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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
When finally he ordered his reluctant force across two hundred yards of open plain, he was killed almost instantly; so was his second in command, and so was the next lieutenant in line. Troop C’s left flank was turned. Troop K fell back. One machine gun was captured by the Negroes in a head-on rush. Many Americans were trapped, and what stunned the U.S. was not that ten of our men had been killed and ten wounded but that twenty-three had been captured. Worse yet, the defeat had been administered by Mexican regulars with whom we were supposedly in partnership. To North Americans, who generally assume that the presence of our troops on foreign soil is reassuring to the natives thereof, the incident proved what had long been suspected—that all “greasers” were treacherous, regardless of which army they belonged to.
Earlier, in a blistering 5,000-word note, President Carranza had demanded that all U.S. troops clear out of Mexico. To this Mr. Wilson wired back: “The United States cannot recede from its settled determination to maintain its national rights and perform its full duty in preventing further invasions …” Mr. Baker had then ordered the seizure of the international bridges over the Rio Grande. Somewhat alarmed, Carranza backed down, released the U.S. prisoners, and reiterated his intention of co-operating in the pursuit of the ineffable Villa. But who could any longer believe this frenetic jingo whose plain policy was to badger Uncle Sam so as to promote support for his feeble government?
Whatever it all meant politically, Pershing settled down to policing Chihuahua by districts, although it was not clear how this would chastise Villa or prevent further border raids—which, by the way, continued that summer. U.S. cavalrymen patrolled the countryside running centrally through the state (it was impossible to keep the mountains and desert under surveillance), became almost friendly with the peasants and landowners of the area, and awaited orders that would get them out of that godforsaken land.
Late in June Pershing retracted his expedition to 150 miles south of the border. Once he thought absent-mindedly of going home to his wife and family, and then with some pathos wrote a friend, “One never, never can get over it.” His command was now holding one rigid line from Columbus to Casas Grandes. That former town, once so somnolent, was his only supply depot and had become transformed into a frontier madhouse, as though gold (rather than death) had been struck on Main Street March 9. With nothing else to do, Pershing instituted a systematic training program. For seven months the Americans drilled on Mexican soil while Carranza boiled. “The hardest part of all,” observed Secretary of the Interior Lane, “is to convince a proud and obstinate people that they really need any help … that we do not want to take some of their territory …” The Mexican state of Sinaloa independently and with solemn formality declared war upon the United States. From Funston’s border headquarters came a call to the War Department for 65,000 additional National Guardsmen to stand off a possible invasion of Texas. Was the General serious?
U.S. newspapers screamed at Carranza for his “treachery,” while one cartoonist showed Uncle Sam facing Mexico with a rifle in his right hand and “civilization,” “education,” and “peace” in the other. The similarity to the Philippine insurrection was exact. But in Rio de Janeiro the Gazeta de Noticias noted: “The severity and contempt with which Washington looks upon the revolution of the neighboring countries are neither just nor Christian.” From the Pope in Rome emanated a plea to both sides to avoid war.
Wilson offered to arbitrate, whereupon a joint commission of Americans and Mexicans began talking in New London, Connecticut; Secretary Lane was chairman of the U.S. delegation. Months passed in bickering, and Lane was driven to assert that the impasse was all due to Mexico’s obstinate First Chief: “Carranza is obsessed with the idea that he is a real god and not a tin god, that he holds thunderbolts in his hands instead of confetti, and he won’t let us help him …” It was the same old story: these people preferred to operate in their own incompetent way; they didn’t seem to want to be helped; and Carranza kept insisting that we get out of Mexico once and for all, especially since any child could see that Pershing was never going to catch Villa. We were on the brink. If war should come, Theodore Roosevelt feverishly announced, he was ready to offer his private but nonexistent army of three brigades equipped with artillery, machine guns, and airplanes.
Came autumn, and a rumor that Pancho had organized a new army of 18,000 men. German small arms were reaching him via coffins and other absurd camouflage. Most of Pershing’s expedition (the “perishing expedition,” it was now being called) was encamped listlessly near Casas Grandes, fighting off swarms of flies and enduring high winds and dust storms, severe evening cold-snaps, and a morass of mud each time it rained. Recreationally there was nothing for the troops to do. And at last the Mexican-American commissioners came to conclusions which, one suspects, might have been reached at their first meeting. Pershing would withdraw. Normal diplomatic relations would be restored. U.S. troops would patrol the border, and the Mexican government would be held responsible for future raids on our soil.