A Troubled Past: The Army and Security on the Mexican Border, 1915-1917

By Bruscino, Thomas A., Jr. | Military Review, July-August 2008 | Go to article overview

A Troubled Past: The Army and Security on the Mexican Border, 1915-1917


Bruscino, Thomas A., Jr., Military Review


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IN JUNE 2006, the United States dispatched military forces to its southern border to help stem the tide of illegal immigration from Mexico. The tempestuous historical relationship between the United States and Mexico meant that this was hardly the first time the Army went south to effect security along the border. The issues along that frontier have always been complex, and bringing in trained (or untrained) soldiers means inserting them into a very difficult and potentially violent situation. At no time was that made more apparent than in the mid-1910s, when the Army on the border found itself caught up in a mishmash of border security, local violence, guerrilla warfare, racial politics, and state diplomacy.

Background

By the turn of the 20th century, the traditional hostility between the United States and Mexico had cooled, due in no small part to the relative stability afforded Mexico by the long reign of Porfino Diaz. That peace came at a price: Diaz was a military officer who seized power and ruled as a de facto dictator for most of the years between 1876 and 1911. Mexico began to modernize under the Diaz regime, but his heavy-handed tactics, Mexico's heavy dependence on foreign investment, and the poor condition of the country's lower classes led to a loss of popular support for the aging general. When Diaz backtracked on his promise to step down from power and allow a fair election in 1910, a new revolution and struggle for power began. Among the prominent Mexican leaders who emerged from that struggle were Francisco Madero, Victonano Huerta, Venustiano Carranza, Francisco "Pancho" Villa, and Emiliano Zapata. (1)

The instability created by the Mexican revolution led to an increased Army role on the border. In the spring and summer of 1911, the War Department placed several undermanned Regular Army units near the frontier, based in the towns of San Antonio and Galveston, Texas, and San Diego, California. The troops withdrew in the latter part of the year, but smaller Army units remained and ran patrols along the border to keep an eye on the situation to the south. (2) In 1913, the War Department reorganized the military in the continental United States into a series of departments and districts. The new Southern Department, headquartered at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, encompassed Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and the border states of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. Brigadier General Tasker Bliss became the first commander of the department, and had the unwelcome task of trying to patrol the border with three undermanned cavalry units. (3)

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Across the border, Francisco Madero came to power when he was elected president in 1911, but forces led by General Huerta deposed and murdered the new president the next year. Huerta set up a new dictatorial regime, and Carranza, Villa, and Zapata launched a rebellion against the general. President William Howard Taft, nearing the end of his term in 1913, once again moved troops south to Texas to help stabilize the frontier, but diplomatic events soon overtook this precaution.

The manner of Madero's removal from power so displeased new American president Woodrow Wilson that he felt compelled to intervene in Mexican affairs. In February 1914, he allowed the shipment of arms to anti-Huerta forces in Mexico. When Mexican Huertista soldiers arrested a group of American sailors at the port city of Tampico in April, Wilson reacted by ordering the bombardment and partial occupation of the city of Veracruz--an occupation that would last until November. (4) Huerta resigned the presidency under pressure from forces inside and out of Mexico, and Carranza emerged as the most likely candidate for leadership of Mexico. (5)

But even the fall of Huerta did not entirely please President Wilson, who did not formally recognize Carranza as Mexico's new leader. (6) Villa and Zapata almost immediately turned against Carranza, which led to a widespread civil war and the most violent period of the Mexican Revolution. …

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