Wilson’s major preoccupation in Latin America was Mexico, where in 1911 a revolution led by Francisco Madero overthrew the government of dictator Porfirio Diaz. Two years later, without Wilson’s knowledge but with the backing of the U.S. ambassador and of American companies that controlled Mexico’s oil and mining industries, military commander Victoriano Huerta assassinated Madero and seized power.
Wilson was appalled. The United States, he announced, would not extend recognition to a “government of butchers.” He would “teach” Latin Americans, he added, “to elect good men.” When civil war broke out in Mexico, Wilson ordered American troops to land at Vera Cruz to prevent the arrival of weapons meant for Huerta’s forces. But to Wilson’s surprise, Mexicans greeted the marines as invaders rather than liberators. Vera Cruz, after all, was where the forces of the conquistador Hernan Cortes had landed in the sixteenth century and those of Winfield Scott during the Mexican War. More than 100 Mexicans and 19 Americans died in the fighting that followed. Huerta left the presidency in 1914, but civil war continued, and neither side seemed grateful for Wilson’s interference.
In 1916, the war spilled over into the United States when “Pancho” Villa, the leader of one faction, attacked Columbus, New Mexico, where he killed seventeen Americans. Wilson ordered 10,000 troops into northern Mexico on an expedition that unsuccessfully sought to arrest Villa. Mexico was a warning that it might be more difficult than Wilson assumed to use American might to reorder the internal affairs of other nations, or to apply moral certainty to foreign policy.