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The Forgotten Peace

Michael Small

Chapter 7. Failures and accomplishments

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  • 1 Statement of Mediators included in Minutes of Fourth Plenary Conference, attached to Dodge to Secr (...)
  • 2 For an explanation of the term BATNA in negotiation analysis, see Fisher and Ury (1991), pp. 97–10 (...)

1Why did the Niagara Falls Peace Conference fail? Among the many reasons, the most fundamental was stated by Robert Lansing before the conference even began: it was never really a mediation between countries, but a mediation between two factions in a civil war, and one of those factions never came to the table. All the parties that did come to Niagara Falls recognized at the outset that they had to talk about internal political issues and the composition of a new provisional government to replace Huerta. As the mediators declared in their statement to the final plenary session: “The internal question of Mexico constitutes an essential difficulty in the way of a full solution of the conflict pending with the United States of America. We understood so when we extended our good offices toward the peaceful settlement of this conflict.”1 Carranza understood this perfectly well too, but, in the terminology of contemporary negotiation analysis, the Constitutionalists always had a better BATNA, a “best alternative to a negotiated agreement.”2 As long as they retained good prospects of being able to defeat Huerta in combat and pacify Mexico on their own terms, they had no incentive to come to the table.

2The three A.B.C. powers had no leverage with either side in the mediation. The United States, the one power that had considerable means to reduce the value of Carranza’s BATNA, never chose to exercise its leverage. As the mediators themselves pointed out to the United States, an even-handed, vigorous arms embargo would have seriously reduced the Constitutionalists’ ability to fight, and could well have forced them to accept an armistice and a negotiated solution. However, Wilson and Bryan in this instance preferred to give war a chance, on the theory that complete victory for the Constitutionalists was both inevitable and desirable for long-term stability. There is something chilling in the way these two prophets of peace were prepared to accept that (in Bryan’s words) “settlement by civil war carried to its bitter conclusion is a terrible thing, but it must come now whether we wish it or not.” What they did not expect was that the civil war would continue in different forms for another five years after the defeat of Huerta.

3At the same time, the mediators themselves got too caught up in the dignity of their role and their insistence on an armistice as the price of admission to the mediation. If they were truly interested in mediating a resolution of the conflict, rather than defending a foreign policy principle, they should have explored the option of dropping this requirement. We will never know what would have happened had they been prepared to let a representative of the Constitutionalists take a seat at the table without this precondition. Huerta’s delegates might have walked out, but they probably would have stayed. Carranza’s delegates would most likely have stalled for time, to see if they could continue to make gains on the battlefield. The most fascinating sidebar to the mediation, the one between the United States and the Constitutionalists, would have suddenly moved into full view of the other protagonists at the conference, instead of being conducted through sporadic, confidential conversations in Washington and Buffalo. With the Constitutionalists in the room, there would have been no need for the United States to speak on their behalf. The United States would have been obliged to shift ground and might have been forced to start defending its own contribution to the conflict in Mexico.

4In the absence of the Constitutionalists, the U.S. delegation tried to play two roles at the same time: as representatives of the United States and as advocates for the Constitutionalists. Their posture, as outsiders acting like insiders, disillusioned the increasingly independent Mexican delegates, who thought that the United States should support a balanced political settlement. It also frustrated the mediators, who wanted the United States to constrain the Constitutionalists and help in bringing them to the table. Ultimately, it confused the U.S. delegates themselves, who broke with instructions and recommended to Bryan that they dump Carranza and try to reach a political agreement with those Mexican delegates present in Niagara who were prepared to negotiate. Unfortunately, this recommendation missed the whole purpose of the mediation from Bryan and Wilson’s perspective, which was to increase the United States’ political engagement with, and ultimately its influence over, Carranza.

5Once it became evident that Huerta’s delegates were not going to agree at the table to an unconditional surrender, and that the Constitutionalists were not prepared to let the United States continue to represent them, the possibility of mediating the internal conflict at Niagara Falls disappeared. The mediators quickly narrowed the agenda to the international issues, the United States reverted to representing only its own interests, and the conference rapidly reached an inconsequential conclusion. Since Huerta and his regime were quickly going out of business, the United States had no interest in making any commitments at Niagara Falls on the only international issue in which it had any real stake: namely, the continued occupation of Veracruz. Nor did the mediators oblige the U.S. delegates to do so. Hence, the final protocol signed at the conference had no relevance for the future course of the Mexican Revolution. Once it had been signed, no one on the ground seems to have referred to it ever again.

6What then, if anything, did the A.B.C. offer of mediation accomplish? The view widely held and expressed in the American press at the time was that it at least prevented the United States from going to war against Mexico. If this was true, it would have been no small accomplishment. However, this view assumes that Wilson was willing to risk a full-scale war in Mexico. Wilson frequently denied that this was ever his intention, but he made the same declarations before he suddenly ordered the U.S. Navy to occupy Veracruz. Evidently, at this stage in his presidency, Wilson was prepared to use military force, but only in limited ways, to alter the internal balance of power within Mexico. When the occupation of Veracruz backfired politically, he immediately reversed course. The only circumstances that would have likely pushed him into ordering a full-scale invasion would have been much stiffer Mexican resistance in Veracruz and massacres of U.S. civilians in Mexico, leading to a domestic outcry for a full-scale intervention. This did not happen in 1914. It did happen in 1916, when Pancho Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico, and killed nineteen U.S. citizens. Wilson was forced by public opinion to order the Army into Mexico on a punitive expedition against Villa. U.S. troops found themselves fighting an enemy armed with weapons that their government had tried to embargo two years earlier.

  • 3 Wilson, Address before Southern Commercial Congress, Mobile, Alabama, October 27, 1913, in Shaw, e (...)

7What the A.B.C. offer undoubtedly accomplished for Wilson was to calm the war fears at home after the occupation of Veracruz and save the reputation of the United States across Latin America. The protocol signed at the end of the conference helped both in securing this public relations dividend and in obscuring the fact that the United States was still in Veracruz. For those American observers who were inclined to be positive about the outcome, the protocol was significant for three reasons. First, the United States dropped its original insistence on a salute to the flag. Second, it declared no interest in any war indemnity. Third, although the United States made no commitments as to when its forces would leave Veracruz, neither did it try to use the protocol to justify their continued presence there. It was understood by all to be a temporary measure, not a permanent annexation. Thus, the protocol confirmed that a new approach was driving U.S. policy in Latin America, one less concerned with traditional matters of national honour, territorial annexation, or even defending the special privileges of U.S. property-owners. This was consistent with the vision for a new U.S. policy in the Americas that Wilson had outlined in a well-received speech in Mobile, Alabama, in the autumn of 1913. At Mobile, Wilson had declared that “it is a very perilous thing to determine the foreign policy of a nation in terms of material interests.” Instead, U.S. foreign policy would be concerned with “human rights, national integrity, and opportunity, as against material interests.”3 The moral contradictions of his policy towards Mexico would later be measured by its consistency with this higher standard. However, contemporary observers who were concerned with morality in international affairs were not inclined to look for contradictions in Wilson’s policies. They were sufficiently delighted that he had agreed to have the United States sign a peace protocol mediated by three other American republics.

  • 4 Guerrero Yoacham (1966), pp. 158–59.
  • 5 Speculation to this effect appeared in The Globe (Toronto) July 9, 1914, under the headline “An Am (...)
  • 6 Manger (1940), p. 32.
  • 7 Joint Resolution of Senate and House of Representatives, March 4, 1914, 38 Stat. 1228.

8In their own messages to each other after the conference, the Foreign Ministers of all three A.B.C. powers highlighted its importance as an example of what the three countries could accomplish by working together. All three believed that it had strengthened the bonds of solidarity and common action among the three most prominent South American republics.4 Given the past rivalries between Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, this was perceived as a significant accomplishment. There was even talk that they might form an “A.B.C. bloc” for future action.5 In May 1915, on the occasion of an official visit to Buenos Aires by the Brazilian and Chilean Foreign Ministers, the three countries signed an “A.B.C. Peace Treaty” in which they pledged that they would seek to preserve peace and would refrain from war until all controversies had first been referred to an impartial commission. This trilateral treaty was modelled on Bryan’s bilateral peace treaties, which mandated a “cooling-off period” for international disputes. Two months later da Gama, Naón, and Suárez Mujica signed with Bryan bilateral peace treaties between each of their countries at a joint ceremony in Washington.6 In 1915 the U.S. Congress recognized their work as mediators by awarding the three envoys its highest honour, the Congressional Gold Medal, “for their generous services as mediators in the controversy between the Government of the United States of America and the leaders of the warring parties in the Republic of Mexico.”7 (To put this distinction in perspective, the next time Congress awarded a Gold Medal it was to Charles Lindbergh in 1928.)

  • 8 New York Times, June 26, 1914.

9An additional legacy of the Niagara Falls Conference was to inspire hope that a new day had arrived in the conduct of inter-American affairs. “Pan-Americanism Now a Reality,” trumpeted the New York Times at the conclusion of the conference.8 The symbolism of having three South American countries mediate a dispute between the two North American republics was a powerful inspiration to the advocates of a Pan-American approach to the resolution of both internal and international conflicts. The clearest exposition of this view was given by James Slayden, a Democratic Congressman from Texas and a prominent Pan-Americanist, in “The A.B.C. Mediation,” an article he published in 1915 in the American Journal of International Law. After first making the point that the mediation had at least made the belligerents in Mexico “realize that other countries were not indifferent to conditions in that republic,” Slayden went on to argue that:

  • 9 Slayden (1915), 151–52.

The second and by far the greatest value of the Niagara conference is the precedent it made. It points the way to the settlement of similar troubles in the future. It may, I think, be regarded as the beginning of a Pan-American policy for the quieting of internal troubles and international disputes between the republics on this continent.
The proof it gave to the suspicious and doubtful citizens of the twenty Spanish and Portuguese-speaking republics that the people and Government of the United States contemplate no assault on their sovereignty and territory, sufficed in itself to lift the mediation out of the class of failures. It did not accomplish all that some believed it would, or all that some of us hoped it might; but, in spite of the jeers of unsympathetic newspaper wits and the scorn of militarists, it did enough to establish a policy. Hereafter when any American country gives itself over to anarchy, those governments that prefer order to disorder, following the precedent of the “A.B.C.” mediation, can jointly intervene to command the peace.9

10The promise of collective action that Slayden saw in the A.B.C. mediation was not realized in the following decades, but the vision he sketched out in 1915 prefigures the agreements reached since 1991 to strengthen the defence of democracy as a cornerstone of hemispheric security.


1 Statement of Mediators included in Minutes of Fourth Plenary Conference, attached to Dodge to Secretary of State, Niagara Falls, N.Y., June 25, 1914, United States Department of State (1922), p. 547, File No. 812.00/12363.

2 For an explanation of the term BATNA in negotiation analysis, see Fisher and Ury (1991), pp. 97–102.

3 Wilson, Address before Southern Commercial Congress, Mobile, Alabama, October 27, 1913, in Shaw, ed. (1924), Vol. 1, p. 35.

4 Guerrero Yoacham (1966), pp. 158–59.

5 Speculation to this effect appeared in The Globe (Toronto) July 9, 1914, under the headline “An American Triple Alliance”.

6 Manger (1940), p. 32.

7 Joint Resolution of Senate and House of Representatives, March 4, 1914, 38 Stat. 1228.

8 New York Times, June 26, 1914.

9 Slayden (1915), 151–52.

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