Karl Marx famously wrote that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” But some historical events combine elements of both. Just consider the Tampico Incident, which occurred ninety-nine years ago today.
The backdrop to the Tampico Incident was revolution in Mexico. In May 1911, longtime Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz was ousted from power by forces loyal to Francisco Madero, the scion of one of Mexico’s wealthiest families. Madero lacked the political skills needed to keep his coalition intact and his enemies at bay. In February 1913, he was forced to resign by General Victoriano Huerta and then subsequently murdered. Huerta made himself president, but before long, Mexico was embroiled in a civil war.
As April 1914 started, Huerta loyalists were defending Tampico against attacking revolutionary forces. The city, located some 250 miles south of Brownsville, Texas on the Gulf of Mexico, was packed with foreign citizens who had sought refuge from the fighting. Many of them were Americans who had moved to Tampico to work in the oil industry. In a bid to protect these U.S. citizens should it be necessary, several U.S. Navy ships anchored off the coast. And that’s when the trouble began.
On the morning of April 9, a small boat with nine unarmed sailors departed the USS Dolphin to conduct a mundane task: buy gasoline from a merchant at the port. Things did not go as planned, however. Unbeknownst to the Americans, the warehouse housing the gasoline was located in a spot that had been declared off-limits to foreigners. So once the sailors docked, they were arrested. It must have been quite a scene. In what could be a metaphor for U.S.-Mexican relations more broadly, the two sides didn’t understand each other. The American sailors spoke no Spanish, and the Mexican soldiers spoke no English.
News of the arrests quickly reached the soldiers’ commanding officer, Colonel Ramón Hinojosa. The last thing he needed was a confrontation with the U.S. Navy. He immediately ordered the American sailors released and returned to their boat. His quick action didn’t pay off. When his commander, General Ignacio Morelos Zaragoza learned of the incident, he had Hinojosa arrested for negligence. General Morelos Zaragoza offered his sincere apologies to an American emissary.
There the incident should have ended. But it didn’t. Admiral Henry Mayo, the commander of the U.S. naval forces, wanted more than an oral apology. He wanted to send a message that the U.S. Navy should not be trifled with. So later that day, he sent General Morelos Zaragoza a message stating that he had twenty-four hours to:
publicly hoist the American flag in a prominent position on shore and salute it with twenty-one guns.
Morelos Zaragoza found Mayo’s demand to be a bit much and refused. There the matter might have remained, except for one thing: U.S. president Woodrow Wilson was looking for an opportunity to push Huerta from power. The moralizing Wilson despised the Mexican president as despicable and cruel, and he had terminated U.S. diplomatic relations with Mexico City because he refused “to recognize a government of butchers.” (U.S. practice had been to recognize any government that effectively controlled its territory regardless of how it treated its citizens.) As Wilson told the British ambassador to the United States, “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men.”
So Wilson backed his thin-skinned admiral. The Mexicans offered a compromise—a simultaneous salute by both countries. Wilson rejected it. On April 18, he issued an ultimatum: Mexico would salute the American flag or suffer the consequences. Huerta refused. Three days later, 800 American sailors and marines landed at Veracruz, 240 miles southeast of Tampico, purportedly to stop an arms shipment but primarily to teach Huerta and Mexico a lesson. That invasion would leave nineteen Americans and several hundred Mexicans dead. It would also, temporarily at least, have an effect exactly opposite to the one Wilson intended. It strengthened rather than weakened Huerta.
What of the American citizens in Tampico? Once Wilson ordered the invasion of Veracruz, U.S. naval warships sailed south. The Americans in Tampico were left on their own to face the backlash from Mexicans angry at the attack on Verzcruz. They would eventually be relocated to Galveston, Texas—minus all of their belongings—by British and German warships that had also anchored off Tampico during the crisis.
Did Admiral Mayo ever get his twenty-one gun salute? No. At the Niagara Falls Peace Conference, which was mediated by diplomats from Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, the United States dropped its demand for an apology. That brought an end to one of the more lamentable episodes in American foreign policy.