The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Winter 1978, Volume 24, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor
Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor.
United States Customs and The Madero Revolution (Southwestern Studies No. 48). By Michael Dennis Carman. El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1976. 87pages.$3.00.
Reviewed by Jaime E. Rodriguez O., University of California, Irvine.
Michael Carman has written an interesting study of the role of the U.S. Customs Service during the Madero insurrection. The Customs Service, which had been organized to prevent smuggling, was ill equipped to cope with the revolutionaries. When Mexican insurgents sought arms in this country, the government of Porfirio Díaz asked for American assistance in controlling the rebels. The U.S. Customs Service was ordered to increase survailance along the border and to enforce neutrality laws. Although those statutes did not prohibit the purchase and shipment of arms and ammunition to Mexico, it was illegal to organize a revolution against a friendly government from American soil. In their attempt to control rebel action customs agents often failed to observe this distinction.
Carman studies the evolution of American policy toward Madero and his supporters. Initially there was widespread confusion as to the proper role of the Customs Service in a revolutionary situation. The Taft administration was friendly to the Díaz government because it was concerned with the safety of Americans in Mexico and because U.S. investments in that country were sizeable. Therefore the Customs Service was charged with keeping an eye on the rebels, preventing gun running, and generally enforcing the neutrality laws. When the task proved too great for the tiny Customs Service, army units were sent to help patrol the Texas-New Mexico border. As the Mexican Revolution progressed a large segment of the U.S. Army was mobilized and placed along the border to maintain order. Yet even that massive concentration of manpower could not prevent the rebels from smuggling weapons. The border was too long and the number of rebel sympathizers too great for a cordon sanitaire to succeed.
The longer the Díaz government took in crushing the insurrection, the more difficult it became for the U.S. to prevent the sale or shipment of arms to Mexico. American officials eventually allowed the weapons to flow through existing customs ports. In practical terms this meant that whenever rebels captured border towns with a custom port they could ship arms to Mexico openly. American policy toward the rebels, however, was never clear or consistent. Some officials did not permit the movement of arms through insurgent held ports. By the time the Taft administration resolved the confusion, Díaz had resigned and the first phase of the Mexican Revolution was over.
Carman’s monograph is well researched and clearly written. It originated as a Master’s Thesis in San Diego State University. The author maintains the high standards established by other San Diego scholars whose monographs have been published in this series. The work is a valuable contribution, but its impact is diminished because it lacks a clear thesis or a coherent interpretation. Carman’s study seems to suggest that the American government could not prevent determined revolutionaries from obtaining support for their activities in the United States. This raises important questions about the effectiveness of American policy. Did it have a significant impact on the Mexican Revolution as is often alleged? Was the border so fluid that the wishes of American presidents and American officials did not, for all practical purposes, matter? Unfortunately these and other questions are left unanswered, in part, because Carman’s monograph is too narrowly conceived. Although the Mexican Revolution did not end in May 1911 and although border problems continued during subsequent phases of the Revolution, the author ends his study abruptly and makes no attempt to place his findings in a broader perspective.