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Woodrow Wilson

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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: Villa's Concessions to General Scott

In July 1915, Villa found himself in dire straits. His army had been defeated at Celaya and Leon, his control over northern Mexico had shrunk to Chihuahua and parts of Sonora.   

Major General Hugh Lenox Scott and Pancho Villa in El Paso

Major General Hugh Lenox Scott and Pancho Villa in El Paso

Until then Villa had always refrained from touching American property in order to maintain good relations with the U.S. However, as his fortunes declined rapidly and since northern Mexico had endured half a decade of looting, confiscations, “special” taxations, and destruction, there was little Mexican property left to confiscate. Villa announced in the beginning of August that he intended to levy a special “tax” on American mining companies. Companies such as ASARCO (American Smelting and Refining Company), the largest smelting operation in Mexico, immediately raised alarm in Washington. Many mines had already ceased operations and pulled out their employees because of the chaotic environment in Northern Mexico as Carranza’s armies pushed Villa ever further north. Villa needed these businesses to operate in order to generate income from export duties for Chihuahua. He threatened companies that did not resume operations with confiscation. He seized several mines in southern Chihuahua and operated them with his own men in July 1915 to make his point. Although these forced operations did not legally constitute confiscation, Villa’s mine operators sent the bullion to their broke chieftain rather than the legitimate owners of the mines. The New York Times reported on August 2 that Villa had confiscated numerous foreign businesses and expelled “an entire trainload of foreigners.” The Chihuahua merchants had refused to take the worthless Villa currency for payment by customers. It was a desperate and ineffectual attempt to curb inflation and the devaluation of his currency.

When the Army Chief-of-Staff General Hugh Lenox Scott met with Villa in the beginning of August, he made the argument that Villa would forfeit his chances to have his faction recognized as the legitimate power in Mexico if he would not release these businesses. Secretary Lansing instructed Scott to tell Villa “the United States would never recognize Carranza.” While Scott later claimed that he did not relay this statement to Villa, Sommerfeld, who as a confidante of both Villa and Scott was undoubtedly informed, certainly did. Much to the surprise of observers, but not so surprising giving the assurances of the U.S. State Department, Villa acceded to all of Scott’s demands. “In all, there was more than six million dollars [Villa returned to American businesses] for which I had no equivalent to offer to Villa or promises to make, and he gave them up because I asked him; no more and no less.” Scott did offer to allow Villa the exportation of cattle (with questionable ownership) to the U.S. for cash. However, when Secretary Lansing mentioned the proposal to the President, he stopped it. “Do you think it wise to put Villa in the way of getting money just at the moment when he is apparently weakest and on the verge of collapse?” the President questioned, clearly showing that he had, by then, already changed his mind. To be fair, the real value of what Villa conceded to Scott was only the value of the production revenue of these mines and the confiscated merchandise in Chihuahua. However, with his fiat money devalued and his area of control shrinking by the day, Villa’s concessions did constitute a major sacrifice on his part. Not surprisingly, Villa’s cession of the mining properties coincided with him not sending any more funds to Felix Sommerfeld and Lazaro De La Garza to pay for the munitions he had under contract in the U.S.

Sommerfeld turned to the Secret War Council to foot the bill... Read the next installment of "the road to Columbus," explaining how German money finances Villa's military supplies. This blog series will trace the events that led to Villa's attack on Columbus, New Mexico on March 9, 1916 in weekly segments. On March 12, I will speak at Columbus for the Centennial Commemoration of the raid and reveal how Villa was made to believe that attacking the United States was a good idea. If you get impatient and do not want to wait for eight months to learn the facts behind Columbus, buy Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War now.

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