The Army on the Mexican Border

Early in the twentieth century the Army found itself frequently involved in hemispheric problems, not only with the countries of the Caribbean region, but also with the United States’ southern neighbor, Mexico. That nation, after a long era of relative political stability, entered a period of revolutionary turmoil. Beginning in 1911, internal conflicts in the northern part of the country led to recurrent incidents along the Mexican border, posing a serious threat to peace. President William Howard Taft first ordered strengthening of the border patrols and then, in the summer of 1911, concentration of the maneuver division at San Antonio. After a period of quiet, General Victoriano Huerta in 1913 deposed and replaced President Francisco Madero. The assassination of Madero shortly thereafter led to full-scale civil war between Huerta’s forces and those of General Venustiano Carranza, leader of the so-called Constitutionalists, and Emiliano Zapata, chief of the radicals. Woodrow Wilson, who had succeeded Taft as President, disapproved of the manner in which Huerta had come to power. In a significant shift from traditional American policy, the President decided not to recognize Huerta on the grounds that his assumption of power did not meet the test of “constitutional legitimacy.” At the same time, Wilson im- posed an arms embargo on both sides in the civil war. But in early 1914, when Huerta’s forces halted the Constitutionalists, Wilson endeavored to help Carranza by lifting the embargo.

Resentment over Wilson’s action contributed to the arrest in February of American sailors by followers of Huerta in the port of Tampico. Although the sailors were soon released with an expression of regret from Huerta, Rear Adm. Henry T. Mayo, commanding the American Fleet in the area, demanded a public apology. Huerta refused. Feeling that intervention was unavoidable and seeing an opportunity to deprive Huerta of important ports, President Wilson supported Admiral Mayo and proposed to occupy Tampico, seize Veracruz, and blockade both ports. When a German steamer carrying a cargo of ammunition arrived unexpectedly at Veracruz in late April, the United States put ashore a contingent of marines and sailors to occupy the port and prevent the unloading of the ship. Naval gunfire checked a Mexican counter attack and by the end of the month an American force of nearly 8,000 (about half marines and half Army troops) under the command of Maj. Gen. Frederick Funston occupied the city. For a time war with Mexico seemed inevitable, but both Wilson and Huerta accepted mediation and the Mexican leader agreed to resign. Carranza had barely had time to assume office when his erstwhile ally, Francisco “Pancho” Villa, re- belled and proceeded to gain control over most of northern Mexico.
Despite the precariousness of Carranza’s hold on Mexico, President Wilson decided to recognize his government. It was now Villa’s turn to show resentment. He instigated a series of border incidents that culminated in a surprise attack by 500 to 1,000 of his men against Colum- bus, New Mexico, on March 9, 1916. Villa’s troops killed a substantial number of American soldiers and civilians and destroyed considerable property before units of the 13th Cavalry drove them off. The following day President Wilson ordered Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing into Mexico to assist the Mexican government in capturing Villa.
On March 15 the advance elements of this punitive expedition entered Mexico in “hot pursuit.” For the next several months Pershing’s troops chased Villa through unfriendly territory for hundreds of miles, never quite catching up with him but managing to disperse most of his followers. Although Carranza’s troops also failed to capture Villa, Carranza soon showed that he had no desire to have the United States do the job for him. He protested the continued presence of Ameri- can troops in Mexico and insisted upon their withdrawal. Carranza’s unfriendly attitude, plus orders from the War Department forbidding attacks on Mexicans who were not followers of Villa, made it difficult for Pershing to deal effectively with other hostile Mexicans who blocked his path without running the risk of precipitating war. Some clashes with Mexican government troops actually occurred. The most important took place in June at Carrizal, where scores were killed or wound- ed. This action once again created a critical situation and led President Wilson to call 75,000 National Guardsmen into federal service to help police the border.
Aware that the majority of Americans favored a peaceful solution, Wilson persuaded Carranza to resume diplomatic negotiations. The two leaders agreed in late July to submit the disputes arising out of the punitive expedition to a joint commission for settlement. Some time later the commission ruled that the American unit commander in the Carrizal affair was at fault. Although the commission broke up in January 1917 without reaching agreement on a plan for evacuating Pershing’s troops, relations between the United States and Germany had reached so critical a stage that Wilson had no alternative but to order withdrawal of the punitive expedition.
Pershing failed to capture Villa, but the activities of the American troops in Mexico and along the border were not entirely wasted. Dispersal of Villa’s band put an end to serious border incidents. More important from a military point of view was the intensive training in the field received by both Regular Army and National Guard troops who served on the border and in Mexico. Also, the partial mobilization drew more attention to the still-unsolved problem of developing a satisfactory system for maintaining in peacetime the nucleus of those trained forces that would supplement the Regular Army in national emergencies. Fortunately, many defects in the military establishment, especially in the National Guard, came to light in time to be corrected before the Army plunged into the war already under way in Europe.
America could not ignore the huge conflict raging in Europe. At various times it seemed as if the country was going to be dragged into the war, only to retreat from the precipice each time. When the Ger- mans sank the U.S. merchant ship Gulflight on May 1, 1915 and then the British liner Lusitania a week later with the loss of 128 American lives, American public opinion finally began to recognize that the Unit- ed States might have to become involved. Voices calling for more preparedness began to seem more sensible.

Among the voices were those of former Secretary of War Elihu Root, ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, and former Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. Another was that of General Wood, whose term as the Army’s Chief of Staff had expired just over a year after President Wilson and his peace-oriented administration had come to office. Following a practice he had introduced while Chief of Staff of conducting summer camps where college students paying their own way could receive military training, Wood lent his support to a similar four-week camp for business and professional men at Plattsburg Barracks, New York. Known as the Plattsburg idea, its success justified opening other camps, assuring a relatively small but influential cadre possessing basic military skills and imbued with enthusiasm for preparedness.
Yet these were voices of a heavily industrialized and articulate east. Few like them were to be heard from the rural south, the west, or a strongly isolationist midwest where heavy settlements of German- Americans (called by some, derisively, hyphenated Americans) detected in the talk of preparedness a heavy leaning toward the nation’s historic Anglo-Saxon ties. There was in the country a strong tide of outright pacifism, which possessed an eloquent spokesman in Wilson’s Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan.
The depth of Bryan’s convictions became apparent in the government’s reaction to the sinking of the Lusitania. Although Bryan agreed with the President’s first diplomatic protest over the sinking, he dissented when the President, dissatisfied with the German reply and determined to insist on the right of neutrals to engage in commerce on the high seas, insisted on a second and stronger note. The Secretary resigned.
Although sinkings by submarine continued through the summer of 1915, Wilson’s persistent protest at last produced an apparent diplomatic victory when in September the Germans promised that passenger liners would be sunk only after warning and with proper safeguards for passengers’ lives. Decelerating their campaign, the Germans actually acted less in response to American protests than to a realization that they lacked enough submarines to achieve substantive victory by that means that would outweigh the diplomatic cost.
American commerce with Europe meanwhile continued, particularly in munitions; but because of the British blockade almost all was with the allied nations. The British intercepted ships carrying foodstuffs to Germany and held them until their cargoes rotted. Just after mid- 1915 they put even cotton on a long list of contraband and blacklisted any U.S. firm suspected of trading with the Central Powers. These were deliberate and painful affronts, but so profitable was the munitions trade that only the southern states, hurt by the loss of markets for cot- ton, raised loud protest. In October 1915 President Wilson repealed a ban earlier imposed on loans to belligerents, thereby further stimulating trade with the Allies.
While Americans as a whole remained opposed to entering the war, their sympathy for the allied cause grew. A combination of al- lied propaganda and German ineptitude was largely responsible. The propagandists were careful to ensure that nobody forgot the German violation of Belgian neutrality, the ordeal of “Little Belgium.” Stories of babies mutilated and women violated by German soldiers were rampant. The French executed nine women as spies during the war; but it was the death of a British nurse, Edith Cavell, at the hands of the Germans that the world heard about and remembered. Clumsy Ger- man efforts at propaganda in the United States backfired when two military attachés assigned to posts in America were discovered financing espionage and sabotage. The Germans did their cause no further good in October 1916 when one of their submarines surfaced in New- port Harbor, sent an officer ashore to deliver a letter for the German ambassador, then submerged and sank nine allied ships close off the New England coast.
Continuing to champion neutrality and seeking—however unsuccessfully—to persuade the belligerents to establish international rules of submarine warfare, President Wilson was personally becoming more aware of the necessity for military preparedness. Near the end of a nationwide speaking tour in February 1916, he not only called for creation of “the greatest navy in the world” but also urged widespread military training for civilians, lest some day the nation be faced with “putting raw levies of inexperienced men onto the modern field of battle.” Still upholding the cause of freedom of the seas, he refused to go along with congressmen who sought to forbid Americans to travel on armed merchant ships.
Wilson nevertheless continued to demonstrate a fervent hope for neutrality. A submarine attack in March on the French steamer Sus- sex with Americans aboard convinced the President’s adviser, Edward M. “Colonel” House, and his new Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, that the nation should sever diplomatic relations with Germany. A fiery speech of self-justification by the German chancellor in the Reich- stag and a cynical reply to an American note of protest did nothing to discourage that course. Wilson went only so far as to dispatch what amounted to an ultimatum, demanding that the Germans cease the submarine war against passenger and merchant vessels or face severance of relations with the United States.
While questioning the American failure to deal as sternly with the British blockade and rejecting the charge of unrestricted submarine warfare, Germany again agreed to conform to American demands for prior warning and for protecting the lives of passengers. Wilson in turn saw that unless something could be done about the British blockade the German vow probably would be short lived. When a protest to the British availed nothing, the President offered the services of the United States to negotiate a peace. That brought little positive response from either side.

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