Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 2: "To Elect Good Men": Woodrow Wilson and Latin America

A We The People Resource
Created July 16, 2010


The Lesson


Woodrow Wilson changed the course and tone of U.S. policy towards Latin  America.

Woodrow Wilson changed the course and tone of U.S. policy towards Latin America.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

Soon after taking office, President Woodrow Wilson and his first Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, rejected the Dollar Diplomacy that had guided U.S. relations with Latin America during the administration of William Taft. In ways consistent with his domestic Progressive reform goals and his faith in the superiority of American democracy, Wilson resolved that the United States would only recognize Latin American governments founded upon law and order, "not upon arbitrary or irregular force." Furthermore, Wilson was willing to use military force to demonstrate to Latin Americans "how to elect good men" as leaders. In this lesson, students will analyze Wilson's attempts to carry out this "missionary diplomacy" in Haiti and Mexico as well as the responses of selected Haitians and Mexicans.

Guiding Questions

How did the Wilson administration respond to revolution and civil unrest in Latin America?

Learning Objectives

  • Identify American economic and strategic interests in the Western Hemisphere
  • Explain how the U.S attempted to safeguard American economic interests and promote democratic reforms in Latin America during Wilson's presidency
  • Discuss how U.S. actions reflected Wilson's foreign policy principles and racial beliefs of the era
  • Explain why many Latin Americans resented or resisted U.S. actions


At the time of Woodrow Wilson's inauguration, the United States had extensive economic and strategic interests throughout Latin America. The Panama Canal was under construction; the U.S. Navy had a base at Guantanamo, Cuba; and American investments in Mexico totaled almost $2 billion. Wilson's predecessor, Republican William Howard Taft, had practiced "Dollar Diplomacy" in Latin America and elsewhere, including China. Dollar Diplomacy was based on the premise that the U.S. government should promote stability in other countries in order to provide opportunities for American investors and companies. In turn, U.S.-backed development would help ensure long-term peace and prosperity for those nations.

As a committed Progressive, Wilson disdained Taft's approach. He worried that monopolies and special interest groups would take advantage of instability in other nations to enrich themselves without promoting democracy. In 1913, Wilson rebuked a group of American bankers who had asked for the administration's support for a loan to China, and he publicly renounced Dollar Diplomacy. Nevertheless, he wanted U.S. financial, commercial, and manufacturing interests to find opportunities in foreign nations. He also hoped American capitalism could aid the promotion of democracy, which he held to be a moral duty of the United States.

Wilson did not lack for opportunities to carry out his missionizing diplomacy in Latin America. In 1911, the dictatorial rule of Porfirio Di?az came to an end in Mexico at the hands of Constitutionalist Francisco Madero, who's intended political and economic reforms threatened foreign-owned land and businesses. (Americans alone possessed some 40 percent of Mexican properties.) A coup resulted in Madero's death and the ascension of Victoriano Huerta. Wilson refused to diplomatically recognize the new government and looked for a reason to intervene in what was now a civil war, as the Constitutionalist Venustiano Carranza led a successful rebellion against Huerta's regime. The arrest of U.S. sailors on April 9, 1914 in Tampico, Mexico, provided an opening. That incident led to intermittent U.S. military actions, including an invasion of northern Mexico, over the next three years.

In July 1915, Wilson dispatched a force of more than 2,000 Marines to Haiti after the assassination of its president, Vilbrun Guillaume, and a hostile reaction to an American proposal to oversee elections. As Wilson explained, the presence and oversight of Marines would demonstrate to Haitians "how to elect good men." Wilson's belief in white racial superiority was also a factor; the President, like many white Americans of the era, assumed that 'lesser races' needed a strong, controlling hand. A treaty soon gave the United States control over Haiti's finances, and U.S. martial governance of Haiti, which persisted for 19 years, frequently used harsh methods to quell resistance.

On the whole, Wilson's actions in Latin America protected U.S. commercial and strategic interests, but the goal of spreading democracy went mostly unfulfilled. The frequent use of military force also engendered widespread resentment in the region.

Preparation Instructions

  • Bookmark or print out the referenced websites. Print the Text Document for the lesson plan (PDF) and distribute it to your students as a handout. The Text Document provides excerpts of the online documents used in this lesson, thus allowing your students to read only the pertinent portions of the source.
  • Instructors who want to review the Wilson administration's actions in Latin America will find helpful the interactive timeline at the EDSITEment-reviewed site American President.org
Analyzing primary sources

To provide your students with the skills needed to examine primary sources, you may find it helpful to visit this site from the Library of Congress. In particular, students may find the "Mindwalk activity" useful in preparing to work with primary sources. Another Library of Congress exercise on primary sources can be found at The Learning Page. At the National Archives website, the Digital Classroom provides worksheets to practice analysis of various primary sources, including photographs. Another exercise involving interpretation of historic photographs can be found at History Matters.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. U.S. Interests in Latin America

In the first exercise, students will use an interactive map to learn about U.S. actions in Central America and the Caribbean, from the late 1890s through the 1930s. By clicking on Cuba, for example, students will learn that the United States sent troops to the island nation on three separate occasions. Using the worksheet on page 1 of the Text Document, students will then answer a set of questions that will allow them to discover the extent of U.S. involvement.

Activity 2. U.S. Intervention in the Mexican Revolution

The second activity will focus on American intervention in the Mexican Revolution. Students will use one secondary source and several primary sources, including photographs, to do the following exercises (see Text Document for further guidance):

Students will first examine photographs in the online exhibition of Robert Runyon's photographs of the Mexican Revolution, accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory Project, to make a list answering this question:

"What sort of problems did the revolution appear to cause for the people of Mexico?"

A worksheet for this purpose is available on page 2 of the Text Document.

After making this list, students will learn about the 1914 Tampico incident, which led to U.S. military intervention in Mexico. After visiting the following two sites, students will answer a series of questions, which can be found on page 3 of the Text Document. Pages 4-5 of the Text Document contain an excerpt of Wilson's statement.

Students will next break into groups and adopt historical roles in order to better understand why the U.S. intervened in Mexico's revolution and how President Venustiano Carranza responded. Using primary sources, each group will prepare a presentation explaining important issues, which are detailed on the Text Document. Group 1 will be Carranza; Group 2 will be Secretary of State Robert Lansing justifying U.S intervention to Wilson; Group 3 will also be Lansing, in this case, justifying U.S. intervention to Carranza. A presentation evaluation rubric is provided for teacher use on page 12 of the Text Document.

After all the groups have presented, lead an in-class discussion focusing on the following questions:

  1. What were the most convincing reasons for the sending of American forces into Mexico?
  2. In what ways does U.S. intervention demonstrate "Wilsonianism," as defined in the previous lesson?
  3. Were there any inconsistencies in the American justifications for invading Mexico?
  4. Why did Carranza appeal to Argentina, Brazil, and Chile?
Activity 3. U.S. Intervention in Haiti

In the third exercise, students will adopt the role of an American news correspondent in Haiti in 1920. Their task is to write a brief article answering one of these two questions:

  1. How have the Haitians responded to the presence of U.S. Marines in their country?
  2. What do many of the Americans in Haiti think of Haitians, and how do they (Americans) treat them (Haitians)?

They will use the following documents (excerpted on pages 13-24 of the Text Document) as sources for their article:


After completing this lesson, students should be able to answer, orally or in writing, these questions:

  • Why did the U.S. intervene militarily in Mexico and Haiti? (How are these reasons similar and/or different to the ones you provided for question 5 on the map exercise worksheet?)
  • On what principles did Wilson justify these actions?
  • How did Mexicans and Haitians respond to American actions?
  • It has been said that despite his intentions and idealistic pronouncements, Wilson's foreign policy in Latin America was just an extension of Teddy Roosevelt's 'big stick' policy. Do you agree? Why or why not?

Students should be able to identify and explain the significance of the following:

  • Robert Lansing
  • Victoriano Huerta
  • Venustiano Carranza
  • Tampico

Extending The Lesson

Some of the lesson's activities could be adapted and extended. Students could research an event relating to U.S. intervention in Mexico's revolution, the topic of Activity 2. For example, they could examine Francisco Villa's 1916 raid on Columbus, New Mexico, to learn how it contributed to Wilson's order to invade Mexico.

Rather than adopting the role of a news correspondent for Activity #3, students could write an essay answering the question, "Did Woodrow Wilson's Latin American policies spread democracy?" (This essay would also reinforce learning objectives from Lesson 1.)

The following EDSITEment-reviewed websites can be used to introduce the students to the rich culture and history of Latin America:

The Mexican Revolution and its major figures, especially Pancho Villa, have been the subject of many movies, including Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata! (1952), which provides a fictional account of the life of revolutionary Emiliano Zapata (played by Marlin Brando).

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > The Americas
  • History and Social Studies > Place > The Caribbean
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
  • David Krugler, University of Wisconsin (Platteville, WI)
  • Tucker Bacquet, Lexington High School (Lexington, OH)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources

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