- Historic Sites
Black Jack’s Mexican Goose Chase
When Pancho Villa sacked an American town, Pershing was ordered to find him and bring him to book. But the orders failed to say where — or how
June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
Perhaps so, but Pershing would have the ardent cooperation of the Mexican Federal Army. Or would he? For suddenly Carranza had flown into another of his famous rages. It was true, he told Wilson, that they had agreed to permit each other to chase bandits across either side of the border, but this had nothing to do with the Columbus affair. It was not supposed to be retroactive. He demanded that Wilson pull Pershing back. U.S. reaction was as might be expected from people who were only trying to be co-operative. The New York American sneered: “Carranza is no more President of Mexico than he is Emperor of China.” A warning note was sounded by the World : “No complications with the Mexican Government need attend a punitive expedition, unless Carranza himself creates the complications.”
In time Wilson got the First Chief’s sullen consent to a temporary operation “for the sole purpose of capturing the bandit Villa.” Tempers were short all around. Then followed a nasty scandal in the States when it was learned that Villa’s agents were openly purchasing guns and ammunition from U.S. operators in El Paso. (“Business as usual,” one typical cartoon was captioned, showing shadowy figures trading over the border.) In Chihuahua, Pancho more than ever was the sentimental favorite of the peons, for now their hero was at war with both Carranza and the United States; and dolefully they crooned:
Bitterly the citizens of Columbus buried their dead, while the Mexicans who had been killed were thrown into a mass grave. In neighboring Texas, Governor Ferguson implored the President to seize Mexico if it took “ten or fifteen years to do it.” But concerning the menace to U.S. property there, the World opined, “Americans having interests in Mexico have backed the wrong horse. They put their money on an aristocracy instead of on democracy.” And the days slipped by angrily and excitedly, amid mounting suspicions that Pershing was getting no results.
General Funston, in command of the Mexican border at Fort Sam Houston, was directed by Newton D. Baker (our new Secretary of War and another devout pacifist until the moment of his appointment; Wilson and his Cabinet were apparently riddled with pacifism) “to make all practical use of the aeroplanes at San Antonio, Texas, for observation.” There were eight of them—the Provisional 1st Aero Squadron, composed of Jenny trainers—and Baker’s suggestion was sound, for Villa knew every inch of the hills, the forests, the ravines, the brushlands, the mountain passes, of northern Mexico. Without air-to-ground intelligence, Pershing’s chances of catching him were close to nil. Wilson was warned by Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane that a fiasco could make us a laughing stock among all Latin Americans. And suppose Villa did accept battle and resisted somewhat too successfully? To Cecil Spring-Rice, Britain’s ambassador to Washington, the thought was most distasteful, for such an event would further delay Uncle Sam’s entry in the European war; and nervously he cabled London: “A check might mean a general attack, and … a serious war.”
Ostensibly Carranza and Wilson were co-operating to put an end to Villa’s outrages. A cartoon in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, however, mordantly epitomized this relationship; it shows Mexico in the person of Carranza seated tensely in a chair, with a tiny apple labeled “Villa” on his head; Uncle Sam is aiming a rifle at the apple and saying, “STEADY, NOW!” Again and again we patiently explained that Pershing’s column was merely on police duty, to help Carranza rule Mexico competently. But scarcely had Pershing pierced the international boundary when Carranza once more became suspicious. When was Pershing going to get out? Why had there been no time limit on the agreement? Wilson placated him, but from Mexico City Carranza issued secret orders to his Federales in the north concerning actions to be taken if “Black Jack” should overplay his hand.