Tuesday, September 30, 2014

April 21, 1914 – Americans Rebuffed at Veracruz

When Francisco Madero began a coup against Porfiro Diaz in 1910, it set off a reaction that spun Mexican government out of control. Madero was assassinated in another coup in 1913 led by General Victoriano Huerta, and the chaos invited numerous others to join with their own violent bids for rule. The United States of America's southern neighbor became destabilized, threatening American interests there. Attempting to stymie the spread of violence, the United States placed a weapons embargo upon Mexico enforced by US warships. This action proved only to aggravate the situation as nine American sailors (who did not speak Spanish) that went ashore in Huerta-held, Constitutionalist-besieged Tampico were arrested by Mexican soldiers (who did not speak English) thinking it was a raid. The fiasco ended US-Mexican diplomacy.

Word of a German arms shipment to Mexico on the SS Ypiranga came to President Woodrow Wilson, who had already asked Congress for authorization to enforce his policy but was now required to act quickly. He gave the order to seize the shipment’s destination, Veracruz, which would stop any chance of delivery. US Marines and Bluejackets from the USS Prairie came ashore and marched unopposed, though they had gathered a crowd of curious spectators.

Around noon, fighting began in the town with a stand at the rail yard, which was the signal for an uprising from around the town that had been organized by Commodore Manuel Azueta. When he had heard of General Victoriano Maass preparing a retreat of the Mexican forces in the face of American Marines, Azueta broke military form to relieve Maass of command and arrest him. The quiet as the Americans had come ashore was a feint, and they found themselves suddenly assaulted by Mexican irregulars armed with Mausers as well as bands of Mexican soldiers leading a general charge.

American Rear Admiral Frank Fletcher organized a relief force and sent it to shore, but the constant Mexican small arms fire made any headway impossible. Finally he resorted to heavy bombardment, covering the retreat of marines and sailors. The bombardment continued until that night, when more American ships and marines from Panama arrived, where the canal project was nearing completion. At dawn, the Americans again attempted to establish a beachhead and were again driven back as the ruined buildings proved even better cover for the defending Mexican forces than empty urban streets. Mexicans celebrated despite a heavy loss of life, including Commodore Azueta’s son Jose, who famously gave a rallying cry while defending the Escuela Naval Militar alongside more than one hundred cadets, “If an American enters my house, I will either kill him or me!”  In the end, the American fleet merely established a blockade, turning the Ypiranga back, and left the city with its wrecked harbor.

The military fiasco quickly became a political one. Latin American countries balked at what they considered an overbearing United States, especially Argentina, Brazil, and Columbia, the “ABC Powers.” A conference was held in Bogota that not only gave a collective voice to the many countries south of the United States but also began to resolve the Mexican Revolution by recognizing Carranza and his Constitutionalists. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine that had encouraged American intervention was declared to be as distrusted as European intrusion. Americans were chased out of many Latin American countries and came to refugee centers in San Diego and New Orleans to start new lives.

Americans were humiliated at their battlefield loss and quickly blamed Wilson, who lost much of his support in Congress. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels attempted to save face by emphasizing the bravery of the soldiers and ordering fifty-six Medals of Honor for the battle (half as many as was presented in the entire Spanish-American War). Marine Major Smedley Butler did not believe he had earned his medal and attempted to refuse it; Daniels returned with an order that he wear it at all public events.

Wilson narrowly lost the 1916 presidential election with voters instead turning to Republican Charles Hughes, who promised to bolster the military preparedness of America. The US Navy worked to defend American lives at sea, and the Army was put into practice chasing Pancho Villa after his raids of the Southwest. With so much nervousness from being weak at home and facing a unified front from the ABC Powers, Hughes discouraged Congress toward war after the release of the Zimmerman Telegraph, which served to expand the gulf that had been built up between the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere.

After the end of World War I, the United States turned toward European and Pacific markets and avoided expanding trade with Latin American countries outside of Panama. Issues with Japan became increasingly problematic as it expanded into China, where America had established markets. When war broke out in Europe in 1939, it was an opportunity for the United States to use its extensive military, which had continued to expand since 1916, in a decisive early strike against the Japanese naval forces at Okinawa.


In reality, the Mexican army did not participate in the Battle of Veracruz, which was quickly ended in American favor. The ABC Powers hosted the Niagara Falls Peace Conference, easing the diplomatic tension and persuading the United States to return the port that November. The occupation of Veracruz would be one of many in the “Banana Wars” before the Good Neighbor policy was adopted in 1934.

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