Veracruz: Woodrow Wilson vs. Victoriano Huerta

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson

Drawing on the third and fourth years of the Mexican Revolution, the usurpation of power by General Victoriano Huerta and the brutal murders of former President and Vice President of Mexico, Francisco Madero and Pino Suárez, set the stage for extended chaos in Mexico by attracting the paternalistic oversight of the United States and the increased fervor of the other Mexican Revolutionaries, such as Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Venustiano Carranza, and Álvaro Obregón. Following a misunderstanding and the temporary detainment of American sailors at Tampico on 9 April 1914, U.S. commanding officer Admiral Henry Mayo issued his demands for repentance, which, unobserved by the Huerta government, ultimately combined with several other mishaps in Mexico involving American citizens and intelligence reports gathered by the United States to lead the Wilson Administration to believe "there was no other course of action" than to land in Veracruz, an operation undertaken on April 21, 1914 and terminated on November 23rd of the same year.1 Though more Americans, when asked, place the intervention in Veracruz in the same time frame as the Mexican-American War of 18472, the 1914 aggressions serve as much more than a fleeting memory to the Mexican people. Occurring at the very heat of the Revolution, the "I'm going to teach the South American Republics how to elect good men!"3 attitude of newly-inaugurated President Woodrow Wilson bred intense contempt for the meddling of the Colossus of the North in the most crucial stages of Mexican social development. The unconstitutional "Provisional President" of Mexico, General Victoriano Huerta, was seen by most Mexican citizens as detestable for his coup d'état and few did not blame him for the assassinations of Madero and Suárez, revered as heroes of the Revolution despite their shortcomings of personality. Likewise, as the Americans cut Huerta from Veracruz and the customshouse, the rebel forces all became desperate to oust Huerta and occupy the capital before any further U.S. offensives could pass. Though facilitating the effort, the Americans did not play an essential role in the transfer of power to the Constitutionalists of Mexico, as many historians argue that Huerta was bound to fall because of the odds against him. Nonetheless, the defeat of Huerta after the intervention in Veracruz served both Mexican and American aims, as he was viewed as a scoundrel by both parties. It also triggered the next half of the Mexican Revolution, a period defined by violence and infighting amongst the revolutionaries, which eventually produced Álvaro Obregón as its chief and President in 1920. The U.S. Intervention in Veracruz represented quite possibly the only alignment of U.S. and Mexican interests between 1910-1920, although the bullying sowed intense hatred for America in Mexican hearts, not just for intervening, but for approaching the Mexicans as inferiors just at the moment they were struggling to erect a true society.

As soon as 1910 Mexican Presidential candidate Francisco Madero signed the Treaty of Ciudad Juárez on 17 May 1911 arranging the resignation of long-time dictator Porfirio Díaz and proceeded to assume the Presidency on 6 Novemeber, he faced difficulties "insurmountable in any case... No human, not even an inspiring leader and strong executive, could have solved Mexico's problems as easily as the multitudes had expected." 4 Unfortunately for Madero, he "had never been the sort of revolutionary the masses longed for", and appeared "lacked the revolutionary fervor necessary to establish a viable revolutionary regime; he lacked even an understanding of the people.5" Aside from this, he erred first in allowing Porfirio Díaz' former Vice President, Francisco León de la Barra, to hold the reins as interim President for nearly 5 months, serving to stamp out the more liberal reforms originally proposed by Madero and his supporters, such as Emiliano Zapata, undermining his political base from day one. Successive rebellions by Díaz adherents flaring up in 1912 and early 1913, among them Bernardo Reyés, Pascual Orozco, and Porfirio´s nephew, Félix Díaz, would be vultured by the claws of Victoriano Huerta, appointed by Madero to the defense of federal forces in Mexico City, when he removed Madero's loyal palace guards and planted General Aureliano Blanquet of the newly-arrived Twenty-ninth battalion who would take Madero and Suárez prisoner, delivering the city to the Huerta forces. Huerta's conspiratorial motivations present themselves clearly in a report to Washington sent by U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson, 9 days after the beginning of yet another uprising by Félix Díaz in February 1913, which stated that ¨Wilson met personally with Huerta for the first time alone. At 4:00 P.M. the ambassador reported to Washington that President Madero would be removed from office very soon."6 Madero and Suárez were told on the night of their assassination, 18 February 1913, that they were being transferred to a different facility for ¨greater comfort¨, but were summarily executed by men proven in an anecdote retold in John Eisenhower´s Intervention! to have been in cahoots with Victoriano Huerta and his amiguetes.7 It is at this moment in the Mexican Revolution, when freshly-inaugurated U.S. President Woodrow Wilson refused to recognize the Huerta authority, argues Eisenhower, that official U.S. involvement (not considering Henry Lane Wilson's independent Pact of the Embassy) began.

1 Jack Sweetman, The Landing at Veracruz:1914 (Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute, 1968), 47.

2 John Eisenhower, Intervention! : The United States and the Mexican Revolution, 1913-1917 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993), xiv.

3 Eisenhower, Intervention!, 32.

4 Eisenhower, Intervention!, 10.

5 Eisenhower, Intervention!, 11.


6 Eisenhower, Intervention!, 24.

7 Eisenhower, Intervention!, i-xxiv.

Victoriano Huerta

Victoriano Huerta
Victoriano Huerta

On that day, Huerta filled the vacant office of President, a man sharply opposite to Mexico's late leader. The people were relieved to have escaped the upheaval of recent days, and "those who chafed under the ineptitude of Francisco Madero were elated. The army was, of course, glad to have one of its own back in power; bankers offered loans to the new regime."1 Despite this instant gratitude, Huerta's own drawbacks were never shy. The so-called Pact of the Embassy confabulated on by Huerta, Henry Lane Wilson, and Félix Díaz, never guaranteed Huerta lasting control; it actually provided for Félix Díaz to be supported by Huerta after Huerta was to relinquish provisional president status and hold an election in 1913. General Huerta alienated Félix Díaz, forcing him to flee Mexico after being appointed ambassador to Japan, and Huerta´s brusque personality- Mexicans to this day refer to him as "El Chacal"- only emboldened the Constitutionalists in Mexico and American interests lined up against him. "Protests rumbled in the northern Mexican states of Sonora, Chihuahua, and Coahuila as soon as Huerta seized office, even before Madero and Pino Suárez were murdered."2 There was never any doubt in men like Venustiano Carranza, who would follow Huerta as President, that Huerta was in fact a criminal on the throne, and his removal never fell from the priorities of the Mexican population.

Shortly before Woodrow Wilson's oath of office on 4 March 1913, he hinted to an old Princeton friend that "it would be an irony of fate if my administration had to deal with foreign affairs", focused as he was on domestic matters.3 This outlook experienced a wild and swift reversal; "[Woodrow] Wilson and [Secretary of State William Jennings] Bryan did not consider a coup d'état a natural occurrence, especially not when compounded by brutal murders; they judged Huerta largely by the way he had seized the Presidency of Mexico. So Wilson, perfectly confident of his right to do so, called on Huerta to step aside as president and hold a general election."4 On 11 March, Wilson put forth his "Declaration of Policy in Regard to Latin America", which said in part, "We can have no sympathy with those who seek to seize the power of government to advance their own personal interest or ambition"5, unveiling his grudge against Huerta, one which would only grow more furious as his Mexican counterpart continued to ignore American demands. Huerta would go on to viciously murder opponents at home, even in Congress, as he ordered his cronies to shoot and bury the outspoken senator, Belisario Domínguez, spreading grief and alarm to every end of the country. "In Washington, President Woodrow Wilson viewed the degenerating Mexican scene with horror but also with perplexity",6 and after having sent his friend, William Hale, to investigate the Mexican debacle, who noted that Huerta was already doomed and that his further standing as President could require U.S. intervention, Wilson made a public declaration of policy on 14 June, calling on Huerta once again to abdicate. Of course, Huerta scoffed at this notion, and also refused to grant Wilson's next representative an appointment, at which point the United States first studied plans for the occupation of Mexico City. John Eisenhower emphasizes the role of the internal movements against Huerta, saying: "His regime was in danger not from the outside of Mexico, but from the inside, where the successes scored by the warlords of the north were rapidly eroding the territory under his


Mexican-American relations would cool down considerably for six weeks following Wilson's announcement of a "watchful waiting" policy in late August 1913, only to be tempered when Huerta would take drastic measures to gain dictatorial supremacy, besieging Congress and arresting over a hundred members just for looking into the murder of their comrade, Belisario Domínguez. Eisenhower argues that Wilson and William Bryan "were now confronted with the stark reality that Victoriano Huerta intended to retain presidential power indefinitely and by any means at his disposal"8, which did not bode well for Wilson's budding vendetta against Huerta as some bright sides of the new caudillo began to shine: the peso was stabilizing, the European powers uniformly recognized Huerta, an alliance with the church was restored, and the propertied classes offered redoubled support for Huerta after the U.S. began to turn an interventionist eye towards their southernly neighbor.9 After Huerta effectively dissolved Congress, John Eisenhower, Robert Quirk, and Jack Sweetman all concur that Wilson's true aims were clarified. Sweetman notes that Wilson was adamant from the start, proclaiming, "I will not recognize a government of butchers!"10 Sweetman draws the conclusion that "whatever Wilson undertook in regard to Mexico, the desire to see Huerta supplanted would remain foremost in his mind."11 On 12 October, when Huerta troops encircled Congress, Wilson's entire demeanor swung to extremes, and on 30 October, Wilson's top advisor, Colonel Edward M. House wrote in his diary: "The President has in mind to declare war on mexico... A real crisis has arisen." Sweetman asserts that "from this time forward, his [Wilson's] determination to eliminate Huerta would not stem solely from his dedication to an abstract moral concept. It would be supported by a passionate, personal commitment to an objective rather like revenge... Overthrowing Huerta had become an obsession."12 Robert Quirk acknowledges the principle behind Wilson's distaste: "To him [Wilson], Huerta was the symbol for all that was wrong with Latin American governments. He offended Wilson's sense of decency and fair play, his desire to see popular and democratic rule installed everywhere."13 Wilson actually overstepped international code on 1 February 1914 by lifting an arms embargo on the Mexican rebels, assuring that the civil strife would be prolonged even without U.S. military meddling. It would not be until the fateful day of 9 April 1914, however, that Wilson would get his chance to pry directly into Mexican affairs and launch a campaign against Huerta.

1 Eisenhower, Intervention!, 34.

2 Eisenhower, Intervention!, 31.

3 Eisenhower, Intervention!, 32.

4 Eisenhower, Intervention!, 33.

5 Eisenhower, Intervention!, 33.

6 Eisenhower, Intervention!, 36.

7 Eisenhower, Intervention!, 37.

8 Eisenhower, Intervention!, 61.

9 Sweetman, Landing at Veracruz, 25.

10 Sweetman, Landing at Veracruz, 13.

11 Sweetman, Landing at Veracruz, 13.

12 Sweetman, Landing at Veracruz, 23-24.

13 Robert E. Quirk, An Affair of Honor: Woodrow Wilson and the Occupation of Veracruz (Frankfort, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1962), 2.

USS Dolphin

USS Dolphin
USS Dolphin

On that day, a whaleboat from the USS Dolphin under Assistant Paymaster Charles Copp had gone to buy gas from a German proprietor near Tampico with 8 men aboard. As it was, Tampico was in upheaval; rebel lines pushing for Huerta's head had edged closer and closer to the site where Mexican regulars curiously detained the Americans for crossing their waters. Their commanding officer, Colonel Ramón Hinjosa, was caught aghast, realizing the implications of such a mistake, but figured his men suspected a ruse, as they were expecting a rebel offensive. General Morelos Zaragoza arrested Hinjosa for what he called ¨negligence¨ and thought the incident had ended there. U.S. Admiral Henry Mayo, on the other hand, insisted on a hoisting of the American flag and a 21-gun salute, to be echoed by his command ship. Victoriano Huerta made the necessary steps to apologize, but saw the qualifications for forgiveness as outrageous and as an acceptance of "the sovereignty of a foreign state to the derogation of national dignity and decorum."1 The New York Times added that Mexicans saw the demands as contradictory to the ideals of the Mexican Revolution itself, and predicted that Tampico would fizzle out at Tampico, "unless the United States [was] looking for an excuse to start trouble."2 Quirk states that "it was equally true that Wilson had been looking for just such an excuse to intervene in Mexico, [as] his entire Mexican policy turned upon the elimination of Victoriano Huerta."3 Tampico marks the most pivotal point in this series of events, as "once Wilson had decided upon his elimination, Huerta had no chance whatsoever", making it all too convenient for Wilson to mobilize when the Mexicans at Tampico briefly held 9 American sailors out of understandable defensive action. "The last sentence in Wilson's telegram [to Washington] provides a clue to the president's real attitude, and this was to be his guide during the coming days of negotiation: He did not request that Robert Lansing (counselor of the State Department) find precedents to help shape his government's policies. Instead, Wilson wanted a rationalization for a predetermined course of action."4

Following Tampico, all three scholars bring up the day of 11 April as significant to the building of the case for U.S. intervention. U.S. consuls in Veracruz reported the jailing of an American mail orderly although he was in full dress, and a Mexican censor took an American diplomatic courier into unlawful custody. Wilson would go on to reveal the deliberate significance placed on all three of these episodes by his administration, referring to Tampico thus: "I have known for months that some such thing could happen- it was inevitable in fact."5 By all appearances, the United States was gearing for an oncoming conflict with Mexico, whether it was to come via an invasion or limited intervention. The day of April 20th, 1914, brought the most key intelligence report yet to the eyes of Wilson and William Bryan; the German ship Ypiranga was bound for Veracruz, due to land within a day or two, carrying a shipment of arms for the Huerta government, which Wilson interpreted as something he simply could not allow to pass. As opposed to giving Germany grounds for war by intercepting the Ypiranga in the water, Wilson ended up leaning towards ordering his men off the Mexican coast to land at Veracruz and prevent the arrival of the weapons by refusing to let the Ypiranga deliver them, where they would remain until 23 November 1914, sparking what has become known as the U.S. intervention in Veracruz.

After the dogfight for Veracruz, the Americans took it, sustaining 92 casualties while the Mexicans endured roughly 400. Robert Quirk and Jack Sweetman heavily discuss the positive, immediate effects of American occupation, while John Eisenhower but shares their point of view on the political, social, and psychological aftermath. As described by Quirk, "The most immediate and pressing problem facing the American commander was that of public health and sanitation [in Veracruz]."6 The massive breeding of malarial mosquitoes, as well as rampant smallpox, meningitis, gonorrhea, syphilis, tuberculosis, and dysentery, were "owing to the constant heat, the flies, and the refuse and filth scattered throughout the city."7 More than three thousand soldiers were employed to do away with years of waste and dirty habits, and together they nearly purified the marketplaces and common grounds. The Department of Public Works installed new programs of renovation within the port city, encouraging the construction of sidewalks, sanitation regulations, and the repair of buildings damaged prior to and during the American aggressions. Corruption was also struck down, the prisons were tended to, and legislation was pushed through to enact laws against unclean behavior, such as depositing trash or feces on the street as was previously commonplace. The Marines also "took advantage of the Mexican laws which required public women [prostitutes] to register with the police. Those found to be infected were hospitalized until they were cured,” leading to a giant halt in prostitution as a whole and in the number of STD-carrying women among their kind.8

These improvements, though magnificent, were lost with haste after the Americans abandoned the occupation of Veracruz on 23 November. The Mexicans, now under the leadership of Venustiano Carranza (officially on 20 August) since Huerta's self-imposed exile on 15 July, were very hateful of the American intervention and found Wilson's posture as a teacher to the "inferior" Mexicans disgraceful; therefore, after the Marines left Veracruz, sweeping efforts were made to re-Mexicanize Veracruz, as the laws imposed by the Americans in order to sanitize the city were no longer enforced with rigidity. The ripple effects of American intervention, on the contrary, are infinitely more important than the prevailing conditions in Veracruz during and after the incursion.

Wilson "assumed early on that a Constitutionalist victory over Huerta was inevitable. His main concern, he wrote through Bryan, was that the transfer of power be effected with minimum bloodshed", and that the next Mexican President be much more agreeable than the last.9 While General Frederick Funston sat restless in Veracruz, he was denied permission to lead an invasion force into Mexico City, as he had hoped and expected as a U.S. military commander; instead, Wilson decided to let the Mexican Revolutionaries oust Huerta themselves, as he had believed to be the proper course of action because of William Hale's initial forecast of the provisional president's impending fate. John Eisenhower portrays Huerta's fall as a "great opportunity to negotiate peace", but reasoning that after the failed mediation by Argentina, Brasil, and Chile that the Revolutionaries took charge of their own destinies, called the U.S. intervention "largely ineffectual", relying squarely on the theory that Huerta was being undermined from the outset of his presidency and was bound to fail.10 Robert Quirk does not hesitate to ride the same claims of "ineffectual intervention", but he takes the hypothesis a step further, citing the change that the U.S. intervention in Veracruz brought about in U.S. foreign policy:

"As for the Americans, the occupation experience was proof that Wilson's determination to recognize only good and moral governments, while admirable in abstract, was impossible in practice. Thereafter, Washington would grant recognition to any regime, however corrupt or authoritarian, capable of maintaining itself in power. Wilson's policy, whatever his intention, was a form of dictation completely unacceptable to the Latin American people. No longer would it be possible to treat them as schoolchildren. Rather they were accepted as responsible, mature nations, capable of deciding their own destinies. In the reluctant acceptance of that fact by Woodrow Wilson is it possible to see the seeds of Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Good Neighbor Policy."11

1 Eisenhower, Intervention!, 102.

2 Eisenhower, Intervention!, 101.

3 Quirk, An Affair of Honor, 2.

4 Quirk, An Affair of Honor, 33.

5 Eisenhower, Intervention!, 102.

6 Quirk, An Affair of Honor, 129.

7 Quirk, An Affair of Honor, 129-130.

8 Quirk, An Affair of Honor, 137.

9 Eisenhower, Intervention!, 133.

10 Eisenhower, Intervention!, 140-144.

11 Quirk, An Affair of Honor, 171.

Veracruz Landing

Veracruz Landing
Veracruz Landing

Jack Sweetman calls it a "small wonder" that so few Americans can recall the 1914 landing at Veracruz, dubbing it "in noways satisfactory."1 Wilson may have temporarily deprived Huerta (the arms arrived nevertheless on 27 May) of the Ypiranga's cargo and cut off his primary source of revenue (Veracruz customshouse), but Sweetman perceives that Huerta's downward spiral was set in stone even without the acceleration of events catalyzed by the Americans. "The elimination of Huerta failed to produce the results Wilson had expected. Peace and good order did not return to Mexico." "Rather", he asserts, "was the country plunged into a savage war between the rival Constitutionalist chiefs."2 Sweetman extends his suggestion to include Pershing's Expedition of 1916-1917 under the umbrella effects of the 1914 intervention; "The lingering anticlimax that was the Pershing Expedition marked the end of Wilson's crusade for moral uplift in Mexican public life." Boldly proposing his final analysis, Sweetman reproaches Wilson: "Far from teaching the Mexicans to elect good men, Wilson taught a generation of Mexicans to regard the policies of the United States with cynical distrust. The seizure of Veracruz alienated everyone who would hold political power for thirty years to come."3 He even stretches to say that "it was with the ill will originating in Veracruz in mind that in 1917, German Foreign Minister Zimmerman would send his famous telegram, offering Mexico the recovery of her 'lost provinces' of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico in reward for an offensive alliance with Germany should the United States join the allies."4 After the sinking of the Lusitania, this telegram laid the foundation for United States involvement in World War I, by which fact Sweetman implies that Wilson's folly in 1914 worked against him, serving to engender the controversy at the very source of World War I, a speculation quite different from the limited-spectrum ones of Quirk and Eisenhower.

It would seem frankly obvious that the U.S. intervention in Veracruz in 1914 was not engaged because of the Tampico Incident, nor because of the two April 11th deeds, but it instead was a culmination of the utopian ideology behind Woodrow Wilson's missionary democracy and of the repugnant (to Wilson, at least) nature of Huerta's stubborn snubs and rebuffs of the American President's exactions which drove him to use military might, nominally to help the Mexicans, but realistically solely to spite Huerta, Wilson's documented foe and arch-rival. The way Wilson went about handling the Mexican Revolution was entirely too dogmatic; and it invariably "aroused the hatred and scorn of the Mexicans- hatred over the invasion but a deep scorn for what they saw as hypocrisy."5 As Robert Quirk submits, 1914 was indeed a turning point in U.S.-Latin American relations, and the use of force in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua after Veracruz certainly bonded with the poised recalcitrance among Latin Americans borne of this "era of intervention" which clearly triggered Roosevelt's 180 in dealing with Latin America, signaling the start of the "Good Neighbor Policy". The mad rush for the Mexican Presidency after Huerta's exit was of course precipitated by the United States, but there is no resounding evidence to show that it "plunged Mexico into war", as Sweetman would like to think; there is, however, plenty of circumstantial corroboration of his idea, as there is also no resounding evidence to show that it did not throw her into the jaws of protracted civil war. Either way, Huerta's own scarcity of skill as an executive and commander would lead any knowledgeable historian to see that he was on thin ice all along, and that the unprecedented zeal of Carranza, Villa, Zapata, and Obregón could not have hindered them from their ultimate goal: wrangling Huerta and promoting justice throughout Mexico. In retrospect, Veracruz was no more than a hot-headed maneuver on the part of Woodrow Wilson which fell short of his lofty aims. The true significance of the intervention in Veracruz in 1914 lies not in its actuality, but in the fruits of leeriness and contumacy for America harvested south of the border which lit up the Latin American political arena like wildfire in the years following.

1 Sweetman, Landing at Veracruz, 164.

2 Sweetman, Landing at Veracruz, 164.

3 Sweetman, Landing at Veracruz, 165.

4 Sweetman, Landing at Veracruz, 165.

Quirk, An Affair of Honor, vi.


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