William Jennings Bryan resigned as Secretary of State on June 9, 1915 over his frustration with Wilson’s foreign policy towards Germany, which he believed would eventually drag the United States into the European conflict. Robert Lansing came in his place, the Counselor of the State Department who had advised the President on a stricter course towards Germany. However, Lansing also believed that the continuation of the Mexican Revolution posed a national security risk for the United States. His main adviser on Mexico was Leon Canova, the recently appointed head of the Latin American desk at the State Department.

Leon Canova (4th from left) and Alvaro Obregon (3rd from left) in Mexico City, October 1913

Leon Canova (4th from left) and Alvaro Obregon (3rd from left) in Mexico City, October 1913

Canova belonged to a group of American businessmen and exiled Mexican politicians who believed that in the end only an American military intervention or a faction of Mexicans with the full financial and political support of the United States could end the ongoing civil strife south of the border. This group included such men as the former Mexican Foreign Secretary Manuel Calero, Felix Díaz and Aureliano Blanquet – two of the conspirators who overthrew President Madero in 1913 – and Villa’s main military adviser, as well as the former secretary of war for Carranza, Felipe Ángeles. Manuel Esteva, the Mexican consul in New York under Porfirio Díaz and Victoriano Huerta, who Carranza fired in the fall of 1914, Andrew Meloy, an American railroad investor, and Frederico Stallforth all belonged to this group. Sherburne Hopkins, the powerful lobbyist for Madero, Villa, and Carranza in Washington D.C., and Felix Sommerfeld at least shared the group’s ideas on resolving the Mexican civil war. Leon Canova, with the silent blessing of Robert Lansing, became the group’s spokesman in the State Department.

Leon Canova had received his job because of Pancho Villa. The American special envoy had smuggled the former federal police commander of Mexico City, Eduardo Iturbide, to the United States in his special railcar on Christmas 1914. Pancho Villa saw Canova, and even briefly chatted with him, at the train station in Mexico CityAfter the train left, Villa’s secret service reported to him that Iturbide had been observed with Canova and that he had disappeared. Villa put together what had occurred and, after throwing one of his well-known fits, issued a call for Iturbide’s arrest. A search party finally entered the rail compartment in Chihuahua. Iturbide was gone! He had exited the train just south of Aguascalientes hours before the first attempt to search the compartment, and was making his way up to the American border on foot. Canova had so misled Iturbide’s pursuers by refusing a search, that they lost his trail. The train with the American consul arrived in El Paso on Christmas day 1914, while Iturbide relied on his skills and sheer luck to make it across the border to safety. Villa was furious and declared Canova a persona-non-grata. Not being allowed back to Mexico, he received a promotion to heading the Latin American desk in the State Department. Villa now had a dead enemy in a very powerful position in Washington.

Canova submitted a proposal to Secretary of State Bryan in May 1915, in which he claimed that Villa was ready to lay down his arms. A newly configured faction would be able to absorb his forces and pacify Mexico. Canova claimed to be able to enlist former federal officers (represented by Blanquet, Mondragón, and Angeles), rally the support of the Catholic Church (represented in the group through Felix Díaz and Eduardo Iturbide), receive financial support from the American oil and railroad industry (represented by Andrew Meloy, Charles Douglas, and Sherburne Hopkins), and mount this new opposition force quickly and efficiently. Mexico would be pacified by eliminating both Carranza and Villa.

The plan Canova submitted to Secretary Bryan and a plan Andrew Meloy, the railroad investor from New York pursued are almost identical. After his arrest in England as a German spy, Meloy described his ideas for pacifying Mexico to the American Ambassador Walter Hines Page. Meloy’s statement matched Canova’s plan almost verbatim. The American businessman claimed that through German naval intelligence agents Felix A. Sommerfeld and Frederico Stallforth, he had assurances that Villa would step aside, that he had broad support from different factions in Mexico, members of the old federal army, the Catholic Church, and important American financiers and industrialists. Even the information Meloy gave with respect to Carranza’s refusal to be part of any unity government closely matched the known information about the Pan American conference between July 15 and August 8.

Further linking the Canova plan to Meloy, the arrested businessman perplexed the American ambassador in London by saying repeatedly, “Mr. Charles A. Douglas of Washington, whom he describes as ‘Counselor to the Department of State for Latin American affairs.’” That title belonged to Leon Canova. The embarrassment for Canova to have been involved in a scheme, in which German agents also participated, grew in the months to come. The head of the Bureau of Citizenship in the State Department told Canova in September 1915, “It appears to me that Meloy is engaged in a scheme of considerable proportions to foment a new revolutionary movement in Mexico, with German aid.”

Meloy pursued his plan in good faith with all the Mexican factions throughout the spring of 1915, with the sympathetic knowledge of members of the State Department. The Mexican factions all waited for whatever advantage they could gain from the scheme. Meanwhile, German agents plotted to use Meloy’s idea as a smokescreen for introducing more strife into the border region than already existed. The American businessman traveled three times back and forth to Europe and met with expatriates in his office in New York. Boy-Ed wrote to Heinrich Albert in July, 1915, “I have repeatedly conferred with him [Meloy] and have received the impression that he is an honorable, trustworthy man. If he has a commercial failing, according to my observation, it is this one, that he is entirely too confiding and is easily made the victim of tricky businessmen.” 

A significant piece of the German strategy to create a war between the United States and Mexico fell into place in October of 1915. Woodrow Wilson decided to extend diplomatic recognition to Venustiano Carranza as a result of the declining fortunes of Pancho Villa. The decision was based, in part, on the intent to reduce tensions in Mexico and to strengthen the dominant faction in the civil war. The head of the Latin American desk in the State Department, Villa’s sworn enemy Leon Canova, had much to do with swaying the president to change policy towards Mexico. The American government underestimated the extent of Pancho Villa’s fury in the process, and did not count on the manipulative genius of Felix Sommerfeld to take advantage of this new situation.