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Pancho Villa's Raid on Columbus, New Mexico: Centennial Commemoration

The little hamlet of Columbus, New Mexico, thirty odd miles from Deming and three miles from the Mexican village of Palomas buzzled yesterday with reenactors, celebrities, historians, military history buffs, TV, newspaper and film crews. Over 2,000 people from all walks of life came to commemorate a momentous event that happened just over 100 years ago. A group of one hundred Villista reenactors on horseback met at the border with reenactors of the U.S. Cavalry and rode into Columbus to throngs of cheering spectators. The granddaughter of General George S. Patton, who received his first combat experience in the Punitive Expedition as a second lieutenant and aide to General John J. "Blackjack" Pershing, greeted the crowds. Helen Patton read a letter from Sandra Pershing before the sang "America the Beautiful" and paid respect during the Mexican national anthem. A great great grandson of Pancho Villa in a show of friendship and peace between the United States and Mexico, shook hands and hugged. Mayor Philip Skinner and U.S. representative Steve Pearce posed with Pancho Villa (the reenactor), Helen Patton, Francisco Antonio Villa Alcazar for pictures, briefly joined by Francisco I. Madero (a spitting image of the real president of Mexico).

Pancho Villa, flanked by his lieutenants riding into Columbus. To the right of Villa. President Francisco I. Madero.

Pancho Villa, flanked by his lieutenants riding into Columbus. To the right of Villa. President Francisco I. Madero.

On March 9, 1916, at around 4:00 am (we know that because the clock at the train station permanently froze at 4:11 am as a result of a bullet lodged in its works), close of 500 Villista raiders rampaged the city, shot panicked residents who ran for cover, ransacked the bank, local hardware store and looted the grocery shop. The local camp Columbus with three hundred soldiers of the 13th cavalry regiment as well awoke to the whizzing bullets of the Mexican raiders. Luckily for the soldiers, the Villistas mistook the stables for sleeping barracks. After initial chaos, the cavalry quickly set up a defensive line with machine guns. The attackers set the commercial district of the town on fire. After a ninety minute fire fight the soldiers repelled the raiders. Still, eight soldiers and nine civilians, among them the owner of the Commercial Hotel and several guests as well as the grocer, died. The raiders lost close to one hundred in the attack and subsequent retreat with American cavalry in hot pursuit.

Helen Patton in the company of U.S. army reenactors driving a 1917 Dodge parades by the cheering crowd 

Helen Patton in the company of U.S. army reenactors driving a 1917 Dodge parades by the cheering crowd 

The raid on Columbus triggered a massive military response from the United States. Within days thousands of troops, eventually topping 10,000, assembled in the little desert town and entered Mexico under the command of John J. Pershing in pursuit of Villa and his troops. Pancho Villa remained an illusive target over the next nine months, despite being wounded and many of his lieutenants captured or killed. Yet, the Punitive Expedition marked a turning point not only in relations with Mexico (as Villa had intended), but also in the First World War. By July 1916, virtually the entire U.S. army and reserve descended upon Mexico and the border region (as German secret agents had intended). Despite the public and many historians judging the Punitive Expedition a colossal failure, American soldiers had received nine months of combat experience or at least training, the army was well equipped, and newest technology such as trucks, motorcycles, and airplanes had catapulted the U.S. military into the mechanized age.

From left U.S. Representative Steve Pearce, Pancho Villa, Francisco Antonio Villa Alcazar, and Mayor of Columbus Philip Skinner

From left U.S. Representative Steve Pearce, Pancho Villa, Francisco Antonio Villa Alcazar, and Mayor of Columbus Philip Skinner

Columbus, New Mexico, and the events of the year 1916 shaped the world as we know it. Despite German agents supporting Villa's conviction that the U.S. intended to trample on Mexico's  sovereignty in an unholy alliance with President Carranza, the plan to create a war between Mexico and the United States badly backfired. When American troops finally entered the European battlefields under the command of John J. Pershing in 1918 on the side of the Allies,  the German military did not last but another nine months before it capitulated. The outcome of the World War was by no means predetermined, as many historians have argued. In a separate peace with Russia after the October Revolution, the German Empire threw its entire military on the western front. Had there not been fresh, well-equipped, and trained U.S. soldiers to stop the advances, who knows what the outcome of the world conflagration would have been. 

The Great Great Grandson of Pancho Villa shaking hands with the Granddaughter of General George S. Patton

The Great Great Grandson of Pancho Villa shaking hands with the Granddaughter of General George S. Patton

It was here, in little Columbus, New Mexico, in March 100 years ago, that the fate of the German military efforts in the First Wold War was sealed. 

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Men of the Secret War Council: Bernhard Dernburg

Bernhard Dernburg had given up his illustrious banking career to become Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs in 1907. The heavyset, full-bearded figure, with clear blue eyes, attentive, with a friendly disposition, portrayed raw power, intelligence, and decisiveness. Wildly successful as an innovative and daring reorganizer, the German banker had risen to stardom in German political and financial circles, en par with “Albert Ballin, Walther Rathenau, Max Warburg, Carl Fürstenberg, and Maximilian Harden.” The German Emperor had chosen this powerful Jewish banker specifically for the colonial secretary assignment because “[] his distinguishing characteristic [was] Rücksichtslosigkeit, cold-blooded, unrelenting disregard for anything but his objective.”

Former Imperials Secretary of the Colonies and the highest ranking German official in the United States in 1915, Dr. Bernhard Dernburg.

Former Imperials Secretary of the Colonies and the highest ranking German official in the United States in 1915, Dr. Bernhard Dernburg.

Dernburg was looking for a new job in the summer of 1914. His political enemies, the legions of kowtowing Prussian bureaucrats the secretary had steamrolled throughout his career, had finally succeeded in having him fired from his cabinet post in 1910. It took the Emperor four years to find a suitable mission for his old friend who had used the forced break for extensive travels to Asia and touring on the lecture circuit.

The beginning of the Great War provided the opportunity. The former imperial secretary, the “Captain without a ship,” was to arrange for a large loan to the tune of $150 million in the United States and organize the sale of German war bonds on the American market. The proceeds were projected to finance the expected cost of purchases of American goods Germany needed in the war years. Nominally, Dernburg represented the German Red Cross in the United States, a designation causing great consternation when the American public found out that their donations financed the war effort instead of helping battlefield casualties. As a banker, Dernburg had been overseas on numerous occasions, and even spent his banking apprenticeship at Ladenburg, Thalmann and Co. in New York. He had also cultivated important contacts on Wall Street in his years as a banker, Colonial Secretary, and financier. He spoke excellent English. The imperial German government considered Dernburg an expert regarding the United States with the chutzpah to get things done. Unfortunately, much to the chagrin of Ambassador Count Bernstorff, diplomacy turned out not to be one of Dernburg’s strong points.

His first task was to raise a war loan for Germany in the United States, which he could not achieve in the face of a failing war effort in the fall of 1914. Dernburg then took over propaganda for Germany in the United States. Somewhat more successful, he gave interviews, wrote editorials and bombarded editors with prepared editorials. One of the targeted editors commented: “Our mail is dernburged until the postman can scarcely stagger up the front stoop with it. They are systematic those Germans. If you doubt it, send them your postoffice [sic] address.”  The sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 sank any chance of winning the hearts and minds of the American public. After a speech in Cleveland, defending the German atrocity which killed 129 Americans, Dernburg went back to Germany before the U.S. government would evict him.

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The Road to Columbus: The Pan-American Conference Rubber Stamp

The week before the Pan-American Conference would render its final decision on the recognition of a new Mexican government, Villa’s most powerful representatives met with Robert Lansing on October 5. Although Sommerfeld does not appear to have joined Manuel Bonilla, Roque González Garza, and Enrique Llorente, he undoubtedly maintained close contact with the group and helped prepare the meeting. The Secretary heard the delegation’s arguments, their professions of imminent military successes, of being the only guarantors of constitutional order, and their claim of having support from the majority of Mexico’s factions. The Mexican negotiators emerged discouraged. There was nothing they could have said to change the decision of the American president. Pancho Villa himself spoke to reporters on October 8, ominously threatening that recognition of Carranza’s faction “would bring revolution after revolution, and revolution in its worst forms. Existing conditions in Mexico are bad enough, but if Carranza be recognized, those conditions would become tenfold worse…” 

Chief of the Army, Major General Hugh Lenox Scott at his desk.

Chief of the Army, Major General Hugh Lenox Scott at his desk.

If anyone should doubt as to who would be initiating those revolutions, he vowed: “I am here in Juarez, but this􀀃􀂈􀂃􀂔􀀃􀂃􀂕􀀃􀀌􀀃􀂕􀂊􀂃􀂎􀂎􀀃􀂉􀂑􀀃􀂐􀂑􀂔􀂖􀂊 is as far as I shall go north... Here I shall fight and here I shall live..." The conference reconvened on October 9 as expected. Robert Lansing told reporters after a three-hour session at the State Department, “The conference, after careful consideration of the facts,
have [sic] found that the Carranza party is the only party possessing the essentials for recognition as the de facto government of Mexico, and they have so reported to their respective Governments.” The 􀂏􀂇􀂐􀂖U.S. government officially extended an invitation to the "􀀃de facto Government of Mexico, of which General Venustiano Carranza is the Chief Executive,” on October 19, to exchange diplomatic representatives.

American battleships raised the Mexican flag and fired a twenty-one-gun-salute in the harbor of Veracruz. General Scott, clearly disgusted, commented, “The recognition of Carranza had the effect of solidifying the power of the man who had rewarded us with kicks on every occasion… I did what I could to prevent this but was not powerful enough. I had never been put in such a position in my life.” Despite the many claims that Villa was wholly unaware of these developments, the American decision did not surprise the revolutionary chieftain. He knew that realities on the ground, his losses to the Carrancista forces, had precipitated the American decision.

What he had not anticipated, however, were the swift actions with which the Wilson administration now pursued his complete annihilation. The State Department issued an embargo for arms and munitions on October 20 against any faction in Mexico other than the recognized government. Returning to the old days of having to smuggle arms and munitions across the border, Villa suffered another devastating blow. It would not be the last.

General Scott, as well as most Mexicans who had supported the unity government idea, could not understand how the Wilson administration could have reversed its policies from June 2, when President Wilson appealed to all factions to come to the table or else – to October, when Carranza became the de facto president of Mexico. President Wilson “did not reveal his intentions then [when General Scott met him in the end of August] but he recognized Carranza in a few months... I never knew why. I asked officers of the State Department, junior to the secretary [likely Leon Canova], why such a thing had been done and they said they did not know… That information has always made the President’s step even more of a mystery to
me.” President Wilson never explained his motivations, even to his closest associates. Like most mysteries, this one created a host of speculative conspiracy theories but that also would have grave consequences for the United States. What did the Carranza faction concede to the American government to sway the President’s opinion?

It did not take much for a manipulating mind such as Sommerfeld’s to reinforce the suspicion that Wilson’s decision was the result of secret concessions from the First Chief Carranza. Even General Scott suspected that something unseemly must have happened. Typical for Sommerfeld’s modus operandi, he did not leave any overt fingerprints on the campaign that convinced Pancho Villa beyond doubt that such a secret agreement indeed existed. Instead, he used Miguel Díaz Lombardo, Manuel Bonilla, Roque Gonzales Garza, Felipe Ángeles, and others close to Villa to convey the message.

Read Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War or hang on until the next step on the Road to Columbus is revealed.

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The Road to Columbus: The Plan de San Diego

Despite Carranza’s victories on the battlefield in the summer of 1915, the situation in Mexico seemed to deteriorate by the day. Reports from Mexico City filled newspaper columns with tales of starvation, looting, and chaos. The Mexican-American border was on fire, as well. The deteriorating situation at the border stemmed from what became known as the Plan de San Diego. Issued in the town of San Diego, Texas in January 1915, the plan called for an uprising of the Mexican-American populations in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and California against the “Yankee tyranny.” Among other stipulations, the manifesto included passages that alarmed American officials who first saw a copy of the plan in the end of January 1915.

First Chief of the Constitutionalist Army, Venustiano Carranza

First Chief of the Constitutionalist Army, Venustiano Carranza

Objective number 5 read: "It is strictly forbidden to hold prisoners …they shall be shot immediately without any pretext." 

Number 6: “Every foreigner [i.e. any non-Chicano in the states to be liberated from the Yankee tyranny] who shall be found armed and cannot prove his right to carry arms, shall be summarily executed…”

Number 7: “Every North American [sic] over sixteen years of age shall be put to death…”

While local sheriffs carefully watched the mood among the Mexican-American population, not much happened as a result of the plan until June 1915. “Bands of outlaws” raided ranches throughout the lower Rio Grande Valley within weeks of President Wilson putting pressure on the Mexican revolutionary factions in his ultimatum of June 2, 1915. Propaganda, spread through agents of the Carranza administration, proclaimed a “Texas Revolution,” an uprising that called for Mexican-Americans freeing themselves from the “shackles of Anglo supremacy.” The first American, an eighteen-year-old farmhand, died from the bullets of a Chicano raider in the end of July. During July and August hundreds of attacks occurred, some of which had nothing to do with the revolución de Texas but undoubtedly, people took advantage of the situation to settle old scores. Short of personnel and hesitant to get involved, the U.S. army reluctantly reinforced the overwhelmed Texas Rangers and local law enforcement authorities in September. Raiders not only robbed banks, shops, and ranches but also blew up railroad bridges and cut telegraph lines. The Mexican Revolution finally seemed to be spilling over into U.S. territory in a deadly and disturbing way.

Some American newspapers quickly blamed the disturbances on German agitation. These suspicions seem to have pressured Secretary Lansing and possibly also President Woodrow Wilson to find a solution for stabilizing Mexico as quickly as possible. Lansing wrote in his diary, “Germany does not want one faction dominant in Mexico; therefore we must recognize one faction as dominant in Mexico… It comes down to this: our possible relations with Germany must be our first consideration; and all our intercourse with Mexico must be regulated accordingly.” While German archives do not reveal any obvious financing or organizing of the border troubles, there are indications that the Secret War Council, and Heinrich Albert in particular, could have been involved. Maurice Leon, a member of the French embassy in Washington who handled financial and legal affairs for the Allies, suggested to the U.S. State Department two days after Villa’s attack on Columbus, New Mexico in the spring of 1916, “heavy sales of German marks on Wall Street ‘seem to point to the possibility that Villa and his band not only received a part of their proceeds, but also that the great part is to be utilized to induce Mexican ‘leaders’ to oppose by force [U.S.] operations to suppress border outlawry.”

This allegation is partly correct. The head of the Secret War Council™, Heinrich Albert, and the German government, indeed, engaged in heavy trading to prop up the devalued German Mark. However, although not impossible, there is no indication in Albert’s financial records that any of these funds went to Mexico. Historians Harris and Sadler’s research, as well, shows that on the surface the unrest was conceived, organized, and financed through the Carranza administration in Mexico. However, there are links to German agents that have been overlooked. German agents had infiltrated the Carranza administration. While Sommerfeld organized munitions supplies for Villa at the same time that he supported the efforts of the U.S. State Department to wrest important concessions from the revolutionary chieftain, German agent Arnoldo Krumm-Heller toured South Texas on behalf of Carranza (and the German Kaiser) to incite the Mexican-American population into revolt. 

The Pan-American Conference reconvened on September 18, 1915. The decision to recognize Carranza framed the assembly. As a member of the administration, General Scott knew firsthand that President Wilson had adjusted his views despite the “pig-headedness” of the victorious Mexican leader, Carranza. A week before the conference and the day after Villa’s forces lost control over the important railroad hub of Torreón and retreated north, General Scott, alarmed by Villa’s deteriorating negotiation power, rallied the pro-Villa faction. “I told Bonilla and Llorente to get busy now to combat this Carranza propaganda here [that Villa was beaten] and regain the standing for Villa that has been lost… I told [Felix] Sommerfeld the same thing and urged him to do it. …I do not know what we can do further as I have done everything I can think of.”

Scott’s dread was well justified. Two days before the Pan-American delegates reconvened on September 15, the State Department ordered all U.S. consuls out of Mexico. Americans residing in Sonora and Chihuahua received word to get out, as well. British and French officials also scurried to safety on the American side of the border. No one really knew what to expect from Villa once he realized that he had been outfoxed. Although Secretary Lansing had notified the press that Carranza would be recognized, some members of the Pan-American Conference, possibly through the last-minute efforts of Díaz Lombardo, Gonzalez Garza, Bonilla, Llorente, and Sommerfeld, refused to give their agreement. Rather, the group’s announcement on September 18 proclaimed that whichever faction was deemed militarily stronger by the middle of October would be recognized as the de facto government.

Meanwhile, the unrest on the border took on crisis proportions. Carrancista irregulars engaged soldiers of the 12th Cavalry in Brownsville, Texas, on August 3rd, leaving one soldier dead and two wounded. Mexican raiders engaged the 3rd Cavalry and Texas Rangers again in Brownsville on September 6 in a shootout that left two Mexicans dead. U.S. authorities involved in battling the uprising and arresting the organizers behind the revolución de Texas left no stone unturned. Dozens of Mexican-Americans faced arrest and detention. Reprisals by the local Anglo population and the Texas Rangers raised the specter of a race war. As the battle for diplomatic recognition intensified in Washington and New York, so did the war in Texas. By the time the raids ended in October, six Anglos and approximately three hundred Mexicans and Mexican-Americans had died. 

The raids ended as suddenly as they had started. They stopped on October 1, 1915, shortly after the American government announced that it would recognize Carranza’s faction as the legitimate government of Mexico. General Funston reported to his superiors in Washington on
October 13 that “it had been ten days since the last hostile shot had been fired.” Historians Harris and Sadler concluded in their analysis of the uprising, “once Carranza withdrew his support, the insurrection in Texas collapsed like a punctured balloon… Viewing Mexican- Americans as a useful fifth column, Carranza skillfully played on their hopes and fears as a means of exerting pressure on the United States. When his [Carranza’s] policies shifted [and those of the United States], they were cynically abandoned… The Plan left a legacy of racial tension in south Texas that has endured to the present.” Carranza once more resurrected the Plan de San Diego in the summer of 1916, when, indeed, the United States and Mexico marched to the brink of war. And again, this time only partially achieving his objectives, Carranza shut down the unrest.

Read more on the Mexican Front in the Great War.

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The Road to Columbus: And the Winner is... Carranza!

In the summer of 1915, President Wilson's special envoy to Mexico, Paul Fuller and the State Department's head of the Latin-American desk, Leon Canova, with the backing of important American business leaders, as well as other members of the Wilson cabinet, dangled recognition in front of the by-then ever more desperate Pancho Villa. Unsurprisingly, Villa grasped the last straw of his waning power in Mexico and reiterated his long held determination to not ever run for president of Mexico. He announced that he was willing to go into exile if Carranza would do the same. General Scott, the main negotiator because of his close relationship with Villa, described the meetings in August 1915 in his memoirs:

Woodrow Wilson, as depicted by Madame Tussaud's

Woodrow Wilson, as depicted by Madame Tussaud's

A scheme was worked out with Mr. James Garfield, one-time secretary of the interior [sic] in the Roosevelt cabinet, and with Mr. [Nelson] Rhoades of Los Angeles that gave great promise of stabilizing conditions in Mexico, provided our State Department would give its consent. The plan was primarily upon the fact that a member of Madero’s cabinet [Vázquez Tagle, Secretary of Justice], then living quietly in Mexico City with the respect of all parties, had never resigned after the deaths of President Madero and Vice-President Suarez, and the succession made him the de jure president of Mexico. It was proposed that both the Villista and Carrancista factions be brought to agree that he be recognized as the de facto as well as de jure president with a bi-partisan cabinet, half Carrancista and half Villista, and that our State Department immediately stabilize this composite government by recognition and allow it to import arms and munitions of war with which to maintain itself. Villa agreed to this, and it remained to secure the adhesion of one or two men – General Obregón or General Pablo Gonzales. The power of the Carrancistas rested upon those two men… This plan, of course, would leave him [Carranza] out in the cold, where he belonged.

The plan had one serious flaw: Carranza, the de facto main military and political power in Mexico in July 1915, simply refused to have any part of it.  His generals were not willing to risk a confrontation with the revolutionary leader as they finished off the last remnants of Villa’s army. General Scott blamed the State Department, which during the entire month of July “would not say either yes or no” to his request to see Alvaro Obregon and Pablo Gonzales, the two Carrancista generals, behind the First Chief’s back. Scott complained, “I almost had a nervous prostration, feeling like a dog tied up in the back yard, longing for my collar to be taken off.” While the State Department “procrastinated” over a decision on whether or not to risk alienating Venustiano Carranza, the most powerful man in Mexico, by going behind his back, Villa’s military situation went from bad to worse. Simultaneously, closely following the power shift in Mexico and behind the scenes, President Wilson reined in his new Secretary of State, Secretary Lansing. The President thus stopped the effort to artificially create a solution for Mexico other than the one that was organically evolving that summer.

This fundamental shift in American policy towards Mexico happened in the isolation of the Oval Office without any public pronouncements or consultations with anyone within or outside the U.S. government. Secretary Lansing still clearly supported a solution without Carranza in the beginning of JulyHe informed President Wilson as late as August 6, “in the discussions [in the Pan-American Conference] I found that there was unanimous agreement that Carranza was impossible…” The people involved in finding a solution for Mexico, State Department officials, special envoys, Mexican exiles, and the ranking members of the Pan-American Conference meeting in New York in the beginning of August, had no reason to doubt that a unity government for Mexico was the ultimate goal. The New York Times reported on August 2 under the headline “Wilson Peace Plan Ready for Mexico,” that the American president would “recognize some member of the Madero cabinet approved by factions.” The article mentioned in detail the candidate the Villa faction was promoting and people like Scott, Canova, Lane, and Garrison were supporting: Manuel Vázquez Tagle.

Vázquez Tagle had been a member of the Madero administration. Enthusiastically, The New York Times published a full page spread on the former Secretary of Justice under the title, “Vasquez [sic] Tagle, Mexico’s Hope.” The hope was not just Mexico’s but as the article explained, Vázquez Tagle was against confiscation, “a stanch [sic] defender of the law,” “Villa could not for one moment control him,” and, most importantly, he had the “backing of President Wilson.” He could be expected to respect foreign property. The former Secretary of Justice also had never resigned after Huerta’s bloody coup d’état in 1913. While other members of Madero’s cabinet never resigned either, Vázquez Tagle had remained in Mexico and thus was constitutionally next in line for the Mexican presidency.

However, in reality, Wilson had already settled on a Carranza presidency. President Wilson instructed Lansing on August 11 not to insist on the elimination of Carranza in the next meeting of the Pan-American Conference. That was all it took to reverse the entire foreign policy towards Mexico. Only a week after informing President Wilson that Carranza was “impossible,” Robert Lansing suddenly entertained a de facto recognition of the First Chief. This change of heart not only baffled Paul Fuller and General Scott, the latter wondering why the State Department would not move on his proposals, but also all members of the group supporting a solution that included the Villa faction, most notably the Villista negotiators Miguel Díaz  Lombardo, Roque Gonzalez Garza, Felix Sommerfeld, and Manuel Bonilla.

President Wilson’s thoughts in this crucial time are not well documented. Wrought by a bout of depression, he retreated to his summer house in Cornish, New Hampshire with his family from the end of July until the beginning of the Pan-American Conference on August 4, ostensibly to contemplate a solution for the Mexican problem. It appeared to most observers that he sincerely tried to look at all options. He conferred periodically with Robert Lansing; however, he did not disclose his thought process to him. The President clearly arrived at a different conclusion while at Cornish, all the while keeping Robert Lansing and his various envoys in the belief that a unity government for Mexico remained the stated foreign policy goal. As a result of the extraordinary interest the President took in Mexican matters in the summer of 1915, he arrived at the conclusion that a unity government excluding the man who led the strongest faction in the Revolution and who had gained the upper hand against Villa was doomed to fail. By the beginning of the Pan-American Conference on August 4, Wilson had made up his mind to recognize the victorious Carranza as the next president of Mexico. Despite his change of heart, Wilson continued to allow the Pan-American Conference to proceed under the false assumption of finding a unity solution. He also made no effort to stop a multitude of interest groups lobbying his administration. In the end, all of them felt deceived, most notably Pancho Villa and the people that had supported him.

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The Road to Columbus: The Canova Connection

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.

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A New President for Mexico - Who Will The U.S. Government Approve?

100 years ago the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, contemplated a solution to the Mexican Revolution. On June 2, 1915 he issued an ultimatum to the warring factions of Venustiano Carranza, Francisco Villa, and Emiliano Zapata to come up with a candidate for the Mexican presidency that all could agree to and who would not be one of the rebel chiefs and who had to be a civilian. He, Wilson, would support this candidate in upcoming meetings of the Pan-American Conference. If the factions could not agree to a candidate, the Pan-American Conference were to choose a president for Mexico, which the United States would recognize diplomatically. 

Generals    Felipe Angeles  and  Antonio I. Villarreal  in 1915

Generals  Felipe Angeles and Antonio I. Villarreal in 1915

Serious wrangling and lobbying started almost immediately. Carranza refused to even contemplate a proposal since President Wilson's ultimatum infringed on the sovereignty of Mexico. He also wanted to become president and had the upper hand of Villa militarily. Felix Sommerfeld and Sherburne Hopkins floated a list of names for Pancho Villa's faction. Villa had immediately reaffirmed his long standing commitment of not wanting to become president of Mexico.

On top of the list was Felipe Ángeles, Villa's chief military adviser and a close ally of the murdered President Francisco Madero. Ángeles went to Washington officially with Pancho Villa’s approval but in reality because the two men had fallen out over military strategy and tactics in the wake of the battles of Celaya. The exiled general set out to meet with the Secretary of State Robert Lansing and other members of the Wilson administration in the end of June. President Wilson, General Hugh Lenox Scott, as well as Secretaries Franklin K. Lane and Lindley M. Garrison liked Ángeles and thought him to be a viable presidential candidate. Scott wrote in his memoirs, “Ángeles was the most cultivated and loyal gentleman I have known in the history of Mexico and he was Villa’s candidate for president, as he was mine so far as I had a right to have any.” However, fielding Ángeles as a candidate was a non-starter. New York Herald reporter Alexander Williams aptly defined the probability of an Ángeles administration in Mexico a few months later: “Felipe Ángeles is the enemy politically of every faction in Mexico other [than] that headed by Villa. Every other faction considers him a traitor. None of the important Mexicans would under any conditions affiliate with him.” 

Ángeles had started his career as a federal officer, and then joined the Madero revolution in 1911. After the president’s murder in 1913, the general sided with the Constitutionalists and became Carranza’s Secretary of War. When Villa and Carranza split, Ángeles sided with Villa. As a result, both the reactionary factions who could not forgive him for joining Francisco Madero, and the Constitutionalists, who Ángeles had dealt devastating military defeats, considered the formidable politician, tactician, and intellectual a traitor. Undoubtedly, President Wilson recognized the fact that Ángeles carried too much baggage to be a viable candidate for the Mexican presidency. His relationship with Villa also played into the decision not to support a Ángeles candidacy. Wilson kept these opinions to himself since the Mexican general remained an important source of information for his administration.

Manuel Bonilla had been Secretary of Communication, then Secretary of Development in the De La Barra and Madero administrations respectively, and thus seemed to have the potential to succeed the slain president as a legitimate successor. Bonilla had joined the Constitutionalists after the murder of President Madero in the spring of 1913. After Villa split with Carranza in 1914, he joined the Villista movement. However, precisely because he identified with Villa, there is no evidence that Bonilla had any real support from the Wilson administration.

Pancho Villa sent another heavy-weight in Mexican politics to Washington: Former Secretary of Education Miguel Díaz Lombardo. Díaz Lombardo spent most of the time the Constitutionalists fought to unseat the usurper president Huerta as their ambassador to France. Díaz Lombardo joined the Villista movement as the Minister of Foreign Affairs when he returned in 1914. A towering intellectual of the Mexican Revolution with an aristocratic background, he was a powerful voice in support of the Villista faction.

Roque Gonzalez Garza, one of the most important intellectuals of “Villismo” and one of Villa’s closest advisers, also joined the team. Gonzalez Garza, Díaz Lombardo, Bonilla, and Ángeles pushed for the candidacy of Vázquez Tagle, a non-descript government official they hoped to be able to control, since all four politicians had personal ambitions for the Mexican presidency. Another intellectual leader in the exile community was José Vasconselos. A philosopher, lawyer, and politician, he had served under the Gutiérrez administration as Secretary of Education until the government collapsed under the weight of Carranza’s military successes. In exile, he maintained close ties with Sherburne Hopkins and the American oil industry. These links came to light in June of 1914, when burglars ravaged Hopkins’ offices and gave sensitive files on the relationship between Mexican revolutionaries and American oil barons to the press. Wholly unacceptable to a host of Mexican factions, he, as well, was not a viable unity candidate for the presidency. Sherburne Hopkins, meanwhile, pushed another potential candidate: Emilio Vasquez Gomez, the Interior Secretary in Madero’s cabinet. He wrote to the exiled politician on June 7, “I think you ought to offer your impartial services… For my part I am ready to do anything whatever [sic] that is reasonable and proper.” However, Vasquez Gomez’ role in destabilizing the Madero presidency in an uprising in the spring of 1912 made him unacceptable to a host of Mexican exiles.

In the end, the warring factions of Mexico could not come up with a viable candidate. Despite his ultimatum Wilson abandoned the idea of imposing a president on Mexico. He realized that the civil war would be fueled rather than smothered. Sometime during July and August of 1915, the American president completely reversed his Mexico policy. He decided to support the most powerful faction of Mexico. The decision would have grave consequences for the United States and Mexico. To learn what happened read Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War. Get it right here or at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other book sellers. 

 

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