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Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him
Chapter XX - Mexico
by Tumulty, Joseph P.

Many grave matters inherited from the Taft regime pressed upon the new Administration for immediate solution. One of the most serious was the situation in Mexico, growing out of the revolution against the Madero Government which broke out in Mexico City on February 9, 1913. The murder of ex-President Madero and Vice-President Suarez, and the usurpation of presidential authority by General Victoriano Huerta, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the general industrial and social chaos of Mexico, made it necessary for the new administration, only a month in power, quickly to act and to declare its policy with reference to the question then pending as to the recognition of the provisional government, the head of which was Huerta. After becoming "President" of Mexico, the usurper had brazenly addressed the following telegram to President Taft: "I have overthrown the Government and, therefore, peace and order will reign," and boldly asserted a claim to recognition by the Government of the United States. This was the state of affairs in Mexico when President Wilson was inaugurated. The duly-elected President of Mexico, Francisco Madero, had been overthrown by a band of conspirators headed by Huerta. Were the fruits of the hard-won fight of the Mexican masses against the arbitrary rule of the favoured few to be wasted? President Wilson answered this question in his formal statement of March 12, 1913, eight days after his inauguration. With respect to Latin-American affairs, he said:
One of the chief objects of my administration will be to cultivate the friendship and deserve the confidence of our sister republics of Central and South America, and to promote in every proper and honorable way the interests which are common to the peoples of the two continents. I earnestly desire the most cordial understanding and cooperation between the peoples and leaders of America, and, therefore, deem it my duty to make this brief statement:

"Co÷peration is possible only when supported at every turn by the orderly processes of just government based upon law, not upon arbitrary or irregular force. We hold, as I am sure all thoughtful leaders of republican governments everywhere hold, that just government rests always upon the consent of the governed, and that there can be no freedom without order based upon law and upon the public conscience and approval. We shall look to make these principles the basis of mutual intercourse, respect, and helpfulness between our sister republics and ourselves.... We can have no sympathy with those who seek to seize the power of government to advance their own personal interests or ambition."
Two considerations animated the President in the formulation of his Mexican policy and compelled his adherence in it throughout his administration, namely:

The firm conviction that all nations, both the weak and the powerful, have the inviolable right to control their internal affairs.

The belief, established from the history of the world, that Mexico will never become a peaceful and law-abiding neighbour of the United States until she has been permitted to achieve a permanent and basic settlement of her troubles without outside interference.

Steadfastly, Woodrow Wilson refused to recognize Huerta as the Provisional President of Mexico. He said: "Huerta, the bitter, implacable foe of everything progressive and humane in Mexico, boldly defending the privileges of the old scientifico group which he represented, openly defied the authority of the United States and sneered at the much- ridiculed policy of 'watchful waiting' proclaimed by the new administration, and laughed to scorn the high idealism which lay behind it." To him the declaration of the American President that "we can have no sympathy with those who seek to seize the power of government to advance their own personal interests or ambition" was a mere gesture, too puerile to be seriously considered.

While Huerta in Mexico was blatantly denouncing this benevolent policy of co÷peration and helpfulness, aid and comfort were rendered the usurper by the jingoistic criticisms of the President's enemies in the United States Congress and throughout the country, many of whom, urged on by the oil interests, in their mad delirium, cried out for a blood-and-iron policy toward Mexico. Resisting the American interests in Mexico was a part of the President's task. Those who cried loudest for intervention were they who had land, mineral, and industrial investments in Mexico. The "vigorous American policy" which they demanded was a policy for personal enrichment. It was with this phase of the matter in mind that the President said: "I have to pause and remind myself that I am President of the United States and not of a small group of Americans with vested interests in Mexico."

But the new President, having mapped out the course he was to follow, a course fraught with a great deal of danger to his administration, seeking to bring about the moral isolation of Huerta himself, calmly moved on, apparently unmindful of the jeers and ridicule of his critics in America and elsewhere. "I am willing," he said, "no matter what my personal fortunes may be, to play for the verdict of mankind. Personally, it will be a matter of indifference to me what the verdict on the 7th of November is, provided I feel any degree of confidence that when a later jury sits I shall get their judgment in my favour. Not my favour personally--what difference does that make?--but my favour as an honest and conscientious spokesman of a great nation."

What an utterly foolish thing, said his critics, it is to attempt in this day to oust a Mexican dictator by mere rhetoric and high-sounding phrases!

When Wilson said: "The situation must be given a little more time to work itself out in the new circumstances; I believe that only a little while will be necessary.... We must exercise the self-restraint of a really great nation which realizes its own strength and scorns to misuse it," his enemies smugly shrugged their shoulders and said, with disgust: "Well, what's the use? what can you expect from a dreamer of dreams, a mere doctrinaire? Doesn't Wilson, the historian, know that force and force alone can bring that grizzly old warrior Huerta to his senses?"

What was the President seeking to do in proclaiming his policy of "watchful waiting"? He was merely seeking to establish in Pan-American affairs the principle that no president of a South American republic who came to power by usurpation and assassination should receive, while he was president, the recognition of the United States. This doctrine was not only good statesmanship, but it was likewise sound in morals.

It was disheartening to find bitter criticism of this policy from the outside, and depressing to find the enemies of watchful waiting "boring from within" through his own Cabinet officers. Lindley Garrison, his own Secretary of War, had no sympathy for this idealistic policy. His only antidote for what was happening in Mexico was force and intervention and he honourably urged this view upon the President, but without succeeding in bringing about the consummation so dear to his heart.
And one denies, and one forsakes, and still unquestioning he goes, who has his lonely thoughts.
But the President stood firm in his resolve that the people of Mexico should not be punished for the malefactions of their usurping president, and steadily, against great odds, he moved forward to vindicate his policy, unmindful of the jeers and criticisms of his enemies. The heart of that policy he eloquently exposed when he said: "I am more interested in the fortunes of oppressed men, pitiful women and children, than in any property rights whatever. The people of Mexico are striving for the rights that are fundamental to life and happiness--fifteen million oppressed men, overburdened women, and pitiful children in virtual bondage in their own home of fertile lands and inexhaustible treasure! Some of the leaders of the revolution may often have been mistaken and violent and selfish, but the revolution itself was inevitable and is right. The unspeakable Huerta betrayed the very comrades he served, traitorously overthrew the government of which he was a trusted part, impudently spoke for the very forces that had driven his people to rebellion with which he had pretended to sympathize. The men who overcame him and drove him out represent at least the fierce passion of reconstruction which lies at the very heart of liberty; and so long as they represent, however imperfectly, such a struggle for deliverance, I am ready to serve their ends when I can. So long as the power of recognition rests with me the Government of the United States will refuse to extend the hand of welcome to any one who obtains power in a sister republic by treachery and violence."

But the President's policy of watchful waiting did win. The days of the Huerta regime slowly wended their uneasy way. Huerta suspended the Mexican Constitution and, having imprisoned half of the Mexican Congress, proceeded to administer the Government as an arbitrary ruler. Slowly but surely he began to feel the mighty pressure of the unfriendly Government of the United States upon him. Still defiant, he sought to unite behind him the Mexican people, hoping to provoke them to military action against the United States. To hold his power he was willing to run the risk of making his own country a bloody shamble, but President Wilson had the measure of the tyrant Huerta from the beginning, and soon his efforts to isolate him began to bear fruit. Even now his bitter critics gave a listening ear to the oft-repeated statement of the American President, as if it contained the germ of a prophecy:
The steady pressure of moral force will before many days break the barriers of pride and prejudice down, and we shall triumph as Mexico's friends sooner than we could triumph as her enemy--and how much more handsomely and with how much higher and finer satisfactions of conscience and of honour!
Little by little the usurper was being isolated. By moral pressure every day his power and prestige were perceptibly crumbling. His collapse was not far away when the President declared: "We shall not, I believe, be obliged to alter our policy of watchful waiting." The campaign of Woodrow Wilson to force Huerta finally triumphed. On July 15th, Huerta resigned and departed from Mexico. Wilson's humanity and broad statesmanship had won over the system of cruel oppression for which the "unspeakable Huerta" had stood.

During the Huerta controversy a thing happened which aggravated the Mexican affair, and which culminated in the now-famous Tampico incident.

On April 9, 1914, a paymaster of the United States steamship Dolphin landed at the Iturbide bridge at Tampico with a whaleboat and boat's crew to obtain supplies needed aboard the Dolphin. While loading these supplies the paymaster and his men were arrested by an officer and squad of the army of General Huerta. Neither the paymaster nor any of the boat's crew were armed. The boat flew the United States flag both at the bow and stern. Two of the men were in the boat when arrested and hence were taken from United States "soil." Admiral Mayo, senior American officer stationed off Tampico, immediately demanded the release of the sailors. Release was ordered after the paymaster and the sailors had been detained about an hour. Not only did Admiral Mayo demand the release of the sailors but insisted on a formal apology by the Huerta Government consisting of a twenty-one-gun salute to the flag.

During the critical days following the refusal of Huerta to accede to Admiral Mayo's request the State Department was notified that there would arrive at Vera Cruz the German steamship Ypirango about to deliver to Huerta 15,000,000 rounds of ammunition and 500 rapid-fire guns.

About 2.30 o'clock in the morning of the 21st day of April, 1914, the telephone operator at the White House called me at my home, and rousing me from bed, informed me that the Secretary of State, Mr. Bryan, desired to speak to me at once upon a very urgent and serious matter. I went to the telephone and was informed by Mr. Bryan that he had just received a wireless informing him that the German steamship Ypirango, carrying munitions would arrive at Vera Cruz that morning about ten o'clock and that he thought the President ought to be notified and that, in his opinion, drastic measures should at once be taken to prevent the delivery of these munitions to the Customs House at Vera Cruz. While Mr. Bryan and I were talking, Mr. Daniels, the Secretary of the Navy, got on the wire and confirmed all that Mr. Bryan had just told me. Soon the President was on the 'phone, and in a voice indicating that he had just been aroused from sleep, carried on the following conversation with Messrs. Bryan, Daniels, and myself: Mr. Bryan reported to him the situation at Vera Cruz and informed him of the receipt of the wireless:

"Mr. President, I am sorry to inform you that I have just received a wireless that a German ship will arrive at Vera Cruz this morning at ten o'clock, containing large supplies of munitions and arms for the Mexicans and I want your judgment as to how we shall handle the situation."

Replying to Mr. Bryan, the President said: "Of course, Mr. Bryan, you understand what drastic action in this matter might ultimately mean in our relations with Mexico?"

Mr. Bryan said, by way of reply:

"I thoroughly appreciate this, Mr. President, and fully considered it before telephoning you." For a second there was a slight pause and then the President asked Mr. Daniels his opinion in regard to the matter.

Mr. Daniels frankly agreed with Mr. Bryan that immediate action should be taken to prevent the German ship from landing its cargo. Without a moment's delay the President said to Mr. Daniels:

"Daniels, send this message to Admiral Fletcher: 'Take Vera Cruz at once'."

As I sat at the 'phone on this fateful morning, away from the hurly-burly world outside, clad only in my pajamas, and listened to this discussion, the tenseness of the whole situation and its grave possibilities of war with all its tragedy gripped me. Here were three men quietly gathered about a 'phone, pacifists at heart, men who had been criticized and lampooned throughout the whole country as being anti-militarist, now without hesitation of any kind agreeing on a course of action that might result in bringing two nations to war. They were pacifists no longer, but plain, simple men, bent upon discharging the duty they owed their country and utterly disregarding their own personal feelings of antagonism to every phase of war.

After Mr. Bryan and Mr. Daniels had left the telephone the President said: "Tumulty, are you there? What did you think of my message?" I replied that there was nothing else to do under the circumstances. He then said: "It is too bad, isn't it, but we could not allow that cargo to land. The Mexicans intend using those guns upon our own boys. It is hard to take action of this kind. I have tried to keep out of this Mexican mess, but we are now on the brink of war and there is no alternative."

Discussing this vital matter that morning with the Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, I could visualize the possible tragedy of the whole affair. I pictured the flagship of Admiral Fletcher with its fine cargo of sturdy young marines, riding serenely at anchor off Vera Cruz, and those aboard the vessel utterly unmindful of the message that was now on its way through the air, an ominous message which to some of them would be a portent of death. When the President concluded his conversation with me his voice was husky. It indicated to me that he felt the solemnity of the whole delicate business he was now handling, while the people of America, whose spokesman he was, were at this hour quietly sleeping in their beds, unaware and unmindful of the grave import of this message which was already on its way to Vera Cruz.

When I arrived at the White House the next morning I found the newspaper correspondents attached to the Executive offices uninformed of what had happened in the early morning, but when I notified them that the President had ordered Admiral Fletcher at 2.30 o'clock in the morning to take Vera Cruz, they jumped, as one man, to the door, to flash this significant news to the country and the world.

With Huerta's abdication Venustiano Carranza took hold, but the Mexican troubles were not at an end. The constant raiding expeditions of Villa across the American border were a source of great irritation and threatened every few days a conflagration. While Villa stood with Carranza as a companion in arms to depose Huerta, the "entente cordiale" was at an end as soon as Huerta passed off the stage. With these expeditions of Villa and his motley crew across the border our relations with our neighbour to the south were again seriously threatened. With Villa carrying on his raids and Carranza always misunderstanding the purpose and attitude of our Government and spurning its offer of helpful cooperation, difficulties of various sorts arose with each day, until popular opinion became insistent in its demand for vigorous action on the part of the American President. Every ounce of reserve patience of the President was called into action to keep the situation steady. How to do it, with many incidents happening each day to intensify and aggravate an already acute situation, was the problem that met the President at every turn. At this time the President was the loneliest figure in Washington.
  Grotesque uncertain shapes infest the dark
    And wings of bats are heard in aimless flight;
  Discordant voices cry and serpents hiss,
    No friendly star, no beacon's beckoning ray.
Even the members of his own party in the Senate and House were left
without an apology or excuse for the seeming indifference of the President
to affairs in Mexico. Day after day from outraged senators would come
vigorous demands for firm action on the part of America, insistent that
something radical be done to establish conditions of peace along our
southern borders. From many of them came the unqualified demand for
intervention, so that the Mexican question should be once and for all

Dear Tumulty,

Can't talk less than half an hour to save his life, and when he is through he has talked on so many different subjects that I never can remember what he said. It is literally impossible for me with the present pressure upon me to see him, and I hope you will ask him if he can't submit a memorandum.

The President.

Dear Tumulty:

I should like to see Mr. ---- but just now it does not seem possible because I know he is a gentleman who needs a good deal of sea room. I am taking his suggestions up with the Secretary of the Navy.

The President.
Dealing with bores.]

In the Cabinet, the Secretary of War, the vigorous spokesman of the Cabinet group, demanding radical action in the way of intervention, was insisting that we intervene and put an end to the pusillanimous rule of Carranza and "clean up" Mexico. Even I, who had stood with the President during the critical days of the Mexican imbroglio, for a while grew faint hearted in my devotion to the policy of watchful waiting. To me, the attack of Villa on Columbus, and the killing of some of our soldiers while asleep, was the last straw. The continuance of this impossible situation along the border was unthinkable. To force the President's hand, if possible, I expressed my feelings in the following letters to him:

March 15, 1916.


I have been thinking over what we discussed this morning with reference to the Mexican situation. I am not acting on impulse and without a full realization, I hope, of everything that is involved. I am convinced that we should pursue to the end the declared purpose announced by you last Friday and endorsed by Congress and the people of the United States of "getting Villa." If the de facto government is going to resist the entrance of our troops, a new situation will be presented. I feel that you ought to advise Congress at the earliest possible moment of what the situation really is in order to secure its support and cooperation in whatever action is needed to accomplish the purpose you have in mind. To retrace our steps now would be not only disastrous to our party and humiliating to the country, but would be destructive of our influence in international affairs and make it forever impossible to deal in any effective way with Mexican affairs.

Your appeal to Congress ought to deal with this matter in an affirmative way, asking for the requisite power which you may feel assured will be granted you in ungrudging fashion.

My apology for writing you is my distress of mind and my deep interest in everything that affects you and your future and, I hope, the country's welfare. I would not be your friend if I did not tell you frankly how I feel.


The White House.

* * * * *


June 24, 1916.


The Mexican authorities admit that they have taken American soldiers and incarcerated them. The people feel that a demand should be made for their immediate release, and that it should not take the form of an elaborate note. Only firmness and an unflinching insistence upon our part will bring the gentlemen in Mexico City to their senses.

If I were President at this moment, or acting as Secretary of State, my message to Carranza would be the following:

"Release those American soldiers or take the consequences."

This would ring around the world.


The White House.
After reading these letters, the President sent for me one day to visit with him in his study, and to discuss "the present situation in Mexico." As I sat down, he turned to me in the most serious way and said: "Tumulty, you are Irish, and, therefore, full of fight. I know how deeply you feel about this Columbus affair. Of course, it is tragical and deeply regrettable from every standpoint, but in the last analysis I, and not the Cabinet or you, must bear the responsibility for every action that is to be taken. I have to sleep with my conscience in these matters and I shall be held responsible for every drop of blood that may be spent in the enterprise of intervention. I am seriously considering every phase of this difficult matter, and I can say frankly to you, and you may inform the Cabinet officers who discuss it with you, that 'there won't be any war with Mexico if I can prevent it,' no matter how loud the gentlemen on the hill yell for it and demand it. It is not a difficult thing for a president to declare war, especially against a weak and defenceless nation like Mexico. In a republic like ours, the man on horseback is always an idol, and were I considering the matter from the standpoint of my own political fortunes, and its influence upon the result of the next election, I should at once grasp this opportunity and invade Mexico, for it would mean the triumph of my administration. But this has never been in my thoughts for a single moment. The thing that daunts me and holds me back is the aftermath of war, with all its tears and tragedies. I came from the South and I know what war is, for I have seen its wreckage and terrible ruin. It is easy for me as President to declare war. I do not have to fight, and neither do the gentlemen on the Hill who now clamour for it. It is some poor farmer's boy, or the son of some poor widow away off in some modest community, or perhaps the scion of a great family, who will have to do the fighting and the dying. I will not resort to war against Mexico until I have exhausted every means to keep out of this mess. I know they will call me a coward and a quitter, but that will not disturb me. Time, the great solvent, will, I am sure, vindicate this policy of humanity and forbearance. Men forget what is back of this struggle in Mexico. It is the age-long struggle of a people to come into their own, and while we look upon the incidents in the foreground, let us not forget the tragic reality in the background which towers above this whole sad picture. The gentlemen who criticize me speak as if America were afraid to fight Mexico. Poor Mexico, with its pitiful men, women, and children, fighting to gain a foothold in their own land! They speak of the valour of America. What is true valour? I would be just as much ashamed to be rash as I would to be a coward. Valour is self-respecting. Valour is circumspect. Valour strikes only when it is right to strike. Valour withholds itself from all small implications and entanglements and waits for the great opportunity when the sword will flash as if it carried the light of heaven upon its blade."

As the President spoke, his eyes flashed and his lips quivered with the deep emotion he felt. It was the first time he had unburdened himself and laid bare his real feelings toward Mexico. Rising from his chair, he walked toward the window of his study, the very window out of which Lincoln had looked upon the Potomac and the hills of Virginia during the critical days of the Civil War when he was receiving bad news about the defeat of the Northern army. Continuing his talk, he said: "Tumulty, some day the people of America will know why I hesitated to intervene in Mexico. I cannot tell them now for we are at peace with the great power whose poisonous propaganda is responsible for the present terrible condition of affairs in Mexico. German propagandists are there now, fomenting strife and trouble between our countries. Germany is anxious to have us at war with Mexico, so that our minds and our energies will be taken off the great war across the sea. She wishes an uninterrupted opportunity to carry on her submarine warfare and believes that war with Mexico will keep our hands off her and thus give her liberty of action to do as she pleases on the high seas. It begins to look as if war with Germany is inevitable. If it should come--I pray God it may not--I do not wish America's energies and forces divided, for we will need every ounce of reserve we have to lick Germany. Tumulty, we must try patience a little longer and await the development of the whole plot in Mexico."

Did not the publication of the famous Zimmerman note show that German intrigue was busy in Mexico?
Berlin, January 19, 1917.

On the first of February we intend to begin submarine warfare unrestricted. In spite of this it is our intention to keep neutral with the United States of America. If this attempt is not successful, we propose an alliance with Mexico on the following basis: That we shall make war together and together make peace. We shall give general financial support and it is understood that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in New Mexico, Texas and Arizona. The details are left to you for settlement.

You are instructed to inform the President of Mexico of the above in the greatest confidence as soon as it is certain that there will be an outbreak of war with the United States, and suggest that the President of Mexico, on his own initiative, should communicate with Japan, suggesting adherence at once to this plan; at the same time offer to mediate between Germany and Japan.

Please call to the attention of the President of Mexico that the employment of ruthless submarine warfare now promises to compel England to make peace in a few months.


Mexico City.
In the President's Flag Day address, delivered at Washington on June 14, 1917, appeared the following:
They [meaning Germany] sought by violence to destroy our industries and arrest our commerce. They tried to incite Mexico to take up arms against us and to draw Japan into an hostile alliance with her; and that, not by indirection, but by direct suggestion from the Foreign Office at Berlin.
As the storm of ridicule and criticism of his policy of watchful waiting beat fiercely upon him, I often wondered if he felt the petty meanness which underlay it, or was disturbed or dispirited by it. As the unkind blows fell upon him, thick and fast from every quarter, he gave no evidence to those who were close to him of any irritation, or of the deep anger he must have felt at what appeared to be a lack of sympathy on the part of the country toward the idealistic policy in the treatment of Mexican affairs. Never for a single moment was he driven from the course he had mapped out for himself. He had given his heart and soul to a great humane task and he moved toward its consummation amid a hurricane of protests and criticisms.

There was a time, however, when I thought he displayed chagrin and disappointment at the obstacles placed in his path in settling the affairs of Mexico. It was in a little speech delivered at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on the occasion of the burial of the Marines who fell at Vera Cruz. The following paragraph contained a note of sadness and even depression. Perhaps, in the following words, he pictured his own loneliness and utter dejection:
I never went into battle; I never was under fire; but I fancy there are some things just as hard to do as to go under fire. I fancy that it is just as hard to do your duty when men are sneering at you as when they are shooting at you. When they shoot at you, they can only take your natural life; when they sneer at you, they can wound your living heart, and men who are brave enough, steadfast enough, steady in their principles enough, to go about their duty with regard to their fellow-men, no matter whether there are hisses or cheers, men who can do what Rudyard Kipling in one of his poems wrote, "Meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same," are men for a nation to be proud of. Morally speaking, disaster and triumph are imposters. The cheers of the moment are not what a man ought to think about, but the verdict of his conscience and of the consciences of mankind.


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