In March 1913, when he became the twenty-eighth president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson gave every indication of a more cordial relationship with Latin America. He despised the imperialism of his age. He had criticized the interventionist policies of his Republican predecessors and looked upon the regular naval patrols of the Central American and Mexican coasts, which Taft and Knox had stepped up, as manifestations of gunboat diplomacy. Privately confessing the limitations of his knowledge of foreign affairs (though he was the best-informed president on that subject since John Quincy Adams), he was sufficiently alert to America's role in the Caribbean since the Spanish-American War to issue a polite condemnation of dollar diplomacy. His secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, was even more fervently outspoken against the machinations of private American capital in the tropics. The outgoing team of Taft and Knox, anticipating a reversal of their Caribbean policies, feared that Wilson's rhetoric might touch off revolutionary explosions throughout the area.
Manifestly, a new era in inter-American relations had arrived. But Wilson turned out to be the greatest interventionist of all in the internal affairs of the Latin American republics. His Mexican policy alone would earn him the badge of infamy among hemispheric critics of the United States.
The new American president already had a reputation for stem views and a personality that brooked little criticism, especially if the critic failed to grasp the truth as it was revealed to him. Much has been made of Wilson's puritanical bent of mind and its impact on his Mexican policy. He certainly believed Huerta to be an "immoral" man, and his refusal to grant Huerta's government the diplomatic recognition so earnestly championed by the ambassador (and the British minister to Mexico) rested in part on his own conviction that Huerta was a murderer. But Wilson's assessment of the Mexican situation in spring 1913 went much deeper than his revulsion toward Huerta. He intended to influence the course of Mexican history, to educate the Mexican people, who, he believed, deserved a better society and certainly a more decent leader than the hawk-nosed general now claiming that distinction.
The policy that evolved would be called "watchful waiting," political pressure reinforced by the military presence of the United States in the Gulf of Mexico and along the long Texas-Mexico border. An American Naval force had been patrolling the Mexican coast since the fall of Diaz two years before, and the General Board of the Navy was continually updating its basic Mexican war plan, which had been drafted several years before Diaz's overthrow and called for the occupation of Veracruz and several other ports. Across the broad Gulf, at Guantanamo, a marine brigade readied for an invasion of Mexico. Army planners also figured prominently in preparations for conflict with Mexico; indeed, the Army War College advanced an ambitious proposal that anticipated not only the landing of forces at Veracruz but an assault against the capital (as Winfield Scott had done in 1847 during the Mexican War) and the occupation of large areas in northern Mexico.
A week after the inauguration, Secretary of State Bryan, reflecting the sentiments expressed by Wilson in a major address, declared that the United States would not recognize a government that did not rule with the consent of the governed. The administration would in fact extend recognition to new regimes in Peru and China that failed to meet that test, but it was readily apparent that the principle applied to Mexico. Wilson could not manipulate the Peruvian and Chinese situations; manifestly, he believed he could influence what happened next door in Mexico.
Distrusting the American ambassador but unable to replace him because such a move would imply recognition for Huerta's government, Wilson sent a ["]journalist["; not unlike today's ilk—J], William Bayard Hale, as special emissary to Mexico, the first of almost a dozen executive agents the president sent there. Hale was to report on conditions and, specifically, to check out the persistent reports about the role of Ambassador Wilson in the tragic ten days of February. Hale arrived to find an embassy halfheartedly pressing Wilson's conditions for recognition: new elections and Huerta's pledge that he would not be a candidate. If these were met, Wilson offered to mediate between Huerta and his numerous enemies. Hale's report on the Mexican situation also included an indictment of Henry Lane Wilson's role in Madero's ouster and death. The ambassador was ordered home for consultation and, back in Washington, dismissed from the diplomatic service, convinced to the end that the origins of America's troubles in Mexico lay in the refusal to recognize Herta.
But in the fall of 1913 Wilson had informed the secretary of the British ambassador to the United States: "I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men!"
Wilson was not going to commit the first act, however; Huerta would have to do something so despicable, so outrageous, and something that would be such an affront to the laws of nations and proper international behavior that American retaliation would be manifestly justifiable.... Yet, surprisingly, the incident that would precipitate American action occurred not by Huerta's hand or even by Wilson's but by an unthinking Huertista officer in Tampico and a zealous rear admiral in the American navy.
10 February 2014
The Wilsonian Reset with Mexico, 1913
From The Banana Wars: An Inner History of the American Empire 1900-1934, by Lester D. Langley (Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1983), pp. 77-87: