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The Forgotten Peace

Michael Small


Michael Small

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1In the late summer of 1993, I was studying Spanish in Cuernavaca in preparation for a diplomatic assignment to the Canadian Embassy in Mexico City. While reading a general history of the Mexican Revolution by a British writer, Ronald Atkins, I came across a single paragraph that mentioned that after four years of upheaval there was an unsuccessful attempt in the summer of 1914 by three South American powers, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, to mediate an end to Woodrow Wilson’s attempt to influence the course of the Revolution by military intervention. A peace conference was convened between the United States and Mexico by these three mediating powers and the location chosen was Niagara Falls, Ontario.

2I had never heard of this event and I wondered what the contemporary citizens of Niagara Falls would have made of it. Indeed, over the next three years, while I was involved with Canada’s rapidly expanding political relationship with Mexico in the post-NAFTA era, I never heard or read another reference to this unusual early chapter in Canada’s relations with Mexico. Nevertheless, this intriguing fact remained stuck in my memory.

3Ten years later I was granted the privilege of spending a year as a Fellow of Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. One of the obligations of being a Fellow is to produce a Fellow’s paper on any subject of interest to the author. After discarding a few contemporary topics, I decided to try to discover what I could in the stacks of Harvard’s magnificent Widener Library about the seemingly forgotten Niagara Falls Peace Conference of 1914. What I found was that, while the conference had been covered in passing in various works of scholarship written during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s dealing with American intervention in the Mexican Revolution, only one monograph had ever been devoted to the subject, written in Spanish by a scholar attached to the Chilean Academy of Diplomatic Relations in 1967. No full-length treatment of the conference had been written in English since 1914. As for Canadian secondary sources covering this event, there were none.

4What follows is my attempt to retell the story of the Niagara Falls Peace Conference, using contemporary Canadian and American newspapers, American, British and Mexican diplomatic archives, and all the secondary sources from North and South America that I could find in Widener Library. I also discovered a remarkable scrapbook of newspaper clippings and cartoons about the conference collected by the Argentine mediator which added a contemporary visual dimension to the record. I have tried to use my diplomatic training to piece together the story from the inside, keeping one eye on the envoys at the conference, who were committed to finding a just peace, while keeping another eye on the principals in the conflict, for whom the conference was but a proxy for securing victory by other means.

5The story itself is a case study of the limits of third-party mediation, which should speak to aspiring modern mediators. More intriguingly, it casts some light from history on topics of intense current debate, such as the rights and wrongs of military intervention to restore democracy in a country under dictatorship, and the unexpected consequences that such interventions can generate.

6Finally, for Canadian readers the story of this conference fills in a forgotten chapter in our relations with the United States and Mexico. It should spark some reflections on our current place in the world, since no peace effort quite like it has ever been attempted, before or since, on Canadian soil.

7I would like to thank the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade for granting me the opportunity to do this research while serving as a Fellow at Harvard University from 2003 to 2004. I would also like to thank the Fellows Program of the Weatherhead Center at Harvard, notably the Fellow’s Program Director, Kathleen Molony, and the former Director of the Weatherhead Center, Professor Jorge Dominguez, for all the support they gave me while I was a Fellow at the Center, and for their helpful comments on the paper after I submitted it. I would also like to thank the research assistant provided by the Weatherhead Center, Jackie Shull, then a Harvard College senior, who gave me invaluable assistance in tracking down obscure key sources, in particular the archives of images on microfilm. The original draft has subsequently benefited from the encouragement and advice of Professor Robert Bothwell of the University of Toronto. This study would never have been published without the constant support for the project by the University of Ottawa Press. I would like to thank all those who have worked on it at the Press, in particular my editor, Alex Anderson. The judgments contained in this book represent entirely my own personal views and do not reflect the views or positions of the Government of Canada.

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 2009

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