This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
The kidnapping of an American diplomat in Mexico on Oct. 19, 1919 pushed the nervous neighbors to the brink of war.
With 60,000 soldiers already deployed along the international border from Brownsville, Texas to San Diego, California, the United States was poised to invade.
The memory of Venustiano Carranza’s pro-German intrigues during the First World War was infuriatingly fresh, when the Mexican president suddenly moved to nationalize American oil holdings. A deep sense of betrayal coupled with the fear of losing precious petroleum created a groundswell of support for immediate intervention.
To make matters worse, Carranza appeared indifferent to the safety of U.S. citizens. Guerrillas loyal to Pancho Villa and ordinary bandits, impossible to tell apart in most cases, were robbing and killing Americans with frightening frequency in the strife-torn north.
Although Carranza would have been smart to cool it, he was more interested in impressing his own people than playing nice with the gringos. He deliberately insulted his American counterpart by preventing the passage of a resolution in the Mexican senate applauding the post-war peace crusade of Woodrow Wilson.
Ambassador Henry P. Fletcher recommended a strongly worded ultimatum to bring the Mexicans back to their senses, but the president rejected the bare-knuckle approach. He persisted in the belief that a hands-off policy of “watchful waiting” would eventually prove successful.
While Wilson watched and waited, military strategists proceeded with contingency plans for an invasion of Mexico designating El Paso, San Antonio and Galveston as bases of supply. Franklin D. Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the navy, choreographed the role of the fleet in the seizure of the Tampico and Tuxpam oilfields, while Gov. William P. Hobby urged federalization of the Texas National Guard.
In the midst of these hectic preparations, the villistas launched a surprise attack against the government garrison at Juarez on the night of Jun. 14, 1919. Many artillery rounds landed in El Paso causing extensive damage and killing several inhabitants.
The U.S. Army responded by sending 3,600 troops across the Rio Grande to engage the villistas. After routing the rebels and restoring order in Juarez, the Americans returned to Texas 24 hours later.
Congress gave the action a standing ovation and added that the chaotic conditions clearly called for more of the same. Rep. Claude Benton Hudspeth of El Paso claimed Carranza was too busy playing up to the German Kaiser to put down Pancho Villa and protect Americans.
Then on Oct. 19 William O. Jenkins, the consular agent at Puebla, was kidnapped by bandits and held for $150,000 ransom. U.S. officials demanded that the Mexican government secure his release by any means necessary, including coughing up the cash if it came to that.
In an ironic version of an identical policy Washington would adopt decades later, the Carranza regime refused to meet the abductors’ demand on the grounds that to pay the ransom would only encourage more hostage taking.
Meanwhile, Jenkins bought his freedom with a small down payment and his personal IOU for the balance. Instead of rejoicing at their good fortune, the Mexicans compounded their problem by arresting Jenkins for collusion with the kidnappers.
“I have sought to avoid coming to an open rupture, hoping that sense and decency would finally penetrate the thick skull of President Carranza,” secretary of state Robert Lansing told the Mexican ambassador. He warned the emissary in writing that his country was courting catastrophe.
But the Houston Post, echoing the editorial opinion of most American newspapers, expressed contempt for the kid-glove treatment. “The latest Lansing note to Mexico indicates that if Mexico doesn’t come to terms more quickly our government may put several hundred more typewriters in action. We will simply write Mexico’s life out of her.”
Day after day congressional leaders tried to gain access to Woodrow Wilson, bedridden since suffering a stroke on Oct. 2, but could not get past the First Lady. Mrs. Wilson was determined to hide the truth that her husband was in no shape to run the republic.
Finally, on Dec. 5, 1919, two senators succeeded in seeing Wilson. As they implored him to take a hard line against Mexico, the White House doctor burst into the room with the news Jenkins had been released.
The crisis passed overnight. In the confused aftermath, congress and the press reluctantly bowed to the presidential prerogative on foreign affairs, and President Wilson had succeeded in buying himself enough time to complete his crippled term.
San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.