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“Avoid the Use of the Word Intervention”: Wilson and Lansing on the U.S. Invasion of Mexico

In 1916, Francisco Villa, leader of the peasant uprisings in northern Mexico, raided Columbus, New Mexico, in an attempt to expose Mexican government collaboration with the United States. President Woodrow Wilson responded by ordering an invasion of Mexico. Five years after the beginning of the Mexican Revolution, which was characterized by hope for social change as well as death, hunger, and violence, many Mexicans did not welcome further involvement by the U.S. In the following correspondence, Secretary of State Robert Lansing and President Wilson described the need to carefully frame the invasion as a defense of U.S. borders rather than interference in the Mexican Revolution. The resulting invasion, led by General John Pershing, was a total fiasco. It failed to locate Villa and increased anti-U.S. sentiment and Mexican nationalist resolve.

From Robert Lansing, with Enclosure

Personal and Confidential:

Washington June 21, 1916.

My dear Mr. President:

As there appears to be an increasing probability that the Mexican situation may develop into a state of war I desire to make a suggestion for your consideration. It seems to me that we should avoid the use of the word “Intervention” and deny that any invasion of Mexico is for the sake of intervention.

There are several reasons why this appears to me expedient:

First. We have all along denied any purpose to interfere in the internal affairs of Mexico and the St. Louis platform declares against it. Intervention conveys the idea of such interference.

Second. Intervention would be humiliating to many Mexicans whose pride and sense of national honor would not resent severe terms of peace in case of being defeated in a war.

Third. American intervention in Mexico is extremely distasteful to all Latin America and might have a very bad effect upon our Pan-American program.

Fourth. Intervention, which suggests a definite purpose to “clean up” the country, would bind us to certain accomplishments which circumstances might make extremely difficult or inadvisable, and, on the other hand, it would impose conditions which might be found to be serious restraints upon us as the situation develops.

Fifth. Intervention also implies that the war would be made primarily in the interest of the Mexican people, while the fact is it would be a war forced on us by the Mexican Government, and, if we term it intervention, we will have considerable difficulty in explaining why we had not intervened before but waited until attacked.

It seems to me that the real attitude is that the de facto Government having attacked our forces engaged in a rightful enterprise or invaded our borders (as the case may be) we had no recourse but to defend ourselves and to do so it has become necessary to prevent future attacks by forcing the Mexican Government to perform its obligations. That is, it is simply a state of international war without purpose on our part other than to end the conditions which menace our national peace and the safety of our citizens, and that it is not intervention with all that that word implies.

I offer the foregoing suggestion, because I feel that we should have constantly in view the attitude we intend to take if worse comes to worse, so that we may regulate our present policy and future correspondence with Mexico and other American Republics with that attitude.

In case this suggestion meets with your approval I further suggest that we send to each diplomatic representative of a Latin American Republic in Washington a communication stating briefly our attitude and denying any intention to intervene. I enclose a draft of such a note. If this is to be done at all, it seems to me that it should be done at once, otherwise we will lose the chief benefit, namely, a right understanding by Latin America at the very outset.

Faithfully yours, Robert Lansing

TLS (SDR, RG 59, 812.00/l8533A, DNA).




June 21, 1916.

I enclose for your information a copy of this Government’s note of June 20th to the Secretary of Foreign Relations of the de facto Government of Mexico on the subject of the presence ofAmerican troops in Mexican territory. This communication states clearly the critical relations existing between this Government and the de facto Government of Mexico and the causes which have led up to the present situation.

Should this situation eventuate into hostilities, which this Government would deeply regret and will use every honorable effort to avoid, I take this opportunity to inform you that this Government would have for its object not intervention in Mexican affairs, with all the regrettable consequences which might result from such a policy, but the defense of American territory from further invasion by bands of armed Mexicans, protection of American citizens and property along the boundary from outrages committed by such bandits, and the prevention of future depredations, by force of arms against the marauders infesting this region and against a Government which is encouraging and aiding them in their activities. Hostilities, in short, would be simply a state of international war without purpose on the part of the United States other than to end the conditions which menace our national peace and the safety of our citizens.

T MS (SDR, RG 59, 8I2.00/I8533A, DNA).


To Robert Lansing

The White House. 21 June, 1916.

My dear Mr. Secretary,

I agree to all of this. I was myself about to say something to you to the same effect, though I had not thought of making an occasion of the sending of copies of our note to Mexico to the Latin American representatives but had thought to wait until hostilities were actually forced upon us. As I write this “extras” of the evening paper are being cried on the Avenue which, if true, mean that hostilities have begun. At any rate, my doubt upon that point (the time for the notification you suggest) is so slight that I beg that you will carry out the plan you suggest at once.

Faithfully Yours, W. W.

Source: Arthur S. Link, ed., The Papers of Woodrow Wilson (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981), 275–277.

See Also:The United States and the Mexican Revolution: "A Danger for All Latin American Countries," Letters from Venustiano Carranza
John Reed's "What About Mexico?": The United States and the Mexican Revolution