21 April 1914: Woodrow Wilson invades Veracruz in his pajamas
Woodrow Wilson, who from the Mexican view, should have stayed out of his neighbor’s family feud, felt he had a moral right to intervene in Mexico in 1914. Trained as a Presbyterian minister, the former college professor, and all-round moralist, saw it as his duty to “teach them to elect good men.” He could never understand why the Mexicans rejected him as a guide. The Mexicans resented his meddling, and moreover, what had started the Constitutionalist rebellion was U.S. meddling, specifically Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson’s role in Huerta’s coup at the behest of the dominant foreign economic interests.
Wilson dispatched a friend, his campaign biographer, William Bayard Hale, to Mexico in 1914. Hale, a New York Times reporter, spoke no Spanish and had never been in Mexico before. But Wilson trusted Hale, and Hale understood Wilson’s idealistic belief in constitutional democracy. Working undercover1, Hale unsurprisingly reported that Huerta was a tyrant with no popular support. It was control of the oil fields – and the revenues from the oil fields that let him buy foreign munitions – that kept him in power.
William Bayard Hale was right: Huerta needed ammunition if he was to maintain power. Everyone knew Britain and Germany were about to go to war. The British Navy depended on Mexican oil, and the British – not caring much who controlled the country as long as they could pump oil – kept a mercenary army under their own general, Manual Perez, protecting the oil region. But Huerta’s forces controlled the ports, and the Germans were willing to supply arms to Huerta in return for blocking oil sales to Britain. Wilson, pro-British, but desperate to keep the United States out of the coming war, hoped that if neither the German nor the British had the clear advantage, the war could be avoided.
United States intelligence officers had learned that the Germans were sending several shiploads of arms to Mexico. Carrenza and Huerta had both at various times threatened to cut off oil shipments – which would have kept the British out of the war, but also would cripple the U.S. economy (which even then was dependent on foreign oil imports). Carranza’s forces were slowly taking more and more control of the country, but were unlikely to capture Veracruz in time to stop the Germans from resupplying Huerta.
On 6 April, six U.S. sailors were arrested in Tampico, still controlled by Huerta’s administration. The arrests were a mistake, and the sailors were returned to their ship. However, the United States was a new military power in the world, and U.S. officers had not always shown good judgment in Mexico. The United States Navy wanted respect: the ship’s captain demanded an apology from the Mexican Navy … and a 21-gun salute! The Mexicans, politely as possible, apologized for the sailors’ inconvenience, but refused the salute. The “insult to the Navy” received a fair amount of press in the United States. Given the feeling in the United States, this minor incident gave the President a plausible excuse to “avenge the national insult” – and incidentally to cut off Huerta’s arms supplies, and liberate Mexico from the tyrant. Or so it seemed.
In 1914 the President of the United States was one of the few people in the world with a bedside telephone. He was still asleep at 6 A.M. on 21 April when he received a call confirming that the German ship, Yripanga, would be docking in Veracruz later that morning. Wilson had the White House operator set up a conference call between himself, his personal secretary, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan and Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels. The operator and the President weren’t the only ones still in their pajamas that morning.
Daniels was a pacifist, and Bryan had religious objections to warfare. Still, they agreed with Wilson that the only way to stop the Yripanga was to take over Veracruz. If the French had once invaded the city over unpaid doughnuts in Mexico City, the United States could take the Customs’ House in Veracruz to avenge an insult to its navy’s honor in Tampico. Daniels had orders sent by radio (a very recent technology) to naval ships in the Gulf of Mexico.
Nothing went as planned. As the Spanish found out in 1828, the French in 183, Winfield Scott in 1847, and Maximiliano von Hapsburg in 1863, the “jarochas” do not welcome foreign invasions. In 1848, army cadets had defended Mexico City from United States marines. In 1914, the Naval Academy defended Veracruz. To protect the Marines, the Navy bombarded the city. Citizens joined the cadets. There were casualties on both sides, something a visably shaken and pale Wilson announced to the press the next day. Bryan, who felt personally responsible for the disaster, later resigned. The marines did complete their mission – occupying the Custom’s House. The Yripanga was an unarmed merchant freighter. Its captain was not about to enter a war zone. He turned his ship around. Mission accomplished. 2.
Although meant to assist Carranza, even that plan went sour. What Wilson forgot was that Carranza was a very prickly nationalist and had never gotten over his boyhood meeting with Benito Juarez, who had struggled to keep all foreign governments out. Wilson, during his pajama conference, had not consulted the “legitimate” Consitituional Chief of Mexico before sending troops into the country. If the United States did not immediately evacuate Veracruz, the Constitutional Chief threatened to invade the United States, even if it meant joining forces with Huerta! He was bluffing, of course. Wilson was furious, but Carranza had made his point. He – not Huerta – was Mexico’s legitimate leader, and only he had the right to determine Mexico’s foreign policy.
Henry Lane Wilson, who was still in Mexico City, was finally recalled. The United States sent a representative (not an ambassador3) to the Constitutionalist government, and other countries withdrew their recognition of Huerta’s government. The Marines took their time leaving Veracruz (they didn’t withdraw until November), by which time the whole occupation was pointless. Huerta was gone. The Revolution had gone on to a new phase by then. Worse yet for the Wilson administration, the Latin American nations had all sided with Carranza, and the United States was again seen as the aggressor in Mexico. Veracruz’s official name was changed after the invasion to “Three Times Heroic Veracruz” – its citizens had risen against invaders from Spain once, and from the United States twice. Harry S. Truman laid a wreath at the memorial to the Boy Heroes of Chapultepec in 1948. Truman was applauded at the time, but no one expected an apology for what had been a tragedy of war. The Veracruz invasion was seen differently. Mexico and the United States were not at war, and the intervention was simply for Woodrow Wilson’s political benefit. Bill Clinton offered an official apology in 1998.
1 Hale was an undercover agent for more than Wilson. He was also a German agent.
2 Sort of. The Yripanga unloaded down the coast in Huerta controlled Puerto Mexico.
3 To legalists like Wilson and Carranza, the terms used in foreign relations were important. Not being president, the constitutional chief could not receive an “ambassador”, but he could receive a “representative”.