Our Mexican Mistake


IN the last year and a half there has been considerable discussion of intervention by the United States in Mexico. It has been an intermittent discussion, arising according as developments in Mexico affected the interests of citizens of the United States. It has been, too, a rather passionate discussion, both in the press and otherwise — even more so, perhaps, than had been the case when, for example, in the years between 1913 and 1921 intervention was alleged to have been committed or to be inevitable. Regardless of their several interests and points of view, those persons in the United States who have publicly participated in this controversy have uniformly appeared to assume that it was some future act of intervention that was at issue. From no responsible quarter has there come the suggestion that a grave and unprecedented act of intervention had already taken place, not only seriously complicating the future relations between the two countries, but also establishing a precedent of great significance in the field of international policy. Even when the question of removing the embargo on the sale of arms arose, after the announcement that the United States would not extend the one-year ‘antismuggling’ treaty of March 18, 1926, it was still the shadow of some future act of intervention, or act tantamount to intervention (that is, the permission to export arms to revolutionists in Mexico), that those discussing the matter seemed to fear or to favor.

That such an act of intervention was carried out in the last days of 1923, that, despite specious argument to the contrary, it was a step grossly ultra vires, and that, in its departure from an important and long-established principle of our foreign policy, it has prejudiced our international good standing — these propositions seem not to have been realized by the majority of even well-informed persons and to have been judiciously overlooked, for a wide variety of reasons, by the few who comprehended the facts.

One of the first important acts of President Coolidge was the recognition, on September 3, 1923, of the administration of Alvaro Obregón as the government de jure of Mexico. Since the assassination of Venustiano Carranza in 1920 by men who were presumably bent on promoting the interests of Obregón, the Government of the United States had refused to recognize the Obregón régime as lawfully constituted and internationally acceptable; but at length a long series of negotiations, into the origin of which we need not enter, brought about a conference of plenipotentiaries of the two countries at Mexico City. The conference had terminated its three months’ work on August 15, 1923, by concluding general and special claims conventions tor the disposition of all pending disputes. With the granting of recognition, the situation that had existed prior to the overthrow of Porfirio Diaz may be said to have come again into existence — namely, normal international intercourse between two sovereign states, each exclusively responsible for the maintenance of law and order within its own jurisdiction. Yet four months did not elapse before the Government of the United States took it upon itself brusquely to upset this situation, by interfering directly in the internal affairs of Mexico, and assuming, in consequence, a share — indeed, a preponderant share — of the responsibility for the maintenance of law and order in that country!

This surprising development had a great number of antecedents which deserve the fullest exploration in the light of day, but to which only brief reference is necessary here. Shortly after the granting of recognition by President Coolidge, it became generally known that a serious quarrel had broken out between the principal candidates for the presidency in the campaign then in course. These candidates were Adolfo de la Huerta, the Secretary of Finance who had conducted the important negotiations at New York in 1921, preliminary to the refunding of the Mexican foreign debt, and Plutarco Elías Calles, likewise a cabinet officer of President Obregón, and therefore, in the absence of notice to the contrary, implicitly bound by all the engagements entered into by, or on behalf of, the Obregón administration in 1921-23. An open break developed rapidly, and within a few weeks both factions had taken the field. Although President Obregón supported General Calles, General de la Huerta enjoyed the support of sufficient military forces to begin early to get the better of his opponents. The military position and prospects of the Obregón-Calles faction became distinctly unfavorable, and in the early days of December the triumph of de la Huerta was already being anticipated by impartial European observers in Mexico,

Apparently it was only in December that the idea took root in certain quarters that intervention by the Government of the United States should be resorted to if the Obregón administration could be saved in no other way. The form which effective intervention might take appears to have been uncertain until late in the month, about which time there appeared in Washington Ramón Ross, who had been one of the Mexican plenipotentiaries in the conference with Messrs. Warren and Payne during the preceding summer. As soon as Ross had seen the Secretary of State, a series of conferences took place between the latter and the Secretary of War; both cabinet officers, as well as other persons interested, conferred with the President. On the morning of Sunday, December 30, 1923, it was announced that the President of Mexico had urgently requested that war material of the United States Government be made available to him, and that the request had been granted. The Secretary of State permitted himself to be quoted as follows: —

The Mexican Government has presented a request to this government to sell it a limited quantity of war material. This government has expressed its willingness to make the sale, in view of the relations between this government and the Mexican Government, which was formally recognized last September, and of the importance of the maintenance of stability and orderly constitutional procedure in the neighboring republic.

So lively appear to have been the expressions of protest on the part of the officers of the General Staff, and so unfavorable were the public criticisms by Senators and Congressmen of both parties, that the administration found it necessary on Monday morning to issue a more detailed and authoritative statement. In line with the silly practice of avoiding responsible quotation of the President that has grown up in recent years, this statement had to be carried by the press as having been ‘obtained in an informed quarter,’ as the New York Times of January 1, 1924, characterizes the declaration. That it was issued by the President himself — even though internal evidence indicates the authorship of Secretary Hughes — was obvious, and indeed, a few months later, was so stated by the Washington Star (May 3, 1924), when discussing a sale of arms to the Government of Cuba, where an insurrection was getting under way.

The statement of December 31 laid its emphasis on two points: first, that the Obregón administration had deserved well of the United States for its zeal in giving effect to the financial and political agreements of 192123; and secondly, that the sale of arms to Mexico was ‘in no sense a reversal of the policy regarding the sale of arms as announced by President Harding in his letter to the Secretary of War,’ of April 23, 1923. One of the most outspoken critics of the Obregón transaction, Congressman Fairchild of New York, had drawn attention to a letter which Mr. Harding had written in the preceding spring to the Secretary of War, in which the late President had said: —

Referring to your inquiry for advice relative to the sale of surplus arms and war supplies to proposed purchasers among foreign powers, I am writing to say that I hope that it will be the policy of the War Department not only to make no sales of war equipment to any foreign power, but that you will go further and make certain that public sales to our own citizens will be attended by proper guarantees that such supplies are not to be transferred to any foreign power.

For a few days it seemed as if Congress might seriously debate the merits of the transaction; and Mr. Fairchild indicated his intention to ask that Congress specifically adhere to the ‘Harding doctrine.’ But this prospect soon passed, for two reasons. In the first place, the measure was given the approval, expressed or tacit, of the leaders of organized labor, most of whom were deeply interested in the success of one of the battling factions in Mexico.1 In the second place, the effect of the sale was already decisive, long before the arms and ammunition could be delivered to the purchaser. It was quite evident that if the United States sold arms to one of the factions it would follow this step, if necessary, by sending troops to use them. The significance of the sale was immediately recognized in Mexico and in Europe. De la Huerta’s chances of securing foreign loans, supplies, or recognition of his belligerent status disappeared at once; even the morale of his military forces reflected the seriousness of the blow. From the day the sale was announced his was a lost cause.


In the second week of March, 1924, the War Department announced that it had sold 11 airplanes, 33 machine guns, 15,000 Enfield rifles, 5,000,000 rounds of ammunition, and other supplies to the Government of Mexico. On March 20, 1924, Senator Walsh of Montana presented a resolution calling upon the Secretary of War ‘to furnish the Senate with a statement of the particular statutory authorization by virtue of which he is reported to have sold’ arms and ammunition to the Government of Mexico, as well as information on a number of specific points, such as, for example, the precedents for the sale and an indication of the obsolescence of the material sold. This resolution was immediately passed by the Senate.

The Secretary of War replied in two communications dated March 31 and April 24, 1924, which, together with such exhibits as he saw fit to furnish, will be found in Senate Document 104, 68th Congress, 1st Session. The reply falls far short of the Senate’s request for information, failing, for example, to transmit any of the interdepartmental communications or copies of the instruments embodying agreements of sale, and like documents specifically requested in the resolution. After reciting the reasons advanced by the Secretary of State for the sale of arms, the Secretary of War went on to state that the question had been discussed in the Cabinet, which concluded that the Secretary of War possessed authorization to make the sale. The statutory authority for the sale was declared to exist in an army appropriation act of June 5, 1920, which reads as follows: —

That the Secretary of War be, and he is hereby, authorized, in his discretion, to sell to any State or foreign government with which the United States is at peace at the time of the passage of this act, upon such terms as he may deem expedient, any matériel, supplies, or equipment pertaining to the military establishment, except foodstuffs, as,2 or may hereafter be found to be surplus, which are not needed for military purposes and for which there is no adequate domestic market.

‘In view of the plain terms of this statute,’ wrote the Secretary of War, ‘I did not consider it necessary to ask for the formal opinion of my law officers or those of other departments, and none were furnished.’ Nevertheless, one of the enclosures is a long memorandum from the Judge-AdvocateGeneral, which recites all the opinions that had been given by his office subsequent to 1919 with respect to the sale of arms and ammunition to foreign governments. The memorandum sets forth at considerable length the situation that arose as a result of a limitation in an act of July 9, 1918 (40 Stat. 850), upon the sale of guns and ammunition ‘to any other department of the Government, or to any foreign State or Government, engaged in war against any Government with which the United States is at war.’ This limitation, it might be remarked in passing, had been a barrier in the way of the sale of arms and ammunition to Mexico in April 1919, when the Carranza administration was looking for supplies.

If we may summarize the documents submitted by the law officers of the War Department, and, indeed, the letter of the Secretary of State itself, it would appear that, with the exception of the special case of Cuba, there had not existed prior to July 9, 1918, any authorization for the alienation of government-owned arms and ammunition to any foreign governments; that, by virtue of that war measure, the Chief Executive was empowered to sell arms and ammunition acquired since April 6, 1917, provided that the purchasing foreign state or government was engaged in war against any government with which the United States was then at war; and that, by virtue of the Act of June 5, 1920, the Secretary of War was authorized to sell to any foreign government with which the United States was then at peace any matériel, supplies, or equipment pertaining to the military establishment as might then or subsequently be found to be surplus and not needed for military purposes.

It will be observed that the authorization of 1920 refers to matériel, supplies, and equipment which may be surplus or not needed for military purposes and not possessing an adequate domestic market. Let us first consider the adequacy of the domestic market. For Enfield rifles, and for ammunition and airplanes such as were sold to Mexico, there can hardly be said to have existed no adequate domestic market in 1923-24. Moreover, one would suppose that the Director of Sales of the War Department would have freely advertised such matériel for sale at about that time if he had had available stocks thereof. It may be, of course, that private correspondence or circulars were dispatched by the Department to prospective purchasers, but we are precluded from believing that such was the case because of the failure of the Secretary of War to submit copies of such documents when the Senate requested them. Whether or not the market existed, one may conclude that the Department had made no effort to determine its adequacy.

The question then arises whether the property sold to Mexico could be classified as not needed for military purposes and ‘surplus.’ If the country were at peace, presumably no readily replaceable military stores could be characterized as immediately necessary for military purposes; but as long as material had been acquired or manufactured for the use of the army and had not yet become obsolete, or even obsolescent, it would be presumed to be required for the military purposes for which the money expended upon it had been appropriated. In and out of Congress, between 1916 and 1921, there had been ample demonstration of the time required to produce highgrade rifles, machine guns, ammunition, and aircraft. Nor is the elastic term ‘surplus’ capable of being stretched indefinitely. It is true that during the years just after the Armistice the War Department had on hand far more supplies than it was likely to have occasion to use in the immediate future, but, as was the case with other departments of the federal government, a robust ambition to get rid of existing stocks and replace them with improved models had stimulated very considerably the estimation of ‘surpluses.’ The writer spent those years in the Treasury, and had frequent opportunity to observe this interesting phenomenon. In any event, the lists of inquiries received by the Department for arms, ammunition, and aircraft to be found at the end of the document we have been quoting indicate that inquiries for arms and munitions even subsequent to the Act of June 5, 1920, when emanating from countries this side of the Atlantic, had not been satisfied, with the exception of some negligible orders of Krag rifles for Nicaragua in 1921, of which we shall have more to say presently. On the other hand, it is rather significant that numerous requests by European governments, lately associated with the United States in the war, for rifles, machine guns, and other materials had to be rejected for lack of a surplus. On June 5, 1922, the Jugoslav Government, which had been able to buy several million dollars’ worth of such supplies in 1919, requested 500,000 Springfield and Enfield rifles, 500,000,000 cartridges, 4000 machine guns, and other substantial items. The notation in the list with the Secretary of War’s reply reads as follows: ‘No sale. No surplus available. Advised to arrange with manufacturers.’

One might go further and have a tenable basis for challenging the applicability of the act of June 5, 1920, to any sale of arms and munitions whatsoever to Mexico, regardless of the existence of bona fide surpluses. Only countries with which the United States was at peace on June 5, 1920, could be considered among possible purchasers. By the suspension of all diplomatic relations after the assassination of President Carranza, the short-lived restoration of normal relations between Mexico and the United States that had begun with President Wilson’s recognition of Carranza gave place to relations somewhat difficult to describe, but hardly in any case to be given the full content of a state of normal, peaceful intercourse such as the courts have had occasion to define in construing the effect of pre-war and post-war treaties with Germany. How many members of the Congress which granted the authorization to the Executive to sell surplus arms to countries with which we were at peace would have included in that category the unhappy neighbor just previously thrust once more into international quarantine by the shocking murder of its president?


The army officers who opposed the sales of arms to any of the factions in Mexico had correctly visualized the consequences of this transaction. They foresaw the use that would be made of the precedent by this, that, and the other Latin American group hoping to secure from Washington an official certification of the legitimacy of its claims. They realized, of course, that it was not the particular store of arms which the prospective buyers would want, since the material they desired could be bought much more easily and promptly from private manufacturers, but rather the moral support to their claims which the transaction would each time involve.

Small wonder, then, that the officials who had to bolster up the sale of arms went about their task with slight enthusiasm. When it came to giving precedents for the sale to the Mexican Government , the subordinates of the Secretary of War could find but one genuine case of a sale of arms by one government to another, wholly outside the purview of the authorization of 1918 of sales to cobelligerents and the special case of Cuba — namely, the sale of a hundred thousand rifles by the Imperial Arsenal of AustriaHungary to the Confederate States in 1861. The Secretary of War also referred to the sale of arms to the Kolchak Government of Russia in 1919, but inasmuch as Secretary Lansing’s letter cited by him specifically justifies this sale on the ground that the government represented in Washington by Ambassador Bakhmeteff was considered to be a cobelligerent of the United States and therefore entitled to enjoy the advantages of the act of July 9, 1918, the precedent simply did not exist. Reference was also made to a loan of ammunition by authorization of President Roosevelt in 1906 to a firm holding a contract with the Cuban Government; but this case was equally irrelevant, for it was admittedly based upon special legislation relating to Cuba, growing out of the Platt Amendment and Cuba’s clearly limited sovereignty.

As might have been foreseen, use was made of the Obregón-Calles precedent within a very short time. We have already referred to the sale of arms to the Government of Cuba in May 1924, and the reference to the transaction with General Obregon as its justification — an unconscious assimilation of Mexico’s status to that of Cuba. In the summer of 1924 several million dollars’ worth of arms and war material was sold to a faction in Honduras. Other instances might be cited, but it will perhaps be sufficient to close with a reference to the sale to the Government of Nicaragua in February 1927.

It is perhaps worth while to reproduce the statement issued by the Department of State to the press on March 23, 1927, concerning this transaction : —

The Nicaraguan Government has purchased from the United States War Department: 3000 Krag rifles; 200 Browning machine guns with accessories; and 3,000,000 rounds of ammunition, the total price being $217,718. The Nicaraguan Government gives notes in the sum of $5000 each up to the total of the purchase price. The notes mature monthly and bear interest at 6 per cent, the first note to be paid on January 31, 1929.

These are the same terms upon which rifles, machine guns, and ammunition were sold to the Nicaraguan Government by the United States War Department in November 1921, at which time the Nicaraguan Government purchased 10,000 Krag rifles with 6,000,000 rounds of ammunition and 50 machine guns with 1,000,000 rounds of ammunition, total price $170,585 with interest at 6 per cent payable in 33 notes of $5000 each and one note for the balance, the first note payable January 3, 1924. These notes have all been paid off.

These munitions were sold under a contract dated February 25, 1927, and have been shipped from the United States and are now in Nicaragua. They were represented by the Nicaraguan Government as being urgently needed to maintain law and order in the country and suppress revolutionary activities which not only threatened the Constitutional Government of Nicaragua but also the lives and property of Americans and other foreigners.

It will be recalled that a similar transaction was entered into early in 1924 with the Obregón Government in Mexico after its recognition by this Government and during the de la Huerta revolution. The War Department sold on credit to the Obregón Government arms and munitions of the value of approximately $1,250,000.

The reference in the second paragraph of this statement to the transaction of November 1921 might lead the reader to suppose — and was perhaps so intended — that the Chief Executive possessed the same authorization in 1927 that he had enjoyed in 1921 for sales of War Department property to foreign governments. But in 1921 there were still available supplies of arms and munitions manufactured during the war and available for sale under the terms of the act of 1918 to which we have referred; and Nicaragua was one of the countries associated with the United States in the war against Germany. The material sold in 1927, however, can hardly be classifiable as ‘surplus,’ if the annual reports of the Secretary of War in recent years as to the needs and requirements of the military establishment are to be believed. Whatever may have been the case in 1921 with regard to authorization under the act of 1918, it is asking too much of us to invite us, in the face of insistent demands on the part of the military authorities for appropriations with which to expand the resources at their disposal, to assume that there are now, or have recently been, any ‘surpluses’ available for sale under the act of 1920.

It is hardly possible to express too emphatically the regret that a student of our foreign policy must feel on reviewing the deplorable intervention in Mexico’s internal affairs at the beginning of 1924. It has given rise to a series of incidents in other countries, and it could conceivably have a profound bearing upon critical conditions at home in certain circumstances. That act of intervention not only complicated the situation in Mexico, — as those who sanctioned it and many who endorsed it were soon destined to find out, — but it also exposed the United States to an equivocal position in international discussions regarding every aspect of the problem of regulating the malodorous traffic in arms. The hypothesis may seem extreme, and yet, in effect, what else did the transaction signify than the transformation of the relations between Mexico and the United States from those between two sovereign states to those which obtain between a limited sovereignty and a state which furnishes the final sanctions — as, for example, Cuba and the United States? By its decisive intervention in the internal political affairs of Mexico at the end of 1923, our government consciously or otherwise assumed moral sponsorship for the validity of the acts of the administration it sought to reënforce. Will anyone seriously question the likelihood that, if the United States were not the great world power that it is, European governments, seeking to hold someone legally as well as morally responsible for the confiscation of Mexican property of their nationals, would have little difficulty in persuading an impartial tribunal of the full liability of paramount sovereignty?

The departure from our traditional policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries involved in this reprehensible transaction of 1923-24 is destined to have far worse consequences for this republic than the resale of the military equipment we sold to Obregón to a Nicaraguan faction friendly to Calles. How remote now seems the outlook of a Secretary of State, who could write, as Cass did to our Minister in Mexico in March 1859 (Moore’s Digest of International Law, par. 898), that, however great might be the sympathy of the people of the United States for the cause of the Liberal Party in Mexico, ‘our government cannot properly intervene in its behalf without violating a cardinal feature of our foreign policy.'

  1. Not all the labor leaders in Washington, however, were convinced of the sincerity of the Obregón-Calles faction’s professions of devotion to the workingman; and one man, perhaps the most thoughtful and perspicacious labor leader in this country at the time, told the writer later that his suspicion of what might lie behind the whole transaction was first aroused when an emissary of a cabinet officer in Washington not particularly distinguished for his labor sympathies paid him a friendly visit casually suggesting that a word in favor of this sale of arms might well be a helpful thing to come from the labor man.
  2. The omission of a verb (i.e., ‘are’ or ‘may be’) occurs in all prints of this act, (1) Public 251, 66th Congress, (2) C. 240, 41 Stat. 949, and (3) the United States Code (the restatement of all permanent legislation given force of law by the 69th Congress), title 10, par. 1262.