Stumbling Through the Barrios – Part Two: The Wilson Administration in Mexico

From October 12 to November 12 of 1914, the Mexicans held a conference in Aguascalientes. Comprised mainly of the generals from the warring factions, they hoped to achieve the formation of a provisional government. An alliance between Villa and Zapata spurred the country back into civil war. A provisional president, Eulalio Gutierrez, came out of Aguascalientes. This did not sit well with Carranza. When the convention ended, Carranza fled to Vera Cruz with Obregon in tow, and Villa took Gutierrez to Mexico City.

By November 23, the United States had vacated Vera Cruz. This important fact allowed Carranza to collect import duties to help rebuild his forces for the approaching war. Carranza tried to run a government out of Vera Cruz. On January 6, 1915, Carranza issued amendments to the Plan de Guadalupe. The revisions included land reform, electoral reform and worker’s rights.

On January 8, 1915, Wilson gave a speech at a Jackson Day celebration in Indianapolis. In this speech Wilson set policy towards Mexico for 1915. He declared:

“It is none of my business, it is none of yours, how they go about their business. The country is theirs, the government is theirs, their liberty is theirs… and, so far as my influence goes while I am President, nobody shall interfere with them.”[i]

Although Wilson spoke in terms of non-US intervention, the events of 1915, and those of 1914 and 1915, clearly indicate that Wilson tried to influence behavior south of the border.

President Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson

On January 15, General Alvaro Obregon began the Constitutionalist campaign against Villa and Zapata. The only dealings between Wilson and Carranza at this point concerned the treatment of the Catholic Church. During the US occupation of Vera Cruz, the city became a haven for priests and nuns throughout Mexico. They had come to Vera Cruz fleeing the persecution of encroaching rebel forces. The city provided them with an escape route or sanctuary. Wilson wanted to insure their lives while Carranza remained in Vera Cruz. Carranza gave in for the time being, but his anti-clerical position would come into play in 1916.

In April of 1915, Obregon delivered a crushing blow to Villa at the city of Celaya. Obregon’s Constitutionalist troops consisting of 13,000 men defeated Villa’s Division of the North with 20,000 men. The key to victory concerned the use of techniques used in trench warfare. A German military advisor, Maximilian Kloss, counseled Obregon on the use of the tactics. Using barbed wire and machine guns, Obregon reached an easy victory.[ii]

Carranza’s power began to strengthen throughout Mexico. Villa retreated to his native state of Chihuahua with the remainder of his army. Constitutionalist forces forced Zapata back into his home state of Morelos. Carranza’s legions controlled the railroads, communications, and all of central Mexico. Special agent Duval West reported on the aftermath of the rebellion. On July 2, West concluded that Mexico was a deprived nation. The crops had been destroyed as a result of the revolt. The fields remained unseeded and the cattle industry had been devastated.[iii]

Wilson could no longer sit inactively by and watch Mexico be destroyed. World War I now raged on the lands and seas of Europe. Mexico had to be resolved so Wilson could concentrate on Europe. John Lind urged Wilson to recognize Carranza after Celaya but to no avail. On July 2, Wilson privately said, “I have never known a man more impossible to deal with on human terms than this man Carranza.”[iv] At this point, Wilson had a clear distinction of a moral obligation to the people of Mexico.

In a twist of fate that May, a German U-boat sank the cruise ship Lusitania. In a division of policy, Wilson took a pro-ally stance. This breach of neutrality resulted in William Jennings Bryan resigning as Secretary of State. On January 9, Wilson designated Robert Lansing to be the new Secretary of State. Lansing, a pro-ally like Wilson, had definite ideas to help Wilson end the situation in Mexico. This would allow Wilson to devote himself to Europe.

On August 5 and 6, Lansing first met with the A.B.C. Powers in a series of conferences. These conferences resulted in the recognition of Carranza on October 18. Wilson and Lansing both thought of the troubles in Mexico as behind them. General Hugh Lenox Scott, the Army Chief of Staff, thought otherwise. Scott thought “the recognition of Carranza had the effect of solidifying the power of a man who had rewarded us with kicks on every occasion and making an outlaw out of the man who had helped us.”[v] Scott was speaking of Pancho Villa. On October 31, Villa learned of the recognition from a newspaperman.[vi] Villa demanded the United States pay him for protecting American lives and property. The United States government gave him nothing.

Carranza concentrated on solidifying his power the next four months. Wilson’s eyes turned to Europe. The Mexican problem remained far from over. Carranza’s stance of Mexican self-determination had served him well as a rebel. He had rebuked the Wilson administration at every turn in his rise to power. Relations at this time had not developed any further. Carranza’s anti-clerical decrees separating the Catholic Church from the state further exacerbated the difficult relations. Wilson was chastised by several US Catholic leaders, most notably Francis Kelly, to intervene on behalf of the Catholic Church. Wilson could only plead to Carranza. As 1916 arrived, Wilson would need Catholic support in his re-election bid.

Pancho Villa and what is left of his Division of the North

Pancho Villa and what is left of his Division of the North

Pancho Villa stole the spotlight from both Wilson and Carranza in 1916. On January 11, Villa’s remaining band attacked a train near Santa Isabel, Mexico killing 16 American passengers. This event received little attention from Wilson but it proved to be a harbinger of things to come. In the early morning hours of March 9, Pancho Villa crossed the border into New Mexico. At the city of Columbus, Villa’s band attacked, ravaged, and burnt part of the town killing fifteen and wounding seven others.[vii]

Villa’s band of some 500 men met some resistance by U.S. forces under the command of Colonel Herbert Slocumb. They managed to kill 100 of Villa’s men and find two wallets that belonged to Pancho Villa. The wallets contained papers linking Villa to the Santa Isabel murders and a declaration of war against the United States from December of 1915.[viii]

By 4 p.m. of the day, Wilson had made up his mind on the appropriate response. “An adequate force will be sent at once in pursuit of Villa with the single objective of capturing him and putting a stop to his forays.”[ix] Wilson came to this decision after meeting with Secretary of War Newton Baker, Army Chief of Staff Hugh Lenox Scott, and Wilson’s personal Chief of Staff, Joseph Tumulty. The chain of command took effect with the call going out to Brigadier General John J. Pershing to lead the expedition. In a letter to Pershing on March 11, Scott ordered that the troops be withdrawn as soon as the de facto government of Mexico relieved them of this work.[x] Wilson again used for to achieve his goal. Although limited, as with Vera Cruz, the armed forces became the means to achieve political goals. Wilson could ill afford to have hostilities along the U.S. border with the 1916 election only seven months away. US citizens had to feel safe in their own country.

As with every other decision he had made, Wilson had deep moral reservations. In speaking with Joseph Tumulty, Wilson would say:

“I have to sleep with my conscience in these matters and I shall be held responsible for every drop of blood that may be spent in the enterprise of this intervention. I am seriously considering every phase of this difficult matter, and I can frankly say to you, and you may inform the cabinet officers who discuss it with you, that there won’t be any war with Mexico if I can prevent it, no matter how loud the gentlemen on the hill yells for it and demands it.” He would later say in the same conversation, “I will not resort to war with Mexico until I have exhausted every means to get out of this mess. I know they will call me a coward or 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 at the 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 sad picture. The gentle men who criticize me speak as if America was afraid to fight Mexico, poor Mexico, with its pitiful men, women, and children fighting to gain a foothold in their own land.”[xi]

Wilson had come to understand the Mexican situation but felt that he could be of little help to the Mexican people. His duty as President concerned protecting the lives of American citizens. A greater call of humanity had to take a backseat in his administration’s policy towards Mexico.


On March 15, Pershing crossed into Mexico with 4800 men and 4175 animals. Pershing also had eight airplanes to use in his pursuit of Villa.[xii] Wilson put strict limitations on the US forces. They could not use the Mexican railways to advance or use Mexican towns as campsites. Wilson’s reasoning being that the two factors would indicate an occupying or invasionary force.

The United States failed to get permission from Carranza for the expedition. At the time, military commanders on both sides had agreed that either side could pursue bandits 15 leagues (45 miles) on either side of the border.[xiii] This expedition stretched further than 15 leagues. Carranza met with John Silliman and John W. Belt met with Foreign Affairs Minister Jesus Acuna. Carranza and Acuna felt they had achieved some sort of victory in Villa’s raids. Villa’s raid meant that the Constitutionalists and is a testament to their power and control. On the other hand, they did not appreciate American forces on their Mexican soil. Carranza told Silliman that he sent General Gutierrez with Constitutionalist troops after Villa. Negotiations soon began on the terms of the US expedition.

By March 18, Pershing drove 85 miles into Mexico. The negotiations had failed. Carranza would allow a force of 1000 men with a time limit of eight days. These troops could only go 40 miles into Mexico. The position that Wilson wanted “is to cooperate with the forces of General Carranza in removing a cause of irritation to both governments and to retire from Mexico as soon as this object is accomplished.”[xiv] There did not exist any cooperation according to Pershing. Pershing felt that “Carranza had no more control of what happened on the border than if he lived in London.”[xv] Pershing would later say the restrictions placed upon him related to “to a man looking for a needle in a haystack with an armed guard standing over the stack forbidding you to look in the hay.”[xvi]

For the remainder of March and the early part of April, the Pershing expedition went without incident. It did not clash with Villa or the Constitutionalist troops. It appeared to be on a wild goose chase. On April 13 a scout force under the command Major Frank Tomkins encountered a mob at the city of Parral. Two US casualties resulted from the incident. Carranza reiterated his stance of American withdrawal before incidents more serious than this occur. Robert Lansing replied that the troops would soon be withdrawn “as soon as the mission is accomplished.”[xvii] Tensions escalated between the two governments with neither side giving in.

In the first of two conferences, General Scott met with General Obregon on April 28. The first conference turned into a failure. Scott proposed cooperation in making a Villa sandwich. The US would be the bread coming down from the North and the Constitutionalists would be the bread coming in from the South. Obregon only wanted the withdrawal of US forces and the safety of the border. The first conference broke off but it eased tensions a little bit. The second night began as a midnight meeting on May 2. It would last until May 9. The two men agreed that Mexico would protect its side of the border. The second part called for the gradual withdrawal of Pershing’s forces.

It appeared as though a settlement had been reached. During the conference, two more raids took place in Texas. Neither were by Villa or his men. The first occurred at Glen Springs, the second at Baquilas. These events fuel to the fire of a bad situation. The Mexican government took a different approach this time. It took a month but on June 12 Constitutionalist forces captured Louis de la Rosa and his band of 40 men. It looked like the situation had started to turn.

On June 21, an incident occurred near the town of Carrizal. US forces clashed with Constitutionalist troops. The Constitutionalist took 23 Americans prisoner. The threat of war increased as Wilson previously called up the National Guard on June 18 in response to the Glen Springs raid. 125,000 sat north of the border waiting for their orders from Wilson. Communiqués went back and forth from Washington to Mexico City in an attempt to prevent further hostilities. To solve the problem, Carranza proposed a Mexican-American Conference.

The conference finally began in New London, Connecticut in September of 1916. The American delegation put its proposal on the table first. Represented by Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane, Dr. John R. Mott, and L.S. Rowe, the US wanted protection of life and property on the border and in Mexico, a call for a claims commission, and religious tolerance in Mexico. The Mexican delegation only wanted the withdrawal of the expedition.

Talks broke off early before they resumed in October in Atlantic City. Mexico restated it position for withdrawal. The US had changed its position. Franklin Lane tried to Mexico to concede to Wilson’s demands by threatening to withdraw recognition of Carranza’s government. In November, the two sides reached an agreement that Carranza would later refused to sign.

Meanwhile, back in Mexico, a constitutional convention took place in Queretaro. The convention resulted in a new Mexican constitution. It put Carranza firmly in the driver’s seat in Mexico. Many questions still remained about the Mexican situation at the end of 1916. Pershing’s troops still remained in Mexico. Pancho Villa started acting up. The biggest area of concern was how the new constitution would affect Mexican-American relations.

On January 25, 1917, Pershing’s troops began the march northward to the United States. The intervention had been a debacle. Villa still remained at large and in a state of mind the Mexicans called “delirio de grandesa” or delirium of greatness.[xviii] The expedition failed not only in its concept but managed to strain relations between the two countries.

“When the true history is written, it will not be a very inspiring chapter for school children, or even grownups to contemplate. Having dashed into Mexico with the intention of eating the Mexicans raw, we turned back at the first repulse and are now sneaking home under cover, like a whipped curr with its tail between its legs.” ~ General John J. Pershing

“When the true history is written, it will not be a very inspiring chapter for school children, or even grownups to contemplate. Having dashed into Mexico with the intention of eating the Mexicans raw, we turned back at the first repulse and are now sneaking home under cover, like a whipped curr with its tail between its legs.” ~ General John J. Pershing

The new Mexican constitution went into effect on January 31 1917. Three articles of the Constitution concerned the Wilson administration. Article 3 called for a free education. It literally shut the Catholic Church out of the system. Article 27 caused more controversy. It included land reform, but more importantly, it claimed that sub-soil rights belonged to the nation. The meaning of this is that Mexico nationalized it oil, copper, and other minerals. It appeared that way on the surface, but in reality, the Mexican government could dispose and distribute these minerals any way it saw fit. This meant that foreign companies could run the mines and oil wells but not own them.[xix] Article 130 prohibited the Catholic Church from criticizing the government.

Wilson dealt with Carranza mainly on Article 27. Wilson wanted the Mexican government to buy the wells and mines from the foreign owners. At this time, Wilson did not have any leverage with which to persuade Carranza.

Wilson would later in 1917 freeze Mexico’s gold reserves in hopes of changing Carranza’s mind. In order to do that, Wilson had to first formally recognize the new government and its constitution. On March 11, the Mexican people officially elected Carranza as President. Henry Fletcher presented his credentials as US Ambassador to Mexico on March 13. Ygnacios Bonillas arrived as the Mexican Ambassador to the United States on April 17. With formal diplomatic ties in place, Wilson placed himself in a much better position to dictate what went on inside Mexico.

A few weeks earlier, the United States had declared war on Germany. The Mexican oil fields would be crucial to a victory for either side. Corruption still ran rampant in Mexico. The oil fields in the state of Huasteca Veracruzana were under the control of General Manuel Palaez. He leased oil fields to companies for $35,000 a year.[xx] Palaez circumnavigated Carranza’s policy and padded his own pockets in the process.

Mexican oil financed the revolution. By 1914, Mexico produced 26 million barrels a day. By 1918, production increased 250% to 63 million barrels a day. Too crude to be used directly by foreign companies, the oil of Mexico went to the US to be refined by US companies. In order to keep Carranza out of his little enterprise, Palaez blew up bridges and railway tracks so the Constitutionalists could not get the oil rich state.[xxi]

Wilson began using diplomatic measures at a greater rate in April. In hopes of this, Wilson wanted Mexico at peace while he fought with Germany. In March, a Paris newspaper released a copy of the Zimmerman Telegram. The United States previously received the note in February. German Minister Arthur Zimmerman wrote the note to Carranza urging an alliance between Germany and Mexico. If Germany won the war, Mexico would gain back territory lost to the US in the Mexican-American War in 1848. Wilson let the note be published in hopes of causing anti-German sentiment around the world. Wilson did not use the note in negotiations with Carranza. However, in April, Carranza declared Mexico’s neutrality in World War I to the Mexican Congress.

As the war developed in Europe, Secretary of State Robert Lansing wanted the US to occupy the oil fields. Wilson said no.[xxii] Wilson, on the other hand, did not have any intention of letting Mexico implement the new constitution.[xxiii] In addition to freezing Mexico’s gold reserves, Wilson used other ways to make Carranza tow the line to Wilson’s policies. Wilson held up needed supplies and ammunition at the border. Carranza still had insurgencies to deal with. In writing to Wilson, Carranza began each letter with the heading, “Great and Good Friend.”[xxiv] This did not do any good. Wilson suspended loans until Carranza swug around to Wilson’s way of thinking. Wilson then used Mexico’s oil to help achieve victory in World War I and allow foreign interests in Mexico.

While Carranza succeeded in defeating Wilson as a revolutionary, Carranza could not match up to Wilson as a president. Carranza died at the direction of Alvaro Obregon in March of 1920. Obregon had driven Carranza from office because Carranza let foreign interests back into Mexico. Obregon also ordered the murder of Zapata in Chinameca in 1919. Villa lasted until his assassination in 1923 in Parral. Obregon would be the President of Mexico from 1920 to 1924.

The Mexican Revolution developed into the first great revolution of the twentieth century. Wilson had the distinct challenge to protect the United States. Wilson’s unique policies failed until 1917. Due in part to the special agents he sent, but more for his moral obligation of self-determination. He replied in 1915 that “Mexico must be handled with Velvet gloves.” His advisors felt otherwise. Colonel Edward House saw Mexico as needing intervention. He remarked on one occasion, “We should Mexico very much as we have Cuba and for the same reasons.”[xxv] House referred to the Platt Amendment, a result of the Spanish-American War, which enabled the US to oversee the Cuban economy. House would later say, “If a man’s house is on fire, he should be glad to have his neighbors come and put it out, provided they did not take his property, and it should be the same way with nations.”[xxvi] Wilson did not agree. He tried to let Mexico solve its own problems.

Secretary of State Robert Lansing remarked upon taking office that “there were too many players in Mexico.”[xxvii]    With Huerta, Villa, Zapata, Carranza, the Catholic Church, and the foreign business community, there developed too many variable to try and control. This became the main thrust of “watchful waiting.” Wilson tried to keep abreast of the situation through the use of special agents, but they only confused Wilson. Conflicting reports from the agents made it more difficult to develop a policy in 1913 and 1914. So Woodrow Wilson would wait.

Wilson’s moral reservation throughout the whole dilemma developed from the fact that he wanted to help the Mexican people. He had to wait. When someone came out on top, he would deal with them at that time. It may not have been the politically correct thing to do, but for Wilson, it remained the human and moral thing to do. Throughout the revolution, change in the revolution changed Wilson’s policy. He pronounced in 1915 that “I am willing to get anything for an American that money and free enterprise can obtain, except the suppression of the rights of other men.”[xxviii] With his special agents in the barrios of Mexico, forces in Vera Cruz, the expedition of Pershing, Wilson gambled in his pursuit of stability and order south of the border. All the while, he held firmly to his moral belief and tried to cheat the irony of fate.


Read Part One:



[i] Link, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Volume 32, 38-39.

[ii] Eisenhower, 176.

[iii] Link, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Volume 33, 303.

[iv] Cumberland, 277.

[v] Eisenhower, 186.

[vi] Arthur S. Link, Ed. Wilson Confusion and Crises 1915-1916. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1964), 196.

[vii] P. Edward Haley. Revolution and Intervention: The Diplomacy of Taft and Wilson in Mexico 1910 – 1917. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1970), 188.

[viii] Link, Wilson Confusion and Crises 1915-1916, 206.

[ix] Haley, 188.

[x] Link, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Volume 36, 285-286.

[xi] Tumulty, 157-158.

[xii] Herbert Malloy Mason, Jr. The Great Pursuit (new York, New York: Random House, 1970), 84.

[xiii] Link, Wilson Confusion and Crises 1915-1916, 96.

[xiv] Link, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Volume 36, 332.

[xv] Mason, 169.

[xvi] Calhoun, 57.

[xvii] Haley, 199.

[xviii] Link, Wilson Confusion and Crises 1915-1916, 206.

[xix] Daniel James, Mexico and the Americans (New York, New York: Frederich Praeger Inc., 1963), 181.

[xx] E. David Cronon, Ed. The Cabinet Diaries of Josephus Daniels 1913-1921 (Lincoln, Nebraska: The Universiy of Nebraska Press, 1963), 43.

[xxi] Brown, 122, 201.

[xxii] Haley, 259.

[xxiii] Link, Woodrow Wilson and a Revolutionary World 1913-1921, 23.

[xxiv] Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United State 1917, (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1926), 939, 1014, 1080-1082.

[xxv] ,The Papers of Woodrow Wilson Volume 33, 420.

[xxvi] Mark T. Gilderhus. Pan-American Visions: Woodrow Wilson and the Western Hemisphere 1913-1921 (Tuscon, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1986), 33.

[xxvii] Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United State The Papers of Robert Lansing Volume II, (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1940), 539.

[xxviii] Link, Wilson and a Revolutionary World 1913-1921, 25.