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The Ethics of Intervention: US Writers and the Mexican Revolution



During the Mexican Revolution (1910–20), stories of dangerous bandits, rebels, dictators, and Indians defined Mexico for US audiences. Most scholars assume that these narratives reinforce the conventional rhetoric of Latin savagery that justifies US imperialism, but this essay reveals an array of writers who told such stories to undermine state power and contest military intervention. Three of the era's best-known leftist journalists, John Kenneth Turner, John Reed, and Katherine Anne Porter, craft a discourse of activism to help the US public imagine themselves as participants in a new hemispheric democracy. These writers posit moral bonds between the US and Mexico that exceed the expansionist interests of politicians and industrialists. Their vision was embodied in the trope of the foreign correspondent, an American who could physically enter Mexican territory, witness the crimes and heroisms of the revolution, and relay the voices of the Mexicans whose lives were at stake in the conflict. Turner, Reed, and Porter hope that journalists can inspire democratic fraternity between the US and Mexican peoples. They also set the terms and conventions utilized by radical humanitarian journalists for decades to come.

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1 Jason Ruiz, Americans in the Treasure House: Travel to Porfirian Mexico and the Cultural Politics of Empire (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014).

2 The history of these entwined discourses of danger and desire have been aptly analyzed by scholars such as Daniel Alarcón, Helen Delpar, José Limón, Shelley Streeby, Gilbert G. González, and most recently Jason Ruiz. For more on the interplay between desire and fear see Daniel Alarcón's notion of the “infernal paradise” (which Ruiz expounds) in The Aztec Palimpsest: Mexico in the Modern Imagination (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1997); and José Limón's American Encounters: Greater Mexico, the United States, and the Erotics of Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999).

3 “Troops Retake Mexican Cities,” New York Times, 23 Nov. 1910, 1.

4 Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (New York: Routledge, 1992), 197. Other scholars have indicated how the racialization of Latin Americans and Mexicans began with the competing imperialisms of Britain and Spain. Walter Mignolo, for example, argues in The Idea of Latin America (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), xv, that colonialism has structured both the historical narrative of Latin America and the contemporary ontological “idea of Latin America”: “The geo-politics of continental division are also of key importance for understanding the way that ‘Latin’ America could subsequently be imagined as part of the West and yet peripheral to it.” Mignolo further explains how nineteenth-century independence movements created a climate in which Latin America was considered inferior to and dependent on the US. See also María DeGuzmán, Spain's Long Shadow: The Black Legend, Off-Whiteness, and Anglo-American Empire (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).

5 Amy Kaplan's Anarchy of Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 92, contends that anti-imperialists and imperialists often share “the representation of US intervention as a narrative of rescue: of Cuba and the Philippines from the tyranny of an Old World empire on the one hand, and from the anarchy of revolution and self-rule on the other.” Kaplan explains how this narrative disavows the centrality of imperialism to US identity by casting it as “an aberration from the national commitment to freeing the captive.” See also Shelley Streeby, American Sensations: Class, Empire, and the Production of Popular Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Gretchen Murphy, Hemispheric Imaginings: The Monroe Doctrine and Narratives of US Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005); and Louis Pérez, Cuba in the American Imagination: Metaphor and the Imperial Ethos (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

6 Ruiz, Jason, “Desire among the Ruins: The Politics of Difference in American Visions of Porfirian Mexico,Journal of American Studies, 46, 4 (Nov. 2012), 922 .

7 John Britton, Revolution and Ideology: Images of the Mexican Revolution in the United States (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995), 12. A variety of excellent studies have made more space to explain the revolution's most famous arbiters (from Díaz to Madero, Huerta, Zapata, Villa, Carranza, and beyond) than I may in this article. I mention several in the notes, but most students of Mexican history begin with Alan Knight's excellent series, in particular The Mexican Revolution, Volumes I and II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

8 In recent years, the field has endeavored to recover the nuance and contradiction that attend inter-American contact and conflict. Amy Kaplan's key formulation of the “anarchy of empire” reminds us that imperialism is an uneven, contradictory project whose assumptions and ideals are perpetually reinforced and disputed in cultural expression. Kirsten Silva Gruesz's Ambassadors of Culture: The Transamerican Origins of Latino Writing (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002); and Anna Brickhouse's Transamerican Literary Relations and the Nineteenth-Century Public Sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) have drawn our attention to nineteenth-century US “ambassadors of culture” whose texts both borrowed from and promoted Latin America, as well as the complex artistic dialogues between writers of multiple national identifications and languages. See also David Luis-Brown, Waves of Decolonization: Discourses of Race and Hemispheric Citizenship in Cuba, Mexico, and the United States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

9 For apt historicism of the cultural work of Spanish-language newspapers, including the particular contributions of the Magón brothers in Regenerción and the Tejano Idar family in La Crónica, see Juan Gómez-Quiñones, Sembradores: Ricardo Flores Magón y El Partido Liberal Mexicano: A Eulogy and Critique (Los Angeles: Aztlán Publications, 1973); Lomas, Clara, “Transborder Discourse: The Articulation of Gender in the Borderlands in the Early Twentieth Century,Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, 24, 2 (2003), 5174 ; and Louis Mendoza, Historia: The Literary Making of Chicana & Chicano History (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2001). For a recent history of how such periodicals challenged political and racial injustice in the borderlands see Benjamin Heber Johnson, Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and Its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

10 Mark Cronlund Anderson, Pancho Villa's Revolution by Headlines (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001); and John Maxwell Hamilton, Journalism's Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009).

11 Michael Robertson, Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

12 Shelley Streeby, Radical Sensations: World Movements, Violence, and Visual Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 133.

13 John Kenneth Turner, Barbarous Mexico (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1911), “Preface.”

14 Streeby, American Sensations, 255.

15 Ruiz, Americans in the Treasure House.

16 James Creelman, “President Diaz, Hero of the Americas,” Pearson's Magazine, 19, 3 (March 1908), 231–77. Pearson's Magazine circulated in Britain (1896–1939) and the US (1899–1925). The magazine featured political essays, often of a leftist bent, and fiction by such notables as George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells, whose The War of the Worlds first appeared serially in the British version. Upton Sinclair contributed to the American version, and Woodrow Wilson mentions the magazine in his papers.

17 Turner, 245.

18 Ibid., 11.

19 Ibid., 3–4.

20 See José Limón, “Stereotyping and Chicano Resistance: An Historical Dimension,” in Chon A. Noriega, ed., Chicanos and Film: Representation and Resistance (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 3–17, 6.

21 Streeby, Radical Sensations, 124–25.

22 Indeed, Turner's monograph is ambiguous even in its title, which Turner explains in his Preface “is intended to apply to Mexico's form of government rather than to its people.”

23 See Hesford's critique of “ocular epistemology” in Spectacular Rhetorics: Human Rights Visions, Recognitions, Feminisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 29.

24 Ibid.

25 As Streeby explains in Radical Sensations, 139, “Barbarous Mexico suggests that sympathetic acts of witnessing the atrocities inflicted on Yaqui bodies can make a difference as Turner draws on the conventions of nineteenth-century antislavery and sensational ‘mysteries of the city’ literature to expose hidden horrors.”

26 “Madero's Little War,” New York Times, 21 Nov. 1910, 8.

27 Turner, 25.

28 Ibid., 28.

29 Turner's rhetorical juxtaposition of American Indians with indigenous Mexicans, as Shelley Streeby, Radical Sensations, 147, suggests, casts “Yaquis as friends of the US Americans and enemies of the Mexicans in ways that both let the United States off the hook for its own genocidal Indian policies and perpetuate long-standing US imperialist views of Mexico as a failed state, fatally marred by corruption and cruelty.”

30 Turner, 11.

31 Ibid., 48–49.

32 Ibid., 53.

33 Ibid., 67.

34 Ibid., 106

35 Ibid., 248.

36 Ibid., 339.

37 Ibid., 339, 340.

38 See Turner's revised version of Barbarous Mexico (New York: Cassell and Co., 1912), 292.

39 John Reed is not the only author of his moment to express enthusiasm for the revolutionary promise of Mexico. Jack London's time as a foreign correspondent during the revolution produced the short story “The Mexican” in the Saturday Evening Post, 19 Aug. 1911, although London also vocally expressed disdain for Mexico's mestizo peoples and skepticism about their ability to institute democracy. María Cristina Mena, a Mexican immigrant, published short stories that championed indigenous Mexicans in the Century Magazine (1911–14).

40 William Howard Taft stationed troops along the US–Mexico border with the mandate to protect US people and property in Mexico, and his successor Woodrow Wilson deployed troops twice, first in the 1914 Battle of Veracruz and later in pursuit of Pancho Villa in 1916.

41 Rosenstone, 150.

42 Christopher Wilson, “Plotting the Border: John Reed, Pancho Villa, and Insurgent Mexico,” in Donald Pease and Amy Kaplan, eds., Cultures of United States Imperialism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 340–61, 352.

43 Daniel Lehman, John Reed and the Writing of Revolution (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2002), 96.

44 Ibid., 94–95.

45 Robert Rosenstone, Romantic Revolutionary: A Biography of John Reed (New York: Vintage, 1975),151.

46 John Reed, Insurgent Mexico (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1914), 4.

47 Ibid., 19.

48 Ibid., 46.

49 Ibid., 46.

50 Ibid., 46–47.

51 Ibid., 35–37.

52 Ibid., 40.

53 For more on Pancho Villa's canny relationship with Reed see Wilson, “Plotting the Border.”

54 José Limón uses Américo Paredes's conception of “Greater Mexico” to refer to the common community that includes both peoples within the geopolitical borders of Mexico and the diasporic communities of the Southwest. See Limón, American Encounters, 3. A large community of US artists and leftist activists and intellectuals congregated in postrevolutionary Mexico. Leftist conscientious objectors fled to Mexico to escape the World War I draft, and there attempted to forge an international workers' alliance. See Botz, Dan La, “American ‘Slackers’ in the Mexican Revolution: International Proletarian Politics in the Midst of a National Revolution,The Americas, 62, 4 (2006), 563–90. La Botz, 566, finds that the slackers' “revolutionary socialist internationalism was thwarted by Mexican nationalism.” Alongside these leftist activists (especially journalist and historian Carleton Beals), American modernists sought inspiration from Mexican artistic and cultural indigenismo. Porter, the Mexican American public intellectual Anita Brenner, and photographer and artist Tina Modotti developed their work on Mexico in conversation. For more on the dialogue between US and Mexican modernisms see Rachel Adams, Continental Divides: Remapping the Cultures of North America (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010).

55 “Flowering Judas,” Porter's most famous Mexico story and perhaps the tale for which she is best known, indicts the international left (embodied in her protagonist Laura) for betraying indigenous Mexicans. “María Concepción” also dramatizes the thwarted hopes of indigenous Mexicans in the postrevolutionary era, even as it excoriates cultural appropriation through Givens, a minor character who excavates archaeological artifacts and employs many villagers, but knows little and cares less about the living indígenas who work for him. Most pertinently, the story “That Tree” records Porter's frustration with US journalists in Latin America; she depicts a failed poet who succeeds as a journalist in Latin America by developing a shallow “expertise” on the region's politics.

56 Before Flowering Judas, Americans experienced Porter's perspective on Mexico through her dispatches and stories for the Christian Science Monitor (1921–22), Survey Graphic (1924), and Century Magazine (1922, 1924). Porter also reviewed books on Mexico for the New York Herald Tribune (1924–43).

57 In “The Martyr” and “The Lovely Legend” (1923) Porter excoriates a fictional Diego Rivera for exploitation and inauthenticity. See Katherine Anne Porter, “The Martyr,” in The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter (New York: Harcourt, 1965), 33–38; Porter, “The Lovely Legend,” in The Uncollected Early Prose of Katherine Anne Porter, ed. Ruth M. Alvarez and Thomas F. Walsh (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993), 204–17.

58 See Janice Stout, Katherine Anne Porter: A Sense of the Times (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 81, for more on the relationship between nonfictional and fictional versions of “Hacienda.”

59 Josefina Niggli and Américo Paredes also explore this problem in their Depression-era texts.

60 See Mellin, Robert, “Unreeled: A History of Katherine Anne Porter's Filmic Text, Hacienda,Mosaic, 33, 2 (June 2000), 4766 , Academic OneFile, Web. Mellin interprets “Hacienda” as a narrative film, constructed with scenes and montages in conversation with Eisenstein's unfinished Que Viva Mexico!. He studies the text's elaborate first version, whose typeface and bibliographic references signal its engagement with film, and suggests that “Hacienda has nevertheless not been read as an account of a writer's successful struggle to represent the ‘many opposing forces’ of Mexico; attention has tended to shift away from the narrator in order to focus on the ‘real’ meaning of the story, i.e., the follies of Eisenstein.”

61 Katherine Anne Porter, Flowering Judas and Other Stories (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1935), 235.

62 Ibid., 236.

63 Ibid.

64 Martin Conboy, Journalism in Britain: A Historical Introduction (London: Sage Publications), 175.

The author wishes to thank the anonymous reviewers and the editors at the Journal of American Studies for their invaluable guidance during the revision process. I am also greatly indebted to Dale Bauer and Gordon Hutner, who read and culled the best of the earliest and latest drafts, as well as to Nancy Castro, Richard T. Rodríguez, Anne Brubaker, and Shawn Fraistat.


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