Story of Mexico - Charles Morris

Relations Between Mexico and the United States

In an earlier chapter the statement was made that a considerable part of the border between the United States and Mexico is little more than a mathematical expression, no line of demarcation existing and the territories of the two countries meeting each other on an open plain. At points frontier towns of the two republics approach so closely that they almost run together. The two most important of these, Ciudad Juarez (the City of Juarez) of Mexico and El Paso of the United States, stand opposite each other at the point where the Rio Grande ends its mission as a national boundary line and begins its extension into United States territory, a bridge across the stream here connecting the two countries.

The facts cited are given to show the close territorial relations existing between these two nations and the consequent necessity on the part of the United States to keep a close watch over this easily crossed border line. In times of peace no such vigilance is requisite, but during the eras of turbulence which have so frequently spread warlike turmoil over Mexican soil its near neighbor has been at times obliged, in the interest of justice and international obligation, to guard its far-flung boundary line and prevent either of the parties in conflict from using the soil of the United States as a vantage ground for warlike incursion or from smuggling munitions of war across the border.

On several occasions within recent years the War Department at Washington has issued mobilizing orders to the army in consequence of disturbed conditions in the near vicinity of American soil. This was done in June and September, 1908, and July, 1909. In March, 1911, the state of affairs in Mexico had grown critical, with the forces of Diaz and Madero everywhere in the field and fighting going on so close to the border that bullets found their way across the line and whistled in American ears. Evidently the time for energetic action had arrived. Orders were issued to send all available troops to the Mexican frontier, and in a brief interval trains laden with United States regulars and the necessary munitions were rolling rapidly southward, the point of mobilization being San Antonio, Texas. By the 7th over 20,000 troops were stated to have reached this and other points, and fast, cruisers were despatched to Galveston to be in readiness in case of difficulty in commercial relations.

The announcement was made that no threat to Mexico was intended in this movement of troops, but that its purpose was to practice the army in field exercises and to experiment in the line of rapid mobilization and military evolutions. It may be said that hardly a person in the United States or Mexico believed this explanation. It had too much the appearance of a transparent white lie. Affairs were critical near the border, the opposing forces of government and revolution having locked horns almost on the international line, as if for the purpose of provoking the United States to interfere. The well-founded impression was that the movement was ordered for the purpose of protecting American interests and maintaining American neutrality as regarded the contending forces, and that the pretense of military exercises was a mere cloak to cover the real design.

In fact, matters had reached such a crisis along the border line that anxiety was felt in both countries concerned. Friction arose over the seizure by Mexicans of two Americans, the Mexican government refusing to release them on the ground that they had aided the rebels and had been taken on Mexican soil. This was denied on the part of the United States, which averred that the seizure had taken place on American soil. This was not the only ground of trouble. Battling took place so near the border line that bullets whizzed from Mexico into the United States and endangered the lives of persons in the town of Douglas, Arizona. In the end the Americans in Mexican hands were set free and the belligerents were warned that fighting must not take place too near the border, on peril of the United States troops taking a hand in the game for the protection of American lives. There were other causes of grievance, much damage having been done to American property in Mexico, and 500 claims for compensation had been filed in the State Department at Washington. Certainly the situation was a serious one.

On the 14th of March, 1912, President Taft issued a proclamation forbidding the exportation of arms to Mexico during the struggle in that country. Power to do this had been granted him by Congress whenever he should find that "in any American country conditions of domestic violence exist which are promoted by the use of arms and munitions of war procured from the United States." When Wilson succeeded Taft as President this prohibition was allowed to stand unchanged, though as time went on and the insurgents showed indications of winning in the struggle many Congressmen urged that it should be lifted as the surest means of bringing to an end the hostilities existing in Mexico. By the end of 1913 Mexico had become divided between two factions, the whole northern section being in the hands of the revolutionists, the southern section in those of the Huertists, though in the latter case not fully, since the Zapata brigands were in control of a considerable part of the south.

President Woodrow Wilson,


The argument brought by General Carranza and his fellow leaders was that their control over Mexico was equal to that of the Huertists, the territory under their control larger than that held by the latter., and their right to consider theirs as the actual government better than that of a man whose power rested on the murder of the legitimate president and nomination by a Congress of his own making. But as matters stood the Huerta faction was able to purchase arms in Europe and Japan and import them freely, as they held all the ports; while the revolutionists, whose only open channel of communication was with the United States, were debarred from any similar privilege by the prohibition above spoken of. While this applied to both factions, its disadvantageous effect was felt by the revolutionary faction alone.

The argument of the revolutionists was a reasonable one, and was acknowledged as such by many American statesmen. President Wilson had long held it in mind, on the basis that the restriction of trade in arms with Mexico was not, under the circumstances, an evidence of neutrality, since the Huerta forces were enabled to get large supplies from abroad, while the Constitutionalists, their equals in real legitimacy, could obtain them only by smuggling. Aside from this, the prohibition was a costly one to the United States, since it rendered necessary the patrolling by troops of the long border line between the two countries, the chief necessity for which had been the prevention of smuggling arms across the border. Yet no action was taken, and the year 1914 opened without any change in the prohibition policy.

The Huerta administration in Mexico was early recognized by several European powers, including Great, Britain, Spain and France. The British recognition was said to have been instigated by the fact of the large holdings of petroleum interests in Mexico by British subjects. Later, however, when it became evident that the United States would not recognize a government founded on force and resulting from the assassination of a legitimate president, the British recognition was declared to be only temporary, was open to withdrawal. Europe in general showed a similar disposition to follow the lead of the United States and leave to this country, whose financial interests in Mexico were far larger than those of any other nation, the settlement of the question. The sentiment of the commercial interests abroad was somewhat general that the United States should intervene and bring the struggle to an end by forcible means. But President Wilson, recognizing the possible serious results of such action, declined, and early in his administration adopted a policy of watchful waiting and non-interference. Henry Lane Wilson, the American ambassador to Mexico, had expressed the belief that the Huerta government was innocent of any connection with the murder of President Madero, and asked for its recognition. This was not given, and the battleships then in Mexican ports were ordered to remain there and the troops to retain their positions on the border. The policy adopted continued to be a waiting one, though accompanied by the presence of a large armed force on the frontier and ten ships of war in the Gulf waters.

This had an important effect. Without American recognition the Mexican government could not obtain a foreign loan, the financial interests abroad feeling it dangerous to risk their funds on such doubtful security. The policy of the United States in this particular has been aptly designated a freezing one. While no active steps were taken against the Mexican government, the passive one proved very serious, as it cut off all inflow of funds from abroad to sustain the war, and reduced the governing powers in Mexico to the use of such doubtful supplies as could be obtained by drastic taxation or forced demands upon business and financial interests. The financial straits of the Huerta government at length proved so severe that the payment of interest due January 1, 1914, on the Mexican national debt was suspended, this greatly increasing the stringency of relations between the Mexican and foreign administrations.

The position maintained by Ambassador Wilson, that the Huerta government was innocent of any connection with the murder of President Madero and should be recognized by the American government, became in time so embarrassing to President Wilson that he recalled the ambassador to Washington for a special conference. He left Mexico for this purpose on July 24th. He found President Wilson firmly convinced that Huerta had installed himself as a dictator without warrant, owing his position to and in collusion with those to whom the murder of Madero was due. In his opinion the only method of bringing Mexico into a position warranting recognition of its government was to oust the usurper and elect a constitutional executive.

Mr. John Lind


The result of the conference was the resignation of the ambassador. No successor was appointed, the American interests in Mexico being left in the care of Nelson O'Shaughnessy, chargé d'affaires. President Wilson sent in addition a special envoy to Mexico, selecting for this mission John Lind, a former member of Congress and Governor of Minnesota. He reached Mexico on August 10th, but was informed that his presence there was undesirable unless he was prepared to recognize the existing government. As he could not do this under his instructions, and found it impossible to bring Huerta to his way of thinking, his mission in Mexico seemed likely to prove of no effect.

By the middle of October the relations between the United States and Mexico had grown very stringent, and a note sent by President Wilson to Huerta gave him deep offense. "Intemperate ",was his term for this communication. The "note" in question was the following:

"The President is shocked at the lawless methods employed by General Huerta, and as a sincere friend of Mexico is deeply distressed at the situation which has arisen. He finds it impossible to regard otherwise than as an act of bad faith toward the United States General Huerta's course in dissolving Congress and arresting the deputies.

"It is not only a violation of constitutional guarantee, but it destroys all possibility of a fair and free election. The President believes that an election held at this time, and under conditions as they now exist, would have none of the sanctity with which the law surrounds the ballot, and that its result could not be regarded as representing the will of the people. The President would not be justified in accepting the result of such an election or in recognizing the President so chosen."

The lawless methods spoken of referred to the arrest by Huerta of 110 member, of the lower House of Congress and their imprisonment for the offense of speaking freely of the unsatisfactory course of events, also to the purpose of holding an election on October 26th, with the full knowledge that it was impossible at that time to obtain a full and free vote.

At the time of sending this note four battleships were despatched to Vera Cruz, and the leading powers of Europe had it in view to take a similar course. But neither the "note" nor the implied threat in sending these warships had a deterring effect upon Huerta, who stood defiant of all protesting powers. He, indeed, spoke of resigning, but this was looked upon as a mere trick, his Cabinet, subservient to him in its debates, deciding not to let him resign, being probably well advised that he had no thought of such an action. In fact he immediately afterward thus declared himself :

"When I resign it will be to seek a resting place six feet in the soil. When I flee the capital it will be to shoulder a rifle and take my place in the ranks to fight the rebels."

During the month of November the feeling of the powers grew more decided in favor of using force against the Mexican dictator, and on the 3rd. President Wilson plainly told Huerta that he must resign the presidency of Mexico without loss of time, and must not leave as his successor General Blanquet, or any member of his official family or unofficial coterie whom he might expect to control.

The language of this communication was mandatory, and seemed backed up by the presence of the American battleships at Vera Cruz. It caused a general excitement in Mexico, especially as the plans of the American President were backed up by England, France and Germany, which joined in ordering Huerta to withdraw. There was even talk of blockading the Mexican ports within three days.

As before, however, nothing came of it. Huerta appeared to waver, and for some days he disappeared, as if in hiding. But procrastination had the same effect as defiance, actual armed intervention was a step which none of the nations were willing to take, and the affair blew over leaving the state of affairs unchanged.

On December 9th a new move was made in Mexican politics. The Congress then existing, that claimed to have been elected on October 26th, declared the election on that date to be null and void, but at the same time passed a resolution declaring Huerta president until a new election should be held on July 10, 1914. This resolution by a body declared at the same time that it had no legal existence was of the usual type of legislation in Mexico at that period.

The great interest taken by the administration in Mexican affairs, and the warrant for the inflexible attitude of President Wilson, was the large financial interest of Americans in Mexico, estimated to amount in value to more than $1,000,000,000, a larger sum than those of all European countries combined. As a result there was a large number of Americans residing in Mexico whose lives, as well as their property, were imperilled by the existing condition of affairs.

U.S. Marines going on board ship for the voyage to


With some of them a state of panic existed, and the feeling of their danger was shared by the President, who urged all Americans to leave the country, and by Congress, which on September 12th voted an appropriation of $100,000 to aid Americans who were destitute of the necessary funds for the homeward journey. There were many ready to take advantage of this, and a large number hurried to the seaports for transportation home. Those who remained were persons of large property interests, which would be seriously endangered by their absence, those who did not share the panic many, and those of the daring class who are always ready to face danger.

In his annual message to Congress on December 2, 1913, President Wilson plainly stated his views as to the conditions then existing, saying:

"Mexico has no government. The attempt to maintain one at the city of Mexico has broken down, and a mere military despotism has been set up which has hardly more than the semblance of national authority. It originated in the usurpation of Victorian Huerta, who, after a brief attempt to play the part of constitutional president, has at last cast aside even the pretense of legal right and declared himself dictator. As a consequence, a condition of affairs now exists in Mexico which has made it doubtful whether even the most elementary and fundamental rights either of her own people or of the citizens of other countries resident within her territory can long be successfully safeguarded, and which threatens, if long continued, to imperil the interests of peace, order and tolerable life in the lands immediately to the south of us."

The method of "watchful waiting," which had been broken at times by ineffective efforts to force Huerta to resign, went on until February 3rd, when a new step was taken by the American President, that of lifting the embargo on trade in arms which had existed for nearly two years, and opening the way for the Constitutionalists to place themselves on a level in this particular. On that date the following proclamation was issued:

"Whereas, By a proclamation of the President issued on March 14, 1912, under a joint resolution of Congress approved by the President on the same day, it was declared that there existed in Mexico conditions of domestic violence which were promoted by the use of arms or munitions of war procured from the United States; and

"Whereas, By the joint resolution above mentioned it thereupon became unlawful to export arms or munitions of war to Mexico except under such limitations and exceptions as the President should prescribe;

"Now, therefore, I, Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States of America, hereby declare and proclaim that, as the conditions on which the proclamation of March 14, 1912, was based have essentially changed, and as it is desirable to place the United States, with reference to the exportation of arms or munitions of war to Mexico, in the same position as other Powers, the said proclamation is hereby revoked.

"In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed. Done at the city of Washington this third day of February, in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and fourteen, and of the independence of the United States the one hundred and thirty-eighth.

"By the President. Woodrow Wilson.

W.J. Byran,
"Secretary of State"

This step went far towards equalizing conditions between the contending factions. General Carranza had more than once declared that if the revolutionists were given the power of obtaining war material the conflict would be of short duration, and that the forces under his command could not long be kept out of Mexico City. The time to prove if this assertion was justified had come.

The proclamation had scarcely been made public before the supply of arms in the military stores at El Paso were exhausted by the demand from Juarez. Larger supplies were set in motion from New Orleans towards the border. During the previous period smuggling of arms over the border had gone on to a considerable extent, and a large quantity of arms that had been seized and held by the border patrols were now set free and permitted to reach those who long before had paid for them.

Officials who had kept in touch with the Mexican campaigns, said that the Constitutionalist forces had been at a great disadvantage because of the superior artillery of the Huerta army. The Constitutionalists, while plentifully supplied with small ammunition and materials for their rapid-fire guns, had been almost entirely without heavy artillery. They even had been put to the straits of manufacturing guns in the railroad machine shops of Chihuahua and Durango.

That an abundant supply of arms and ammunition would be of great assistance to them was very evident. The officials at Washington, while "freezing" out the Huerta government from obtaining funds from Europe, had at the same time been "freezing" out the revolutionists from obtaining arms from the United States. This restriction had now been lifted and the effect remained to be seen.

The government of the United States had not alone its relations with Mexico to consider, but also those with the nations of Europe, such at least as had trading interests with Mexico and had recognized the Huerta administration as legitimate. The refusal of recognition on the part of President Wilson had put these nations into a somewhat awkward attitude. The shadow of the Monroe Doctrine lay across the path of action on the part of foreign powers, and they felt chary of taking any decisive step under the circumstances. As the United States had so long stood forward as the guardian of the weaker American republics, the watch-dog over American interests in general, the attitude of this country regarding Mexican or any Latin-American question had grown to be looked upon as antecedent to any decision of their own.

President Wilson's ultimatum had one important effect: it checked at its source any outflow of each toward Mexican government coffers. High finance is a sensitive organism, one that draws in its tendrils at the least touch of doubt. The United States had given its verdict that Mexico had no constitutional government; what the United States said in regard to American interests was apt to go; the money chests abroad were accordingly locked tight and the Huerta government left to gather in funds at home if it could; they were not to be had abroad.

Intervention was looked upon by foreign powers as a reasonable policy under the circumstances. Not intervention by themselves, however. They preferred to have Uncle Sam pull their chestnuts out of the fire. But Uncle Sam was not eager to put his paws into the fire to please his foreign cousins. He knew too well what it meant. His foresight showed him all Mexico in arms against him. He had visions of possibly all Latin America aiding or abetting Mexico. He preferred to leave the perilous task to his allies, the rebels in arms, and contented himself with asking Huerta to step down and out. The only difficulty in the problem was that Huerta refused to do anything of the kind.

The fact is, that the United States found itself in an awkward quandary. With the Mexican dictator defying it, with the prevision that the ultimate cost of armed intervention might count up to more than the billion-dollar American interest in Mexico, with all the other grave possibilities that might attend such an action, it seemed decidedly best to watch and wait and trust to time and events to make the problem one easier of solution. The time came in April, 1914, when the Mexicans, by an insult to the American flag, forced President Wilson to adopt the policy of intervention which he had so long declined, and enter upon a new and more decided course of action.