Playing with Fire: Woodrow Wilson, Self-Determination, Democracy, and Revolution in Mexico

By Frank, Lucas N. | The Historian, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Playing with Fire: Woodrow Wilson, Self-Determination, Democracy, and Revolution in Mexico


Frank, Lucas N., The Historian


SERVING AS PRESIDENT from 1913 to 1921, Woodrow Wilson led the United States at a time when its influence continued to expand even as it struggled to develop the parameters within which it would project its newfound clout. In 1913, the United States was already a global economic powerhouse. It became the world's largest economy in 1870, and by 1913 its manufacturing output exceeded those of Britain and Germany, second and third in the world respectively, combined. (1) In 1898, the United States took over most of what remained of Spain's overseas empire in a matter of four months. With this victory, the United States took control of territorial possessions around the world and in doing so sparked intense debates about the proper goals of US foreign policy. During his presidency, Wilson was confronted with the First World War and omnipresent political, social, and economic turmoil globally, with one revolution spilling over the country's southern border. The foreign policy Wilson devised in response to these crises became his greatest legacy, but historians still disagree on what motives guided him.

A variety of historians argue that commercial interests motivated Wilson's foreign policy. Robert Saunders thus suggests that "Wilson sought an unchecked hegemonic world role for the United States based on its own well-being and security." (2) Saunders launches an all-out assault on the character of Woodrow Wilson, suggesting that his policies were in pursuit of personal objectives. Lloyd Ambrosius provides a better articulated but equally critical portrayal of Wilson's foreign policy. (3) Ambrosius argues that Wilson was more interventionist than either of his Republican predecessors, Theodore Roosevelt or William Howard Taft, and that his interventions in Latin America were driven by Wilson's interpretation of the American national interest and his support for capitalism. Margaret MacMillan treats Wilson during his stint in Paris after the First World War critically as well, but she portrays him likewise rather as an impractical and inflexible idealist than a cynical champion of American economic interests. (4) The challenge to Wilson's supposed idealism continued in Erez Manela's (2007) award-winning book. (5) In this work, Manela proposed that the President's empty self-determination rhetoric ignited revolution in the post-war era. Manela suggested that, while Wilson "did not exclude non-European peoples from the right to self-determination as a matter of principle," he did not believe them currently ready and "envisioned them achieving it through an evolutionary process under the benevolent tutelage of a 'civilized' power." (6)

A less cynical school of historians argues that Wilson's idealistic beliefs were the driving force behind his foreign policies rather than simple rhetoric. However, they argue that Wilson's belief in self-determination emerged and evolved during his presidency. Arthur S. Link suggested that Wilson first committed himself to self-determination after his military intervention at Veracruz failed. (7) Thomas Knock argues that Wilson's idea for the League of Nations and his commitment to self-determination crystallized during his 1916 re-election campaign. (8) While Wilson's motivations are not the focus of their works, Lorenzo Meyer and Mark Gilderhus also argued against the primacy of US material interests as the driving motivation behind the United States' actions in Mexico. (9) In the light of this lively and enduring debate, a case study of Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy towards the Mexican Revolution offers a unique perspective on his driving principles and goals and the lengths to which he was willing to go to achieve them.

In 1913, Woodrow Wilson assumed the presidency during a critical time in US-Mexican relations. The Mexican Revolution began in 1910 when Francisco Madero (1873-1913) declared his candidacy for the presidency of Mexico, challenging the incumbent, Porfirio Diaz (1830-1915). …

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