In This Review

The Life and Times of Pancho Villa

The Life and Times of Pancho Villa
By Friedrich Katz
985 pp, Stanford University Press, 1998
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Villa -- the man, the myth, and the revolutionary -- dominates this magnificent tome. Katz goes beyond Villa's popular image as a ruthless Robin Hood to investigate the remarkable movement he led: the largest revolutionary army in Latin American history and the only social uprising ever on the U.S. border. Katz first describes Villa's emergence in the Mexican Revolution and the transformation of Chihuahua into a leading rebel center between 1910 and 1913. The revolt, which triggered uprisings throughout Mexico, was also the only revolutionary movement embracing all classes. The hacendados (large landowners) were the one exception, and Villa eagerly seized their property.

Katz also recounts Villa's rise as a national leader, disastrous defeats in 1915, and the famous raid on Columbus, New Mexico in 1916. With formidable research, he places his dramatic story in its international context, providing fascinating insights into the volatile relationship between Villa's movement and the United States. Villa's U.S. Attack, as he had hoped, provoked General John Pershing to give chase and granted Villa a new lease on life by igniting a nationalist backlash in Mexico. Meanwhile, the taxes he imposed on U.S. companies in Chihuahua funded his guerrilla warfare. Katz also explains how Pershing's failure helped persuade the German military that a declaration of war by the United States would have no major impact on the conflict raging in Europe. This turn of events emboldened German proponents of unlimited submarine warfare and ultimately led to the infamous Zimmerman telegram. Katz concludes with Villa's surrender, his life as a hacendado, and ultimately his assassination, which Katz suspects was "the result of the Mexican government's desire for recognition by the United States in 1923." This is exciting history on a scale and eloquence rarely seen these days. It will unquestionably become one of the great classics on Mexican history.