Wilson's idealism ran aground in reality of Mexican civil war

January 23, 1994|By Bruce Clayton

Title: "Intervention: The United States and the Mexican Revolution, 1913-1917"

Author: John S. D. Eisenhower

Publisher: Norton

Length, price: 393 pages, $27.50 When Woodrow Wilson assumed the presidency in March 1913, his heart was set on domestic reform. The former professor and college president (who'd served a term as governor of New Jersey) knew little about the rest of the world. As a high-minded, cautiously liberal Democrat, though, he was confident that his administration would do the right thing and not continue the imperialism of his Republican predecessors, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

But from Day 1, Wilson faced challenges to his idealistic notions of "missionary diplomacy." In Mexico, a military strongman had just derailed the social revolution that had thrilled liberals everywhere. Wilson ordered Gen. Victoriano Huerta to hold democratic elections. When he refused, the president peevishly and belligerently supported Huerta's enemies: the fiery Emiliano Zapata; the warlord Pancho Villa, a ruthless but romanticized bandit; and the more moderate Venustiano Carranza.

It took a long time for the naive Wilson to learn that he couldn't control a civil war. Neither the rebels nor the beleaguered Mexican people were capable of following his orders (and just "elect good men"). They were also outraged when Wilson twice resorted to military intervention to rid Mexico of bad men.

Beginning in April 1914, the U.S. Navy occupied Vera Cruz for seven months to dislodge Huerta. Two years later, after Carranza claimed power and won American recognition, Wilson dispatched a "Punitive Expedition" to capture Villa, who'd fallen out of favor after attacking the border town of Columbus, N.M.

From start to last, it's a melancholy tale. Wilson misjudged the situation; to his surprise, our invasions embittered Mexicans. Villa eluded and inflicted several stinging defeats on his pursuers, led by Brig. Gen. John F. Pershing and aide-de-camp George S. Patton. Carranza said good riddance to Pershing's departing troops in January 1917.

John S. D. Eisenhower, whose famous father served in Texas during the Mexican fiasco, is a retired army officer and author of several readable books of military history. He writes in a forceful, no nonsense style; his narrative of battles and leaders moves along briskly. His mood is nonjudgmental, though his sympathies -- always between the lines --are clearly with the Mexican people.

But Mr. Eisenhower's objectivity does not palsy his hand when he feels compelled, as a good historian must, to make judgments. The occupation of Vera Cruz was "tragic and unnecessary." Later, when the rascally Villa successfully goaded the United States into invading a second time, "communications between Wilson and Carranza were conversations between the deaf and dumb. Both men were on the spot politically at home, and both were therefore forced to assume a more bellicose position in public than they desired in private."

Too often in the writing of American history, the role and contributions of blacks are ignored or, in the older accounts, trivialized or slandered. "Intervention" acknowledges the achievement of the black 10th Cavalry, a rugged outfit proudly known as the Buffalo Soldiers. They and their commander, Major (later Colonel) Charles Young, a black West Pointer, doggedly pursued Villa. Greatly outnumbered, many of them fought to the end at the disastrous Battle of Carrizal in June 1916.

In addition to fact-filled pages detailing battles -- the maps are excellent -- Mr. Eisenhower includes interesting accounts of American journalists such as Ambrose Bierce, who put aside his celebrated cynicism to lionize Pancho Villa in the early days of the revolution. Later the shades fell from Bierce's eyes: He announced he would tell the truth about Villa.

In April 1915, the two were having dinner at Villa's headquarters in Chihauha, Mexico. Villa allowed Bierce to leave but, Eisenhower believes, the author was shot moments later. Bierce's body was never found.

Mr. Eisenhower's sober pages should be required reading for anyone who blithely assumes that foreign civil wars need only a touch of American high-mindedness and firepower to set things right.

Dr. Clayton is the Harry A. Logan Sr. Professor of History at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.

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