US–Mexico Tensions Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

These three documents illustrate the closest the United States and Mexico came to a formal state of war in the twentieth century. Written by high-ranking government officials of the two countries, these statements record the thoughts and analyses of these individuals. Mexico had been in a state of revolution since 1910. During most of 1914, the United States had occupied Veracruz, on the east coast of Mexico, in response to the arrest of nine American sailors who were in the process of legally getting oil for their ship. In March 1916, Pancho Villa, the leader of anti-government forces in northern Mexico, raided Columbus, New Mexico, for supplies, killing Americans in the process. This resulted in the invasion of Mexico by Pershing’s forces, partially described here and in the other documents written as the incident unfolded. These documents reflect the attitudes of the two countries, the United States’ view that military action was the only response, and Mexico’s plea for a diplomatic solution.

Summary Overview

These three documents illustrate the closest the United States and Mexico came to a formal state of war in the twentieth century. Written by high-ranking government officials of the two countries, these statements record the thoughts and analyses of these individuals. Mexico had been in a state of revolution since 1910. During most of 1914, the United States had occupied Veracruz, on the east coast of Mexico, in response to the arrest of nine American sailors who were in the process of legally getting oil for their ship. In March 1916, Pancho Villa, the leader of anti-government forces in northern Mexico, raided Columbus, New Mexico, for supplies, killing Americans in the process. This resulted in the invasion of Mexico by Pershing’s forces, partially described here and in the other documents written as the incident unfolded. These documents reflect the attitudes of the two countries, the United States’ view that military action was the only response, and Mexico’s plea for a diplomatic solution.

Defining Moment

These contemporaneous documents are from a time of great turmoil within Mexico and uncertain relations between the United States and Mexico. Pershing’s report on the one-sided encounter between American and Villa’s forces demonstrated the decline Villa had been facing for months. Mexico’s complaint to the United States made it clear that there was really nothing Mexico could do except complain. And Baker’s mobilization of the National Guard demonstrated how small and weak the United States Army was in 1916. Although these three documents do not fully explain why war did not break out between the United States and Mexico, they do give some strong indications.

Pershing, as commander of the American forces in Mexico, gave a very optimistic account regarding his success, with the implication that it would not take long to bring the whole situation to the desired conclusion. This would be the capture, or death, of Pancho Villa. The initial encounter not only resulted in a relatively high casualty rate for Villa’s forces, but it caused them to lose much of what they had gained from their New Mexican raid. With United States’ forces on the north, and Carranza’s allied forces on the south, the future was bleak for Villa and his small army. However, the fact that it took two weeks for the Army to catch up to this section of Villa’s forces indicated the major difficulties the United States would have if it expanded its goals.

In response to the movement of 5,000 to 10,000 American soldiers into Mexico, President Carranza could only respond with a plea for cooperation between the two nations. The last time Mexico had detained any American military personnel the United States had seized Veracruz for seven months. Carranza, the recognized president of Mexico, could not control the northern part of the country or Villa, demonstrating that he was even more helpless against the United States. Everyone knew this, so Carranza could only appeal to President Wilson’s idealism and hope that perhaps other nations would put pressure on the United States for a withdrawal.

The final section of the document illustrated why the United States could not afford a war with Mexico. The small size of the Army did not even allow General Funston, commander of the US forces on the Mexican border, enough troops to protect the United States from possible additional incursions by armed Mexican forces. National Guard forces had to be mobilized to secure the border. As will be discussed below, the need to take this action played a role in the entry of the United States into World War I.

Author Biography

John J. Pershing (1860–1948), best known as the leader of American forces in World War I, was a graduate of the United States Military Academy. He had served as an officer in the cavalry during the last engagements against Native Americans, the Spanish-American War, and the Philippine-American conflict. He was promoted to general by executive order of President Theodore Roosevelt. He led the troops sent to Mexico in 1916.

Jose Venustiano Carranza Garza (1859–1920) was a Mexican leader of the revolution from 1910, became president in 1915, and then was officially elected president in 1917. The constitution he helped create in 1917, although since amended, is the same constitution used today in Mexico. Although a reformer who helped overthrow his dictatorial predecessor, Porfirio Diaz, Carranza gained the presidency by being the least threatening of the revolutionary leaders, although not all were willing to accept him in that role.

Newton D. Baker, Jr. (1871–1937) was a lawyer and Democratic politician. An eloquent speaker, he had no military experience when he became Secretary of War. He selected Pershing as the leader of the American forces and together, during the war, they increased the army to about eighty times its pre-war size.

Document Analysis

General Pershing’s report on the first major encounter with Villa’s forces was positive regarding the results of the battle, but did indicate the limitations for America’s offensive operation. There were only two battles of this scale against Villa’s forces, the second occurring just over a month later. Villa’s army had consistently lost major battles against the forces of the interim Mexican president, Carranza, and Villa fared no better against Pershing. The much greater losses for his troops in this March engagement and his loss of forty-one men to none for the United States on May 5, indicated that these types of battles were hopeless for Villa. The result was that Villa’s forces hid in the mountains and waited out the Americans, as they did at the conclusion of this battle. Pershing had spotter airplanes and automobiles to assist his forces. However, once the limitations of these in mountainous terrain were known by Villa, there were no encounters with Villa’s forces. In the ten-month campaign, it was estimated that about one hundred and sixty of Villa’s men were killed by the American forces.

President Carranza’s letter seeking an end to the American invasion follows the form of a plea or statement by country which has no other realistic option. In addition, although Carranza and Villa had worked together earlier in the revolution, they split when Carranza claimed the presidency, even though Villa did not want the position. Thus Carranza wanted American help against Villa, but help on Carranza’s terms, not American terms. Relations between the two countries had been relatively good during the last half of the nineteenth century. During revolution, the United States basically accepted whoever was president as representing the nation. Thus, it had worked with Carranza on previous issues, and as a result, cut the aid the United States had previously given to Villa. In his objection to the United States, Carranza was very polite and noted that, previously, an offer had been made allowing either country’s forces the right to make pursuits across the border. (The United States had not accepted this, as its leaders believed this should be allowed only in one direction, the US to Mexico.) The United States did not immediately respond to the overture, and just five weeks later, American forces attacked a detachment of the Mexican Army, with high losses on each side and the Americans being repelled. Ultimately, there were negotiations and the United States withdrew its forces from Mexico in January 1917.

The short proclamation by Newton Baker, calling up the National Guard, was an indication of how small the United States Army was. With only about 27,000 soldiers in the regular Army, it was stretched thin with the deployment of several thousand men in Mexico. Baker made it clear that none of the National Guard would be sent to Mexico and that they would be rotated on a regular basis. This was to keep up morale in the Guard units, as well as an indication of the lack of coordination between the Guard and the standing Army. He did not quite tell the truth when he stated that the “call for militia is wholly unrelated to General Pershing’s expedition” because if it were not for the expedition, there would have been enough regular troops on the border to respond to any incidents.

Essential Themes

The major point of the three documents is that the United States was going to dictate the terms in its relationship with Mexico. Obviously, this created a great amount of uncertainty and tension between the two countries. The American military leadership was certain it could handle the situation, even though as it played out they did not achieve the goal of capturing Pancho Villa. Mexico’s president, unable to control his badly divided nation, did not have any way of altering the situation forced on him by the Americans. Finally, even though the United States could exert great pressure, this step mandated the mobilization of people and resources well beyond what was normal at that time. The documents demonstrate that neither side was adequately prepared for this conflict, which many see as one reason there ultimately was a diplomatic, rather than a military solution, to the crisis.

However, the incidents discussed in these documents had a much greater effect than might at first seem to be the case. The First World War was raging in Europe and leaders on both sides were analyzing events in North America. The two documents from American sources (Pershing and Baker) indicated something that was a factor in the minds of German leaders. When faced with problems with Mexico, the United States did not declare war because of the known weakness of the American Army. American leaders were uncertain what might be needed militarily if America were dragged into the war in Europe. Thus, when the German leaders were discussing whether to expand their submarine warfare in early 1917, they calculated that the general weakness of the American Army, as demonstrated in Mexico, would keep it from being a factor in Europe for more than a year, if the United States did enter the war in Europe. In early 1917, the Germans decided to attack all supply ships going to Great Britain, including American vessels, believing Germany could defeat a weakened Britain before the United States could expand and strengthen its Army and get it into position to play a major part in World War I. Ultimately, then, the incursion into Mexico was a factor in America entering World War I.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Benjamin, Thomas. La Revolución: Mexico’s Great Revolution as Memory, Myth & History. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000. Print
  • Blackburn, Marc “Pancho Villa, General Pershing and the U.S. Army Truck,” The Ultimate History Project. The Ultimate History Project, 2014. Web. 22 May 2014.
  • Eisenhower, John S. D. Intervention: the United States and the Mexican Revolution, 1913–1917. New York: W.W. Norton, 1993. Print.
  • Hurst, James W. Pancho Villa and Black Jack Pershing: the Punitive Expedition in Mexico. Westport CT: Praeger, 2008. Print.
  • US Department of State. “Punitive Expedition in Mexico, 1916–1917,” US Department of State Archive, 2001–2009. Web. 22 May 2014.
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