A century ago, on US Independence Day 1916, President Venustiano Carranza of Mexico wrote a letter to his US counterpart, Woodrow Wilson. The letter effectively begged Wilson not to declare war on Mexico. Although it made mild protest at the presence of American troops on Mexican soil, it agreed to pretty much every condition that could possibly encourage US friendship, and what had seemed a strong possibility of war vanished from the moment it was received by the Wilson administration.
At first glance that’s nice work, and perhaps an example of peacekeeping that Europe, or at least those militarily minor European nations drawn into the First World War by nationalist ambition, might have done well to emulate – but let’s not get carried away. War between states isn’t so hard to avoid when both parties have something more important to be doing, and while the USA was far more interested in taking control of the world economy in the absence of European competition, Carranza was primarily concerned with establishing control over a long, bloody and chaotic revolution that would eventually shape Mexico into the globally significant shambles it is today.
So while millions are fighting and dying to little immediate strategic effect on the First World War’s main battlefronts, here’s a quick look at the first decade or so of a revolution that had killed an estimated 1,300,000 Mexicans (and a handful of US citizens) by the time its most violent phase came to an end in 1920 – and at why the US was messing with it in 1916.
Independent since 1821, after an 11-year war against Spanish colonial rule, Mexico remained a mess of internal turbulence and international interference until the 1870s. It emerged as a relatively coherent federal republic under the ruthless control of General Porfirio Díaz, who became president in 1876, served for all but four of the next 35 years, and can be broadly summed up as good for business and bad for civil liberties. When lack of clarity about the succession opened the door for his overthrow in 1911, by which time Díaz was over eighty, Mexico was a sprawling nation of some 15 million people, dependent on the USA for 75% of its overseas trade (and almost all its exports of gold, lead, silver and copper), plagued by popular unrest and fractured along political, regional and social fault lines.
Something like civil war broke out almost at once. New president Francisco Modero was murdered in early in 1913, and his successor, Victoriano Huerta, was forced to resign in July 1914 after his internment of US Navy personnel prompted the occupation of Veracruz by US Marines. Meanwhile (by way of locating the revolution’s most famous names), a peasant revolt led by Emilio Zapata had swept through the central southern part of the country since the fall of Díaz, and flamboyant self-publicist Pancho Villa had proclaimed a rebel government in the resource-rich northern province of Chihuahua.
Regular troops against rebels, peasants against rich landowners and businesses, liberals against conservatives… with armies roaming all over the country and inflicting carnage wherever they went, it was maintenance of US trade that eventually imposed a modicum of order in Mexico. Once American mining and metals interests identified Carranza as an apparently liberal force for socioeconomic laissez-faire, their financial support enabled him to establish a regime that, though never anything like secure, was recognised by Washington in October 1915.
By this time Mexican affairs had become a hot topic in the United States, largely thanks to US interventionist and Allied propaganda that claimed both Huerta and Villa were in the pay of the German Empire. When Villa, his army reduced to a bandit remnant after a major defeat by Carranza, launched a cross-border raid against the US town of Columbus, New Mexico, in March 1916 (aimed at punishing US mining executives in the town for their support of Carranza), popular outrage meant the new Secretary of State for War, Newton Baker, had little choice but to react.
A US Army force of some 10,000 men, led by General John J. Pershing (later to command US forces in France, and even later reincarnated as a tank), crossed into Mexico on 15 March, charged with hunting down Villa. It failed, and instead toured Chihuahua province dealing with local hostility wherever it went, culminating in a skirmish with regular forces that sent Carranza – who had given permission for the incursion but then changed his mind – scurrying to open conciliatory talks with the Wilson administration.
Talks between US Army chief of staff General Scott and Carranza’s representative (and future president) General Obregon had achieved nothing substantial when Villa upped the stakes by launching another raid, this time against the town of Glenn Springs, Texas. Pershing’s force was promptly reinforced, but still couldn’t pin down Villa, and full-scale war became a genuine prospect when, on 21 June, a detachment of about 100 American troops (most of them Afro-American or ‘Buffalo’ soldiers) followed up a report that Villa was in the Chihuahua town of Carrizal, but instead ran into a force of 400 Mexican regulars, or Carrancistas. When the US troops refused to withdraw a battle broke out, and by the time it spluttered to an indecisive halt 24 Mexicans were dead and 43 wounded, against eleven US fatalities and 23 taken prisoner.
A furious Pershing was characteristically keen to launch a full-scale reprisal attack against the main Carrancista garrison in Chihuahua, and public opinion on both sides of the border was loudly in favour of the war such an attack would no doubt have provoked. Wilson, at the start of a re-election campaign that portrayed him as the protector of peace, forbade further action, instead making US outrage clear by mobilising more than 100,000 National Guard troops along the frontier. Carranza’s response was the letter of 4 July, which contained a fulsome apology, along with an offer to open negotiations and a promise to meet American demands for reform of his regime.
The negotiations began in early September and produced a joint statement on Christmas Eve that promised a new, more liberal constitution for Mexico, and gave US forces permission to remain in Mexico for as long as Washington felt necessary on security grounds. Pershing’s force eventually withdrew back into the US in early February 1917, by which time war between the US and Germany appeared imminent. Mexico’s mining and emerging oil industries then enjoyed a temporary war boom on the back of increased US demand, helping Carranza stay in power throughout the War, despite permanent, violent internal unrest and persistent US suspicion that he was colluding with the Central Powers (of which more another day).
After failing to fix the election of a civilian successor, Carranza was murdered in 1920 (a fate that befell pretty much every leader involved in the Mexican Revolution, including Zapata in 1919 and Villa in 1923). His death signalled another three years of civil war, and Mexico would remain in a state of revolutionary turmoil, punctuated by coups d’état and armed conflicts, until the late 1930s, when critical food shortages for a growing population compelled cooperation between landed interests, peasant leaders and the church, ushering in decades of relative political stability in the face of endemic economic fragility.
No big message comes with this post. It’s just a nod to more than a million dead, to the contemporary power and importance of American business interests, and to a protracted struggle to determine a vast country’s destiny that is largely ignored outside Mexico and the USA. Meanwhile, in northern France, heavy thunderstorms didn’t stop French and British forces involved in the Somme Offensive capturing a village and a couple of woods on 4 July… but everyone knows that.