US forces in Central America 1900-1917

US President Theodore RooseveltShortly after the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, President William McKinley informed the Congress that an American-controlled canal across the Isthmus of Panama was ‘now more than ever indispensable’. In 1901, the United States signed with the United Kingdom the Hay-Pauncefote treaty which overruled the 1850 Clayton-Bulwer treaty that laid down equal American and British involvement in the construction and operation of any isthmian canal. Over the years there had been great debate whether the canal should pass through Nicaragua or the Panama province of Colombia, and in 1903 the argument was decided in favour of Panama, the shorter of the two options.

The United States offered to buy Panama from Colombia, but the offer was rejected on 31 October 1903. On 3 November of the same year Panama rebelled against Colombia, and the presence of American warships off Panama hindered Colombian efforts to suppress the rebellion. On 6 November the United States recognised the independence of Panama, and just four days later accepted as the Panamanian ambassador to the United States Philippe Bunau-Varilla, who had been involved in the previous Panama Canal Company.

On 18 November the United States agreed with the new republic of Panama to lease the strip of land 10 miles (16 km) wide that became the Panama Canal Zone, to buy the the surviving property of the French canal company of the 1880s, and to build, maintain, and operate a canal between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. The Congress had already provided the legislative framework for this whole scheme, and now appropriated the necessary funding as the Isthmian Canal Commission debated the problem of who should build the canal.

The commission reported to Theodore Roosevelt, who had become president on 14 September following the assassination of McKinley, that the task was too great to be entrusted to a private company, and the president then turned the task over to the US Army. Roosevelt reorganised the commission, adding to it several specialists drawn mostly from the Corps of Engineers. In 1907 Colonel George W. Goethals was appointed as the commission’s chairman and chief engineer. An engineer officer since 1882, Goethals had sole administrative responsibility for the vast Panama Canal project, and proved himself an outstanding organiser before the canal was completed after problems in engineering, labour relations, housing, and sanitation had been overcome. Another major part in the project’s success was played by the army’s Medical Department, which successfully entrusted Colonel William G. Gorgas with the tasks of controlling malaria and eliminating yellow fever.

The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 marked a decisive point in the evolution of the United States’ military posture, for the canal allowed rapid movement by the US Navy of even its largest battleships between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and therefore removed the need to maintain large standing fleets in each ocean. Such was the importance of the canal, therefore, that its protection immediately became one of the army’s greatest priorities. The Panama Canal Zone was henceforward a strategic point in the army’s continental defence plans, and was protected by modern fortifications occupied by a large garrison.

Mexican leader Emiliano ZapataTrouble in Mexico
The building of the Panama Canal and peacekeeping operations in Central America and the Caribbean were typical of the ‘hemispheric defense concerns’ of the United States during the first years of the 20th century. Altogether closer to home were problems with Mexico, which after a period of relative stability entered a tumultuous period of its history in May 1911. The era was sparked by the overthrow of President Porfirio Diaz, who had ruled Mexico since 1877. There followed a bitter civil war between Francisco Madero and Victoriano Huerta, resulting in Madero’s defeat and death in February 1913. The Huerta regime was then challenged by Venustiano Carranza, leader of the Constitutionalist party, and Emiliano Zapata, leader of the rival Radical party.

To protect the southern part of the United States against any overspill by this tangled Mexican situation, President William H. Taft ordered the strengthening of the American southern frontier in 1911 by the establishment of the provisional manoeuvre division at San Antonio. Succeeding Taft as president in March 1913, Woodrow H. Wilson would not concede that Huerta had attained power by legitimate means, and refused to recognise his government. Wilson placed an embargo on the delivery of American weapons to each side in the civil war, but when in 1914 Huerta appeared to be gaining a possibly decisive superiority over Carranza, Wilson lifted the embargo on the delivery of arms to the Carranzistas.

The Tampico Incident
Such a move inevitably attracted the anger of the Huertistas and inevitably led to an international incident. This involved sailors from the despatch boat Dolphin , who were sent into Tampico on 9 April 1914 to pick up supplies. As the boat tied up to the quay, Huertista soldiers marched onto it and arrested the sole officer and his enlisted men, who were then marched through the streets of Tampico. The Americans were released almost immediately, and Huerta expressed his regrets about the episode. This was not enough for commander of the American naval forces in the area, Rear Admiral Henry T. Mayo, who demanded a public apology. Huerta refused, and in this episode Wilson saw an opportunity for the intervention he now saw as vital to the survival of the Carranzistas. Wilson therefore agreed with a naval plan to deny Huerta the use of Mexico’s two main east coast ports, Tampico and Veracruz.

Seizure of Veracruz
Orders for the implementation of the plan were issued on 20 April, when the American consul in Veracruz reported that a German ship was due to dock on the following morning with a consignment of weapons for Huerta. At dawn on 21 April parties from several American warships landed and seized the port. Severe fighting broke out, but with the support of naval gunfire, the Americans had gained control of the whole city by the evening of 22 April. By the end of the month, the American forces in Veracruz totalled some 8,000 men (half marines and half soldiers) under the command of Major General Frederick N. Funston. Huerta severed relations with the United States, and Carranza was so angered by this insult to Mexican sovereignty that he too threatened to break off relations. However, one of Carranza’s military leaders, Pancho Villa, declared that ‘It is Huerta’s bull that is being gored’ and persuaded Carranza to let the episode pass. Mediation by South American countries followed, and on 25 November of the same year the last American troops were pulled out of Veracruz.

The American occupation had lasted longer than originally planned because of Carranza’s annoyance, but did have the effect of cutting virtually all of Huerta’s revenues from trade. On 15 August 1914, the Carranzistas captured Mexico City, and Huerta followed Diaz into European exile as Carranza became president. Carranza proved no more capable than Huerta of bringing peace to Mexico, for he was suspicious of Villa’s ambitions and therefore refused to give this northern Mexican leader a senior position or even to acknowledge the very real part played by his Division of the North in the Carranzista victory. In November 1914, Villa broke with Carranza and started another chapter in the history of the Mexican revolution.

Villa soon had control of most of northern Mexico and, after forming an alliance with Zapata, captured Mexico City. Carranza re-established his capital at Veracruz and entrusted operations against Villa to General Alvaro Obregon, a capable commander who drove Villa from Mexico City and then pushed him back into northern Mexico in a series of well planned operations. Despite its precarious nature, the Carranzista government was recognized by the United States on 9 October 1915.

Villa was now based in Chihuahua state, where his forces were reorganising and building up their strength for the capture of a Carranzista stronghold in Villista territory. This was Agua Prieta, in the neighbouring Sonora state just over the border from Douglas, Arizona. Agua Prieta could not be reinforced by the Carranzistas via any Mexican route, so Wilson allowed several trains carrying men, weapons, and other supplies to reach Agua Prieta through the United States. Villa learnt not only of the United States’ recognition of Carranza, but also of its active support for his government, as his army descended from the mountains on October 30. Villa was furious.

Mexican leader and fighter, Pancho VillaThe USA falls foul of Villa’s anger
Villa attacked on 1 November in the dashing style that in earlier campaigns had won him several victories. Here it resulted in total disaster, for Agua Prieta had been turned into a veritable fortress with entrenchments, barbed wire entanglements, and a plentiful supply of ammunition for weapons both light and heavy. Worse was to follow, for when Villa bypassed Agua Prieta to move on Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora state, his forces were cut to pieces when launched in an unprepared daylight attack against a well prepared and well armed enemy.

The remnants of Villa’s forces streamed north toward Nogales, a border town held by Villista guerrillas. The move soon turned into a disorganised rout, and as they looted and murdered their way north, the Villistas blamed their defeat on the United States. Arriving in Nogales, these 300 or 400 survivors fired into the United States, but were soon deterred by the accuracy and volume of the return fire. Villa and his men then disappeared into the mountains once more.

After the passage of several weeks in which nothing was heard of Villa, Carranza informed the United States that the problem was at an end. That Villa had not been finished was revealed soon afterwards, however, when several American mining engineers were massacred. They were dragged off a train at Santa Ysabel in Chihuahua and shot down by a Villista gang led by Colonel Pablo Lopez. One man pretended to be dead, and escaped to reveal what had happened.

Villa attacks Columbus, New Mexico
Wilson refused to consider military action against Villa at this time. But then Villa once more revealed his presence in February 1916 as he began to move north with about 400 men. Rumour suggested that Villa intended to seek refuge in the United States, but the truth was considerably different. On 9 March 1916 the Villistas fell on Columbus, New Mexico, and the neighbouring Camp Furlong. These were the headquarters and other main base of Colonel Herbert H. Slocum’s 13th Cavalry, which was taken by surprise but then responded with commendable speed. The fighting lasted for about three hours before the Villistas were driven back with the loss of about 100 men. A hot pursuit was rapidly organised by a 13th Cavalry detachment under Major Frank Tomkins, who followed the Villistas deep into Mexico, finally caught up with them, and then inflicted heavy losses on them.

American losses in Columbus had amounted to 14 soldiers and 10 civilians killed, and this infuriated American public and political feelings alike. Wilson immediately ordered the strengthening of the border to prevent any repetition of the event, and this effort eventually soaked up 158,000 men of the regular army and National Guard, most of the United States’ active military strength at the time.

Pershing’s Punitive Expedition
At the same time, Brigadier General John J. Pershing was ordered to take the field against Villa in Mexico. The American press reported that Pershing’s orders were to take Villa ‘dead or alive’, but in fact the commander’s instructions were to disperse and if possible to destroy the Villista bands that had invaded the United States. Formally called the Punitive Expedition, Pershing’s force had about 10,000 men of two infantry regiments, several cavalry regiments, several batteries of light artillery, support elements and, as a complete novelty in American military operations, the fixed-wing aircraft of the 1st Aero Squadron.

The Punitive Expedition crossed into Mexico on 15 March 1916. Pershing and the administration believed that the expedition would receive at least the passive support of the Carranzista government, but this renewed infringement of Mexican sovereignty was received with a hostility that was at first only passive.

It is often though that the Punitive Expedition was a failure because it did not capture Villa. The truth is rather different, for in a period of several weeks, the expedition effectively ended the threat posed by Villa. This success was achieved by small detachments of American cavalry, which moved swiftly over considerable distances to surprise and defeat the various Villista bands, often killing their leaders and thereby severing the command link between Villa and his men.

As this programme was bearing its fruit, the passive reluctance of the Carranzista government was turning to open hostility. Carranza placed such restrictions on American use of the Mexican railroads that supply by this means became impossible. The Americans therefore had to use local sources of supply, and in April this led to the first example of open hostility. A squadron of the 13th Cavalry entered Parral to buy supplies, and was attacked by a Mexican mob urged on by a German woman, the wife of a Villista. The commander managed to extricate his squadron without loss on either side, but as it pulled back from Parral the American unit was attacked by men of the Carranzista garrison. While they had been able to avoid using their weapons in the town, here the Americans had not such choice and inflicted such losses on the Carranzistas that they broke off the attack.

On 16 June Pershing received a message from the Carranzista commander in Chihuahua state, General Jacinto Trevino, that the only direction the Americans were now permitted to move was north, back to the United States. Movement in any other direction, Trevino added, would be forcefully resisted. Pershing replied that he was prepared to take orders only from his own government.

The ‘Battle of Carrizal’
The result was the engagement at Carrizal on 21 June 1916. Here part of the 10th Cavalry collided with Mexican regular forces in a short but very sharp little action. The American strength was three officers, two civilian guides, and 79 cavalrymen, and these suffered an undoubted tactical defeat at the hands of the much larger Mexican force. Two of the officers were killed early in the fight and the third was wounded, while most of the non-commissioned officers were also killed or wounded. The Carranzistas did cut off and capture some of the cavalrymen, but most of the Americans managed to fight their way out of the encirclement. It was a Pyrrhic victory for the Carranzistas, however, for their admitted losses, including General Felix Gomez killed in the first exchange of fire, were greater than the whole American strength in the engagement.

The episode at Carrizal resulted in a diplomatic crisis. A vociferous American minority demanded full-scale intervention in Mexico, but Wilson was too concerned with the progress of World War I in Europe, and with the possible involvement of the United States, to consider such a move. Even so, the president heeded the advice of the army chief of staff, Major General Hugh L. Scott, to make use of the facility granted to him just two weeks earlier by the Congress and call the National Guard into federal service. This gave the army an additional 75,000 soldiers for the immensely difficult task of patrolling the Mexican border.

Wilson also persuaded Carranza to consider a diplomatic solution to the problem, and it was then decided late in July 1916 to refer the disputes arising in general from the Punitive Expedition’s actions, and in particular the Carrizal affair, to a joint commission for settlement. The commission later ruled that the Carrizal affair resulted from a fault by the American commander. The commission was dissolved in January 1917 before reaching agreeable solutions to other matters.

Wilson now saw war with Germany as inevitable, and therefore ordered that the Punitive Expedition should return to the United States. The last elements of Pershing’s force crossed the Mexican border on 5 February 1917. Even so, there remained considerable tension between the United States and Mexico. This meant that during 1917 and 1918 a considerable body of American troops had to be kept on the border, where small-scale guerrilla raids continued. In August 1918, this sporadic fighting flared up into a full battle. The scene was the two towns of Nogales, neighbours on the frontier between Arizona and Sonora. A small incident soon escalated into heavy fighting that left American troops in control of the Mexican town by nightfall.