Among all the statesmen of the modern era, Woodrow Wilson stands out as the preeminent champion of liberal humanitarian international ideals. He believed, to the point of religious commitment, that the United States had been created to serve mankind. He detested imperialism and the exploitation of helpless people by the strong and ruthless. He believed in the right of all peoples to govern themselves and in the peaceful settlement of international disputes. He abhorred the use of violence to protect American material interests abroad. Secretary of State Bryan, who shared all of Wilson's views, was easily the leading opponent of imperialism in the United States and was also in the vanguard of the movement to advance peace through arbitration and conciliation. Both Wilson and Bryan were determined to make a new beginning in foreign policy in 1913.
With Wilson's blessing, Bryan, in 1913 and 1914, negotiated with thirty nations—including Great Britain, France, and Italy—treaties that established elaborate machinery to prevent war. Additional evidence of Wilson and Bryan's intentions in foreign policy came early in the new administration, with a forthright repudiation of the "dollar diplomacy" of the Taft administration. At the insistence of the State Department, an American banking group had been admitted in 1911 to an international consortium to finance the construction of the Hukuang Railway in China. Wilson, on 18 March 1913, announced that he could not approve the loan agreement because it would lead to unacceptable outside interference in Chinese domestic affairs, and so the consortium collapsed. Then, on 2 May 1913, Wilson extended diplomatic recognition to the fledgling Republic of China without prior consultation with the other great powers.
A crisis in Japanese-American relations erupted in the spring of 1913, when the legislature of California began to deliberate a bill that forbade persons "ineligible to citizenship" (that is, Orientals) to own land in the state. Wilson sent Bryan to Sacramento to plead with the governor and leaders of the legislature of California to avoid this open insult to the Japanese. But Wilson and Bryan could not budge the intransigent Californians; moreover, the latter put the president and secretary of state in an awkward position when they added to the bill a provision that declared null and void any part of the measure that violated the treaty obligations of the United States.
The Japanese government protested strongly, and there was talk of war on both sides, particularly among American naval leaders; but Wilson and Bryan's conciliatory diplomacy defused the crisis at once. Wilson and Bryan also seemed prepared, in spite of all the obvious political risks at home, to negotiate a treaty with Japan to guarantee the mutual right of landownership. Then, in the early weeks of 1915, a new crisis broke out when the Japanese attempted to impose upon China a treaty that would have made that country a virtual protectorate of Japan. Wilson resisted this assault upon Chinese independence and the Open Door so vigorously that the Japanese gave up their extreme demands.
Another demonstration of Wilson's determination to do the "right" thing in international relations in spite of heavy political risks came out in a controversy with Great Britain in 1913 and 1914. With the Panama Canal nearing completion, Congress, in August 1912, passed legislation that exempted American ships engaged in the coastwise trade from the payment of tolls for use of the canal. The Democratic platform of 1912 had also endorsed such exemption. The British government, soon after Taft signed the Panama Canal Act, sent to Washington a solemn note that argued that the exemption violated the Anglo-American Hay-Pauncefote Treaty of 1901, which stipulated that the Panama Canal should be open on equal terms to the ships of all nations.
Wilson was convinced, even before his inauguration, that the British were right, but he did not dare to act until the success of his domestic program was assured. Then, on 5 March 1914, Wilson went before a joint session of Congress and asked for repeal of the exemption provision. "The large thing to do is the only thing we can afford to do," he said, "a voluntary withdrawal from a position everywhere questioned and misunderstood."
It was actually one of Wilson's most courageous moves during his presidency. The entire Democratic leadership of the House of Representatives opposed him, and he risked his leadership of Congress and his party by repudiating a prominent plank of the platform of 1912. The British ambassador in Washington believed that Wilson faced certain defeat. However, the House and the Senate approved repeal of the exemption provision on 31 March and 11 June 1914, by votes of 247–162 and 50–35, respectively. "When I think of the obstacles you have encountered and overcome in this conflict for the national honor," one friend wrote to Wilson on 16 June 1914, "the victory seems colossal." It was also a victory over anglo-phobes and chauvinists, and it secured Wilson's leadership of the Democratic party in Congress.
Wilson and Bryan wanted ardently to draw the two continents of the western hemisphere into intimate economic and diplomatic relationships. As a first step, they negotiated a treaty with the Colombian government to repair the moral and diplomatic damage done by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, when he encouraged and supported the Panamanian "revolution" that tore the province of Panama from Colombia. The Treaty of Bogotá, signed on 6 April 1914, not only awarded Colombia an indemnity of $25 million, for the loss of Panama; it also expressed the "sincere regret" of the United States that anything should have happened to impair good relations between the two countries. The sight of a great power apologizing to a small country for a wrong done in the past evoked warm approval throughout Latin America. However, Theodore Roosevelt's friends in the Senate were able to block ratification. The Harding administration, in 1921, negotiated a new treaty, which was ratified, that awarded Colombia the $25 million but omitted the apology.
Wilson's great goal in Latin America was the negotiation of a pact to unite all the American republics in an alliance binding them to respect one another's territorial integrity, guarantee one another's political independence, and settle all disputes among themselves by peaceful methods. Such a treaty would in effect have mutualized the Monroe Doctrine, and Wilson, in an address to a Pan-American conference in Washington on 6 January 1916, announced his intention to take this then-radical step. The Monroe Doctrine, he said, was proclaimed by the United States on its own authority; it was a unilateral policy, and it did not restrain the United States in the western hemisphere. Doubts about this matter had to be removed and would be removed by the Pan-American pact, for it was based upon the "handsome principle of self-restraint and respect for the rights of everybody." Wilson's hopes for the Pan-American pact were spoiled by the opposition of Chile, which had an old border dispute with Peru that it would not submit to arbitration.
Whatever their thoughts were about Latin American policy in general, Wilson and Bryan (and subsequent secretaries of state to 1921) regarded defense of the Caribbean area and of the Panama Canal as one of the main objectives of the foreign policy of the United States. They tried to inculcate respect for democratic government among the leaders of the countries in the Caribbean; they also refused, insofar as it was within their power to do so, to permit American business interests to obtain concessions and American bankers loans that would unfairly exploit the people of the Caribbean basin. Nonetheless, Wilson and his secretaries of state deemed the stability of the area to be absolutely essential to the security of the United States and were prepared to take all measures necessary to guarantee that stability.
Bryan continued the Taft administration's support of a corrupt and conservative regime in Nicaragua, not by armed intervention, which Taft had resorted to, but by a treaty that provided for the payment of $3 million to Nicaragua for an option on its canal route and stipulated (at the insistence of the Nicaraguan government) that the United States might intervene in Nicaragua to preserve order, protect property, and defend Nicaraguan independence. The latter provision was unacceptable to anti-imperialists in the Senate. Only when the provision was removed from the treaty in 1916 would they consent to its ratification.
The republic of Haiti had always contrived to preserve its independence, but it came on evil times in 1914 and 1915 as governments fell in quick succession to revolutionists with their eyes on the custom-houses. The only remedy seemed to be American control of the Haitian customs, but the Haitians refused to take this strong medicine when Wilson sent a commission to Haiti to offer it. An enraged mob murdered the Haitian president in Port-au-Prince on 27 July 1915; anarchy and starvation threatened. Wilson was reluctant to intervene, but he thought that he had no choice but to rescue the hapless Haitian people. As he wrote to Lansing on 4 August 1915, "I suppose there is nothing for it but to take the bull by the horns and restore order." American marines and sailors occupied Port-au-Prince on 28 July 1915. The American navy proceeded to pacify the country, to set up a puppet government, and to impose upon the Haitian Senate a treaty that made Haiti a protectorate of the United States.
The United States had collected and disbursed the customs revenues of the Dominican Republic since 1905, but Wilson's warnings and Bryan's exhortations failed to prevent the same fatal cycle of revolutions in the Dominican Republic that had devastated Haiti. To Wilson and his advisers, there seemed to be no alternative but to impose peace upon the country. American military forces occupied Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital, on 15 May 1916, and established a military government in the following November.
American marines occupied the Dominican Republic until 1924 and Haiti until 1934. They put an end to revolutions and built schools, roads, and sanitary facilities, and the Dominican and Haitian peoples enjoyed greater peace and protection of their lives and property than they had known before.
Denmark, in desperate straits on account of World War I, indicated in 1915 that it might be willing to sell its West Indian islands, with their potential for naval bases, to the United States if the price was right. Wilson, worried by the possibility that Germany might, by one means or another, force Denmark to cede it the Danish West Indies, was in no mood to haggle over the price of even run-down real estate. The two governments agreed upon a purchase price of $25 million; the treaty was signed on 4 August 1916 and ratified on 17 January 1917; and an American naval commander accepted transfer of the islands from the Danish governor on 31 March 1917.
Wilson fought his first battle against imperialism while dealing with events in Mexico, the country in which imperialism had reached its apogee. Porfirio Díaz, dictator of Mexico since 1877, had given away much of the birthright of the Mexican people to foreigners by 1910. Reformers, led by Francisco Indalecio Madero, drove the senile Díaz into exile and installed Madero in the presidential palace in November 1911. But Madero proved to be an inept ruler, and when the inevitable counterrevolution began on 9 February 1913, the head of the army, Victoriano Huerta, joined the rebels; had Madero murdered; and assumed power as acting president on 18 February. Huerta perpetrated his treachery with the full knowledge and, to some degree, the complicity of Henry Lane Wilson, the American ambassador in Mexico City. Great Britain, Germany, and France, whose citizens owned extensive properties in Mexico, recognized Huerta as the constitutional de facto president, as did Japan and many other nations.
This, then, was the situation in Mexico when Woodrow Wilson took the oath of office on 4 March 1913. Wilson recoiled in disgust at what he called "a government of butchers" and was distressed beyond description when he learned a few months later about Henry Lane Wilson's complicity in Huerta's coup. Woodrow Wilson's goal from March to October 1913 was clear, consistent, and, initially, naive. It was the reestablishment of constitutional government in Mexico through free elections in which Huerta would not be a candidate for president. Wilson's only weapons during those months were moral pressure and the influence that inhered in his power to extend recognition or to withhold it. Thus, he recalled Henry Lane Wilson and, in August 1913, sent John Lind, a former Democratic governor of Minnesota, to Mexico City to offer what amounted to de facto recognition and Washington's approval of a large loan to the Mexican government if Huerta would agree to hold an "early and free" election. The American president also asked for an immediate armistice in the civil war that had begun soon after Huerta's coup, when a large group of Madero's followers, called Constitutionalists, had taken to the field under Venustiano Carranza, governor of the state of Coahuila.
Huerta bluffed and feinted, but by then he had the outright support of the British government and no intention of abdicating. On the contrary, he arrested most of the members of the Chamber of Deputies and instituted an outright military dictatorship on 10 October 1913.
Huerta's move forced Wilson to adopt a policy that took account of the hard realities of the Mexican situation. Support of the usurper was simply not an option with Wilson. There was the possibility of cooperation with Carranza, but the First Chief, as he was called, said plainly that he and his followers did not want Wilson's help, had no interest in "constitutional" elections at this time, and were determined to purge Mexico by the sword. Wilson did not shrink from accepting the logic of his implacable opposition to Huerta. He announced his policy to the powers on 24 November:
The present policy of the Government of the United States is to isolate General Huerta entirely; to cut him off from foreign sympathy and aid and from domestic credit, whether moral or material, and so to force him out. It hopes and believes that isolation will accomplish this end, and shall await the results without irritation or impatience. If General Huerta does not retire by force of circumstances, it will become the duty of the United States to use less useful peaceful means to put him out.
Wilson could write so confidently because he had just forced the British government to withdraw support from Huerta. When the Constitutionalist campaign faltered, Wilson, on 3 February 1914, lifted the arms embargo against the Constitutionalists that Taft had imposed a year before. Most important, Wilson accepted the Mexican Revolution upon its own terms. Settlement by a civil war was a terrible thing, he wrote in a circular note to the powers on 31 January 1914, "but it must come now whether we wish it or not." From this moment until the end of his administration, Wilson was committed personally and morally to the cause of the Mexican Revolution, "a revolution as profound as that which occurred in France." Wilson's support of the Constitutionalists caused the Roman Catholic Church, the bankers, and the large landowners in Mexico to rally to Huerta's standard, so that the dictator was actually stronger by the spring of 1914 than he had been when Wilson hurled his threats at him. There was no choice now for Wilson but to resort to a show of force. But how could he do this without making open war, which Congress and the American people would probably not support and which Carranza would probably resist? The opportunity came when a Huertista officer arrested the crew of a boat from the USS Dolphin at Tampico on 9 April 1914 and the commander of the American fleet in Mexican waters demanded a formal apology and a salute to the American flag with twenty-one guns. When (fortunately for the American president) Huerta balked at rendering the salute, Wilson, on 21 April 1914, ordered the fleet to seize Veracruz, Mexico's largest port. Wilson expected no resistance because the Huertista commander at Vera-cruz had promised to withdraw from the city before the Americans landed. He did so, but cadets from the Mexican naval academy and others resisted bravely, and 126 Mexicans and 19 Americans died before the Americans secured their control of Veracruz.
When Carranza denounced the American invasion as angrily as Huerta, what could Wilson do but launch a strike toward Mexico City? But he was determined to avoid general war with Mexico. Wilson was saved from this dilemma by Huerta's acceptance of an offer by the ABC powers—Argentina, Brazil, and Chile—to mediate the controversy. American and Mexican commissioners met at Niagara Falls, Canada, from 20 May to 2 July 1914. Wilson had no intention of submitting to a genuine mediation; on the contrary, he prolonged the charade at Niagara Falls until the Constitutionalists had beaten the weakened, isolated, and weary Huerta. The dictator fled to Spain on 15 July, and Carranza occupied Mexico City on 20 August 1914.
The revolutionary forces had divided even before Carranza rode into Mexico City on his white horse. Carranza faced two bitter foes—Francisco ("Pancho") Villa, former brigand and now commander of the Division of the North, and Emiliano Zapata, leader of a peasant revolt in the state of Morelos, south of Mexico City. Villa and Zapata dominated a convention of revolutionary generals that met at Aguascalientes in October and November 1914. It deposed Carranza and installed a puppet regime in Mexico City. Carranza and the divisions loyal to him retired to Veracruz, which Wilson had recently evacuated.
Wilson tried to persuade the two factions to unite; when this effort failed, he simply withdrew from active interference in Mexican affairs and awaited the outcome of the new civil war. Bryan tried to persuade Wilson to recognize the Villa-Zapata government in Mexico City, but Wilson refused to take sides. Then, when Carranza's chief general, Álvaro Obregón, nearly destroyed the Division of the North in April 1915, several counter-revolutionary Mexican leaders appeared in Washington to seek American assistance. Wilson would have nothing to do with them. As the summer wore on and Carranza gained strength, Robert Lansing, who had replaced Bryan in June and who regarded Carranza as a dire threat to foreign interests in Mexico, concocted a scheme to eliminate the First Chief through Pan-American mediation of the Mexican civil war. Wilson turned Lansing's scheme aside and accorded de facto recognition to the Carranza regime on 19 October 1915.
Villa, who had retreated northward with a small but loyal force, retaliated against Wilson's recognition of Carranza by murdering sixteen Americans in northern Mexico on 11 January 1916. When this act failed to provoke Wilson into military intervention, Villa struck at an army camp at Columbus, New Mexico, on 9 March 1916, burning the town and killing nineteen inhabitants. Wilson did the least that he could in the circumstances: he sent a force of some seven thousand men under General John Joseph Pershing to capture Villa and bring him to justice.
Before he sent Pershing into Mexico, Wilson thought that he had obtained Carranza's tacit consent to the entry of what was called the Punitive Expedition. The problem was the wily Villa, who eluded Pershing and drew him 350 miles southward into Mexico. Carranza, who probably would have been very glad if Pershing had captured Villa, now had to deal with a Mexican public opinion outraged by Pershing's move into the heart of Mexico. In response, the First Chief demanded that Wilson withdraw the Punitive Expedition from Mexican soil. Wilson did withdraw the expedition to the northernmost part of Mexico, but fighting broke out on 21 June 1916, when an American cavalry force attacked a detachment of Mexican regulars at Carrizal. First reports told of a treacherous ambush by the Mexicans, and Wilson wrote an address in which he asked Congress for authority to occupy all of northern Mexico. But both Carranza and Wilson desperately wanted to avoid war. Wilson cried out in a speech on 30 June 1916: "Do you think the glory of America would be enhanced by a war of conquest? Do you think that any act of violence by a powerful nation like this against a weak distracted neighbor would reflect distinction upon the annals of the United States?"
Carranza, on 4 July, proposed that a joint high commission be appointed to investigate and recommend, and Wilson jumped at the chance to seek a diplomatic solution. The commission met at various places in the United States from 6 September 1916 to 15 January 1917, when it broke up because Carranza would accept no agreement that did not provide for the complete withdrawal of all of Pershing's force on a specific date, a promise the Americans were unwilling to make. Wilson, determined to escape from the Mexican imbroglio, called the Punitive Expedition back to the United States on 18 January 1917. Then Wilson sent a new ambassador to Mexico and, on 3 March, accorded de facto recognition to Carranza and the constitutional government that he had just established at Querétaro.
Through all the confused period in Mexican-American relations from 1914 to 1917, Wilson prevented any counterrevolutionary movements from being hatched on American soil and kept a close watch over American bankers and businessmen who, he suspected, wanted to take advantage of a helpless nation. Over and over, Wilson insisted that the Mexican people had the right to solve their problems in their own way. Ironically, the man who provoked Mexican ill will by his occupation of Veracruz and the dispatch of the Punitive Expedition was in fact the chief defender and guardian of the Mexican Revolution.