Daily Archives: 10 February 2014

The Wilsonian Reset with Mexico, 1913

From The Banana Wars: An Inner History of the American Empire 1900-1934, by Lester D. Langley (Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1983), pp. 77-87:

In March 1913, when he became the twenty-eighth president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson gave every indication of a more cordial relationship with Latin America. He despised the imperialism of his age. He had criticized the interventionist policies of his Republican predecessors and looked upon the regular naval patrols of the Central American and Mexican coasts, which Taft and Knox had stepped up, as manifestations of gunboat diplomacy. Privately confessing the limitations of his knowledge of foreign affairs (though he was the best-informed president on that subject since John Quincy Adams), he was sufficiently alert to America’s role in the Caribbean since the Spanish-American War to issue a polite condemnation of dollar diplomacy. His secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, was even more fervently outspoken against the machinations of private American capital in the tropics. The outgoing team of Taft and Knox, anticipating a reversal of their Caribbean policies, feared that Wilson’s rhetoric might touch off revolutionary explosions throughout the area.

Manifestly, a new era in inter-American relations had arrived. But Wilson turned out to be the greatest interventionist of all in the internal affairs of the Latin American republics. His Mexican policy alone would earn him the badge of infamy among hemispheric critics of the United States.

The new American president already had a reputation for stem views and a personality that brooked little criticism, especially if the critic failed to grasp the truth as it was revealed to him. Much has been made of Wilson’s puritanical bent of mind and its impact on his Mexican policy. He certainly believed Huerta to be an “immoral” man, and his refusal to grant Huerta’s government the diplomatic recognition so earnestly championed by the ambassador (and the British minister to Mexico) rested in part on his own conviction that Huerta was a murderer. But Wilson’s assessment of the Mexican situation in spring 1913 went much deeper than his revulsion toward Huerta. He intended to influence the course of Mexican history, to educate the Mexican people, who, he believed, deserved a better society and certainly a more decent leader than the hawk-nosed general now claiming that distinction.

The policy that evolved would be called “watchful waiting,” political pressure reinforced by the military presence of the United States in the Gulf of Mexico and along the long Texas-Mexico border. An American Naval force had been patrolling the Mexican coast since the fall of Diaz two years before, and the General Board of the Navy was continually updating its basic Mexican war plan, which had been drafted several years before Diaz’s overthrow and called for the occupation of Veracruz and several other ports. Across the broad Gulf, at Guantanamo, a marine brigade readied for an invasion of Mexico. Army planners also figured prominently in preparations for conflict with Mexico; indeed, the Army War College advanced an ambitious proposal that anticipated not only the landing of forces at Veracruz but an assault against the capital (as Winfield Scott had done in 1847 during the Mexican War) and the occupation of large areas in northern Mexico.

A week after the inauguration, Secretary of State Bryan, reflecting the sentiments expressed by Wilson in a major address, declared that the United States would not recognize a government that did not rule with the consent of the governed. The administration would in fact extend recognition to new regimes in Peru and China that failed to meet that test, but it was readily apparent that the principle applied to Mexico. Wilson could not manipulate the Peruvian and Chinese situations; manifestly, he believed he could influence what happened next door in Mexico.

Distrusting the American ambassador but unable to replace him because such a move would imply recognition for Huerta’s government, Wilson sent a [“]journalist[“; not unlike today’s ilk—J], William Bayard Hale, as special emissary to Mexico, the first of almost a dozen executive agents the president sent there. Hale was to report on conditions and, specifically, to check out the persistent reports about the role of Ambassador Wilson in the tragic ten days of February. Hale arrived to find an embassy halfheartedly pressing Wilson’s conditions for recognition: new elections and Huerta’s pledge that he would not be a candidate. If these were met, Wilson offered to mediate between Huerta and his numerous enemies. Hale’s report on the Mexican situation also included an indictment of Henry Lane Wilson‘s role in Madero‘s ouster and death. The ambassador was ordered home for consultation and, back in Washington, dismissed from the diplomatic service, convinced to the end that the origins of America’s troubles in Mexico lay in the refusal to recognize Herta.

But in the fall of 1913 Wilson had informed the secretary of the British ambassador to the United States: “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men!”

Wilson was not going to commit the first act, however; Huerta would have to do something so despicable, so outrageous, and something that would be such an affront to the laws of nations and proper international behavior that American retaliation would be manifestly justifiable…. Yet, surprisingly, the incident that would precipitate American action occurred not by Huerta’s hand or even by Wilson’s but by an unthinking Huertista officer in Tampico and a zealous rear admiral in the American navy.

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The Mexican Republic’s First Century

From The Banana Wars: An Inner History of the American Empire 1900-1934, by Lester D. Langley (Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1983), pp. 77-79:

The Mexican republic that Wilson so desperately sought to reform commemorated in September 1910 the centenary of the grito de Dolores, the ringing of church bells in the village of Guadalupe signaling the revolution against Spanish rule. In the nineteenth century, the republic had been governed by savants and opportunists; by statesmen with visions of a peaceful society, where politics would be infused with reason; and by despots who ruled in the tradition of central authority inherited from the Spanish monarchy. American observers considered Mexico an arrogant nation misruled by such unscrupulous leaders as the “crimson jester,” Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, until the republic lost almost half of its territory in war with the United States. After that, many Americans, notably rising Republicans like Abraham Lincoln, thought of their neighbor as a ravaged society, wasted by internecine civil war or preyed upon by European interlopers. The one figure of nineteenth-century Mexico who conveyed a statesmanlike image was Benito Juarez, who in the 1850s fought the power of the church and military and in 1867 overthrew Maximilian’s monarchy. Yet Juarez, for all his dedication to political ideals Americans cherished, remained essentially an inscrutable Zapotec Indian with suspicion of anything foreign and harbored deep distrust of the rambunctious republic to the north.

Juarez, at least, made Mexico the example of a republic that threw off its European trappings. One of his lieutenants in the antimonarchial struggle, Porfirio Diaz, who became president in 1876, presented to the world a stable, prosperous republic. He began by convincing a skeptical American government that the border between the two countries must be secured against marauders, so that the American army would not have to cross the Rio Grande to chase cattle thieves, Indians, or bandits. Resisting American pressures to send patrols into the wastelands of northern Mexico, Diaz started policing it with rurales, who kept the peace and earned Diaz American plaudits.

In the 1880s, as he centralized his authority, Diaz opened the country to speculators, engineers, and promoters of all stripes. Mexico would be modernized with foreign technology and talent. The republic joined the list of “civilized” nations on the gold standard. Its foreign trade jumped markedly; its exports diversified. And its economic ties to the United States multiplied: In 1872, when Juarez died, Americans purchased 36 percent of Mexican exports; by 1890, 75 percent. American capital and technology poured into mining, railroading, and oil exploration. The American presence was fittingly symbolized in 1881 when the New York legislature incorporated the Mexican Southern Railroad and named Ulysses S. Grant as its first president.

And Diaz patronizingly protected the foreigner, removing legal obstacles to foreign concerns and assuring a ready supply of unskilled labor for their use. Privilege went to foreigners to such degrees that it was commonly observed that Mexico was the parent of aliens and the stepparent of Mexicans. By 1910, fully 75 percent of the mines and 50 percent of the oil fields belonged to Americans.

After 1900, as his power became more entrenched, Diaz grew increasingly apprehensive about the large American presence in Mexico. His Central American gestures on behalf of Zelaya were in part aimed at offsetting American influence, and he provided concessions to British oil interests as a way of countering the enormous amount of American capital invested in Mexican petroleum.

But it was not American capital that brought Diaz down eight months after the 1910 celebration. As he aged, he became mellower; his associates, uncertain about the succession, began maneuvering furiously behind the scenes. They became even more frantic after Diaz declared in 1908 in a famous interview with an American journalist, James Creelman, that he had guided Mexico into the twentieth century and the nation was now ready for democracy. His retirement would coincide with the centennial in 1910. In the aftermath of the interview with Creelman there was a flurry of political activity. New parties appeared, and angry voices, silenced by Diaz for thirty years, spoke harshly against the political system the dictator had created.

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