Both Denmark and Greenland are reacting negatively to President Trump’s expressed interest in purchasing Greenland, an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederikson called Trump’s idea “absurd.” A spokesman for Greenland’s premier Kim Kielson, stated, “Greenland is not for sale.”
Is that the end of the controversy? Not necessarily. Just ask the Mexican people. After their government rejected an offer by U.S. officials to purchase the northern half of their country, they ended up losing it anyway through U.S. military force.
In 1845, newly elected U.S. President James Polk made an offer to Mexico to purchase what amounted to the states of California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas. The previous year Texas had been annexed by the United States as the nation’s 28th state, but the annexation had not been agreed to by Mexico, which continued to claim Texas as part of Mexico.
Mexico turned down Polk’s offer, but Polk would not be dissuaded. Instead, he began looking for an opportunity to go to war with Mexico, which, if the U.S. was victorious, would permit the U.S. government to simply steal the land it was trying to purchase.
Polk’s challenge was to find a way to make it look like it was Mexico, rather than the United States, that started the war. That way, Polk could claim that the United States was simply defending itself against an aggressive power and then claim his booty as part of a treaty that would end the war.
In 1836, Texas had declared its independence from Mexico. Following the defeat of a Texas force at the Alamo in San Antonio to Mexican dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, Gen. Sam Houston’s forces defeated Santa Ana’s forces at San Jacinto. However, Mexico never agreed to Texas independence, instead contending that Texas remained part of Mexico.
Moreover, at the time of the U.S. annexation of Texas there was still a dispute over the southern border of Texas. The U.S. government claimed that it was the Rio Grande. Mexico claimed that it was the Nueces River, which was much further north.
Seizing upon the disputed claims, Polk sent U.S. military forces into the disputed territory in the hope that they would be attacked by Mexican forces. It was a reasonable hope, given that Polk’s forces would be on territory that Mexico was claiming was part of Mexico.
Polk’s strategy worked brilliantly. In 1846, Mexican forces attacked a U.S. army outpost in the disputed territory, killing 12 American soldiers and capturing 52. Polk declared that Mexico had invaded the United States and secured a congressional declaration of war against Mexico. (This was when U.S. presidents were still complying with the requirement in the U.S. Constitution that prohibits the president from waging war without a congressional declaration of war.)
The outcome of the war was never in doubt. Mexico was an impoverished nation that was being ruled by a crisis-ridden dictatorial regime. The United States, by contrast, was a wealthy and powerful nation with a stable government and a professional army.
In 1848 the war came to an end with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which provided that Mexico would cede what amounted to about the entire northern half of its country. That’s how the United States ended up absorbing the lands encompassed by the states of California, New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas.
At least Polk was generous. Even though his army had won the war, he was still willing to pay Mexico some money for the land that he was seizing from them. The U.S. government agreed to pay Mexico the sum of $15 million ($434 million today), which was somewhat less than half of what Polk was offering before his war. The U.S. also agreed to assume $3.25 million ($94 million today) in debts that the Mexican government owed U.S. citizens.
The U.S. takeover of the northern half of Mexico meant absorbing centuries of Mexican law, history, customs, and city and street names. Moreover, it included immediately making all Mexican citizens in the newly acquired land, whose language was Spanish, American citizens. It was an action that would continue to impact Americans into the 21st century, given the modern-day American concern about Mexicans illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to enter lands that once belonged to their country as well as concerns that Hispanics are taking over America.
Would President Trump do the same thing to acquire Greenland that Polk did to acquire the northern half of Mexico? Who knows? But Greenland and Denmark would be wise to prepare their defenses, just in case.