Playing with Fire: Woodrow Wilson, Self-Determination, Democracy, and Revolution in Mexico


  • Lucas N. Frank

Serving as president from 1913 to 1921, Woodrow Wilson led the United States at a time when its influence continued to expand even as it struggled to develop the parameters within which it would project its newfound clout. In 1913, the United States was already a global economic powerhouse. It became the world's largest economy in 1870, and by 1913 its manufacturing output exceeded those of Britain and Germany, second and third in the world respectively, combined.[1] In 1898, the United States took over most of what remained of Spain's overseas empire in a matter of four months. With this victory, the United States took control of territorial possessions around the world and in doing so sparked intense debates about the proper goals of US foreign policy. During his presidency, Wilson was confronted with the First World War and omnipresent political, social, and economic turmoil globally, with one revolution spilling over the country's southern border. The foreign policy Wilson devised in response to these crises became his greatest legacy, but historians still disagree on what motives guided him.

A variety of historians argue that commercial interests motivated Wilson's foreign policy. Robert Saunders thus suggests that “Wilson sought an unchecked hegemonic world role for the United States based on its own well-being and security.”[2] Saunders launches an all-out assault on the character of Woodrow Wilson, suggesting that his policies were in pursuit of personal objectives. Lloyd Ambrosius provides a better articulated but equally critical portrayal of Wilson's foreign policy.[3] Ambrosius argues that Wilson was more interventionist than either of his Republican predecessors, Theodore Roosevelt or William Howard Taft, and that his interventions in Latin America were driven by Wilson's interpretation of the American national interest and his support for capitalism. Margaret MacMillan treats Wilson during his stint in Paris after the First World War critically as well, but she portrays him likewise rather as an impractical and inflexible idealist than a cynical champion of American economic interests.[4] The challenge to Wilson's supposed idealism continued in Erez Manela's 2007 award-winning book.[5] In this work, Manela proposed that the President's empty self-determination rhetoric ignited revolution in the post-war era. Manela suggested that, while Wilson “did not exclude non-European peoples from the right to self-determination as a matter of principle,” he did not believe them currently ready and “envisioned them achieving it through an evolutionary process under the benevolent tutelage of a ‘civilized’ power.”[6]

A less cynical school of historians argues that Wilson's idealistic beliefs were the driving force behind his foreign policies rather than simple rhetoric. However, they argue that Wilson's belief in self-determination emerged and evolved during his presidency. Arthur S. Link suggested that Wilson first committed himself to self-determination after his military intervention at Veracruz failed.[7] Thomas Knock argues that Wilson's idea for the League of Nations and his commitment to self-determination crystallized during his 1916 re-election campaign.[8] While Wilson's motivations are not the focus of their works, Lorenzo Meyer and Mark Gilderhus also argued against the primacy of US material interests as the driving motivation behind the United States' actions in Mexico.[9] In the light of this lively and enduring debate, a case study of Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy towards the Mexican Revolution offers a unique perspective on his driving principles and goals and the lengths to which he was willing to go to achieve them.

In 1913, Woodrow Wilson assumed the presidency during a critical time in US-Mexican relations. The Mexican Revolution began in 1910 when Francisco Madero (1873–1913) declared his candidacy for the presidency of Mexico, challenging the incumbent, Porfirio Diaz (1830–1915). Diaz, finishing his ninth term in office in 1910, had served as president of Mexico and head of a corrupt political machine with close ties to US investors for more than thirty-five years. During the power struggle between Diaz and Madero, revolutionary fire spread throughout the Mexican countryside. And although the majority of the uprisings were only loosely (if at all) connected to Madero, they proved too widespread and powerful for the Diaz regime to crush. In 1911, Diaz resigned as president and went into exile in Spain.

Unfortunately for the Mexican people, although they were now free from the grip of a thirty-five-year dictatorship, the furor unleashed by Madero's rebellion proved beyond anyone's ability to control or channel in the short term. In challenging Diaz in the election of 1910, Madero, the son of a wealthy family belonging to Mexico's elite, hoped to break the former president's authoritarian rule and foster free elections in Mexico. He did not advocate radical social or economic reforms, but the revolutionary leaders who joined him and the foot soldiers who flocked to the revolutionary banners had different objectives. Madero's presidency was marked primarily by infighting and coup attempts, and by early 1913, violence spread on the streets of Mexico City. The revolution entered a new and more brutal phase when Madero was betrayed and overthrown by General Victoriano Huerta (1850–1916). Madero died under suspicious circumstances during a prison transfer in February 1913, two weeks before Wilson's inauguration.

When President Wilson assumed office, he faced the immediate task of formulating a policy towards the degenerating situation in Mexico and possessed a clean slate with which to work. There were a number of things about the situation calling for immediate and decisive action, such as the two-thousand-mile-long border the United States shared with Mexico, the thousands of US citizens permanently residing in Mexico, and the approximately one billion dollars of assets that American businesses owned in Mexico.[10] Although the New York Times reported that the Taft administration was relieved by Madero's fall in 1913, the outgoing president took no official action toward Huerta or the events unfolding in Mexico during his final days in office.[11] Because of the suspicious circumstances surrounding Madero's death while in Huerta's custody, it was impossible for President Taft to recognize the new business-friendly Mexican dictator in the final two weeks of his presidency. Therefore, when Wilson assumed the presidency two weeks later, he inherited a pressing foreign policy crisis unsoiled by the previous administration.

Wilson's early Mexican policy offers a unique opportunity for those interested in Wilson's legacy and American foreign policy. The early years of Wilson's first term are more revealing than the bitterly contested First-World-War and postwar periods, because Wilson confronted the Mexican Revolution in 1913 and 1914 relatively unconstrained by domestic and foreign concerns.[12] More than at any other time during his presidency, Mexico presented Wilson with an opportunity to follow his moral compass and demonstrate the proper way for powerful states to act upon the international stage.[13] Likewise, it is in the records relating to Mexico, not Versailles, that historians have the best opportunity to uncover the root motivations that guided Wilsonianism. An investigation of Wilson's papers and the diplomatic record shows that Wilson considered foreign policy a primary concern and that he pursued a surprisingly consistent and radically new policy towards Mexico in 1913 and 1914—a policy guided by Wilson's belief that the Mexican people not only had a natural right to determine and shape their own government, but also possessed a maturity that warranted their being unreservedly entrusted with the responsibility that right entailed. Additionally, a careful review of domestic politics, the strategic situation, and American perceptions of the revolution clearly show that Wilson was willing to assume substantial risk in order to give the Mexican people that opportunity.


With his election in 1912, Woodrow Wilson won a mandate for domestic reform. While the Democratic platform in 1912 called for a clarification of the country's purposes in the Philippines, foreign policy was not a major factor during the election.[14] During the campaign Wilson focused almost exclusively on domestic affairs. His campaign promises included vigorous anti-trust measures and tariff, banking, and currency reform. Wilson dedicated the entirety of his first inaugural address to his domestic agenda.[15] While the electorate was not indifferent toward the country's foreign policy, it would be fair to characterize such concerns as muted during the first two years of Wilson's presidency. Prior to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the public was far more concerned with Wilson's planned domestic reforms than with events outside the nation's borders.

However, Wilson's actions upon assuming office revealed that foreign policy was a high priority for the administration. In 1913, when Wilson's cherished currency and tariff reform bill's fate was hanging by a thread on the Senate floor, he had an opportunity to garner Republican support by modifying his policy towards Mexico, but he did not.[16] Wilson refused to give ground on the issue of Huerta's recognition to facilitate his domestic reforms.[17] Wilson's refusal to compromise his Mexican policy to aid the progress of his domestic agenda strongly suggests that he believed his country's foreign policy was of vital importance and that he was pursuing a specific Mexican policy from which he was unwilling to waver.

Wilson was equally prompt in establishing and maintaining a foreign policy independent of the interests of US citizens and businesses residing in Mexico. Leaving in place President Taft's recommendation that all American citizens leave Mexico, he repeatedly stressed that Washington would not allow US business interests to dictate its policy. In July 1913, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) wrote an internal memorandum designed to explain the administration's Mexican policy, in which he proposed that holding the government responsible for protecting the foreign property of US citizens with armed force was the equivalent of allowing “such Americans to declare war.”[18] Bryan believed the precedent would allow anyone to manipulate the government by purposely exposing themselves or their property to danger in order to trigger a US intervention.[19] The administration was clearly unwilling to subordinate its long-term policy goals in Mexico to the interests of US businesses.


From the outset, Wilson's belief in the principle of self-determination led him to pursue a radically new policy towards Mexico. While he most famously attached himself to the principle of self-determination in his 1918 Fourteen Points Speech, his actions in Mexico clearly show that he placed the right of a people to choose their own government over the interests of the United States and its citizens in 1913 and 1914.[20] Working with Secretary Bryan, Wilson immediately charted a policy whereby the United States would only recognize a “constitutional government” in Mexico.[21] In the context of the times, “constitutional” implied a democratically elected government designed by, and responsive to, the will and needs of the people.[22] Wilson's first test was his receipt of a note from President Huerta congratulating him on his inauguration. On 7 March 1913, his third day in office, Wilson addressed his reply to “General Huerta,” as opposed to President Huerta, so as to prevent his response from being misrepresented as diplomatic recognition of Huerta's government.[23] During a press conference in April, Wilson explained to reporters and the public that he would wait on Huerta “to constitute a constitutional government” before conferring recognition.[24] Upon taking power, Huerta had promised to abide by the Mexican constitution and quickly hold new presidential elections, but to the chagrin of Wilson and Bryan, the planning date for such elections continued to be pushed back.[25] Wilson remained steadfastly committed to his goal of a true constitutional government in Mexico while Huerta only paid the requirement lip service.

Wilson's insistence on the establishment of a legitimate constitutional democracy in Mexico and his refusal to use the power of the federal government to assist US corporations in Mexico represented a radical departure from the foreign policy of Wilson's recent predecessors. The foreign policies of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft were both aimed at limiting the influence of European nations in Latin America while increasing that of the United States. Both administrations encouraged US banks and corporations to invest in the region. By encouraging US investors to supply the capital investments the region needed, Roosevelt and Taft hoped to minimize the Europeans' ties to the region and eliminate their justifications for interventions in Latin-American affairs. The issuance of the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in 1904 furthered this policy. The Corollary stated that the United States had a duty to intervene militarily in any Latin American crisis in order to reestablish order and forestall the military intervention of any European power. Taft's use of Dollar Diplomacy—the leveraging of guaranteed loans to Latin America—served to foster the same order and stability.

The priorities of the previous Republican administrations were clearly demonstrated by the ambassador and consular agents serving in Mexico when Wilson assumed office. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson (1857–1932), a Taft appointee, headed the US embassy in Mexico City. The betrayal and overthrow of President Madero by General Huerta was undertaken with the apparent connivance of Ambassador Wilson.[26] Additionally, the ambassador's official correspondence to Secretary of State Bryan continually exaggerated Huerta's control of the country while minimizing the power of the Constitutionalist forces.[27] Contrasting the ambassador's reports with other sources clearly shows that the Taft appointee manipulated the facts in an attempt to garner the administration's support for Huerta, the preferred choice of US business interests in Mexico. One veiled reprimand sent by Bryan to the ambassador in March 1913 implies that Bryan believed Ambassador Wilson was furnishing Huerta with actionable military intelligence collected and reported by regional US consular agents.[28]

While Ambassador Wilson's apparent collusion with General Huerta serves as an obvious contrast to President Wilson's policy of non-recognition, the evidence suggests that the bulk of the State Department apparatus that President Wilson inherited was unfamiliar with directives favoring the constitutional rights of Mexicans over the commercial interests of the United States.[29] The United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations' 1919 investigation of Mexican affairs strongly suggests that the State Department President Wilson inherited was designed to serve US business interests and encourage US investment in foreign countries. During the hearings George C. Carothers, who served as a consular agent in Mexico from 1910–1913, testified that under the Taft administration the consular reports, which focused on the presence of natural resources and employment data, were primarily aimed at encouraging US investment in foreign states.[30] The committee's line of questioning was clearly designed to show how the Wilson administration had double-crossed American businessmen who had originally been encouraged to go to Mexico by the US government. The committee chairman's questions and Carothers' responses strongly suggest that Wilson was fighting a bureaucracy that largely believed the government had a duty not only to support but also to encourage American business interests abroad. However, Wilson rejected his predecessors' stance and reversed the Taft administration's unrestrained pro-business policies.


Wilson's decision to withhold diplomatic recognition was more than mere posturing. In addition to the obvious effect of “encouraging the enemies of [Huerta's] government,” Wilson's policy prevented Huerta from effectively consolidating his power.[31] Because of America's heavy investment in and proximity to Mexico, most Latin-American countries deferred to the United States in their attitude toward the developments in Mexico. The government of Chile, for example, informed the United States in April that its action “in regard to recognition of the Mexican Government will largely conform to that of the United States.”[32] After asking about the “advisability of recognizing the present Government of Mexico” in May, Brazil's government assured the administration that it “would withhold recognition of Mexico until [the US] course had been determined.”[33] Argentina's rulers likewise pledged to follow the United States' lead.[34]

In addition to undermining his legitimacy and fomenting unrest domestically, Wilson's failure to recognize Huerta's government hampered its ability to negotiate the loans it needed to prosecute the war against the rebel factions that opposed it. While many states, including Britain and France, eventually recognized Huerta, they were hesitant to loan him money until the Wilson administration conferred official recognition. The diary of Colonel House clearly shows that, as early as May 1913, President Wilson was conscious of the fact that his policy was denying Huerta's regime the ability “to borrow a large sum of money” and in doing so limited Huerta's ability to consolidate power.[35]

Later, when Huerta attempted to negotiate loans from French and British banks, Wilson had Secretary Bryan inform London and Paris that “the President assumed that these proposed loans were being made by the banks as private loans, made with the due understanding of the risks, and that the French Government was not at all connected with them.”[36] After conversing with his government, the French ambassador replied that “the loan was purely a private matter in which the French Government had no interest whatever, and that the loan was made by those who were engaged in the matter at their own risk.”[37] By pressuring foreign governments to go on the record that any loans to Mexico were solely of private origin, Wilson succeeded in limiting Huerta's access to foreign capital and preventing any loans that could bind the European powers more tightly to the survival of Huerta's regime.

Within a month of taking office, Wilson also began pressuring the Mexican regime in less diplomatic ways. Shortly after his inauguration, Wilson rescinded President Taft's request that the Texas state government assist the federal authorities in enforcing the arms ban.[38] By refusing aid from the Texas authorities, Wilson left a handful of Bureau of Investigation agents responsible for securing the notoriously porous border, which could have only been expected to facilitate weapons smuggling to the northern rebels.[39] On 7 April 1913, Texas Governor Oscar Branch Colquitt (1861–1940) informed Secretary Bryan that, as a direct result of the administration's order, weapons smuggling was occurring without interference.[40] The administration did nothing to stop it.

While Wilson did not initially rescind Taft's arms embargo, the restrictions he placed on its enforcement allowed the northern rebels to obtain enough arms to prevent their early defeat by Huerta forces. This move appears consistent with Wilson's public statements advocating the conduct of free and fair elections to end the revolution, because it kept Huerta vulnerable, which Wilson likely believed would force him to abide by his promise for early constitutional elections. Huerta's administration appears to have confirmed the effectiveness of Wilson's tactics, if not his strategy, when Minister of Foreign Affairs Federico Gamboa responded to the Wilson administration's proclamations of disinterested friendship. Gamboa declared that the United States could find no better way to demonstrate true friendship than by simply ensuring “that no material and monetary assistance is given to rebels who find refuge, conspire and provide themselves with arms and food on the other side of the border.”[41] Gamboa went on to predict that if America “should demand from its minor and local authorities the strictest observance of the neutrality laws … the complete pacification of this Republic would be accomplished within a relatively short time.”[42] More than loans or diplomatic recognition, what Huerta wanted most from the United States was for it to seal the international border and prevent the rebels from obtaining any support or sanctuary.

President Wilson went to considerable effort to make his policy stance painfully clear to Huerta's government in Mexico. Ambassador Wilson confirmed that Huerta understood that using the title of “General Huerta” conveyed a denial of recognition.[43] President Wilson also consistently restated his policy in press conferences highlighting the fact that recognition hinged on the speedy “election of a constitutional president.”[44] In May 1913, a representative of the Huerta regime, still urging recognition, reported that Wilson heatedly replied, “I will not recognize a government of butchers.”[45] After apparently ruling out the possibility of ever recognizing Huerta, President Wilson and Secretary Bryan spent the last few days of May searching for a viable alternative. They agreed that they needed a way to further emphasize that they would be open to recognizing a constitutionally elected president.[46]

In June 1913, President Wilson sent a confidential telegram to Ambassador Wilson, which clearly outlined the non-negotiable elements of his policy. Wilson stated that he did not believe Huerta's regime was “moving towards conditions of settled peace, authority and justice,” because there was “a fundamental lack of confidence in the good faith of those in control at Mexico City and in their intention to safeguard constitutional rights and methods of action.”[47] President Wilson told the ambassador that he would wait for “satisfactory proof of their plans and purposes.”[48] He promised that once he received evidence of their noble intentions he would use the full power of the United States to establish peace and gain the cooperation of the rebel groups. Woodrow Wilson's pressure tactics were familiar, but his ends were novel.

All that the president asked for was “satisfactory assurances that an early election” be held, “free from coercion or restraint,” and that Huerta “observe his original promise and not be a candidate at that election.”[49] President Wilson requested no special favors for US citizens or businesses and purposely offered Huerta no opening to begin negotiations. Judging from the president's private correspondence with the ambassador, the president's objections to Huerta were based solely on Huerta's failure to represent the will of the Mexican people and the only solution Woodrow Wilson offered was free elections. On the level of public diplomacy as well as the more opaque realm of confidential diplomatic instructions, the Wilson administration seemed to place a high value on free elections.

While Wilson never wavered in his pursuit of a constitutionalist democracy in Mexico, the methods he employed were initially limited by his lack of trustworthy detailed information on the situation. In April 1913, just over a month after taking office, Wilson began discussing the desirability of sending a special representative to Mexico to investigate and send back reliable first-hand accounts of the situation.[50] Throughout the first several months of his presidency, Wilson repeatedly told reporters that he did not have solid enough information on the situation in Mexico to finalize his policy.[51] In July, in response to a question about the nature of his Mexican policy, Wilson replied that he was “pursuing a course of diligent inquiry, to see just what is the right thing to do.”[52]

Throughout the spring and summer of 1913, President Wilson refused to expand on his policy beyond opposing Huerta's regime and demanding free elections because he lacked reliable information on the current situation in Mexico. Wilson was immensely skeptical of the information he received on Mexico during the first few months, because the various official and unofficial sources often directly contradicted each other. The reports coming from the embassy and many private American businessmen operating in Mexico were clearly factually incompatible with most of those coming in directly from US consular agents in the Mexican provinces and other private individuals. The majority of the reports from consular agents in Mexico depicted a rapid escalation of revolutionary violence and a strengthening of the anti-Huerta movement.[53] Ambassador Wilson's reports were unwaveringly pro-Huerta and continually reported that the last of the rebels were being crushed and dispersed as he wrote.[54] President Wilson had ample reason to suspect that some, if not all, of the State Department representatives in Mexico were attempting to mislead and manipulate the administration.

President Wilson recalled Ambassador Wilson in July 1913 after William Bayard Hale (1869–1924) confirmed the latter's untrustworthiness.[55] Hale, a confidential agent of the president, detailed the ambassador's transgressions at length in a June 1913 report.[56] Hale accused the ambassador of orchestrating Madero's betrayal and overthrow by General Huerta, and although he reported that the ambassador probably did not actually sanction Madero's assassination, Hale laid the ultimate blame for his death, and all those killed in the revolution, at the ambassador's feet. Woodrow Wilson confirmed that he disagreed with the ambassador's actions on a very personal level when he told his wife in July 1913 that he had to meet with “that unspeakable person Henry Lane Wilson.”[57] The president revealed to his wife that it was “trying to have to deal with such a fellow at all, but it is not in the least difficult to decide what to do with him or with his advice.”[58] While hindsight reveals that the administration's failure to quickly remove Ambassador Wilson from his post sent Huerta mixed signals, for the first three months the president had no reason to suspect the full extent of the ambassador's unprofessional behavior.

After uncovering the depths of the ambassador's betrayal, Wilson quickly realized that he needed a representative who shared his progressive ideals and who had no previous ties to Mexico or the US businesses operating there. With the help of Secretary Bryan, Wilson found his man in former US Congressman and Governor of Wisconsin, John Lind (1854–1930). While Lind was ignorant of Mexican history and the current situation there—he did not even speak Spanish—he was unquestionably unbiased and shared the president's progressive ideals.[59] In August 1913, the administration officially sent Lind to Mexico as its special representative with a twofold mission. Wilson tasked him with providing the administration with recommendations for future action based on an unbiased evaluation and with communicating Wilson's policy to Huerta's regime. Wilson instructed Lind to tell Huerta that the administration required:

  • a) An immediate cessation of fighting throughout Mexico—a definitive armistice solemnly entered into and scrupulously observed;
  • b) Security given for an early and free election in which all will agree to take part;
  • c) The consent of General Huerta to bind himself not to be a candidate for election as President of the Republic at this election; and
  • d) The agreement of all parties to abide by the results of the election and cooperate in the most loyal way in organizing and supporting the new administration.[60]

The policy entrusted to John Lind in August 1913 was essentially identical to the policy Wilson had been pursuing since assuming office, but he gave Lind flexibility on when and how he delivered it based on his first hand assessment of the state of affairs in Mexico.


Lind's assessment of the situation in Mexico turned out to be of far greater importance than his service as an unofficial diplomatic go-between. Lind delivered Wilson's terms to Huerta's government in August 1913, but Huerta rejected the proposal.[61] After Huerta's rejection, Lind stayed in Mexico serving as the president's eyes and ears. While historians have rightly questioned the representativeness of Lind's sources (he never ventured outside of Mexico City and Veracruz), the communicated result of his inquiry is of far more importance than its accuracy. Lind's investigation of the situation in Mexico led him to conclude that Wilson needed to refine his Mexican policy. In September 1913, Lind reported that he no longer believed that the removal of Huerta alone would foster long-term peace in Mexico. Lind reported that there could be “no lasting peace without judicious and substantial social and economic reforms.”[62] Lind's assessment, which Wilson was heavily invested in acquiring, strongly suggested that Mexico required more than simple elections.

Following on the heels of Lind's endorsement of revolutionary reform, Huerta greatly facilitated President Wilson's decision to pursue an even more radical foreign policy. In October 1913, Huerta dissolved the Mexican congress and became a dictator in name as well as fact.[63] Wilson's first response was to harden his stance against Huerta. In November 1913, the administration circulated a note entitled “Our Purposes in Mexico” to all US embassies, in which Wilson stated that Huerta's usurpation menaced the peace and development of all the Americas and that “it is the purpose of the United States therefore to discredit and defeat such usurpations whenever they occur.”[64] He then clarified that the “policy of the United States is to isolate General Huerta entirely; to cut him off from foreign sympathy and aid and from domestic credit, whether moral or material, and to force him out.”[65] The confidential correspondence of the British Foreign Office seems to confirm that leading up to this announcement the international community largely understood that Huerta's replacement needed to be the product of a free “presidential election,” but, soon thereafter, Wilson's public objectives expanded to include not only a new president but also a new Mexico.[66]

Lind's appraisal of the situation in Mexico appears to dovetail nicely with a memorandum the northern rebels provided President Wilson in July 1913 outlining their objectives. In addition to insisting upon the removal of General Huerta and the selection of a new president via free elections, the Constitutionalists claimed they would establish “a new regime founded on real justice, … improve the conditions of the farmer, doing away, once and for all, with certain abuses which, in some sections, transform the peasant into a slave,” and redistribute land which was either illegally taken or poorly used by absentee landlords.[67] As 1913 drew to a close, thanks to John Lind's trusted reports, Wilson finally became comfortable with his grasp of the Mexican situation and expanded and clarified the goals of his Mexican policy.

At the beginning of 1914 (after nine months in office), Wilson refined his policy from opposition to Huerta to open support for the rebels and their revolutionary agenda. In January 1914, Secretary Bryan officially shifted the administration's Mexican policy while replying to an offer from the British ambassador to help facilitate Huerta's replacement. Wilson officially became an advocate of revolutionary reform when Bryan told the British that the president believed the northern rebels were “conducting a revolution with a programme which goes to the very root of the causes which have made constitutional government in Mexico impossible.”[68] Through Secretary Bryan, Wilson told the British Foreign Office that “settlement by civil war carried to its bitter conclusion is a terrible thing, but it must come now, whether we wish it or not.”[69] With these words, Wilson committed himself, and the United States, to allow the Mexican people a relatively free hand to reorder their government, economy, and society.

When Wilson's policy evolved from removing Huerta to advocating revolutionary reform, he again looked to influence the course of events in Mexico by manipulating the availability of arms and munitions. In January 1914, William Bayard Hale informed him that he had been approached by a Constitutionalist agent who suggested that a “slight relaxation of vigilance” along the border would allow the Constitutionalists to easily bypass the arms embargo.[70] The Constitutionalist agent believed “a million rounds could be taken across at Douglas [Arizona], not more than half a dozen persons being privy to the occurrence.”[71] While there is no record of Wilson's response to the Constitutionalist agent's plan, a month later in February 1914, Wilson repealed Taft's arms embargo of Mexico, clearing the way for the legal support of the Constitutionalists.[72]

The repeal of the arms embargo was the most significant gesture of support Wilson could offer the Constitutionalists, other than their outright recognition as the legitimate Mexican government, or a military intervention on their behalf. Wilson's repeal of the embargo marked a clear evolution in his policy from opposition to Huerta to support of the Constitutionalists. The New York Times reported in January 1914 that Wilson told the “Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate that he believed the Mexican Constitutionalists had earned the right to fair treatment.”[73] The Times went on to report that the lifting of the arms embargo had been “contended for all along by the Constitutionalists, who have asserted that, with the embargo lifted, they could obtain sufficient munitions of war to drive the Huerta Government from power in short order.”[74] By lifting the arms embargo, Wilson essentially endorsed the Constitutionalists' revolutionary agenda.


In April 1914, the Mexican army violated international law by arresting nine US sailors who docked in Tampico as part of a routine process to purchase supplies.[75] Although the Mexican authorities apologized and released the sailors, they refused to participate in a custom designed to erase the dishonor of the incident in which each side sequentially saluted each other's flag. Twelve days later, US marines and sailors were fighting on the streets of Veracruz in Mexico. The Veracruz incident is often prominently cited by historians arguing that Wilson was just as or more likely than his predecessors to use military intervention to foster pro-US stability in Latin America.[76] However, a careful study reveals that Wilson's handling of the Tampico Affair, including the occupation of Veracruz, was a natural result of, and consistent with, his previous policy, and aimed more at advancing democracy in Mexico than the commercial interests of the United States.

There were many opportunities for both sides to peacefully resolve the conflict, but neither chose to do so. At the time, Huerta was losing popular support because of his inability to defeat the Constitutionalist rebels. During negotiations, Huerta told US Chargé d'Affaires O'Shaughnessy, Ambassador Wilson's temporary replacement, that his compliance with the saluting ritual would expose him to criticism from the “educated public opinion of Mexico” and undermine his regime.[77] In a later conversation, Huerta told O'Shaughnessy that he believed the Wilson administration was trying to discredit and embarrass him with the situation.[78] In all likelihood, Huerta was correct in both statements. There is no evidence that Wilson wanted to invade Mexico, but there is ample evidence that he wanted to see Huerta overthrown. Indeed, it was his stated policy.

The evidence suggests that Wilson seized the opportunity offered by the Tampico incident to expedite Huerta's defeat by the rebels, which was in line with his previous policy. Wilson appears to have intentionally maneuvered Huerta into a Catch-22. If Huerta agreed to perform the ceremony, he would compromise his own popular support at the same time that Carranza's Constitutionalist forces were gaining ground and popularity. If he refused to perform the ceremony, he would give Wilson an internationally justifiable reason for a limited attack on his gulf coast, reducing his access to hard currency and arms. Regardless of Huerta's decision, Wilson won.

While Wilson prepared for either outcome, the evidence suggests that his preferred outcome was for Huerta to participate in the ritual. First, Wilson allowed several deadlines to expire without effect, while he would have been justified in occupying Veracruz at the end of any one of them.[79] Secondly, the administration made sure that its naval preparations were well publicized.[80] Announcing its ability and readiness to conduct a large military operation suggests that the administration was hoping to use the threat of force to intimidate Huerta. If Wilson had wanted to invade, he most likely would have kept the Navy's preparations a secret in order to embolden Huerta's defiance while minimizing his defensive preparations.

There is little evidence to support the conclusion that the occupation of Veracruz was part of an alternative or new foreign policy for the administration.[81] The naval forces' initial orders only had them occupy the customs house; they only moved on to occupy the rest of city after they met unexpected resistance that made their initial positions untenable. Likewise, there is no evidence that Wilson made any special effort to warn or protect US citizens or business interests from the expected popular backlash any military intervention would cause. Indeed, US commercial interests do not appear to have gained anything from Wilson's intervention at Veracruz.

The occupation of Veracruz garnered Wilson little support from the American business community. The limited initial objectives of the operation placed local US interests in substantial jeopardy. Additionally, the anti-American sentiment generated by the occupation greatly increased the risks to US interests outside the zone of occupation.[82] However, most likely, the very intent of the occupation was to severely weaken the Huerta regime, which was strongly supported by the US business lobby. Wilson's private papers are littered with letters from businessmen arguing for the recognition of Huerta's government. The business witnesses who testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations' hearings on Mexico in 1919 and 1920 overwhelmingly condemned Wilson for not recognizing the regime.[83]

Despite the occurrence of some high-profile events, Wilson's post-Veracruz policy remained consistent with his pre-Veracruz policy. As tensions rose between Mexico and the United States in the wake of the US occupation of Veracruz, Wilson acceded to mediation by the ABC Powers (Argentina, Brazil, and Chile) at the Niagara Falls Conference.[84] While the conference failed to remove either Huerta or US forces from Mexico, it did result in the reestablishment of a US arms embargo. Even though the embargo officially included the Constitutionalist forces, the evidence suggests that Wilson did not intend to deny arms to the Constitutionalists this time.

Four days after the new embargo went into effect, the Antilla departed New York harbor with a shipment of weapons and ammunition consigned to the Constitutionalists. William F. Buckley Sr., a prominent American businessman operating in Mexico, testified that when he called on Secretary of State Bryan to question him about the incident, Bryan coyly claimed that “the order had not reached New York until an hour or so after the boat left.[85] Bryan stated that he could not explain the lapse and would not look into the matter because doing so “would look as if he were criticizing” the State Department section chief in charge of the matter.[86] Given Buckley's political opinion on Mexico and his apparent personal feeling toward Secretary Bryan, it is entirely possible that the above conversation never actually took place. However, the Antilla did set sail after the effective date of the embargo, and it is evident that the administration made no serious effort to deny the Constitutionalists arms.[87]


The diplomatic record is replete with evidence that Wilson repeatedly attempted to influence the course of events in Mexico. These actions however cannot be accurately evaluated without considering their underlying motivations and their ultimate objectives. Some historians, like Lloyd Ambrosius and Robert Saunders, have argued that Wilson's actions were driven by commercial interests.[88] Others have claimed that his idealistic speeches about democracy and disinterested friendship were just the hypocritical rhetoric of a racist politician. In The American Ascendency, for example, Michael Hunt argues that Wilson was unaffected by the Mexican people's confrontation with the “deeply divisive issues of land reform, restrictions on foreign economic control, labor rights, and social equality.”[89] Hunt proposed that Wilson “saw primarily a people with disorderly tendencies that had to be curbed.”[90] Nothing could be further from the truth. After this summary dismissal of Wilson's Mexican policy, Hunt goes on to explore Wilson's championing of self-determination in 1918 without any reference to earlier foreign policies. However, despite the analysis of Ambrosius, Saunders, and Hunt, a careful examination of Wilson's early Mexican policy suggests that he not only ascribed to the principle of self-determination in 1913, but also applied it to the non-white, non-European people of Mexico.

Reviewing the pertinent records, it appears that Wilson's initial policy was aimed at protecting the voice of the Mexican people from the tyranny of a military oligarchy. Wilson rejected General Huerta, a pro-US strongman in the making who had the enthusiastic backing of American business interests, and instead he demanded free and fair elections. It appears that Wilson initially assumed that the Mexican people had already spoken and that their will was embodied in the existing Mexican constitution. In other words, Wilson believed that the Mexican people had already exercised their right to self-determination. However, once he gathered reliable intelligence on the situation in Mexico, his views evolved. It is not that Wilson no longer believed elections to be necessary, but that he no longer regarded them as sufficient by themselves.

It was the trusted reports of John Lind that led Wilson to conclude that the voice of the Mexican people had not yet been heeded. Despite the presence of a paper constitution, Wilson determined that a true representative system could not be sustained without radical social and economic change. Wilson based this conclusion on reports from Lind, who claimed that social unrest was now so endemic that no one in Mexico believed that Huerta—or any other strongman the US chose to support—could hope to maintain order for more than “eighteen months to three years.”[91] Lind reported that “all thinking men realize that there can be no lasting peace without judicious and substantial reforms.”[92] It is critical to note that Wilson's new view of the situation in Mexico did not cause his faith in the Mexican people's right to self-determination to waver.

Upon reaching the conclusion that Mexican society needed to undergo radical change, Wilson entrusted that task to the members of that society. From his perspective, the Mexican people were fully capable of completing it. His failure to advocate a system of US supervision and control might cause diplomatic historians to reconsider the origin and rationale behind the colonial mandate system, which emerged from the League of Nations covenant. When Wilson held the dominant position in the Mexican situation and had no need to compromise with the European imperial powers, he entrusted the Mexican people with the challenge of righting their own affairs and establishing their own government. As his private correspondence with Lind reveals, Wilson was hopeful that Mexico's domestic forces would be able to defeat Huerta and enact the necessary democratic and social reforms.[93] While he never quoted Thomas Jefferson, it is clear that Wilson believed the Mexican tree of liberty needed to be watered by the blood of Mexican patriots. Despite the obvious risks to US citizens and US businesses, Wilson remained steadfastly committed to a policy designed to facilitate and expedite that bloodletting process so that the Mexican people could establish a government that represented their will and served their interests.

A critical assessment of Wilson's policy towards Mexico clearly shows that he did not believe the right to self-determination belonged solely to white Europeans. Historians have argued that Wilson's rhetoric of self-determination was just the hypocritical double-speak of a racist politician. In a recent essay on Wilson's legacy, Lloyd Ambrosius maintained that Wilson believed the “Europeans were ready for self-government but the peoples of color were not.”[94] Focusing on Wilson's interactions with African Americans and the negotiations at Versailles, Ambrosius and others suggest that Wilson's bold talk of self-determination was clearly only applicable to white Europeans. While it is undeniable that Wilson held an extremely low opinion of the political and social development of African Americans, his harboring of racist views towards African Americans does not necessarily mean that the entirety of his foreign policy hinged upon the assumption of the innate inferiority of all non-white races. One must look more closely to determine exactly how widely Wilson originally intended to apply the concept of self-determination.

Many of the historians who look skeptically at Wilson's commitment to self-determination argue that commercial interests—not democracy—were at the heart of Wilson's foreign policy. Time and again in his personal correspondence and his public statements, Wilson—six years before the Treaty of Versailles—claimed to be immune from the pressure of business interests. For example, in the summer of 1913, Wilson fielded a question from a reporter who asked if his administration was doing everything in its power to protect American interests in Latin America. In his response, Wilson stated that the overriding goal of his administration was “to protect American interests in the large sense—to advance American interests, to show our friendliness, to help in every legitimate way.”[95] He then reinforced his point by saying that the best way to advance American interests was “to be real friends, and not try to exploit them or use them to our own selfish interests.”[96]

The strong anti-Wilson bias prevalent among the businessmen who testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1919—including Buckley and Carothers—establishes a powerful case against the school of historians that argues that Wilson's foreign policy was pro-business. Buckley testified before the Senate in 1919 that the Wilson Administration had “never consulted Americans in Mexico” and had “always regarded them as unscrupulous adventurers who had left their own country and were in some way or other in league with the Cientificos for the purpose of exploiting the Mexican peon.”[97] The hostility present in Buckley's and other businessmen's testimonies serves to confirm Wilson's claim that he was willing to sacrifice the capital that American interests had invested in Mexico in his effort to support democratic and social reform in Mexico. Regardless of the interests of US citizens and corporations in Mexico, Wilson recognized nothing less than the reestablishment of the Mexican presidency via free and fair elections. Ignoring the lobbying of US business interests, Wilson appears to have placed the rights of the Mexican people in front of the short-term welfare of American corporations.

While Wilson was undeniably consciously and deliberately shaping the course of Mexico's domestic affairs, there is no evidence that he believed that he was infringing on the rights of the Mexican people by fanning the flames of revolution. From Wilson's perspective, facilitating Huerta's overthrow by democratic-leaning rebel groups was not intervention in the classical sense because the people had not constitutionally elected Huerta. As Mark Benbow argues, Wilson's interference and interventions were aimed at facilitating the establishment of a constitutional democracy in Mexico—giving the Mexican people the chance to self-determine.[98] Thus in his mind, the principle of self-determination was the ultimate end, while American intervention was merely the means.

While the evidence shows that Wilson pursued an idealistic policy towards Mexico, legitimate questions could be raised concerning the general relevance or applicability of Wilson's Mexican policy. Mexico, after all, could be regarded as a special case. The United States and Mexico share a common border over two thousand miles long and are connected by numerous economic and social ties. While Mexico's proximity to the United States did make its relationship with the US distinct from that of any other country with the possible exception of Canada, its uniqueness should, if anything, have tended against Wilson's advocacy of self-determination there. Contemporary observers recognized that Mexico was the last place Wilson should have been experimenting. In the confidential correspondence of the British Foreign Office, London's high officials expressed dismay at Wilson's suggestion “that a radical revolution was the only cure” for Mexico. Britain's ambassador related to his Foreign Office that he had responded to Wilson's comment by saying that since the chaos would not be in Great Britain's “backyard,” London would “not propose to offer advice as to how it [the fire] should be put out.”[99] Thus, the proposition that Wilson sought to foment revolution rests not solely in the writings of revisionist historians, but can also be found in the contemporaneous correspondence of British diplomats.

Despite Mexico's proximity to the United States, and the probability that continued violence would take American lives and damage American property, Wilson fanned the flames of revolution in Mexico in an effort to help a stable representative democracy emerge. The porous two thousand mile border between the United States and Mexico was impossible to secure and the populations on both sides were tied together with innumerable social, familial, and economic ties. Consequently, Wilson risked the safety of American citizens by attempting to give the Mexican people an opportunity to exercise their right to self-determination. It stands to reason that if he were willing to risk pandemonium along the US border in the service of democracy then, barring outside constraints, Wilson would have been willing to unleash those forces elsewhere in the world where a democratic form of government was in the process of being established.[100]

In The Wilsonian Century, Frank Ninkovich proposes that Wilson fathered “Crisis Internationalism”—the foreign policy strategy that dominated the twentieth century.[101] Ninkovich described “Crisis Internationalism” as a foreign policy system where the United States instantly responds to any crisis or revolution anywhere in the world in order to stop violence and create stability. This interpretation is completely at odds with Wilson's early foreign policy as revealed in our study of Mexico. Wilson was more than willing to tolerate violence and instability if he thought doing so might lead to the expansion of democracy. This is an insight that should be carried forward into any study of Wilson's neutrality policies during the First World War.

Historians have also routinely challenged Wilson's commitment to self-determination and the expansion of democracy. In his Atlantic article “What Would Wilson Do?,” David Kennedy minimized Wilson's belief in self-determination.[102] Kennedy downplayed Wilson's famous quote that “the world must be made safe for democracy,” claiming that he and his followers “asked only that the world be made safe for democracy, not that the world be made democratic.”[103] Mark Gilderhus's Pan-American Visions clearly shows that Wilson believed that the creation of a community of nations was in America's self-interest, but he does not place enough emphasis on the fact that Wilson believed that the members of this community needed to be like-minded.[104] They needed to be democratic and broadly representative. An in-depth study of Wilson's early foreign policy reveals that his primary aim was the creation of a representative democracy in Mexico and that he believed war and revolution were, in some circumstances, acceptable tools to accomplish that end. Hence, as the Mexican case study shows, it was not America's narrow business interests or a desire for short-term international stability but rather the promotion of democracy—not just to white Europeans but to peoples of color as well—that comprised the central aim of Wilson's foreign policy. It seems clear that Wilson believed that in the long run the world being democratic and being safe for democracy were identical goals.


  • Major Lucas Frank taught history at the United States Military Academy at West Point. This piece is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Alan Cecil Petigny, teacher, advisor, friend.