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Drunk Murderer or Hero of the People?

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When you think about all the great wars of this century that we've been in -- World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War -- what stands out to me, besides all the tragic slaughter and violence-is the fact that none of them were fought on American soil. Millions of Americans died fighting for their country, but America itself was untouched by the bombs, grenades and destruction that left ther parts of the world totally devastated. When you think about it, we're pretty lucky to have never fought an international war on our own turf. That doesn't mean we haven't come close though. In 1916, a shocking incident would wake Americans up to the nightmarish possibility of war in their own backyard. It would also indirectly lead us to join in history's first world war.

Welcome to Columbus, New Mexico where the spirit of Pancho lives on!
In the wee hours of the morning of March 9, 1916, 464 Mexicans crossed the border three miles into the United States and launched a surprise attack on the sleepy town of Columbus, New Mexico. The army was led by Pancho Villa, a Mexican revolutionary whose followers were called "Villistas." The Villistas rampaged through town, torching businesses and houses and scaring the heck out of the several hundred town residents, mostly made up of US garrisons. The raid lasted until just after daylight when Villa's men retreated back into Mexico. Though the US media would focus on the eight soldiers and ten civilians killed by the Villistas, Villa lost 100-200 of his men (exact estimates are hard to come by).

The Villistas stormed into town over this land
The Villa attack made instant headlines. Europe had been consumed by the throes of World War I for several years, but Americans had gone about their lives not worrying too much about the battles occurring thousands of miles away. The invasion by Villa left Americans shaken and pondering the very real specter of war. For the first time since the War of 1812, a foreign power had attacked the US within its own borders. War-mongers in the US demanded swift and just revenge on Pancho Villa, whose followers a few months before had killed American engineers working in Mexico. One newspaper owned by the infamous William Randolph Hearst wrote, "We are too proud to fight. Why even a little, despicable, contemptible bandit nation like Mexico murders our citizens, drags our flags in the dirt and spits and defies this nation of ours with truculent insolence." Hearst, it should be noted, had property located in Chihuahua, the part of Mexico that Villa controlled.

President Woodrow Wilson had campaigned on a platform to keep the US out of war, but with Germany shooting down US ships, he had been preparing for the US' entry into World War I. He wanted to avoid at all costs a confrontation with Mexico. But the day after Villa's raid, he ordered 5,000 calvary troops to go into Mexico and capture Villa. Their leader was to be General "Black Jack" Pershing, whose experience included working to kill revolutionaries in the Philippines.

Bye-bye horses. Here come the tanks
Eleven months later, the "Punitive Expedition" withdrew, unable to locate Villa (they walked past his cave hideout once) and arousing the resentment of the Mexican people for encroaching on their territory. What the US did gain was invaluable training for their soldiers who would be put to an even more severe test in WWI. General Pershing would later command the Allied forces. The Punitive Expedition signaled the end for the US Cavalry. Technology had changed the nature of warfare. The Expedition was the first time that airplanes were used for military strikes. Mules and horses were becoming obsolete to make way for gas-powered tanks and vehicles.

Though his attack on Columbus may have permanently weakened his power, it made a legend out of Pancho Villa on both sides of the border. He's alternately hated and loved, admired and despised. To some, he was an outlaw bandit (the equivalent to what we term a "terrorist" today). To others, he was an inspiring hero for the Mexican masses for daring to challenge the powerful "gringos." At some point, he had been praised and supported by Wilson, Hollywood movies, and both liberals and conservatives in the US. So what made him turn against his former allies? Why did he hatch his harebrained plot to invade a town known for its "mud, shacks, and rattlesnakes"? It's a question shrouded in mystery. As I arrived in Columbus -- the tiniest town I have ever seen in my life -- every person I talked to seemed to have a different theory on why Pancho did what he did. The more I learned, the more I realized just how confusing and convoluted foreign politics is.

The old railroad station which was attacked is now the town museum
Theory #1: The attack was a German conspiracy!
Germany did not want the US to become involved in WWI. They had previously tried to destabilize the Mexican government by offering $10,000,000 to a few Mexicans to engineer an overthrow of the government. When that didn't happen, an arms buyer for Villa suggested to the Germans that they should use him to create a war with the US to divert US attention from Europe. The Germans were delighted with Villa's raid, and he may have been encouraged by the promise of German aid, but there's no evidence suggesting that the Germans funded his project.


New Years' resolution: Stop leaving myself behindů

Theory #2: The attack was a US business conspiracy!
Now why would American companies want to instigate a war on their own country? This is difficult to sort out, but I'll try. US businesses slobbered over Mexico's natural resources and the fact that "Mexico was an almost virgin outlet for extension of the market of our overproducing civilization" as the Chicago Tribune put it. The Mexican Revolution which started in 1910 and would see the demise of three Mexican presidents, was in many ways a reaction to the fact that most of their economy was foreign-owned. Americans owned 85% of the mines and much of the oil, railroad and timber industries. Even though Villa wanted to redistribute land from the wealthy to give to the poor, he also took care to not offend the US businesses in his region by not taxing them or seizing their assets. He did not support movements like the International Workers of the World (IWW) or Mexican labor unions. This made him popular with US businessmen while his Robin Hood rhetoric made him appealing to US liberals, though some did criticize him as a "tool for Wall Street."

Wilson expressed admiration for Villa. He wanted someone to modernize and democratize Mexico, but not touch US interests, to stabilize the country without furthering revolutionary potential. Sounds a lot like how the US tried to blunt and cut off the challenge of socialism during this time by instituting progressive "reform." The US had watched the Mexican Revolution with a wary eye. Their pattern was to lend support to a dictator and then help to overthrow him whenever he did something to harm American companies, like collect taxes. Certain American businessmen wanted a full-scale occupation of Mexico instead of leaving their investments up to the whims of Mexican politicians. As this conspiracy tale tells the story, by hiring Villa to invade the US, US companies hoped to force Wilson into a massive intervention in Mexico and thus protect their big-money interests. No evidence exists that any American businessman paid off Villa.

Villista bullets are still visible inside this original hotel building
Theory #3: Villa was simply a power-hungry opportunist who wanted to rule Mexico and did not care about any outside foreign concerns except as they affected his situation.
The US had decided to support Villa's rival, Venustiano Carranza during a critical battle in Sonora, Mexico. After recognizing the Carranza government, Villa became enraged at what he deemed betrayal from the Americans who used to supply his weapons. This theory, which seems to make the most sense, believes that Villa attacked the US for purely domestic reasons. He wanted to provoke the US into occupying Mexico so that Mexicans would be united against the US and hopefully weaken the Carranza government who he accused of selling out Mexican interests to the Americans. In some ways, he did succeed. Wilson and Carranza came incredibly close to declaring war until Wilson chose to concentrate on Europe.

As the Punitive Expedition withdrew from Mexico, America learned that Arthur Zimmerman, the German Foreign minister, had sent a telegram to the Mexican government proposing an alliance between the two countries against the US. Germany offered to give New Mexico, Texas and Arizona back to Mexico in exchange for the partnership. The telegram, intercepted by British intelligence, outraged Americans and was one of the decisive factors for the US' entry into WWI. Pancho Villa's exploits, while never forgotten, receded into the background, but not in Columbus, New Mexico. Villa's name can still be seen everywhere, a worthy reminder of how war can hit too close to home.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - Speak your mind and go to prison?
Neda - Anarchy and chaos in the USA!
Nick - The long road to world peace
Irene - When war intrudes upon love and health