Gateway to the Classics: The Story of Mexico by Charles Morris
The Story of Mexico by  Charles Morris

Insult to the Flag of the United States

The policy of "watchful waiting" adopted by the President of the United States in regard to the belligerent conditions existing in Mexico came to a sudden and striking end on April 9, 1914, on which date an event occurred which obliged President Wilson to adopt a new and more warlike policy. There had been various assaults upon and injuries to Americans and American interests in Mexico since the struggle began, but none of these were of a nature for which it was easy to fix the responsibility. The incident which precipitated a crisis was the following:

On Thursday, the 9th of April, a boat-load of men from the U. S. Dispatch-boat Dolphin, under Assistant Paymaster Charles C. Copp, landed at the port of Tampico for the purpose of obtaining a supply of gasoline. The Dolphin  was one of the vessels under the command of Rear-Admiral Mayo, whose duties included protection of American interests in the oil fields of Tampico.

Although, as is definitely asserted, the boat carried the United States flag, the men were arrested by Colonel Hinojosa, an officer in charge of a detachment of Federal soldiers. They were paraded through the streets of Tampico, subjected to taunts and revilements by hostile Mexicans, but were turned back by a superior officer before reaching the police station. When tidings of this outrage were brought to Admiral Mayo he at once sent the following demand to General Zaragoza, in command of the Mexican forces at Tampico:


Rear-Admiral Henry T. Mayo, was in command of the United States warships at Tampico when the insult to the flag occurred. His prompt demand for a fitting apology, was sustained by president Wilson and made the voice of the nation.

"This morning an officer and squad of men of the Mexican military forces arrested and marched through the streets of Tampico a commissioned officer of the United States Navy, the paymaster of the Dolphin, together with seven men composing the crew of the whaleboat of the Dolphin. At the time of this arrest the officer and the men were unarmed and engaged in loading cases of gasoline which had been purchased on shore. Part of these men were on the shore, but all, including the man or men in the boat, were forced to accompany armed Mexican forces.

"I do not need to tell you that taking men from a boat flying the United States flag is a hostile act not to be excused. I have already received your verbal message of regret that this event has happened and your statement that it was committed by an ignorant officer.

"The responsibility for hostile acts cannot be avoided by the plea of ignorance. In view of the publicity of this occurrence I must require that you send by suitable members of your staff formal disavowal and apology for the act, together with your assurance that the officer responsible for it will receive severe punishment. Also that you publicly hoist the United States flag in a prominent position on shore and salute it with twenty-one guns. Salute will be returned from this ship.

"Your answer to this communication should reach me and the called-for salute be fired within twenty-four hours from 6 p.m. of this date."

The men were released by General Zaragosa, and Provisional President Huerta, who had been informed of the event, sent an apology to Nelson O'Shaughnessy, the American Charge-d'Affaires. He declined to order a salute, saying that adequate reparation had been made without it.


12-inch guns that backed up or demands for respect for the American flag. These guns weigh 56 tons, the projectile weighs 870 pounds, and is fired by a charge of 340 pounds of smokeless powder.

When news of this event reached Washington, it found the American government unwilling to accept Huerta's easy solution of the difficulty. President Wilson, who was absent from Washington, hastened thither and called a meeting of the cabinet which promptly decided to sustain Admiral Mayo in his demand for a salute. At the same time, as an object lesson to Huerta, orders were sent to Rear-Admiral Badger, commander of the Atlantic fleet, to set out at once for Tampico with the vessels in readiness to move. These consisted of the battleships Arkansas—flagship—the Vermont, New Jersey  and New Hampshire, at Hampton Roads; the Michigan, at Philadelphia; the Louisiana, at New York, and the South Carolina, then steaming southward, with several cruisers and other craft. By the 15th this powerful squadron was speeding over the Atlantic waves like a flight of war-eagles sent to compel reparation for the outrage.


A Gun Crew on battleship Arkansas at Vera Cruz. The nine men of this gun's crew are seen placing the steel armor-piercing projectile cartridge in the breech of a 5-inch gun.

The insults calling for action were not alone the affair at Tampico. This had been followed by the arrest and imprisonment of an orderly at Vera Cruz, sent ashore in uniform for the ship's mail and with the official mail bag on his back. More serious still was an act of the officials of the telegraph office in Mexico City, who had presumed to hold up a dispatch from the United States government to Charge O'Shaughnessy. These and other offences "against the rights and dignity of the United States" were given by the administration as reasons for the warlike step taken.

The time limit for firing the salute to the American flag fixed by Admiral Mayo had necessarily been extended when the matter was referred to President Huerta, whose hasty decision that the incident called for nothing further than a verbal apology was far from satisfactory to the United States. The swift dispatch of the fleet had the effect of changing the opinion of the Mexican dictator, and on the 16th the American government was notified by a message from O'Shaughnessy that Huerta was prepared to comply with the demand that a national salute of twenty-one guns should be fired as a reparation for the indignity at Tampico. It was understood that this salute, in accordance with international custom, should be returned by an American warship. President Wilson was asked if the firing of the salute would end the Tampico incident. "Why, of course," he replied, in a tone of surprise at the question. But it was well understood that a return of the salute would not indicate a recognition of the Huerta government. On that point the President remained firm. It was contended at the White House that ample precedents established that recognition of a government could be given only through affirmative action, and was not to be construed as conveyed by any mere incident. A statement was was issued by the Navy Department upon the subject of salutes which read as follows:


The first American martyrs at Vera Cruz. Full-lenth figures: William Poinsett (right), the first man to die for the flag; Charles Donaldson Cameron (left). In circles: Frederick Nanz (upper-left); Danial A. Haggerty (upper-right); Edward A. Ginsburne (lower-left); John Place (lower-right).

"If a national salute is fired as an 'amende honorable,' it is invariably returned gun for gun by a vessel-of-war of the Power whose flag has thus been saluted. This is in accordance with international comity, and there are many precedents to establish the custom."

Under the customary practice, it was necessary in this instance to raise the "Stars and Stripes" at the mainmast of a Mexican warship, on a Mexican fort, or in some other conspicuous place fixed by agreement, while the return salute would be fired by an American warship, with the Mexican national flag flying at its masthead. The usual method was that the salute should be replied to gun for gun in succession, and the general impression was that such a course would be followed in this instance. Such was the view of the case taken by Provisional President Huerta, who in consequence demanded that the salutes should be "simultaneous," that is, that both salutes should be fired at the same time, gun following gun, on each side.

This position taken by Huerta opened the question again. President Wilson definitely refused it, declaring that the entire twenty-one guns must be fired on the part of Mexico before a return shot was fired by the United States. A simultaneous salute would, in the opinion of the President, rob the apology of any value.

Meanwhile, the warships under Admiral Badger were steaming at top speed toward Vera Cruz; while those already in Mexican waters were kept in readiness for instant action if it should become requisite. Both in Mexico and the United States a high state of tension existed and the clouds of war seemed gathering darkly in the national skies. But whatever the view in Mexico, war was not wanted in the United States if it could in any honorable way be avoided.

"I hope and pray that there will be no war," said Naval Secretary Daniels. "That is also the feeling of the President. The Monroe Doctrine must be upheld and the United States stands ready to insist that full reparation be made for any insult to the American flag. The government is only enforcing the measures necessary to maintain its rights in this situation and there will be no backdown once the President and his Cabinet have made a decided move on anything involved in the present issue.


Bird's-eye view of the city of Vera Cruz. This gives an idea of the difficulties which the men from the American fleet encountered in clearing out sharpshooters who fired from the roofs.

It may well be the case that President Wilson rather welcomed the incident as a means of escape from the impasse in which his policy of "watchful waiting" had landed 'him. The do-nothing policy adopted by him had met with so many sneering comments, and with such vigorous demands both at home and in Europe that intervention of some kind should be adopted, as to indicate, that the position in which he had placed himself was weak and untenable, and the opportunity to take a more decided stand upon the Mexican situation may have been rather agreeable to him than otherwise, as relieving him from the policy of inactivity.

On the other hand, Huerta may have welcomed the same opportunity to change the state of affairs. His attitude towards the United States had so far been aggressive and uncompromising. War was in his breath and in that of many of his counsellors. He was not unaware that the foundation under his feet was wavering and that any signs of weakness in his attitude might turn the people against him and hurl him from his seat. On the other hand, a defiant attitude j towards the United States would be hailed with acclaim by a large body of militants in Mexico. Defiance would bring the belligerent Mexicans to his support, weakness would probably turn the great body of the people against him. Yet there was the alternative of war with the great power of the United States, a war that could not fail to end in disaster to his cause. The dilemma before him was a difficult one and his hesitation between the two alternatives was natural under the circumstances.

At all events the Mexican dictator was bent on making the best available bargain for himself, and his agreement on April 16th to salute the flag was followed by a change of attitude on the 19th. He now declared that there had been no insult to the flag, that there had been no flag flying on the boat from which the sailors were taken, and that the simple apology made was sufficient reparation for the arrest. He was willing that both flags should be saluted, the American flag first and the Mexican flag afterwards, but this arrangement must be made by a protocol signed by the American Chargé-d'Affaires and the Mexican Foreign Minister.

Such an act would have been practically equivalent to a recognition of Huerta as President, and the American government refused to' permit its representative to sign such a protocol, demanding an unconditional salute from Mexico. The Foreign Minister Rojas replied:

"Mexico has yielded as much as her dignity will permit. Mexico trusts to the fair-mindedness and spirit of justice of the American people."

The position, as it finally stood, was the following: President Wilson, weary of the vacillation of his opponent, had sent a definite demand that, the required salute should be fired by 6 o'clock, Mexico City time (7.36, Washington time), on the evening of the 19th. Huerta declared that the protocol demanded by him should first be signed, and that this should permit him to make a formal statement that no offense against the United States had been committed by the arrest of the American officer and enlisted men, the salute of the Mexican government being given merely as an act of grace to satisfy the sensitiveness of the United States. Unless this was done no salute would be fired.

This note from Provisional President Huerta had not been received when the evening of the 19th approached, and the authorities at Washington waited with some excitement to learn what the Mexican ruler would do. Direct telegraphic communication with Mexico City was established and a telephone wire was open from the White House to White Sulphur Springs, where President Wilson then was.

The hour fixed upon passed and no word was received, it being nearly 10 o'clock before definite information came from Mr. O'Shaughnessy to the effect that the salute had not been fired and that the Mexican government refused to accede to President Wilson's conditions.

To use a homely phrase, the "fat was now all in the fire." That evening excitement in Washington ran high. The executive offices of the White House were a blaze of light; hundreds of people waited outside for news as to whether peace or war was in the air, and the waiting rooms were crowded with newspaper men. When the news filtered out to the street it became known that all hope of accommodation was at an end. President Wilson's ultimatum stood that unless the salute was given the ports of Vera Cruz and Tampico would be seized and if necessary a blockade of all the Mexican ports would be instituted. Such an action, while falling short of a declaration of war, might easily lead to actual hostilities. It was Wilson's purpose, if his ultimatum was not complied with, to go before Congress and ask for authority from that body to use all the force necessary to uphold the dignity of the Nation. That Congress stood ready to sustain him in this was beyond doubt.

On Monday, April 20th, President Wilson, who had hurried back to Washington on being informed of the critical state of affairs, made his appearance on the floor of the House, where his presence was greeted with unbounded applause. That he would find that body ready to endorse his views was highly evident. A warlike spirit pervaded the chamber, and little time was lost in passing a resolution giving the President full authority to act, the vote in its favor being 337 to 37. It ran as follows:

Resolved, by the Senate and House of Representatives in Congress assembled: That the President of the United States is justified in the employment of the armed forces of the United States to enforce the demands upon Victoriano Huerta for unequivocal amends to the Government of the United States for indignities committed against this Government by General Huerta and his representatives.

The Senate, before which body the matter next came, was more deliberate in its action. Before it acted, indeed, orders had been telegraphed to the Naval Commander at Vera Cruz and a landing, attended with the death of some of those engaged in it, had been effected. An act significant of possible war, with all its attendant horrors, was thus taken while the Senate was deliberating as to the proper course to pursue. Proceedings in the Senate opened with the submission by Senator Lodge of a resolution more general in character, and which he supported by a speech in which he called attention to the murder of Americans on Mexican soil, demanding that Carranza and Villa, the leaders in the revolt, should be held equally culpable with Huerta and that any action taken by the United States should include the leaders on both sides in the Mexican outbreak.

Speeches, some supporting, some criticising the action and attitude of President Wilson, followed, the most significant and effective of them being one made by Senator Root in the night session of the 21st. The news of the landing of the marines and the fact that a number of these had fallen dead and wounded was now widely known, and the galleries were crowded with excited listeners, while the dignified Senators' themselves could not repress signs of similar intensity of interest as the able orator painted the situation in telling and dramatic sentences.

Yet the resolution of Senator Lodge, though thus ably supported, did not appeal to the Senate as a body, it being deemed unwise and uncalled for to extend the demand for reparation beyond the immediate matter in question. This is the form of the resolution as finally adopted by a vote of 72 to 13, and almost unanimously accepted by the House:

Resolved, by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States in Congress assembled: That the President is justified in the employment of the armed forces of the United States to enforce his demand for unequivocal amends for certain affronts and indignities committed against the United States. Be it further

Resolved, That the United States disclaims any hostility to the Mexican people or any purpose to make war upon Mexico.

The subject of dispute was thus limited to the specific instances of affront mentioned, especially to the incident at Tampico. The name of Huerta was omitted from the resolution, perhaps to avoid anything that would be considered an endorsement of his legitimacy. Meanwhile, however, the matter had passed beyond the immediate cause of dispute, American soldiers and sailors were in possession of Mexican soil, and a state of affairs existed of which no one could predict the ultimate issue.


Forward fighting top of the American battleship Michigan, from which the fire of the big guns is directed.

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