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Mexican Revolution: American Involvement

Tampico Affair
Figure 1.--The United States Navy after what became known as the Tampico Affair seized the port of Tampico. An American after the seizure of Tampico took this photograph of a Mexican family in 1914. They were farming cotton, but notice only a small patch. It is presumably a small family farm, but based on the cotton patch not large enough to generate much income.

The United States and Mexico share one of the world's longest borders. It was a border at the time of the Mexican Revolution that was largely unpatrolled and easily crossed. And important events in the Reolution occurred in northern Mexico where the Federal Government often had difficulty mintaining control and where the revolutianirs coukd eaily slip back and forth across the border. Thus inevitably the United States was drawn into the Mexican Revolution. Not all of the action occurred in the north, but it was a large part of the Revolution. Revolutionaties of different factions sought refuge in the United states or sought to obtain funds and weapons. This was possible because of Mexican communities in the Southwest and the ease of crossing the border. This simple fact would play a major role in the Rvolution. The U.S. Army was mobilized to better protect the border, especilly the border towns. The first important confrontation, however, occurred further south at Tampico. The Tampico Affair led to American occuption of Tampico (1914). In addition the American Government, including the Taft and Wilson Administration about the Revolution and the different regimes tht took power in Mexico City. This in turn caused animosity on the part of the factions opposing the the regimes favored by the American administrations. The most notable individual here was of coutse Panco Villa. This eventually led to the U.S. Mexican Expedition led by General Pershing just before World war I (1916-17). At the time, Europe was locked in World war. The Mexican Foreign Ministry recognizing that America might enter the War was apparently following developments in Mexico which led to the infamous Zimmermann Telergram. The Germans who were in the pricess of redrawing the borders of Eastern Europe, decided to do the same in the American Southwest. This incensed the American public and played a part in American involvement in World War I.

Revolution Breaks Out (1910)

The Revolution breaks out in Mexico when President Porfirio Diaz attemps to steal the election. Because of the disprders througout the country, especially in the north. the U.s. Army is deployed long the largely unguarded border. Most of the men are sent to border towns to protect American lives and property. Orders also involved ensuring that fighting between the rebel and Diaz forces remain on the Mexican side of the frontier. Francisco Madero, an idealistic young lawyer, issued the Plan of San Luis Potos�, calling for Mexican people to rise up against President Diaz. Madero because of his criticim of President Dias was arrested, but managed to flee across the border to Texas (October 1910). He issued his proclamation from San Antonio, Texas. Maddero planned an atack on the border town of Ciudad Porfirio Diaz across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas. Madero when sufficent supporters did not show up canceled the plan (November). He departed for New Orleans, Louisiana to work on another plan.

Diaz Ousted (1911)

President Pofirio Diaz with information about Madero's acfivities in th United States demands that U,S. authorities extradite him. Authorities issue orders for Madero's arrest. We are not sur to what extent this was aegal action as opposed to support for President Diaz. We are sure this has been studie, but are not yet familar with the literature. Madero at any case foewarned ecaped back cross the porous bordr (February 14). At the same time, Magonistas (suporters of Cipriano Ricardo Flores Mag�n and his brothers) began attacks on Federal (Diaz) forces in northern Baja California. Many revolutionary groups were emnerging. Th Magonistas were more radical reformers than Madero, but at the time they colesed under the common goal of rmoving Diaz. They managed to capture the border town of Mexicali (February 11) and pressed on to Tijuana near San Diego where they captured the federal garrison. The Federal forces regroupd and retook Tijuana (June). The Magonistas and other rebels fled across the border to San Ysidro where the U.S. Army disarmed them, but did not stop them from entering th United States. Diaz was attempting to put out fires as similar revolutionary movements flared out all ober the country. Madero personally led 130 men at the Battle of Casas Grandes in Chihuahua (March). Madero's rebels lost the battle, but the federals were soon forced to with draw (March). This left Madero in control of Chihuahua and the ability to smuggle weapons and supplies across the border in substantial quantities. Ciudad Juarez on the border became a battkeground. Rebels blew up the federal barracks and homes of the Mexican Army garrison. The explosion was visible from th Amricn side of the border. A large cannon which for years sat in the town square of El Paso, Texas disappeared, apparently appropriated by the rebels. Maderista rebels also fought federal troops at Agua Prieta, Sonora (April). Here the fighting spilled across the border. For some reason fedral forces fired on U.S. Army soldiers in Douglas, Aruzona. The Americans retaliated and when federal forces withdrew, the rebels were in control of another border crossing. Now the increasing well armed rebel forces pressed their attacks. Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco attacked federal forces at the Second Battle of Ciudad Juarez April 7-May 10). It proved to be one of the real slug fests of the Revolution. Again fighting spilled across the birder. The American garrison of El Paso, Texas exchanged fire, this tine with the rebels. Both sides incurred casualkties. Finally Presidebt Diaz flees the country. The wideky popular Francisco Madero becomes President and calls for an end to the fighting. He offered to pay the fighters of the different rebel factions if they would lay down their arms or join his new federal Mexican Army. This proved impossible. The different factions had united to drive out Diaz, but they had many different visions for Mexico's future and were prepared to fight to achieve them. Diaz had been a kind of a cork on Mexican political factions. Madero had removed the cork, but proved unavle to recork the battle. Fighting broke out between rebel factions and Madero was unable to restore order. As a result, tensions remained high along the border.

President Madero Overwealmed and Asainated: Renewed Fighting (1911-13)

President Taft kept U.S. Army troop in place garisonung border towns. General Pasqual Orozco whohad fought with Madero rebels against the President launches a campaign from the Mexican border state of Chihuahua. President Madero responds by sending a federal force north. It is defeated by Orozco's troops in three large battles. Orozco is eventually defeated. Villa, another note�o begins his rebellion. Madero's federal forces set up Fort Tijuana along the international border to help supress a Magonista campaign. Madero increasingly relies on his army commander Victoriano Huerta. Many hacendados (large land owners and ranchers) objected toPresident Madero's moderate reforms. Tgey had support from Hueta and old army officers from the Porfiriao. Huerta eventually has Madero shot (February 1913). Maero who had been heavily criticized by the now freevMexicn press suddenly becomes a saint. Huerta finds that opposition springs up to his attempt to ruke Mexico. General Alvaro Obregon's army of over 2,000 Constitutionalistas attacks Nogales, Sonora. The defending federal forces commanded by General Emilio Kosterlitzky ar defeated and fled across the border. They turn ovr their arms to U.S. Army garrison at Nogales, Arizona. Obregon's rebels attack and take border town of Naco, Sonora. These border towns were key as it meant access to weapons which could be obtained in rhe United stztes. The American soldiers watched the battle from across the border. American troops in Naco, Arizona begin construction of Fort Naco. This was one of 12 forts built by the United States Army along the border to defend against the battling Mexican forces. General John Pershing and Pancho Villa met at Fort Bliss, Texas. They would meet again later Ojinaga (1914).


Mexicans were the first refugees that America took in, a least in large numbers. There were not a lot of revolutions and wars in Canada. Of course, America did take in immigrants which were a kind of refigee variant. But these immigrants voluntarily came to Aamerica, Many of the Mexicn refugees came fleeing the vioence of the Revolution. Actually there were refugees before the Revolition began, refugess from opposite ends of the social spectrum Some of the poorest refugees ever to reach America were the Yaqui Indians escaping a virtually genocidal Mexican pacification effort. On the othresude o the socail spectrum were affluent Mexicams which opposed Diaz's increasinfly authoritarian rule. The Revolution was meerly the final chapter in the opposition that developed in Mexico over the more than three decades of the Porfiriato. The most prominant refugee that sought asylum in the United States were Ricardo Flores Mag�n and his brother Enrique. They founded the newspaper Regeneraci�n (1900). They attacked the Diaz dictatorship and squalid conditions of the Mexican masses. D�az wa not about to tolerate such disent. The Flores brothers had to flee. They crossed the border at Laredo, Texas (1904) and began publishing Regeneraci�n in San Antonio. The uncensored newspaper described the condition of rural and urban workers, the corruption and venality of government officials, the involvement of foreign investors, and the need to end the Porfiriato. Once the Revolution began, Mexicans with little or no resources crossed the border to escape the violence and reach the ssafety of the United states. This began with Madero's Plan de San Luis Potos�, a literal floodtide of refugees inundated the border states. An exile community became established along the border in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. They are best described as refugees because theur focus and national identity continued to be with Mexico. And there was no major novement away from the border. After Madero, the Mexican Revolution evolved into a struggle among rival caudillos. Each of the major contendors had their supporters among the refugees. This was of some importance because the United States was a source of weapons and supplies. All of the comtenders had their supporters among the Mexican refugee community: Pascual Orozco, Jr., Victoriano Huerta, Francisco (Pancho) Villa, Francisco Madero, Venustiano Carranza, and �lvaro Obreg�n. There were also some among the refugees that supported D�az and his heirs. They had to flee acros the border when the revolutionaroes seized much of northern Mexico. This situttion continued throughout the 1910s. We are unsure to what extent relief assistance was ptovided. Over this time, some of the refugee community became integrated into Mexican-American border communities meaning that they became Mexican Americans themselves. Others returned home to Mexico once the security situation permitted it.

Tampico Affair (1914)

Gen. Huerta had considerable support not only from Mecican hacendados, but mny Ameriucns who had invested in Mexico. Newly elected President Woodrow Wilson was not one of thm. Mexican authorities arrested nine American sailors from a visiting american ship for allegedly entering a prohibited zone at the port of Tampico (April 1914). President Wilson after obtaining Congressioinal authorization ordered marines to seize Veracruz. The United States Navy's Atlantic fleet under Admiral Frank Fletcher was ordered to Veracruz and occupied the port after an amphibious assault by the marines and a running street battle with Mexican soldires. Anti-American riots break out in Mexican cities. European newspapers denounced the American intervention in the months just before the outbreak of World War I. The President made it very clear that the actiin was aimed at the Herta regime. It resulted in the severing of diplomatic relations.

Struggle for the Capital (1914)

Fighting continues as Carranza and Obregon and others such as Villa and Zapata to oust Huerta as wel as among themselves. The longest battle of the Revolution was fought at Naco, Sonora. Naco is located across the border from Fort Naco and Naco, Arizona. Border towns were a prize in the struggle. Villa's army attacked a garison loyal to General Obregon (October 17). This began a 119 day siege. Closing the long isolated rail lines cut off the garrion. Villa was eventually defeated and had to withdraw. Some black U.S. Army (Buffalo Soldiers) stationed in Naco, Arizona were wounded when Villa's rebels began shooting into their camp. They did not return fire. The U.S. Army recognized them for notable discipline. Pancho Villa from the north and Emiliano Zapata from the west drive out Huerta and capture Mexico City but soon leave as Gen. Obregon and Cranza's Constitutionalistas regroup in Veracruz, a port where arms and supplies were available and regain control of the capital. Carrancistas secretly drafted the Plan de San Diego, an operation to overthrow the American state governments of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California (former Mexican territory) by inciting a race war. The plan was uncovered by the American authorities after a Carrancista leader was arrested in Texas. The Plan came to nothing, although some fighting did occur. Rebels launched small-scale raids into Texas.

Villa's Defeat (1915)

Pancho Villa is today is a popular Mecican nationl hero, primarily because he became a thorn in the side of the United States. Not wll known is the fact that he opposed the agrarian reforms advocated by Madero and Zapata in the Plan de Ayala. This is because Zapata became the owner of hacendas and granted large tracts of land to his genrrals rather than the pesant farmers. This made it difficult for the two to cooperate. Zapata withdrew to Morelos, but Villa continued to fight Caranza and Obregon in the north. Carranza dispastchef Gen. Obreg�n north to deal with Villa. They mey at the Battle of Celaya (April 6-15, 1915). Obregon with a well equipped army decisively defeated the Villistas, 4,000 were killed and 6,000 captured. Obreg�n pursued Villa and caught his batered army at the Battle of Trinidad, actually a series of engagements (April 29 - June 5). Again Villa's army was badly defeated. Villa finally retired into Sonora (October). This like the other northern states was a vast trritory his principal stronghold. Here he hope to finaly gain an important victory. Carranza had, however, reiforced garrisons ther. Villa again suffered a bruising defeat. Rodolfo Fierro, his most loyal officer and particularly cruel man, was killed. Villa led his mounted army in an attack on Gen. Obregon's Constitutionalist garrison at Nogales, Sonora. Villa layed seige to Nogales, but it failed largely due to the lack of artillery as well as supplies. Again the fighting spilled over the border. A unit of the U.S. Army 12th Infantry Division garrisoned Nogales, Arizona. A skirmished flared up for half an hour. One American was killed along with several Villista rebels. Villistas and Constitutionalists fought another battle along the bordercat Agua Prieta (November). Villa to maintain his reputation, improbbly blamed his defeat at Nogles on large searchlights the U.S. Army garrison of Douglas, Arizona. The battle was another Villista defeat. It wa followed by ye again a defeat at Hermosillo (November 15). Here Villa's undisciplined men pillaged the city instead of fighting the garrison. They were then repulses. The United States did aid Caranza's Constitutionalists were allowed to use American railways to move troops.

Attacks on Americans (1916)

Villa by this time was both thoroughly estraigned from the United States and defeated by the Constitutinlisrs. He would no longer play an important role in the Revolution. He would, however, becom the ficus of American-Mexicn relations. Villistas stopped a train near Santa Isabel, Chihuahua. They murdered 18 American passengers working with the ASARCO company of Tucson, Arizona--the San Isabel Massacre (January 1916). Villa's shattered army was now short of supplies. He decided to raid Columbus, New Mexico (March 9, 1916). The raid did no unfold as he planned. Villa's force of 500 mounted men were defeated by of some 300 U.S. troopers stationed at a border fort outside the town. Columbus was, however, heavily damaged by the attacking Villistas. They burned several buildings as tgey rampaged through the town. Some 60-80 Villistas were killed and unknown number wounded. A dozen Americans, both soldiets and civilians. Villa attacked two more American border towns, Glenn Springs, Texas and Boquillas (May 5). Over 200 men under Rodriguez Ramirez and Natividad �lvarez were ordered across the Texas border to obtain supplies.

Villa and the United States (1915-17)

President Wilson decided to support Carranza in the Mexican Civil War (1915). This enfuriated northern commander Panco Villa who had expected American assistance. Villa retaliated by ordering attacks ion americans in northern Mexico and along the border. The most serious incident occurred when Villa's men stopped a Mexican train and found several American engineers (January 1916). The Villistas forced the Americans off the train and then stripped, shot, md mutilated them. Villa ordered his men to stay south of the border to avoid an incident on American terriory which he seems to have realized would have serious consequences. The exception to this was an attck on the border town of Columbus, New Mexico (March 9, 1916). This was no accident. A substantial Villista force attacked the town and its small military post. They shot and killed several resident and burned down much of the town. They escaped back into Mexico with horses and mules, merchandise and guns from the stores, as well as money. Americans were outraged and newspapers throughout the country demanded action. Wilson was also outraged seeing Villa as little more than a bandit. President Wilson ordered General John J. Pershing to enter Mexico and arrest Villa. Pershing was an old calvalry man who had commanded black troops (the Buffalo soldiers) on the Western frontier, earning him the nick name Black Jack Pershing. Perhing crossed the border with a 12,000 mn expeditionary force. The Curtiss JN-3 was used for aerial surveillance. Villa seems to have anticipated the American reaction and used the time after the Columbus raid to disperse and conceal his forces. Pershing entered Mexico in two columns looking for Villa.

Zimmermann Telegram (1917)

One of the most important examples of code breaking was the British decryption of the Zimmermann Telegran, a factor in bringing America into the War. Britain controlled the trans-Atlantic cable links to America. The Germans used the cables to send telegram messages to their diplomatic missions in America. The Germans encoded sensative messages, assuming the British could not read them. German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann sent a coded message to the German Ambassador in Mexico von Eckhardt (January 16, 1917). It instructed him to inform the Mexican Government that Germany would soon resume unrestricted submarine warfare which in a few months would knock Britain out of the War. The Germans assumed this would cause America to declare war. Zimmermann offered Mexico U.S. territory if Mexico would join Germany in the war. We are unsure about the German decession-making process. Surely the failed Mexican expedition must have been a factor. The telegram read, "We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal or alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President's attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace." Signed, ZIMMERMANN." It was possible the most blatantly incompetent diplomatic approach in history. We are not sure to what extent the Kaiser was involved, but Zimmermann would not have made this offer without the Kaiser's approval. British Naval Intelligence cryptographers using a captured German codebook decoded the message. were surprised when a encoded German transmission came across their desks. German actions in the War, especially in Belgium and on the highseas had brought most Americans over to the Allied side, although public opinion still opposed entry in the war. The British turned the telegram over to the American Embassy in London (February 24, 1917). The Wilson Administration released the telegram to the press (March 1). Some at first thought the telegram a forgery which the Germans and Mexicans first claimed. Zimmermann inexplicteldly admitted he had sent the message (March 3). The American public was outraged. Public opinion shifted toward a declaration of war. [Tuchman] Despite substantial pascifist sentiment, there waslittle opposition to entering the War.

American Role

Authors addressing the Mexican Revolution commonly depict the United States as a villan. This is in part because of the role of the U.S. Ambassador, Henry Lan Wilson, who may have been complicit in Madero's murder. But raerely do the historians who address the subjects mention the many positive aspectsin the American- exican relationship. America was the model for Latin American revolutionaries in the independence movement from Spain. This shows in the name of the country, Los Estados Unidos de Mexico (the Uniyed States of Mexico). Much of Maderos educatiion was in the Unites States where he learned about democratic elections. And where did Madero go to for refuge after escaping from Madero's jail--the United States. Where did he plan his revolution -- the United States. Where did he and others obtain guns for the revolutuion -- again the United States. One reasion that Villa was able to amass a large, well armed army, was because Villa's stronghold was in northern Mexico bordering on the United States. A reason that Zapata was less succesful than Villa was because Morelos was in central Mexico far from the Ameruican border. President Wilson played an imprtant role in ousting Huerta, generally seen as the ultimatre villan in the Revolution.


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Created: 12:42 AM 4/11/2014
Last updated: 8:34 PM 12/5/2022