Intelligence Throughout History: Woodrow Wilson and the Mexican Revolution
The Intelligence Community today draws wisdom and inspiration from the past. The following article is the third in a series showcasing exceptional intelligence stories from history. This article focuses on how President Woodrow Wilson gathered and used intelligence during the Mexican Revolution.
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Two weeks before Woodrow Wilson became president of the United States, Mexico's Gen. Victoriano Huerta overthrew his country's elected president, Francisco Madero. Wilson was concerned because he feared that foreign policy issues might distract from domestic reform measures he wanted to pass through Congress. In fact, during the period 1913-15, Mexico was one of Wilson's main foreign policy concerns, and after June 1914 it was second only to the war in Europe.
Throughout this period, Wilson struggled not only with forming a policy toward Mexico but more with learning what was happening in Mexico's revolution. Wilson did not believe he could trust his primary source of information, the Department of State. Instead of relying on diplomatic reporting, Wilson pulled together a network of formal and informal sources to observe and report on events.
Wilson's efforts to collect information about Mexico's revolution illustrate some of the difficulties presidents faced when gathering intelligence before a more formal intelligence-gathering structure was established with the Coordinator of Information in 1941.
Intelligence Collection in the 1900s
In the early 1900s, the means to collect intelligence were limited. Today’s advanced technology used to gather imagery and intercept phone calls and communications weren’t readily available at the time. Instead, Wilson had to rely on simpler sources of information, including:
- Reports from U.S. diplomats and businessmen in Mexico City
However, these sources presented many conflicting perspectives of the situation in Mexico. As a result, President Wilson became very suspicious of these sources.
Presented with conflicting information, Wilson looked for more reliable sources. First he turned to a reporter, William Bayard Hale, who wrote for the progressive journal World's Work. Hale’s assignment was to tour the Latin America states and report back to Wilson.
Hale reached Mexico City on May 24. He sent his first report to the President Wilson on June 18, 1913. His conclusions confirmed Wilson's worst fears. President Madero was overthrown in a coup begun by those opposed to his reforms. To make matters worse, Huerta acted only because he had the active support of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. On the basis of Hale's reports, President Wilson recalled the ambassador in mid-July 1913.
In August 1913, Hale was joined by John Lind, a former governor of Minnesota and member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Wilson had instructed Lind to press Huerta's government to stop fighting in Mexico and hold a free election in which all parties could participate. In return, the United States promised to recognize the newly elected government. The Huerta regime met with Lind but refused to accede to Wilson's demands.
Wilson's Analytical Method
Wilson used the information he received from Hale, Lind, and other assigned reporters to search for consistent elements and to eliminate his own uncertainties about which Mexican revolutionary faction to support. He believed that pieces of truth would fit together as a whole. The trick was to tease the facts from the propaganda and lies in a rudimentary form of content analysis.
Other Intelligence Sources
To a lesser extent, Wilson also received intelligence using photography and by tapping telephone lines.
Imagery was limited to ground photography used as tactical intelligence for the military.
Signals intelligence (SIGINT) played an important part, but it was largely a counterintelligence tool, used to monitor the activities of foreign intelligence services in the United States. It was limited at the time to tapping telephone lines and telegraph cables, and intercepting wireless radio communications.
SIGINT turned out to be especially useful in the spring of 1915 in preventing Huerta's return to Mexico from exile in Spain, to which he had fled in July 1914. The Germans, eager to embroil the United States in a war with Mexico, courted Huerta.
Treasury Secretary William McAdoo's men tapped German and Austrian diplomatic telephones in Washington and New York and relayed the reports to Wilson. These reports focused more on the activities of German and Austrian diplomats and their possible complicity in sabotage in the United States than they did on Mexico, but they did include information about German plotting in Mexico.
By June 24, 1915, mistakenly thinking he had shaken pursuers, Huerta boarded a train in New York bound for San Francisco, switching later to one for El Paso. At the same time, Villa's representative in Washington reported to the Wilson administration that numerous former Huertista officers were on their way to El Paso from places of exile in the United States. The next day, United States marshals arrested Huerta as he stepped from his train in Newman, Texas, only a few miles from the border. Supporters waiting in a car to drive him across the border were also arrested.
SIGINT thus provided "actionable" information about Huerta's plotting just as Hale's HUMINT had given the president the information he needed to dismiss a U.S. ambassador.
Wishing for More Information
Until late 1915 the information Wilson was receiving could not help him come to a conclusion. In all likelihood, Wilson's ambivalence was also influenced by the efforts of those vying for power in Mexico. Huerta had considerable support in the United States, especially among business leaders, but Wilson's negative opinion of Huerta was firmly set.
Because Wilson insisted on concrete information before acting, he was frustrated by the lack of definitive reporting. Wilson's frustration with the lack of actionable intelligence is neither hard to understand nor uncommon to presidents. To be fair to Wilson's sources, it was not until 1915 that any faction in Mexico gained enough dominance to legitimately earn U.S. recognition.
Lack of definitive judgments on Wilson's part reflected the lack of a stable reality on the ground. By late summer 1915, however, it was clear that Carranza led the most powerful revolutionary faction, and, in October 1915, Wilson extended recognition to Carranza's government.
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