“Mexico is a land for the free and a tomb for thrones, crowns, and traitors,” wrote the Mexican revolutionary leader Francisco “Pancho” Villa just before launching an attack on the United States on March 9, 1916. Villa’s forces attacked Columbus, New Mexico and were repulsed with a loss of 90-100 men. Nearly two dozen Americans, military and civilian, died in the clash. For all the U.S.’s military invasions of Latin America countries over the decades, this has been the only Latin American military intervention into the U.S.
So what was Villa up to? Frederick Katz dismisses the notion that was once popular among Americans, that Villa was irrational or just plain loco. On the contrary: Villa had a very good reason, at least in his own mind. He believed there was a secret agreement between his enemy, Venustiano Carranza, and President Woodrow Wilson that sold Mexican sovereignty down the river.
There were, in fact, plots by the U.S. State Deparment, Mexican conservatives, and U.S. business interests to defeat the Mexican revolution, but this wasn’t the case this time. Villa, Katz, says was “right in his general suspicions, but wrong in his specific assumptions.” By attacking the U.S. and almost certainly “inviting possible reprisals, Villa hoped to create an insoluble dilemma for Carranza.” Villa wanted a U.S. response that would show that Carranza was a tool of the Americans, and so unite the various other Mexican factions against both Carranza and the U.S.
The U.S. military reprisal was certainly swift in coming: within a week of the Columbus attack a century ago, the American Army was inside Mexico. Up to ten thousand U.S. troops spent six months trying to catch Villa.
By eluding them, Villa become a symbol of resistance, but Katz argues that he “actually increased immeasurably the real threat to his country’s independence.” Yet the American mission failed to capture Villa–Katz calls it a military disaster–and convinced the U.S. that the option of occupying Mexico was simply out of the question.
Consider the year again: 1916. The U.S. was still officially neutral in World War 1, but it was supplying munitions to the Allies. The Germans were only too happy to see the U.S. distracted in Mexico, although Katz doesn’t think there was direct German involvement with Villa’s raid.
It can’t be easy living next door to a colossus of a country. Long-term Mexican strongman Porfirio Díaz is credited with exclaiming, “Poor Mexico! So far from God, so close to the United States!” In Mexico, Villa, who was assassinated in 1923, is still acknowledged as the one man who attacked the U.S. and got away with it.
The American Historical Review, Vol. 83, No. 1 (Feb., 1978), pp. 101-130
Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association