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Volume 51, No. 4 (December 2007)

All the Brains I Can Borrow: Woodrow Wilson and Intelligence Gathering in Mexico, 1913-15

By Mark E. Benbow


A mere two weeks before Woodrow Wilson became president of the United States, Mexico’s Gen. Victoriano Huerta overthrew his country’s elected president, Francisco Madero, who would later be assassinated. Wilson was concerned because he feared that foreign policy issues might prove a distraction from the 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 fundamentally with learning what was happening in Mexico’s revolution. Wilson did not believe he could trust his usually primary source of information, the Department of State. Instead of relying on diplomatic reporting, Wilson cobbled together a network of formal and informal sources to observe and report on events.

In the process, Wilson’s efforts illustrate some of the difficulties presidents faced when gathering intelligence for policymaking before a more formal intelligence-gathering structure was established with the Coordinator of Information in 1941.

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