Entering the White House in 1913, President Woodrow Wilson had one eye on the simmering turmoil in Europe and the other on a problem closer to home—in Mexico, where a chaotic civil war threatened American lives and business interests.
In February 1913 General Victoriano Huerta imprisoned Mexican President Francisco Madero and assumed power. Madero faced a firing squad, but with the Constitutionalist forces of Venustiano Carranza and Francisco “Pancho” Villa (see P. 58) still opposing Huerta in the field, the nation remained unstable. Wilson looked for an excuse to oust Huerta and “teach the South American republics to elect good men.”
Wilson’s chance came on April 9, 1914, when Mexican federal soldiers at the port of Tampico mistakenly arrested crewmen of USS Dolphin who had come ashore for supplies. Waving aside apologies, Rear Admiral Henry T. Mayo insisted on a full 21-gun salute of the American flag. Huerta refused; Wilson then insisted. After dispatching U.S. Atlantic Fleet ships packed with Marines to Tampico, he gave the Mexican leader until 6 p.m. on April 19 to comply. As expected, Huerta again declined, and Wilson went to work rousing Congress to support Huerta’s military ouster.
On April 20 the overblown Tampico Affair took a backseat as word broke of a Veracruz-bound shipment of embargoed munitions —ironically, a load of American-made Remington arms aboard the German steamer Ypiranga. Sensing a better opportunity, Wilson switched his sights south. Early on April 21 Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher, commanding U.S. naval forces off the Mexican coast, received his radiogram orders for Veracruz: SEIZE CUSTOM HOUSE. DO NOT PERMIT WAR SUPPLIES TO BE DELIVERED TO HUERTA GOVERNMENT OR ANY OTHER PARTY.
Shortly before noon 500 Marines backed by 300 armed sailors landed on the Veracruz waterfront and secured the customs house, rail yards and a nearby power plant. But even as Mexican army units withdrew, civilian snipers opened fire on the Americans, forcing them into the city’s narrow streets to clear blocks house by house. After three days of sporadic fighting, during which U.S. warships pounded sniper-filled hotels and the Mexican Naval Academy into corpse-filled rubble, the Americans took Veracruz, at the cost of 19 dead and 70 wounded.
A defiant Huerta kept American occupation troops sweating in Veracruz until late summer, when he finally vacated Mexico City. But when Wilson recognized Carranza as Mexico’s new president, he created a dangerous enemy of yet another would-be Mexican general/president—Pancho Villa, who vowed revenge.
■ Be flexible. Once in Veracruz, Wilson found himself with few options besides occupation.
■ Heed the past. Stunned by the hostile reaction to his action, Wilson had apparently not studied the U.S. Army’s bitterly opposed 1847 Siege of Veracruz.
■ Deploy the right forces. Jittery sailors fired indiscriminately, inflicting many of the Americans’ own casualties.
■ Play to your strengths. Marines minimized their own losses by systematically clearing Veracruz neighborhoods, while naval gunfire accurately targeted buildings housing Mexican fighters.
■ Don’t make martyrs. The deaths of more than a dozen young Mexican naval cadets ended any chance of cooperation with “Yankee imperialists.”
■ Military intervention does not constitute policy. Prodded by myopic war hawks, Wilson nearly miscalculated his way into war with Mexico—even as World War I exploded across Europe.
■ Prepare the nation. The sudden deaths of 19 servicemen south of the border angered Americans unfamiliar with the Wilson-Huerta dispute.
■ Meet your objectives. Due to poor communication between American and German officials, Ypiranga later landed its embargoed arms elsewhere.
■ Know your enemies—and your friends. Wilson ousted Huerta but left Carranza and Villa. The latter would subsequently raid Columbus, N.M., and become the target of Brig. Gen. John Pershing’s protracted and fruitless 1916–17 Punitive Expedition.
Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.