Wilson and Moral Diplomacy

Wilson and Secretary of State Bryan sincerely desired good international relations. In the Caribbean and in Central America, they wanted to substitute moral diplomacy for the Dollar Diplomacy of the Taft administration, under which the U.S. government provided diplomatic support to U.S. companies doing business in other countries. Wilson and Bryan demonstrated their desire to improve relations when they agreed to pay Colombia $20 million in reparation for the role the United States had played in the secession of Panama from Colombia. Ex-President Roosevelt, who had encouraged the Panamanian secession from Colombia, took this move as a personal affront and as a sign of weakness. He denied that his foreign diplomacy required apology of any sort. However unwise or improper the Colombian agreement, it demonstrated that Wilson and his Department of State hoped for cordial relations within the hemisphere.

Nevertheless, Wilson and Bryan forced conditions on Nicaraguans that infringed upon their sovereignty. They feared that those areas of Nicaragua favorable to the building of a new canal across the isthmus might fall into the hands of some European power. Despite repeated protests of goodwill and regard for the interests of other peoples, the treaty Wilson and Bryan drew up in 1913 restrained the free action of the penniless Nicaraguan regime and permitted American intervention. This was a direct continuation of Taft's diplomacy, which had received the support of Republicans and the sharp criticism of anti-imperialists. In addition, Bryan later authorized the use of troops in the Dominican Republic and in Haiti, even though he was a longtime advocate and architect of plans and treaties furthering peace.


Mexican Revolution

Wilson had other international problems, particularly in Mexico. Mexico had seen a series of revolutions since 1910. Americans with mining and other interests in Mexico wanted immediate U.S. intervention to protect their property. Wilson decided to adopt a policy of “watchful waiting” and to encourage the election of a constitutional government in Mexico. He refused recognition to General Victoriano Huerta, the choice of American interests in Mexico, because he had illegally seized power. The president put more faith in Huerta's major opponent, Venustiano Carranza. Carranza's forces grew stronger in the provinces due to U.S. support, but Huerta's supporters held power in Mexico City.

In April 1914, American sailors of the U.S.S. Dolphin were arrested at Tampico by a Huerta officer. Although the captives were released, the U.S. government was outraged and Wilson had to demand apologies from a government he did not recognize. When news came that a German ship carrying ammunition for Huerta was heading for port, Wilson ordered U.S. troop landings at Veracruz. In the ensuing skirmish more than 300 Mexicans and 90 Americans were killed or wounded, and afterward Mexican public opinion turned against the United States.

Wilson gratefully accepted the mediation of Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, but Carranza (who had replaced Huerta) refused to respect their findings. The president then turned his hopes to the peasant leader Francisco “Pancho” Villa, but Villa, harassed by Carranza, attempted to provoke American intervention by crossing the border and raiding towns in the United States. In October 1915, Wilson decided to recognize Carranza as the legitimate heir of the revolution. Villa then seized a number of Americans in January 1916 and executed them. On March 9 he crossed the border into Columbus, New Mexico, where he killed citizens and burned the town.


Punitive Expedition

Wilson had to respond. Under Brigadier General John J. Pershing a force of more than 6000 troops was dispatched to Mexico. Wilson legitimized the action by acquiring Carranza's permission to pursue Villa. Villa's clever escapes and his second crossing of the border, at Glen Springs, Texas, where he again killed several Americans, inflamed public opinion on both sides of the border and almost caused full-scale war by setting Carranza against the intervention. However, a constitutional government was set up in Mexico in October 1916. Wilson began removing U.S. troops from Mexican soil as the likelihood of U.S. involvement in World War I increased. Wilson's Mexican policy was a failure redeemed only by the fact that he had not tried to force an unpopular government on the Mexican people.