen because he had legislative influence and Democratic connection. Nevertheless, Bryant brought his ideas and values along with him to the job, and implemented them into the way the department was run. Bryant was a deeply religious Christian who didn’t smoke or drink, who, like Jimmy Carter, refused to serve alcoholic beverages at parties or functions. Bryant believed that the nations should treat each other along the lines that the Christian faith taught it’s tenants to follow.
Bryant negotiated several treaties, including one which apologized to Columbia for American involvement in the Panamanian Revolution in 1903. He also developed a ‘scheme’ which he hoped would free Latin American countries form foreign banks, and would redirect their cash flow to the United States, which would instead make direct loans to them. Bryant later resigned in 1915 due to his belief that Wilson was leading the US to an ‘unnecessary war with Germany’.
William C. Redfield was the other part of the foreign policy creation hub in the Wilson administration. While he was a businessman, and not a foreign policy expert, he was appointed to the head of the Department of Commerce by Wilson for his agreement on tariff reduction. Redfield was an aggressive economic expansionist, who believed that America should be more economically involved abroad than just at home. Redfield brought to his job prior experiences with management of business and trade, being the former president of the American Manufactures Export Association. Wilson also agreed with Redfield’s ideals, since he had made many statements in prior speeches which supported American economic influence abroad. During his time as Secretary, Redfield got increases in funding for the Departments for Foreign and Domestic Commerce, and won many achievements that helped strengthen and expand American business in other countries. Despite all of this, Redfield would resign in 1919 during the last year of the administration due to the ‘anti-business’ posture of the administration.
Wilson once said in a speech, “Having become a great power, the United States must remember the service of humanity is the best business of mankind, and shape our course of action by the maxims of justice and liberality and good will, and think of the progress of mankind rather than the progress of this or that investment.” Wilson also said, “The United States would never again seek one additional foot of territory by conquest.” Wilson also stated, however, that the United States would “Lend it’s influence of every kind to the support of just government based upon law, not upon arbitrary or irregular force.” He then followed up with, “It would prefer those who act in the interest of peace and honor, who protect private rights and respect the restraints of constitutional provision.” This was a problem to the Latin Americans, who saw this as a form of imperialistic dominance and oversight, and not a foreign aid and help partner.
In 1913, Bryant forwarded a proposal of a ‘Pan-American Non-Aggression Treaty’ to Wilson, who didn’t really notice it until 1914, as he was dealing with a crisis in Mexico (more on that later). Wilson got back to the proposal in December of 1914, and immediately loved it. He loved it so much that he drafted two additional clauses to the treaty (found at the end of this article), which he himself thought up. Colonel House showed the proposal to the ambassadors from the countries of Chile, Brazil, and Argentina. Chile shot it down almost immediately, since the treaty meddled with a border claim involving Peru. The country’s leaders also feared this treaty increased American influence in their continent, and didn’t want that.
Argentina was next on the decliners’ list. The nation originally agreed and favored the treaty, but that sentiment withered to a decline aspect by 1916. The nation rejected the agreement thanks to fears stirred up by American intervention into Mexico (again, more on that later). After this, the treaty died, and marked the second fail in the Latin American intervention saga for Wilson.
The treaty was a failure for several reasons. For one thing, the idea that the US would determine the style of government used by another nation scared a lot of those nations in South America. They’d been under imperialistic rule before; they knew what it was like to have someone determining their policies. This type of oversight really brought back those memories, and made them fear the US would implement the same policies again. While Wilson’s intentions may have been benign, they were foolish at best.
Mexico had already been a problematic place by the time Wilson had arrived into the White House. In 1911, Fransisco Madero led liberals into a revolt, and overthrew a 40-year long dictatorship and established a constitutional democracy. This government was then overthrown by a military coup which was led by Victoriano Huerta in 1913. State department experts advised Wilson to follow American tradition, which was to recognize whatever form of government Mexico chose to rule itself as. But, Wilson took the emotional route of diplomacy, and declared “I will not recognize a government of butchers.” This was after Huerta murdered Madero, which ended the former leader’s reign.
To make the situation even worse, Wilson heard rumors that possible revolutionaries elsewhere in South America were emboldened by the election of the Democrats, and were encouraged by them. This was because the aforementioned party had been critical of the Republicans’ rhetoric of promoting stability and increasing foreign investment.
Wilson feared a wave of revolutions in Latin America, and so he decided to make this opposition clear to those revolutionaries.
Wilson had a problem in Mexico, though: the situation was very messy, and clear information was hard to find. Taft’s former ambassador to Mexico City, Henry Wilson, had been involved with the plot of Huerta’s coup. Thus, he could not be relied upon as a good informant. Consequently, Henry Wilson could not be replaced; doing so would extend recognition to the new dictatorship government.
So in April, President Wilson asked William Hale, to travel to Mexico in order to report on the situation. One could say that Hale was chosen by Wilson for favorability reasons; the man had recently written a laudatory biography on him, anyways.
Hale didn’t know very much Spanish, and was not very knowledgeable about Mexico and it’s customs or geography. However, he did share Wilson’s values (which is not a reason he should have been hired). Hale’s reports came back in mid-June, and stressed that Huerta had launched ‘an assault on constitutional government’. He concluded that, “If the United States had any moral work to do, it is to discourage violence and hold law.” This helped Wilson conclude that Mexico was a political problem; thus, he believed, if Huerta could be held to his promise to conduct free elections, then all would be well.
To push that message through to Huerta, Bryant and Wilson selected another agent, John Lynd from Minnesota. Lynd was devoted to democratic principles, but was even more of a poor choice than the journalist before him had been. Lynd knew absolutely no Spanish (Mexico is a Spanish-speaking-dominant country), had no experience with Latin America (didn’t know it’s customs or traditions), and hated Catholics (Mexico has a large Catholic population). However, Lynd was a friend of Bryant, and was devoted to democratic principles, so that meant he was a perfect choice for the position, right? Obviously not, as Lynd only demanded that Huerta hold free elections for the office, in which he would not be a candidate for. This is a stupid move, since that only made Huerta more defiant. In mid-October, Huerta did the ultimate dictator move: he dissolved the legislature, and had most of the members of the opposition party arrested, and ruled in a dictatorial fashion.
This defiance shocked and stunned both Wilson and Bryant. They blamed it on the support of Huerta by the British, who allegedly wished for economic concessions from Mexico.
With his hope of changing the government through peaceful methods dashed, Wilson decided to look elsewhere for a solution. One proposed solution came from Hale, who told Wilson to send a person to interview leaders of an armed insurgency against Huerta, who were based in northern Mexico. So, in November, Wilson decided to send “I don’t know anything about Mexico” Hale to interview the “Constitutionalists”, a name which these rebels called themselves. Hale reported back to Wilson in mid-November, and informed him on the rebels. For one thing, Hale was impressed with the rebel leaders; another thing with these rebels was that they did not want to accept any form of American intervention. Another issue was that their demands went beyond the restoration of constitutional democracy. He said that these guys were determined fore “the total destruction of the old regime”, and would not agree to hold elections until they had enacted, by decree, social and political reforms which they agreed upon as “Fundamental”. Wilson changed his opinion on the situation in Mexico in February, when he told the British ambassador that the situation was now not political, but economical. He said that, “Until the power of the land owners were shattered in a brutal fight to the finish, there could be no lasting political stability.” He then had lifted an American embargo on sales of weapons to the rebels (something which they did not want to happen), but he claimed he would still not intervene on the situation.
However, Wilson’s idea of ‘intervention’ was different from the rebels. They thought intervention was ‘interference of any kind’ (this includes the sales of arms and aid). Wilson’s idea of ‘intervention’ was that of ‘full scale invasion, with the goals of imposing a government supported by a foreign power’ (i.e., Nicaragua, Japan, Germany). To sum that all up: Conquest equaled intervention. Sales of arms does not equal intervention.
This poor self-idealism started to really show it’s failures in April, 1914. On April 9th, a boat carrying American sailors landed by mistake at the port of Tampico, which had prohibited zones. These sailors were arrested, but promptly released after the mistake was realized. All was good, it seemed, until the captain of the boat, Admiral Henry T. Nayo, took it upon his broad shoulders to demand a full 21-gun salute to the Americans, and a formal apology to the nation as well. Well, you can see why such an arrogant move would upset a dictator who had not yet been recognized by that nation, right?
The situation worsened when Wilson decided to send in backup to the area on April 21st, a day on which he ordered a 1,000 marines and sailors to land near the port of Vera Cruz, and to capture it. This was the main arms shipment port for Huerta, and thus a critical battle area. Bryant and the Secretary of the Navy said that a peaceful solution could be hatched out, but Wilson decided to overrule that, and thus sent those 1,000 soldiers.
The Americans suffered 19 losses, and 71 men were wounded. In total, the Americans only came away with 90 incidents of either death or injury. The Mexican defenders of the port lost 126 to death, and suffered 195 wounded soldiers. In total, they lost 321 to either death or injury. While we did take the city, our actions triggered an explosion of Mexican patriotism; both the rebels and the loyalist soldiers joined arms, and thousands of citizens volunteered to defend the country. Worse, mobs decided to form, and stormed American consulates.
To make the situation even worse, Wilson sent orders to the commander at Vera Cruz, basically telling him to not increase influence in the surrounding area, and to avoid embarrassing his nation. Wilson’s spark of military strength burned out quickly, and he abandoned the ideas of expanding military exercises in the area, and stopped the idea to blockade the Mexican coast. He then quickly accepted a mediation agreement from Argentina, Brazil, and Chile (remember them?). While his military actions against Huerta had failed, Wilson decided to still focus on the elimination of Huerta. However, all hope was not lost. The Huerta regime finally ended, due to his crumbling army, and lack of support from outside nations. He fled to Spain, and it was over from there. Four months later, Wilson finally took the troops from Vera Cruz back to America, and the nation welcomed those troops home.
The situation did not end there. Wilson hoped that the most pro-American Constitutionalist, Pancho Villa, would take over as Mexico’s newest leader. However, this hope diminished as Mexico again fell into anarchy. In June of 1915, Wilson decided to threaten the country by telling them he’d just pick out someone at random to recognize. But, Wilson’s foolish idea was saved from actual enactment when Venustiano Carranza, another leader of yet another faction, unseated Villa, and won significant swaths of control over the country. Carranza favored constitutionalism, separation of church and state, public education, and land reform, which made Wilson and other Latin American leaders like him. On October 19th, 1915, Wilson and these leaders joined together to announce their recognition of Carranza and his government.
However, with the end of the Mexico problem surfaced another issue: rebels. Pancho Villa did not like the American’s recognition of the Carranza government, and so he started to charge that Carranza had ‘sold out to the gringos in return for an American loan’. In response, he gathered the remnants of his forces, and attacked Columbus, New Mexico on March 9th, 1916. In this attack, he killed 18 Americans, and wounded 8. He was eventually driven out by American cavalry, which saved the town. Wilson realized that a slow response to this attack would just invite more attacks from his political enemies. So, in order to appease these possible attacks, Wilson convened his cabinet on March 10th to talk about the solutions to the problem. Everyone thought that Villa needed to be chased into Mexico, but they disagreed whether Carranza should be asked for entrance permission first. Ultimately, the cabinet concluded that a foreign expedition (military operation) would be sent to chase Villa into Mexico. Carranza’s permission would not be sought, and instead, the diplomats would request that he partially ignore the breach on his border for a time. To cement this, the cabinet sent a statement to the press, which said that they would hunt Villa, but would not want to breach or offend Mexican sovereignty in the process. Sadly, Carranza wasn’t so happy about this statement. He responded with what amounted to a “No” on the breach part, and made it stick, even with the Villa part included. Wilson and his Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, concluded that the statement was issued as a political move, and could be ignored.
On March 15th, 4,000 soldiers led by John J. Pershing (who would run for President 5 years down the line) entered Mexico in pursuit of the rebel leader. In the following months, the troop’s size was doubled, then later increased by another 2,000. The expedition failed, and were intercepted by Carranza’s forces. On June 21st, a clash occurred at a Mexican town, which ended in 9 American deaths, 30 Mexican deaths, 12 Americans injured and 34 Mexicans injured, and 25 captured Americans. Wilson confessed to House the next day that he may have messed up by not withdrawing American forces when it became clear that Villa had gotten away. But, he did not indicate that he was regretful of sending the troops in the first place. It appeared in the days following the failed battle that Wilson was moving towards an absolute war with Mexico. This was apparent when he decided to mobilize nearly 130,000 National Guard troops, and dispatched 30,000 to the border. This resulted in what was the largest concentration of American forces in one area since the civil war (at that time).
Again, Wilson’s blindness to other’s idea of ‘intervention’ surfaced here. He personally thought that sending the troops and Pershing had not constituted as “Intervention”; likewise, he was strong in the belief that the situation would not turn into ‘intervention of Mexican internal affairs’. He stated that the expedition was meant to ‘preclude the possibility of intervention’.
The failed incident shocked Wilson, and in turn he looked for a way to get out of the mess alive (politically and publicly). When Carranza freed the Americans he’d taken prisoner, Wilson took the opportunity, and sent a letter with the idea from Secretary Lansing to form a joint force to dissolve the problem in the region. However, this was yet another fail, as Carranza regarded this as yet another path of interference by America into Mexico’s affairs. Thankfully though, he did agree to reduce the ‘risk of war’. The joint commission met from September to mid February, from 1916 to 1917, and ended without tangible results. Pershing was called home, however, in early February as tensions with Germany, and thus a possible war, increased. This meant the expiration of the commission as we now know it.
For one last time, however, another incident occurred involving Mexico. In 1917, British diplomats turned over a message intercepted from Germany that had been sent to Mexico. In short, the message had tried to convince Mexico to join the Germans and Japanese in a three-way alliance in the case of war. Germany had suggested that, if they won the war, the US would have to give up the territory it had “taken” from Mexico in 1848. Thankfully, Carranza and his constituents in the government rejected the proposal, and that made the Americans very happy, and caused us to feel secure in our nation.
One last incident with Mexico finally changed Wilson’s mind about intervention into Mexico. In 1917, a new constitution was adopted by the Mexican government which allowed contemplated expropriation of surface lands and reserved subsurface materials for Mexican nationals or for those companies who denounced protection from their home governments. This constitutional amendment scared American oil businessmen (some of whom were either supportive of Republican politicians or Republican ideals). They demanded that the government needed to protect them from this. Lansing was sympathetic to their ‘trials’, but Wilson didn’t care. We can look at earlier examples of his ideals, and see that he never cared for intervention based on a commercial reason; he only cared if the nation was becoming anti-humanitarian or anti-American. To reinforce his pro-American stance, Carranza said that these businesses would be allowed to continue their work unimpeded. Wilson wholeheartedly supported this move, and fully announced his recognition of the Mexican government. This marked one of the first times Wilson decided not to intervene in Mexican affairs, and thus showed that he had ended his long streak of running into Mexico, and ending his long career of meddling with that country. In a hilarious turn of events, two years later a Republican partisan hack tried to say that the Mexican government of being pro-Bolshevik, and tried to call for intervention into Mexico (it wasn’t specified what type of intervention was wanted, but I’ll just take a crack at maybe a “military option”). This guy, Albert Fall from New Mexico, was literally called by Wilson to come to his bedside, and was told to basically shut up. This type of idiotic rhetoric was just a sign of the new (and legitimate) Red Scare at the time, and was stupid.
Wilson may have not been a dictator, imperialist, or a colonist, but his policies were seen as such by the South American nations. From my observation, Mexico could have progressed fine without our help. As you saw, each and every time we tried to help, we just made the situation worse and worse. I do believe that some intervention would have been good; however, the way Wilson went about this intervention was seen as overbearing. This same type of intervention/foreign help was practiced by Jimmy Carter and other soft-on-foreign-policy presidents. What we saw in Mexico was a failure of “Big Brother” mentality. No, South America did not need to follow our rules. We weren’t the rulers of them, and they owed little to us. So, thus they did not approve of Wilson’s ideas. In short, what Wilson did with Mexico needs to be remembered, and needs to be avoided. It would help us in the future, and would serve us well to remember.

Twitter: @realPeterMoon
Additional “Pan American Non-Aggression Treaty” Clauses:
1). A mutual guarantee of political independence under Republican forms of government, and mutual guarantees of territorial integrity. (Note: When it states “Republican form of government”, that does not mean “How a Republican Party would run government”. It means the type of government in which it is run. Take Rome as an example.)
2). An agreement that signatories would acquire control of the manufacture and sale of munitions of war.
I used Wikipedia in order to spell some of the names of the individuals mentioned above. In addition I used the non-partisan book, The Presidency of Woodrow Wilson by Kendrick A. Clemons. All of the information I wrote down can be found in Chapter 6, titled Developing A Foreign Policy. The book was copyrighted in 1992 by the University Press of Kansas, and was narrated by K. D. Henry (I listened to this on an audiobook).

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