- The Rehearsal
Wars occur in theaters. Entertainer Elsie Janis experienced the First World War performing on the front for American soldiers; for her, this was The Big Show. All shows need rehearsals, tryouts, and backers, and the Great War had all three. To Europe, the Great War was a happening, a somewhat unexpected, site-specific performance that mixed radical innovation with hidebound tradition. But to the United States, the Great War was a spectacle; the curtain rose at a fixed time and at a distance, and the country was in the audience for the first twenty months. When it finally made an entrance, at the start of the last act, it had had plenty of time to prepare; it had learned its lines, built its props, rehearsed its routines.1
In the United States rehearsals for the Great War took place in the border region between Texas and Mexico. The backers were those who backed The Big Show: J. P. Morgan and other businessmen anxious to protect trade and generate profits. The stars were Woodrow Wilson, [End Page 507] Theodore Roosevelt, Gen. John Pershing, Gen. Frederick Funston, and a host of lesser lights, with guest appearances by Victoriano Huerta (in act 1) and Pancho Villa and Venustiano Carranza (in act 2).2
The public watched with interest as local boys—the state regiments of the National Guard—took the stage. It reveled in press releases and advertisements generated by teams of writers and plugged by cooperative reporters. It joined the parade and learned the steps in rallies, leagues, and summer training camps. And it cheered as the show went public, first in 1914 and then again in 1916.
Most shows have music, and many have songs. The songs from The Big Show are legion and legendary: “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier,” “America, I Love You,” “Over There.” The songs from The Rehearsal are almost forgotten.
Think of this article, then, as a kind of souvenir program book for the songs and story of The Rehearsal.
Background to the Story
The first disputes with Mexico arose in the 1830s, the decade during which the United States’ Monroe Doctrine established a de facto protectorate over Central and South America. Resolved in 1848, these disputes brought Texas into the Union and remained a tenacious memory in America’s border states. Mexico’s stability after 1877 was shattered in 1911, when the Mexican Revolution deposed President Porfirio Díaz and Francisco Madero assumed control. The United States watched with concern as, in short order, Madero encountered concentrated resistance from Victoriano Huerta, who executed a coup on February 19, 1913; Huerta in turn was immediately opposed by a “Constitutionalist” coalition formed by Venustiano Carranza and Francisco “Pancho” Villa. President William Howard Taft was then in the waning days of his presidency, and he referred this diplomatic quagmire to his successor, Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, appalled at the methods attributed to Huerta, supported Carranza, and in February 1914 he revoked an arms embargo so he could supply Carranza with weapons. The United States was now Huerta’s adversary, and Wilson groped for a reason to intervene more directly.3
The rehearsal curtain rises on act 1, scene 1. It’s April 18, 1914; on opposite sides of the stage, Wilson is in White Sulphur Springs, Virginia, and Huerta is in Mexico City. Eight days earlier Huertistas had arrested the crew of an American whaleboat in Tampico. The Huertista commander immediately apologized, but Adm. Henry T. Mayo, commanding a US Navy squadron off Veracruz, demanded a twenty-one-gun salute to the American flag. Wilson rushed to support Mayo, and as the scene opens—with a script surely stolen from W. S. Gilbert—he demands that Huerta honor Mayo’s [End Page 508] demand or face military consequences. Huerta, amused, responds that he will gladly salute the flag, but only if the United States returns the salute, gun for gun—thus in effect acknowledging the legitimacy of his regime. At this juncture, a messenger arrives to tell the president that Germany has sent a large shipment of ammunition to Huerta to be shortly delivered to Veracruz. Fuming, Wilson...