The Taft-Diaz meeting: the first U.S. Presidential visit to Mexico

Hier de subtitel

Since World War II, every American president has brought a state visit to Mexico. Such neighborly tradition, however, has a much longer history and it was inaugurated 105 years ago, on October 16, 1909, by President William Howard Taft. Taft’s meeting with Mexican President Porfirio Díaz did not only represent the first official state visit paid by a U.S. president to Mexico, but it also sparked a series of events that included a gigantic feast and even a failed assassination attempt.

Notwithstanding the increasing activism of the U.S. in Latin America and the launch of the Roosevelt’s Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, the relationship between the two countries was cordial. What led both of the presidents to the meeting, however, were internal political reasons: President Diaz, on the one hand, was under strong social pressures and was facing serious political upheavals led by Emiliano Zapata in the south and Francisco "Pancho" Villa in the north of the country. Accordingly, Diaz hoped to use the meeting as an instrument to show that he had the unconditional support from the U.S. On the other hand by backing Diaz, Taft was mainly interested in protecting the investments that American companies had spurred in Mexico. How big these investments were became more clear in 1912, when the American consul in Chihuahua, Marion Letcher, calculated American investments in Mexico to be $1,057,770,770,000. This overlapping interest made the meeting particularly interesting as regards its political contents. It was its formal shape, however, that attracted the interest and stirred the imagination of contemporaries.  

The RSC holdings help us to reconstruct the story of the meeting, which started in the Chamber of Commerce building in El Paso, where both presidents held their welcoming speeches. Eager to emphasize the significance of the historical moment, Taft completely forgot his predecessor’s experience, who had visited a foreign country – Panama, in particular – three years earlier, and told Diaz that he was extremely honored to be the first “president of the United States [who] has stepped behind the border of the United States, either on the North or on the South.” In the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez, where resistance to Diaz’ rule was particularly strong, the Mexican president hoped that the exhibition of glamour that accompanied the meeting would make clear to the inhabitants of the area that Diaz still had firm control over Mexico and that the alliance with the U.S. could imply abundance and development. Accordingly, during his toast in the Custom House in Ciudad Juárez, President Diaz praised Taft’s visit and showed his gratitude for Taft having set up such a “happy precedent" for Latin America.

While in El Paso, President Taft was visited by the El Paso committee who wanted to use this opportunity to get the president’s attention on the Elephant Butte Dam project, which laid dormant since 1905. “After briefly calling the president’s attention to the Chamizal fiasco, J.A. Harper took up the Elephant Butte dam, told the president how the population of the Mexican valley had dwindled from 20,000 to 3,000, and the population of the El Paso valley had been greatly reduced because the people of these two valleys had been deprived of their water rights.” President Taft responded by asking the Committee to send him “a full history of this water question” as soon as possible, and that he would give this matter his personal attention.

Another interesting development was the declaration of neutrality of the contested El Chamizal territory, part of the City of El Paso, over which Mexico claimed sovereignty. The territory of El Chamizal was formed due to a change of course of the Rio Grande river.  According to the U.S. authorities, this change was due to natural accretion from the American side. Mexican authorities, however, contested that the change was due to an avulsion, or sudden change of course, and  that the United States gained no additional territory by the changing of the natural boundary line. It was decided by both governments that, for this meeting, the El Chamizal would be neutral and neither Mexican nor American flags would be raised on this territory during the meeting. 

The historical significance of this meeting lies in its symbolic value. Both presidents sent a message of opulence, abundance, and progress to their people. While in Mexico such a message was translated into social tension and, eventually, it fostered revolutionary uprising, in the U.S  it resulted in the start of the construction of the Elephant Butte Dam project in 1911.