What a Difference a Century Makes: The U.S. Was Firm with Mexico in 1914—but in 2014, Not So Much
Today, as Sgt. Andrew Tahmooressi, USMC, languishes in a Mexican prison for a fourth month—he was arrested on minor charges on March 31—many Americans are frustrated by the Obama administration’s obvious lack of concern.
Yet it doesn’t have to be like this; America doesn’t need to be so craven in the wake of insults to our national honor. Indeed, as we shall see, an earlier US president—a Democratic president, in fact—was considerably more attentive to a US-Mexico issue. And considerably tougher.
Yes, the Obama policy in the case of Sgt. Tahmooressi is to do, well, nothing. A petition to the U.S. government, signed by more than 100,000 Americans, has drawn zero response from the White House.
Indeed, the only identifiable Obama policy toward Mexico is a slow-motion surrender to the human wave coming over the border. An estimated 292,000 illegals have crossed into the US just in the last few months. It’s not unfair to call this an invasion.
Is this really the best we can do? Must we be so supine? Americans looking for a more muscular alternative might look back to their own history; we might consider, for example, the year 1914, when an American president showed true resolve in the face of provocations from Mexico.
A little backstory: Beginning in 1911, Mexico had become engulfed in a country-wide civil war. From a US national security point of view, that was bad enough. Yet the even greater concern was the involvement of European powers in Mexican affairs, especially Germany. For nearly a century, the US had been enforcing the Monroe Doctrine, announced in 1823, a bold policy aimed at keeping European powers permanently out of South America. Indeed, the Monroe Doctrine was helpful to fractious South American countries as they struggled to maintain their independence. And it was a good policy, too, for the US; we didn’t need a major military threat to erupt in our own hemisphere.
So pursuant to the Monroe Doctrine, the Wilson Administration imposed an arms embargo on Mexico and its civil war; in particular, Uncle Sam did not wish to see German weapons, and German influence, south of the border. Even before the commencement of World War One, the Kaiser’s Germany had proven itself the most hostile of the European powers.
On April 9, 1914, American sailors from the USS Dolphin, seeking to enforce the arms embargo, were detained by Mexican authorities in the port city of Veracruz. The Americans were released soon enough, but President Wilson demanded a full apology, and when that was not forthcoming, on April 21, he ordered US troops—among them, a young captain named Douglas MacArthur—to seize control of Veracruz.
The US military presence in Veracruz sent a shock wave through Mexico: the President of the country, Victoriano Huerta, resigned from power on July 15, 1914. The US withdrew from Veracruz not long after that.
A century later, historians still debate—and often criticize—the wisdom of the occupation. “Gunboat diplomacy,” the mission is sometimes called. Or, even, “imperialist war.”
Yet the strategic imperative was clear enough: Mexico is, and always will be, of vital concern to the US. If Mexico is ever in chaos—or worse, if Mexico falls under the sway of a foreign power—that’s a potential threat to the US.
Indeed, in those tumultuous years of 1915-6, the fighting continued along the US-Mexico border. On March 9, 1916, Mexican irregulars led by Pancho Villa attacked the US city of Columbus, New Mexico, killing 73 Americans. Once again Wilson had to deal with the crisis; he dispatched American forces under Gen. John Pershing to hunt down the attackers. The fighting was inconclusive, although Villa’s military effectiveness was ended.
In the meantime, many American officers had gained valuable combat experience. On May 14, 1916, for example, in the town of Rubio in Mexico’s Chihuahua province, a second lieutenant by the name of George S. Patton led a squadron of automobiles into the fighting—America’s first motorized battle. Patton would go on to lead American armor in World War One and, three decades later, in World War Two, Gen. Patton would prove himself to be America’s greatest tank commander.
For their part, over in Europe, the Germans—perhaps because they were eager to stave off US participation against them in World War One, or perhaps because they just couldn’t help themselves—continued to stir up trouble in Mexico. On January 19, 1917, the German foreign minister in Berlin, Arthur Zimmermann, sent a telegram to the German ambassador to Mexico, instructing his subordinate to offer rewards to Mexico if it resumed its attacks on the US. British intelligence intercepted the message and released it to an infuriated America; the so-called “Zimmermann Telegram” was a major factor in the US decision to enter the war. After the US convincingly prevailed in that conflict, we might note, Mexican behavior improved.
So as we can see, because of Mexico’s strategic position adjacent to America, it has long been a major preoccupation of America policymakers. If dangerous things are happening in Mexico, America itself is endangered. And if foreign powers, in violation of the Monroe Doctrine, are operating in Mexico, America must take necessary counter-measures.
That’s always been US policy. Yet today, the Obama administration seems content to abandon two centuries of policy continuity. The chaos along the US-Mexican border is a clear threat to American well-being, and yet the Obamans seem to be oblivious to the danger—or maybe even happy about it. And, of course, the Obamans show no interest whatsoever in the possible threats from around the world that could be coming to the US through Mexico.
Just on Sunday, the Obama administration’s Customs and Border Protection chief assured us that the massive recent influx is “not dangerous.” Yet common sense tells us that we aren’t safe if we can’t identify all those streaming across our border. Could they be criminals? Terrorists? Unless and until we are closely scrutinizing the identity of every border-crosser, we simply don’t know.
But we do know this: in 2011, some 7518 individuals from countries that the US lists as “state sponsors of terrorism,” or from countries listed as complicit in terror, were apprehended by US authorities. And how many were not apprehended? Once again, we have no idea. And since 2011, of course, we have seen the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, indicating that the terror threat has grown worse.
Meanwhile, Sgt. Tahmooressi rots in a Mexican jail. In the US Army today, no doubt there are aspiring MacArthurs, Pershings, and Pattons who would cheerfully charge into Mexico to rescue their comrade. (And along the way, if we asked them to, they could button up the border.)
But unfortunately, Barack Obama is no Woodrow Wilson.