Jack London in Veracruz

Part 11 can be read here if you missed it...

Jack London was one of the most prolific and popular writers of the early 20th century with his short stories and novels (The Call of the Wild and White Fang among his most popular) still revered to this day.  An article London wrote from Veracruz during the occupation described the tenor of U.S.-Mexico relations at the time. This is one of those posts that has no direct connection to either Carl Wanderer or the Ragged Stranger other than the fact that the state of diplomatic relations at the time led Wanderer to being stationed in Veracruz. Jack London's article is rather long but there is an excellent counterpoint made at the end of this post by an ex-governor of Veracruz. Over 100 years later, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The article below was originally Published in Colliers' magazine in May, 1914.  It has been condensed for space and clarity. The full text can be read here.

Mexico's Army and Ours

By Jack London

What our army and navy is was splendidly demonstrated when our bluejackets marched aboard their ships before our drawn-up soldiers while Admiral Fletcher transferred the command of Vera Cruz…the river of men flowed on and on, sailors and marines, officers, bands, hospital squads, and moving banners, sun-tanned men of the Arkansas, the Florida, the Utah, the San Francisco, the New Hampshire, the South Carolina, the Vermont, the Chester, and the New Jersey, all without a hitch or halt, and disappeared…  But out at the dock end, besides the tugs, was a flotilla of launches and cutters that received those thousands as fast as they arrived and carried them at a single trip to the battleships lying in the inner and outer harbors.

A great throng of Mexicans, numbers of them without a doubt having sniped our sailors during the first days, looked on this display of what manner of men we send to war. The haste and advertisement with which they doffed their hats to the Stars and Stripes was absurd and laughable.

One cannot but imagine what the situation would be like were it reversed—were Vera Cruz populated by Americans and in the possession of a Mexican army. First of all, our jefe politico, or mayor, would have been taken out and shot against a wall. Against walls all over the city our soldiers and civilians would have been lined up and shot. Our jails would have been emptied of criminals, who would be made soldiers and looters. No American's life would be safe, especially if he were known to possess any money. Law, save for harshest military law, such as has been meted out by conquerors since the human world began, would have ceased. So would all business have ceased. He who possessed food would hide it, and there would be hungry women and children.

Quite the contrary has been our occupation of Vera Cruz. To the amazement of the Mexicans, there was no general slaughter against blank walls. Instead of turning the prisoners loose, their numbers were added to. Every riotous and disorderly citizen, every sneak thief and petty offender, was marched to the city prison the moment he displayed activity.

The graft which all business men suffered at the hands of their own officials immediately ceased. Never in their lives had their property been so safe and so profitable. Incidentally, the diseases that stalk at the heels of war did not stalk. On the contrary, Vera Cruz was cleaned and disinfected as it had never been in all its history.

In short, American occupation gave Vera Cruz a bull market in health, order, and business. Mexican paper money appreciated. Prices rose. Profits soared. Verily, the Vera Cruzans will long remember this being conquered by the Americans, and yearn for the blissful day when the Americans will conquer them again.

Surely, if the peon soldiers of Mexico could have been brought down to witness what manner of soldiers and equipment was ours, there would have been such a rush for the brush that ten years would not have seen the last of them dug out of their hiding places

Whenever a peon of dream and passion and vision and spirit was born he was eliminated. His masters wanted lowly, docile, stupid slaves, and resented such a variation. He accepts it as the system of life. It is a very sad world, but it is the only world he knows. This is why he is not altogether a coward in battle.

Now I am not altogether a coward. I have everbeen guilty on occasion of taking a chance. And yet I am frank to say that I would not dream of taking a chance on the flat roofs of Vera Cruz against thousands of American soldiers and a fleet of battleships with an effective range of five thousand yards.

Vera Cruz, Mexico, 1914.

Vera Cruz, Mexico, 1914.

 

Vera Cruz, Mexico, 1914.

Vera Cruz, Mexico, 1914.

But this was the very chance many a peon soldier took. He sniped our men from the roofs in the fond hope that he could kill a man and escape being killed himself. Also, he was stupid in that he did not realize how little chance he had. Nevertheless, and on top of it all, he was not afraid.  Now this is a deed too risky for my nerve or for the nerve of any intelligent man. But I insist that these Mexican soldiers were stupid enough voluntarily to take the chance.

From this another conclusion may be drawn, namely, that the sorry soldier of Mexico is not altogether amiable and is prone to be nasty and dangerous to the American boys who have crossed the sea to take "peaceable" possession of a customhouse.

I saw the leg of a peon soldier amputated. It was a perfectly good leg, all except for a few inches of bone near the thigh which had been shattered to countless fragments by a wobbling, high-velocity American bullet. And as I gazed at that leg, limp yet with life, being carried out of the operating room, and realized that this was what men did to men in the twentieth century after Christ, I found myself in accord of sentiment with the peon: it is a sad world, a sad world!

It is a sad world wherein the millions of the stupid lowly are compelled to toil and moil at the making of all manner of commodities that can be and are on occasion destroyed in an instant by the hot breath of war.

This is the problem to-day for the big brother to the nations of the New World. Oh, make no mistake! The big brother's hands are not clean, nor is his history immaculate. But his hands are as clean and his history is as immaculate as are the hands and histories of the other nations in the thick of transition from barbarism and savagery.

The Mexican peon residing in the United States at the present time—and there are many thousands of him—is far better treated than are his brothers south of the border.  Never mind what his legal status may be or is alleged to be. The fact is, the peon of Mexico, so far as liberty and a share in the happiness produced by his toil is concerned, is as much a slave as he ever was.

It is an established right for society to step in between a man and his horse, but it is still abhorrent for a nation to step in between a handful of rulers and their millions of mismanaged and ill-treated subjects. Yet such interference is logically the duty of the United States as the big brother of the countries of the New World.

And here in Mexico the United States has stepped in… on the immediate pretext of a failure in formal courtesy about a flag. But why not have done with fooling?

 

The American flag being raised over Vera Cruz, Mexico.

The American flag being raised over Vera Cruz, Mexico.

 

From the May 23, 1914 Collier's weekly. The U.S. flag raised over Vera Cruz, Mexico.

From the May 23, 1914 Collier's weekly. The U.S. flag raised over Vera Cruz, Mexico.

 

The exotic civilization introduced by America and Europe is being destroyed by the madness of a handful of rulers who do not know how to rule, who have never successfully ruled, and whose orgies at ruling have been and are similar to those indulged in by drunken miners sowing the floors of barrooms with their fortunate gold dust.

Collier's.

Mexico's army...

 

And ours...

And Ours...

The big brother can police, organize, and manage Mexico. The so-called leaders of Mexico cannot. And the lives and happiness of a few million peons, as well as of many millions yet to be born, are at stake.

The policeman stops a man from beating his wife. The humane officer stops a man from beating his horse. May not a powerful and self-alleged enlightened nation stop a handful of inefficient and incapable rulers from making a shambles and a desert of a fair land wherein are all the natural resources of a high and happy civilization?

At loggerheads with Jack London’s thoughts was an interview with ex-Veracruz Governor Don Teodore Dehesa printed in the Washington Herald on July 4th, 1914.  With rumors swirling that Huerta would be toppled out of power any day, Dehesa, was sought out by the American press for his views.

Don Teodore Dehesa is Vera Cruz’s great man.  He was governor of the state for eighteen years.  He is rich, cultured, and to him repair the doubtful for advice on business and on politics- particularly on politics, though the dignified ex-governor will tell you that he has retired from politics and has only an onlooker’s interest in the passage of events.

More than once when the distracted country has been putting its favorite conundrum, “Who can hold down the lid when Huerta drops out?” there has been a mention of the grave old-time governor, under whose domain Vera Cruz remained steady, prosperous, and at peace, though all the rest of the county revolted and rioted- but Don Teodoro will tell you that is idle talk- that he aspires to no such lofty post in the settlement of his country’s difficulties.  In another country this big eagle-beaked ex-governor could not have escaped being the “sage of Cinco de Mayor Street.

“What do you see ahead for Mexico?” was the first question put to him.

“Peace,” he replied.  “What else is there for anybody to look forward to?”

“And how is that peace brought about?”

“By the efforts of the best of her own people.  Mexico is no more difficult to govern than any other nation.  We have turbulent classes, and we have more than our share of people who have no education, but the ideals of Mexicans who are thoughtful enough to have ideals, are those of every other civilized race on earth.  We are unfortunate in that a man of egotism has seized the head of the government; the people cannot rest under such a ruler- neither will they be any more content under some soldier of fortune who seizes his power.  Such a situation has confronted many nations, and it always has been settled the same way- when it has been settled without scandalizing the world.  The time will bring forward the man- a man whose principles are honesty and justice, who is firm enough to suppress the factions whose interest lie in exploitation, but who proceeds without thought of personal vengeance or personal interest- who is competent to deal with the situation.”

“Then you think Mexico is capable of being pacified without intervention?”

“Intervention; what call has your nation to intervene in the affairs of mine?  A pacification of conquest has no place in the mind of a modern nation.”

“Hasn’t a nation a right and a duty to protect its own citizens from murder and exploitation?  Mexico has not been able to protect Americans.”

“There have been comparatively few such outrages.  In a country where revolution is rife there will always be some affliction of foreigners by bandits.  Even in peace time you have had your own anti-Italian and anti-Japanese riots.  As to the more recent hardships suffered by Americans, the arresting and imprisoning of correspondents and others, please bear in mind that your troops have landed on our soil- that you hold our principal port.  Suppose the autonomy of the United States was threatened by a great power that seized and held the port of New York, would the subjects of such a power be very popular with you?  You ask me about plans of regenerating this country; the statesmen and the soldiers can only make a beginning; it is the schools that will finally solve all Mexico’s problems- and we require no American assistance to accomplish that destiny, thank you.”

Oh, that looks safe. Sign me up.

Oh, that looks safe. Sign me up.

 

Part 13 coming Wednesday, July 11 - Carl Wanderer, Somewhere in France

 

This blog aims to fill in the gaps where there is unknown, correct false narratives that have branched away from the truth, and most importantly, to entertain and enlighten. It has been sourced from research for my upcoming book Kisses for Julia, Bullets for Ruth: The Mystery of Carl Wanderer & the Ragged Stranger.

 

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