Monday, April 18, 2011

Wilson and Mexico

In the previous post I mentioned Woodrow Wilson's 1914 intervention in Mexico. There is a somewhat different perspective on this episode in John Judis's 2004 book The Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush Could Learn from Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Judis writes that after sending troops to occupy Veracruz, which turned out to be a "disaster" which incited "riots and demonstrations all over the country" (pp.91-2), Wilson "learned his lesson" and switched to a non-interventionist stance. When his Secretary of War urged Wilson to send U.S. soldiers to Mexico City, he replied: "We shall have no right at any time to intervene in Mexico to determine the way in which the Mexicans are to settle their own affairs...." (p.92) Judis says that "in his policy toward Mexico, Wilson also broke with a century-old view of the Mexicans as Indians who were incapable of self-government." (p.93)

I know virtually nothing about this episode and perhaps other interpretations of it exist. Just passing this on FWIW.

P.s. H.W. Brands, in his Woodrow Wilson (The American Presidents Series, 2003), p.50, notes that "the lessons Wilson learned in Mexico didn't prevent him from sending troops to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in 1915 and 1916 respectively, when trouble in those countries threatened American interests and Caribbean stability" -- or, at any rate, what Wilson considered to be American interests and Caribbean stability.


hank_F_M said...


I did not read the book, on the other hand small wars are interesting and I have probably read more about this misadventure than it is worth. But I think it was key turning point in US foreign policy. A number of soldiers and marines who later obtained prominence served in this campaign

The Mexican context is the Mexican Civil War of 1910-1920, which had some impact on it’s northern neighbor.

Mexican President Victoriano Huerta of Mexico, who got in office partly by murdering his predecessor, generally considered the proper President of Mexico by the international community and was a very authoritarian ruler. He is still called “The Jackel” in Mexico. The opposition at the point was lead by Venustiano Carranza who succeeded Huerta as President. It is hard to say that his style or the other leaders of different factions were much better than Huerta’s

The American context is Wilson’s policies which saw major interventions in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, Mexico (twice), WWI, and the WWI side show in Russia and Siberia. The stated reasons are hard to comprehend, WWI making the most sense. My opinion is that very the idealistic Wilson was what we would call these days a “liberal hawk.” He seems to have forced the incident to replace Huerta with Carranza because Huerta was not in line with his liberal values and he thought Carranza was. To move beyond Vera Cruz politically would require one of the Mexican leaders to invite the Americans as an ally. Neither Carranza or any other Mexican leader would cooperate thus Wilson’s disingenious statement that we had no right to intervene. What ever else can be said about Carranza his patriotic refusal to cooperate was a great service to both the Mexic and the US,.

The incident is a major change in US foreign policy. Prior to that US interventions were what Russell Mead would call Hamiltonian. This was the first Wilsonian intervention, to intervene in a foreign country to determine the way in which it settles it’s own affairs. It has pretty much been an occasional Democratic approach and except for the neoCons who got kicked out of the left, not embraced by the Republicans.

When I younger I would read the thrilling stories of this and other incidents and develop a great respect for the person’s on both sides who did the fighting or were caught in the middle and an intense dislike of the politicians on both sides who put them there. If you wish you can take my very jaundiced opinion of Woodrow Wilson with a grain of salt.

wikipedia has nice write up of the incident itself and links every where.

LFC said...

Thanks. You may be right about Wilson's statement having been somewhat disingenuous, in which case Judis's take on it is wrong. The H.W. Brands book has the twin merits of being well-written and very short, although I did not read it from cover to cover. But I did learn some new things (new to me) about Wilson, such as that he did not learn to read until he was ten years old. (Dyslexic, Brands suggests, though he obviously overcame it.)