If your average person on the street overheard a brief mention of the "Great Revolution" in Mexico (perhaps when I'm talking about it myself), they might assume that we're talking about the war of independence from Spain (with Mexico's independence declared in the year 1810). But when most Mexicans speak of the "Great Revolution," they are referring to a revolution against their own government in Mexico, in the year 1910 - almost an exact century after their declaration of independence from Spain. It was a turbulent period, even by the standards of politics in Latin America; but it was one of the most important periods in Mexican history as well, and merits the attention of American history buffs who want to understand our southern neighbor.
Leaders of the Mexican revolt of 1910
Surprisingly, this historical subject caught the attention of some filmmakers at American PBS, who decided to make a documentary about it called "The Storm That Swept Mexico." (Because it was made for an American network, it is in English; and when it interviews people speaking Spanish, it uses English subtitles for its largely Gringo audience from north of the border.) It's not a very well-known film, even by PBS standards; but its quality is a lot higher than you might expect after hearing this. Because the revolution it depicts began in the year 1910, there exists actual footage from the time of its chosen subject - silent footage, it is true, but footage just the same - allowing them to make a pretty decent documentary about their subject, without a large budget for re-enactments. The silent footage from the time allows their film's visuals a primacy that even the best re-enactments would have difficulty achieving. (This is probably what allowed them to make the film in the first place, because it could thus be shot on the cheap; reducing the necessary funding for the project, and making their chances of getting that funding that much greater.)
Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States for much of this period
It's a pretty good film, and its subject has more importance for Gringos than one might think. Events in Mexico always have great importance for the United States (particularly where I live, in the American Southwest); and this particular one had consequences north of the American border on more than one occasion. Take, for example, the Pancho Villa expedition, where then-president Woodrow Wilson sent American troops south of the border to look for Pancho Villa; in retaliation for his troops' notorious raid on the town of Columbus, New Mexico (long a part of the United States). Depending on which side of the revolution you were on, the American intervention was a welcome thing or a major nuisance; and it was soon abandoned by President Wilson after it failed to capture Pancho Villa. While Europeans were busy fighting each other in World War One, the attention of the United States was turned south to its border with Mexico; and Americans were worried more about the revolution in Mexico than the war in Europe.
But the war in Europe still had an enormous influence on both the United States and Mexico. As much as both countries tried to ignore it, they could not avoid being affected by the situation in Germany. Although the Germans cared little about Mexico in and of itself, they worried greatly about keeping the United States out of their war in Europe; and hoped that the unstable situation in Mexico would keep the Americans' attention focused southward. Thus, they sent money and weapons to Mexico's Huerta faction; an action which infuriated the United States. There was some actual skirmishing between American troops and the Huerta faction at the Mexican port of Veracruz, related to the Germans' sending money and weapons there. Due to another incident that month, the port was already being occupied by American troops - an occupation which continued for six months after that - and it added to a growing alarm that Americans were feeling over the Revolution.
Arthur Zimmermann, German foreign secretary to Mexico
Most notorious, though - and most significant for both sides of the border - was the event history knows as the "Zimmermann Telegram." In brief, the incident involved a telegram from the German foreign secretary (the said "Mr. Zimmermann") to the government of Mexico; which encouraged them to make plans for a possible alliance with Germany, and an all-out war with the United States. Again, the Germans were motivated by a desire to keep the Americans neutral in their war in Europe; but unfortunately for them, their plan backfired when the telegram was intercepted by British intelligence, and delivered to the American government. The British knew the Americans would be infuriated by it, and had reason to hope America could enter the war on their side - and this, as it turns out, is exactly what happened. Far from getting us involved in a war with Mexico, the telegram helped get us involved in a war with Germany - exactly the outcome the Germans had been trying to prevent through their diplomacy in Mexico. I won't spend too much time criticizing the way the Germans handled it, as the flaws are only too obvious; but suffice it to say they didn't exactly cover themselves with glory here.
Zimmermann Telegram - as decoded and translated by British intelligence
I have focused here on the way these events affected the United States; but the Zimmermann Telegram was of great importance to Mexico as well. There was little chance of the United States getting involved in Mexico's Great Revolution, when their attention was squarely focused on the conflict elsewhere with Germany. Thus, most of Mexico had reason to relax when the Americans' might (and wrath) was focused on Europe instead. I should acknowledge that I am skipping over great swaths of the revolution's history (particularly those of internal importance to Mexico) - partly because I am trying to convince my American audience of the revolution's importance to them. But it is also partly because the factional (and other) politics are extremely complicated, even by Latin American standards. I should make note of the fact that this documentary actually covers the great swaths of history that I skip over, and fills in many of the gaps in my narrative here. If you want the full story of the "Great Revolution," you won't find it in any blog post out there with length comparable to this one; but you might find your curiosity satisfied by the documentary that I am reviewing here. It was a turbulent situation, and it was a turbulent time; and much of importance happened for both the Mexicans and the Americans.
In two hours of television, the documentary shows the actual silent footage from the time; something which will set it apart from any book (no matter how interesting) which lacks these recordings. You might not find the story very inspiring (or even very uplifting), but you will have an overview of the complicated history (and internal politics) of Mexico's "Great Revolution," and you will have a greater appreciation for the topic's true importance - both for North America; and for the world at large.
DVD at PBS website
If you liked this post, you might also like:
Woodrow Wilson movie
World War One miniseries
Russian Revolution 1917