Reports of armed Mexican outlaws crossing the border to clash with U.S. forces led to demands that the president send troops to protect American lives.
It sounds like a story ripped from this week’s headlines, when Texas sheriff’s deputies pursued marijuana smugglers protected by machine-gun wielding men in Mexican military uniforms.
So far, the White House is speaking of its “concern about the reports” of Monday’s border crossing, which a spokesman described as “an incident that is under investigation.” Yet in 1916, when Pancho Villa’s bandits raided Columbus, N.M., a Democratic president didn’t hesitate.
President Woodrow Wilson sent Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing to lead an expedition into Mexico. A $5,000 bounty was offered for Villa’s capture, and Army posters invoked “The Flag, Old Glory” in calling for 25,000 recruits: “Come on, boys, be ready to shoulder the trusty Springfield.”
There are important differences between the border situation that Wilson faced in 1916 and the situation facing President Bush this year, said Philip E. Koerper, professor of history at Jacksonville State University in Alabama.
“Pancho Villa — it was in the midst of a revolution,” he said. “This is just plain old smuggling.”
Though he sees no comparison to the 1916 Villa raid, Mr. Koerper said, that doesn’t mean the current border situation is not a threat to U.S. security.
“As long as you can have smugglers and refugees both crossing your border illegally, anybody could cross illegally, including al Qaeda,” he said.
Concerns about terrorists’ crossing the border indicate one parallel between this year and 1916 when, during World War I, many Americans suspected Mexico of harboring German agents and saboteurs. Indeed, an intercepted German message, the infamous “Zimmerman telegram,” proposing a German-Mexican alliance helped prompt Wilson to take the United States into war in 1917 — with its Army commanded by the general who had led the pursuit of Villa.
Yet the historic situation during Villa’s day was much different, said James Carafano, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
“Mexico back then didn’t have a strong central government,” said Mr. Carafano, who specializes in defense and homeland-security issues. “There was no rule of law. I don’t think you can compare that to Mexico today.
“There are security issues on the border … and there’s transnational criminal issues, whether you’re talking about drugs or guns or people. But I don’t think it’s analogous to” 1916.
A brilliant militia commander, Villa played a key role in the 1911 overthrow of the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. But in 1915, Wilson sided with Villa’s rival Venustiano Carranza — infuriating Villa, who retaliated against U.S. citizens in Mexico. Sixteen American mining engineers were slain in the Santa Isabel Massacre of January 1916.
Shortly before dawn on March 9, 1916, about 600 of Villa’s men swept down on Columbus. They soon were met by about 350 troops of the U.S. 13th Cavalry. Driven back by U.S. machine-gun fire, Villa lost more than 75 men in the raid, which left 17 Americans dead.
As in the current year — when reports of this week’s clash near El Paso focused press attention on a problem that long had concerned border residents — the press in 1916 reacted sharply to news of the Columbus raid.
The reaction was especially swift in the Los Angeles Times, historian Clayton E. Cramer has noted. Before Villa’s New Mexico incursion, the newspaper had described Villa as a “rebel leader.” After the Columbus raid, an editorial denounced him as an “outlawed Mexican bandit” and “the vilest kind of ruffian.”
The Wilson administration also acted swiftly. Thousands of U.S. troops poured into Columbus, and Gen. Pershing arrived from Fort Bliss, Texas, to take command.
The Mexican government at first was favorable to the U.S. attack on its enemy, Villa, but Carranza came to resent the U.S. presence, and soon Pershing’s troops were fighting both Villa’s rebels and regular Mexican troops.
The expedition “was a fiasco,” said Old West historian Roger McGrath.
Mexico offered “perfect defensive positions for Pancho Villa — he knew the country like the back of his hand,” Mr. McGrath said. The American campaign “was a logistical nightmare — no roads, no maps, no water.”
Villa eluded capture, and in early 1917 — as war loomed between the United States and Germany — Wilson recalled the Army.
Mr. Carafano, the Heritage analyst, said the outcome of Pershing’s 11-month expedition points to the problem of deploying the military to deal with the border issue — as many have called on Mr. Bush to do.
“After the Army left the border [in 1917], the problems came back and continued into the 1920s,” he said.