Primary Documents - The Tampico Incident, 20 April 1914

Henry Thomas Mayo Although not directly relevant to the First World War the so-called 'Tampico Incident' did play its part in subsequently antagonising U.S.-German relations in early 1917.

In short the Mexican regime under General Huerta harassed U.S. sailors stationed off Mexican waters in early 1914.  The nature of the discourtesy - the arrested sailors were paraded through the streets of Tampico - was such that Admiral Henry Mayo, commander of U.S. naval forces in the region, declined an initial Mexican apology for a verbal apology.

Instead Mayo demanded that the person or persons responsible for the incident be punished and that the U.S. flag be given a 21-gun salute on shore.  The Mexicans responded with a written apology and General Huerta similarly expressed his regret - but crucially the U.S. demand for a flag salute on Mexican soil was denied.

Thus on 20 April 1914 President Woodrow Wilson went to Congress and requested authorisation to use military force to produce the required form of Mexican contrition.  Wilson was concerned that Tampico merely comprised the latest in a series of such incidents.  Two days later Congress granted Wilson the authority he sought.

Click here to read additional background to the Tampico Incident which threatened for a period to bring the U.S. and Mexico into a state of war.  In the event Huerta was deposed from power and war was avoided.  Nevertheless a sense of Mexican ill-feeling remained.

It was this sense of Mexican grievance that the Germans preyed upon when Arthur Zimmermann sent the notorious Zimmermann Telegram in January 1917 in which Germany promised Mexico territorial gains from the U.S. were the former to launch a distracting war against America.  Britain's interception of the Zimmermann Telegram, and its consequent passing to the U.S. government, factored heavily in bringing about a U.S. declaration of war against Germany three months later in April 1917.

Reproduced below is President Wilson's address to Congress on 20 April 1914.

President Wilson's Address to Congress, 20 April 1914

Gentlemen of the Congress:

It is my duty to call to your attention to a situation which has arisen in our dealings with the General Victoriano Huerta at Mexico City which calls for action , and to ask your advice and cooperation in acting upon it.

On the 9th of April a paymaster of the U.S.S. Dolphin landed at the Iturbide Bridge landing at Tampico with a whaleboat and boats' crew to take off certain supplies needed by his ship , and while engaged in loading the boat was arrested by an officer and squad of men of the army of General Huerta.... Admiral Mayo regarded the arrest as so serious an affront that he was not satisfied with the flag of the United States be saluted with special ceremony by the military commander of the port.

The incident can not be regarded as a trivial one, especially as two of the men arrested were taken from the boat itself - that is to say, from the territory of the United States - but had it stood by itself it might have been attributed to the ignorance or arrogance of a single officer.  Unfortunately, it was not an isolated case.

A series of incidents have recently occurred which can not but create the impression that the representatives of General Huerta were willing to go out of their way to show disregard for the dignity and rights of this Government and felt perfectly safe in doing what they pleased, making free to show in many ways their irritation and contempt...

The manifest danger of such a situation was that such offences might grow from bad to worse until something happened of so gross and intolerable a sort as to lead directly and inevitably to armed conflict.  It was necessary that the apologies of General Huerta and his representatives should go much further, that they should be such as to attract the attention of the whole population to their significance, and such as to impress upon General Huerta himself the necessity of seeing to it that no further occasion for explanations and professed regrets should arise.

I, therefore, felt it my duty to sustain Admiral Mayo in the whole of his demand and to insist that the flag of the United States should be saluted in such a way as to indicate a new spirit and attitude on the part of the Huertistas.

Such a salute, General Huerta has refused and I have come to ask your approval and support in the course I now propose to pursue.  This Government can, I earnestly hope, in no circumstances be forced into war with the people of Mexico.  Mexico is torn by civil strife.  If we are to accept the tests of its own constitution, it has no government.  General Huerta has set his power up in the City of Mexico, such as it is, without right and by methods for which there can be no justification.

Only part of the country is under his control.  If armed conflict should unhappily come as a result of his attitude of personal resentment toward this Government, we should be fighting only General Huerta and those who adhere to him and give him their support, and our object would be only to restore to the people of the distracted Republic the opportunity to set up again their own laws and their own government.

But I earnestly hope that war is not now in question.  I believe I speak for the American people when I say that we do not desire to control in any degree the affairs of our sister Republic.  Our feeling for the people of Mexico is one of deep and genuine friendship, and every thing that we have so far done or refrained from doing has proceeded from our desire to help them, not to hinder or embarrass them.

We would not wish even to exercise the good offices of friendship without their welcome and consent.  The people of Mexico are entitled to settle their own domestic affairs in their own way, and we sincerely desire to respect their right.  The present situation need have none of the grave implications of interference if we deal with it promptly, firmly, and wisely.

No doubt I could do what is necessary the circumstances to enforce respect for our Government without recourse to the Congress, and yet not exceed my constitution powers as President; but I do not wish to a in a manner possibly of so grave consequence except in close conference and cooperation with both the Senate and House.

I, therefore l come to ask your approval that I should use the armed forces of the United States in such ways and to such an extent as may be necessary to obtain from General Huerta and adherents the fullest recognition of the rights and dignity of the United States, even admit the distressing conditions now unhappily obtaining in Mexico.

There can in what we do be no thought of aggression or of selfish aggrandizement.  We seek to maintain the dignity and authority of the United States only because we wish always to keep our great influence unimpaired for the uses of liberty, both in United States and wherever else it may employed for the benefit of mankind.

A howitzer is any short cannon that delivers its shells in a high trajectory. The word is derived from an old German word for "catapult".

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