Visiting Mexico City, and its Venustiano Carranza suburb and airport: remembering figures of Mexican history
Commemorating Mexican leaders Don Benito Juárez and Don Venustiano Carranza
It is well known that Mexico City's international airport is named for Don Benito Juárez (Spanish: Aeropuerto Internacional de la Ciudad de México Benito Juárez).
Texans and American travellers to Mexico will also be very familiar with another location named for this figure of Mexican history: Ciudad Juárez (Juárez City), adjacent to the border city of El Paso, TX. A suburb of the Federal District (Spanish: Distrito Federal ) of Mexico City is also named for Juárez.
The Juarez House Museum (Spanish: Museo Casa Juárez ) is located in the city of Chihuahua. Another museum commemorating Don Benito Juárez is also housed in the National Palace (Spanish: Palacio Nacional ), in Mexico City. Don Benito Juárez (1806-1872) is particularly remembered by Mexicans as a long-serving President from an indigenous background, who was strongly identified with strengthening the legality of Mexico's republican constitution following a series of pressures from Imperial and military sources.
But the suburb of the Federal District in which Mexico City's international airport is situated is named for another prominent Mexican leader and figure of history, Don Venustiano Carranza.
To the question: who was Don Venustiano Carranza? further refinement is necessary: who was he to whom?
Obviously, who he was to Mexicans is of paramount importance. Born in 1859, he served as President of Mexico from 1917 to 1920, at a particularly tumultuous period of the country's history. He faced many internal pressures; these included the many faceted upheavals following the Mexican revolutionary period which began in 1910 and lasted until 1920. He died in office (he was assassinated).
Who was Don Venustiano Carranza to certain other countries, including influential, English-speaking ones? Here lies the historical twist. He was the Mexican leader for whom the message content of the pivotal Zimmermann Telegram, revelation of which substantially brought the United States into World War One, was intended. In 1917, from being 'too proud to fight' in the earlier stages of the war, Woodrow Wilson's request for Congress to declare war on Germany depended in a measure on narratives of German perfidy in relation to the sinking of the Lusitania and combined German and (supposed) Mexican perfidy in relation to the Zimmermann Telegram, whereby Germany seemed to promise Mexico lands lost to the US in return for support in the war. Thus with overt German input, Mexico under Carranza suddenly and unwittingly revived its former American Civil War status of supposed hemispheric threat (which, prior to the Civil War, more or less belonged to the British in Canada). First the French in the 1860s, now the Germans in 1917, seemed to be offering Mexico rich pickings in US territory.
Actually, in 1917, as well as German, there was other input into the process whereby Mexico was suddenly perceived by the American public as a hemispheric threat.
This input was supplied by the British government.
The Zimmermann Telegram was sent in code from the German Foreign Minister Zimmermann to his Ambassador in Washington, DC, containing details of Germany's proposed offer of 'permission' to Mexico to annex substantial territory in the southwestern United States. How the cipher to the Telegram's code was obtained is even today not wholly clear. It is sometimes held that the British deciphered the Zimmermann Telegram from codes recovered from the Magdeburg, which sank in the Baltic, off Estonia, in 1914. Other reports suggest that the codes came from Alexander Szek, an Austrian communications expert whom a triple agent tried to help escape from German-held Brussels. This is suspected as having involved betraying spy Louise de Bettignies to the Germans in order to maintain the triple agent's credibility. It is also said to have involved the murder of a companion of about Szek's size and build at the Belgian-Dutch border, in order to give the German authorities the impression that Szek had not escaped and that their cipher was thus still safe.
But, whatever happened exactly, safe it was not.
In any case, Room 40, of British Naval Intelligence, headed by Sir Reginald Hall, who later influenced the thinking which led to the setting up of William Donovan's OSS in World War Two, did successfully decode the Zimmermann Telegram. What happened next was an exercise in both hardball and subtlety. The British authorities conceived a plan: fake a robbery in Mexico, 'discover' the contents of the Zimmermann telegram already deciphered and translate them into English: not very difficult, because the British already knew what the original said! Thus it was done. Then, all that remained was to approach the US envoy in London, and, in a spirit of apparent helpfulness, disclose the Telegram to the US authorities. As if to say, Look what we 'found' in Mexico; we 'thought' you might like to see this. Thus it was done; American outrage, both private and public, reached incandescent levels. While the American public's instinct against what George Washington called 'entangling alliances' was strong, an unwillingness to be 'pushed around' by other nations — including potentially by its southern neighbour — proved even stronger. (As the British well knew it would.) Some people in the American government were aware that the British had been spying on diplomatic traffic in the US. But this other instinct was even stronger, indeed, than the experience of losing the Lusitania to German submarine action (though even here, all was not what it seemed) (1).
So to the response by Don Venustiano Carranza to the offer contained in the famous Zimmermann Telegram: he rejected it. But even before he had formally done so, the United States had declared war on Germany.
Exactly as the British planned it.
So to Americans, even passively, Don Venustiano Carranza, as Mexico's leader at the time, appeared to be a potential threat to US territorial integrity, although Congress, before declaring war on Germany, did not wait to find out what his response would be to the offer contained in the Zimmermann Telegram.
In these obscure nuances of international diplomacy, especially in time of war, if hindsight is 20/20, yet perception, and its management and projection, was also part of the reality. Who Don Venustiano Carranza was, and is, to Mexicans, may differ markedly from ways he was perceived from beyond Mexico's borders. As Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) characterized the perception of external relations: 'Truth on this side of the Pyrenees, error on the other side' (French: Vérité en deçà des Pyrénées, erreur au-delà).
In any case, with Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, one can say that history is what people remember — and forget.
The Carranza House Museum (Spanish: Museo Casa de Carranza) is situated at Río Lerma 35, Mexico City.
(1) The British government had exercised a hidden role here, too. After US declaration of war on Germany, what everyone saw on the US military recruitment posters was 'Remember the Lusitania'. What they did not see was the vessel's inventory, known to German intelligence, bound for Great Britain; this inventory was known to include large quantities of ammunition, but allegedly also of other, heavier munitions. The subsequent British official enquiry to the sinking of the Lusitania was noted for its studious avoidance of bringing facts to light which might reflect on British use of large numbers of unsuspecting American passengers as hazardous cover for munitions. Between the sinking and the enquiry, Parliament even passed a law, an effect of which was to forbid public discussion of its inventory. Indeed, Lord Mersey, who headed the British official enquiry into the Lusitania's sinking, said later that the enquiry was a 'dirty business', to the extent that he was too morally troubled by it to accept any remuneration for his services.
Conspiracy theories abound (these include the notion that, in view of possibly advantageous diplomatic consequences, prominent naval leaders Winston Churchill and Admiral Fisher found it convenient to omit to provide any warship escort for the Lusitania on its approach to the British Isles — an omission which in reality the Lusitania 's captain testified that he found odd). As intelligence historian Patrick Beesly said: 'On the basis of the considerable volume of information which is now available, I am reluctantly compelled to state that on balance, the most likely explanation is that there was indeed a plot, however imperfect, to endanger the RMS Lusitania in order to involve the United States in the war.' (Patrick Beesly. Interview. "Sinking of the Lusitania. " Imperial War Museum, London; qu. in: Erik Larson, Dead Wake: the Last Crossing of the Lusitania, New York, Crown Publishers, 2015, p. 324.) Leaving aside such theories, yet in any case, with the benefit of hindsight, perceived perfidies in relation to the sinking of the Lusitania and to the Mexican dimension to the Zimmermann Telegram episode were not strictly limited to Germany's.
In Mexico City , the Zócalo , or Constitution Square (Spanish: Plaza de la Constitución ) is a huge public square, facing onto which are situated noted buildings such as the National Palace (see above), the Metropolitan Cathedral and the Old City Hall (Spanish: Ayuntamiento).
How to get there: Aeroméxico flies to Mexico City's Benito Juárez International Airport (Spanish: Aeropuerto Internacional de la Ciudad de México Benito Juárez) from North American destinations including New York - JFK and Montreal. A variety of car rental options are available at Juárez airport. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. You are advised to check with appropriate consular sources for visa requirements which may apply at the border for citizens of certain nationalities.
MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.