Individual executive agents, John Lind, for example, have often been the subject of historical studies, but the collective study of a number of such persons has been limited. Larry D. Hill has thus taken a unique approach to the study of United States-Mexican relations during the Wilson administration: the special agents assigned to Mexico by the President and Secretary of State.
Hill diligently followed the historical trail of ten formally accredited executive agents, as well as several unofficial agents. His problem was not easy: to tell the story of the agents within the context of the Mexican Revolution and United States-Mexican relations.
After setting the stage, Hill begins with Wilson’s first agent, William Bayard Hale, and then recounts the exploits of the other agents: Reginaldo F. Del Valle, John Lind, George C. Carothers, León J. Canova, John R. Silliman, Paul Fuller, Duval West, David Lawrence, and John W. Belt. He also included Hubert L. Hall, who attempted to act as a special agent to the Zapatistas without Washington’s blessings.
For the most part, the agents were a heterogeneous lot, whose selection was based on their friendship with President Wilson or William Jennings Bryan, or because of their loyalty to the Democratic Party. About half of them did not speak Spanish, knew nothing about Mexico, and had little or no diplomatic experience.
The executive agents delivered the presidential messages—which often took the form of ultimatums or thinly veiled threats—and relayed to Washington the reaction of the contending leaders and factions. They reported on conditions in Mexico and recommended courses of action which in their opinion would resolve the outstanding problems of Mexico internally and externally. The President usually accepted only the advice which agreed with his own predilections and generally ignored the recommendations which did not. Since Wilson had no clear-cut game plan, except to eliminate Victoriano Huerta, U.S. policy vascillated. This frequently led to a change in executive agents.
In general, there was no coordination among the agents to avoid misunderstandings and factionalism. Each agent dealt almost exclusively with one Mexican leader or another: Huerta, Carranza, or Villa. Zapata was virtually ignored. The agents usurped the functions of the regular diplomatic officials, who, with few exceptions, played no role in the negotiations between the agents and the Mexicans. The Mexicans did not appreciate U.S. meddling in their internal affairs, and the agents often bore the brunt of the criticisms directed against the U.S. Except for the Carothers-Villa relationship, the agents exercised limited influence on the Mexican leaders and on the outcome of the revolution.
Hill has done a fine job of fitting the pieces together. The story is well researched and well written. Hill evaluates the agents and the results of their missions throughout the book; but a concluding chapter incorporating an overall evaluation of each agent, and a general critique summarizing the individual’s success or failure, would have been desirable to this reviewer. Although their comments can be anticipated, it would also have been interesting to have had the views of several of the foreign diplomats, especially the British and German ministers, concerning the agents. The book is a must for outside reading in courses in U.S. diplomatic history and for the history of Mexico. It is a welcomed addition to the literature on Wilson’s Mexican adventure.