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The Punitive Expedition in Mexico: How New Technology Readied the US for WWI

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Thursday, February 3, 2022 - 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. ET
Code: 1NV094
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Materials for this program

  1. Handout

Motorcycle squad attached to U.S. Army brigade headquarters in Mexico, 1916 (Library of Congress)

Please Note: This program has a rescheduled date (originally November 18, 2021).

In the early morning hours of March 9,1916, an often-forgotten but significant brazen attack on the nation occurred in the small town of Columbus, New Mexico, carried out by a band of nearly 500 Mexican revolutionaries. Woodrow Wilson vowed vengeance and sent American troops into Mexico to apprehend their leader, Pancho Villa.

Led by General Black Jack Pershing, the “Punitive Expedition,” as it came to be called, would capture several key Mexican lieutenants, but not Villa himself. Although it can be considered to have failed in its objective, the foray nonetheless provided the U.S. Army with many valuable lessons in a new kind of 20th-century warfare—one that took advantage of the latest technologies.

Pershing’s troops faced challenging logistical issues in Mexico. The distances to cover were vast, the country’s few railroads were unreliable, and there was insufficient support for horses, still an essential element of combat power. The army turned to the then-radical and risky solution of mechanized combat, mainly in the form of trucks and airplanes, both relatively new in 1916.

These innovations were successfully utilized during the searches for Villa, and as a result, the race toward military mechanization began. Historian Dakota Springston examines how several incidents in the Punitive Expedition changed American warfare forever and why the United States’ first truly mechanized conflict also served as a testing ground for the country’s entry into WWI.

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This program is part of our
Smithsonian Associates Streaming series.