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I had a horror of the Mexican War … only I had not the moral courage enough to resign. — Ulysses S. Grant (1879)
The phrase “regime change wars” has, of late, taken on profound meaning and stoked massive controversy. When either Donald Trump, or the current long-shot hopeful Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) calls for an end to such wars, the establishment Left and Right both attack the term as a “Russian,” or “Putin,” talking point. The contemporary polarization of the term is peculiar, given that historically regime-change wars are as American as apple pie. Still, one can understand the reluctance of today’s influential American-exceptionalism-crowd to repeat the phrase.
After all, republics aren’t supposed to invade and conquer foreign states. Nevertheless, the inconvenient truth is that the United States did just that a little more than 60 years after the thirteen original colonies’ own successful rebellion against the British empire.
Seen in this context then, the 1846 U.S. invasion of Mexico — popularly, if misleadingly, dubbed the Mexican-American War — must rate as an acute pivot point in the young nation’s history. Sure, the colonists, and then the new U.S. republic, had long displaced and murdered various native Indian tribes. Still, the successful conquest and significant annexation of a Western nation-state — a fellow republic at that — constituted a no-turning-back moment for a self-declared “democratic beacon.” Yet today, for all that, precious few Americans know the slightest thing about that war — which had one of the highest casualty rates of any U.S. conflict — and its contours, causes, context, or conclusion. The basis for such ignorance is quite simple: the Mexican invasion, accurately chronicled, doesn’t mesh well with Americans’ pretensions or sense of their own history. Control of the past is a powerful tool, wielded for centuries by governments deeply invested in perpetuating their unique founding narratives or myths.
The Mexican-American War, seen in the context of America’s current contemporary never-ending wars in the Greater Middle East, is more relevant than ever. Constituting the first successful conquest of another country (Canada had been unsuccessfully invaded twice), the war in Mexico included the U.S. Army’s first major amphibious operation, and its first experience with prolonged occupation duty. The war, like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, was also sold to a naïve public on demonstrably false pretexts. The blowback from that realization, along with the conflict’s mounting casualties, coalesced into America’s first-ever widespread anti-war movement.
What’s more, since the peace terms wrangled from a newly installed, fledgling, Mexican government — at the point of the bayonet — included the annexation of California and other future southwest states, it was this war that finally fulfilled the American dream of Manifest Destiny and spread the United States, once and for all, “from sea to shining sea.” In truth, there was nothing inevitable about a continent-spanning American republic. There were, at the time, so very many contingent options for the once-Atlantic-coast-based republic. However, by seizing and settling California — and within four decades “pacifying” the native lands between it and the Mississippi River — the stage was set for the overseas American empire, manifested first in the Philippines (1898), with the reverberations of which the world continues to reckon.
The modern U.S. military — particularly the regular army — was largely forged in Mexico. This was the first major war in which large numbers of soldiers were led by graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which had opened its gates only in 1802. For many uniformed American soldiers, Mexico would prove their graveyard. Sixteen percent of the U.S. troopers deployed there died, most from disease. While Americans, historically, tend not to care greatly for enemy casualties, it remains relevant that Mexicans suffered far worse, with an estimated 25,000 dead, most of them civilians. The war also proved the baptism by fire, a crucible, for many future Civil War generals (on both sides of that conflict) — among them Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, George McClellan, and William Tecumseh Sherman. Two Mexican-American War vets even won the presidency: one, a general, Zachary Taylor; the other, then just a lieutenant, Ulysses S. Grant.
The war’s current and future generals, along with much of the military rank and file, often disagreed about the efficacy and morality of the war. A surprising number — including some of the more famous among them — vehemently opposed what they viewed as a “wicked” war. Dissent among active soldiers was substantial, shocking even. Though GI resistance in the Vietnam War still figures prominently in Americans’ collective memory, it was in Mexico that the army had its highest-ever desertion rate — around 8 percent. Hundreds of those deserters — mostly recent Irish Catholic immigrants — even joined the enemy. So sympathetic were they to the Mexican cause (and, perhaps, the common Catholic faith), that many fought bravely for Mexico in an entire battalion named for Saint Patrick.
Like any history worth its salt, this is also the story of people, individuals with agency all their own, both famous and forgotten. It’s about doomed, yet courageous, Mexican troopers; frustrated American officers, lieutenants and generals alike; civilians caught in the crossfire; and their representatives in distant capitals. The Mexican-American War also helped define the careers of five American presidents — one former, John Quincy Adams; one contemporaneous, James K. Polk; and three future, Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant. It also figured prominently in the career of a highly qualified, perennial politician who never reached the White House, Henry Clay. For Adams, the war represented a final service to his country, one of his best moments. For Polk, a true believer, it was his worst. For Taylor, his generalship rapidly propelled him to the presidency. As for Lincoln, opposition to the war eventually proved the springboard for an illustrious career. Grant, meanwhile, was forever tortured by his part in what he deemed an immoral war of aggression; it may have even informed his (flawed) “peace policy” toward the Indians. And for Clay — who lost his favorite son in Mexico — challenging the war was perhaps his finest hour.
Finally, for the United States — to the extent that countries can be said to have a collective identity — the ill-fated, if ultimately successful, crusade in Mexico marked a final end to the republic’s innocence. America was to be a continental power with global potential and pretensions. If the U.S. war effort was victorious in the short run, the resultant peace settlement poisoned the republic and contributed mightily to the outbreak of the bloody Civil War that broke out just thirteen short years after the Mexican surrender. The conflict of 1846-48 stripped away the hopeful veneer and demonstrated that the real division in America wasn’t between the two major political parties — Whig and Democrat — but between regions, South and North, slave and free societies. In the war, then, it can be said that America did not strictly fight Mexico, but fought itself. We live with the consequences — of empire, race, and immigration — to this day.
The Alamo myth
Are you not large and unwieldy enough already? Have you not Indians enough to expel from the land of their fathers’ sepulchre?
—John Quincy Adams, during floor debate on Texas Annexation (1836)
Remember the Alamo! The rallying cry still rolls off the American tongue with remarkable fluidity and ease. The facts, as told, are as simple as they are inspiring: fewer than two hundred Texan frontiersmen (most Anglo and some Mexican) waged a hopeless, yet profoundly courageous, battle to the death against some 5,000 Mexican regulars. Not a defender survived, but within months, a new Texan force — motivated by vengeance (and “democracy”) — surprised the Mexican army at San Jacinto and won freedom for Texas.
The story resonates, and why not? It contains all the key components of a classic Western morality play: long odds, martyrdom, and eventual redemption. The tale, at least, is beautifully pure. The actual context — not so much. The teaching of Texas history — almost alone among American states — is mandatory curriculum in public schools from El Paso to Houston. The power of Texan myth was driven home to me as an assistant history professor at West Point, when I found that, besides the Civil War, no subject garnered more sensitivity and pushback from normally deferential cadets.
Those cadets, certainly most Texans, and really the vast majority of Americans, remain unprepared to read or hear the stark reality of the (1835-36) Texas Revolution: that the undoubtedly brave men inside the Alamo died, in large part, for the right to own slaves and (talk about a twist!) maintain a steady stream of illegal immigration into Mexico. What’s more, the flood of (also illegal) American volunteers that aided the Anglo Texans had much in common with the Russian “volunteers” now fighting in Eastern Ukraine. Finally, the eventual — and at the time highly controversial — U.S. annexation of Texas in 1845 as the 28th state, was not only an illegal violation of Mexican sovereignty; it all but ensured the outbreak of an aggressive American war against its southwestern neighbor.
Americans, mostly from the Deep South, and many with slaves in tow, poured into Eastern Texas after 1821, at the invitation (originally) of the Mexican government. Drawn there by cheap land available for growing cotton, the Texians — as they then dubbed themselves — in a combination of chauvinistic and individualistic spirit never took seriously their promises to adhere to Mexican law and convert to Catholicism. Indeed, when Mexico, which had already abolished slavery, sought to curb further Anglo immigration, Americans ignored both strictures and rose in rebellion.
The centrality of the slavery question was made clear by a Texas newspaper, which announced that Mexico must be fought because it was attempting “to give liberty to our slaves, and to make slaves of ourselves.” Furthermore, while the battles of the Alamo and San Jacinto are imprinted on Texan and American memory, few remember that when — during the chaotic rebellion — black slaves attempted to seize their own freedom, they were brutally suppressed by white Texians. About one hundred were returned to their owners, some leaders were hanged, and others were beaten nearly to death. Only the northeastern radical abolitionist papers in the United States, and the Mexican press, covered the story.
That the Texians prevailed was less of a long-shot than it appears. By 1830, Anglos outnumbered Mexican tejanus in the sparsely populated province by more than two to one. That disparity only widened in the intervening six years until, at the time of the Alamo battle, the ratio was ten to one. Even so, thousands more American Southerners were ready to pour in, and the Texians were fairly sure they could count on the beneficence and eventual support of the U.S. government. As the Mexican army retreated south from the rebellious province, many fugitive slaves and fearful Hispanics fled along with the defeated soldiers. Nevertheless, the government in Mexico City never conceded Texian independence, continued to claim the wayward region, and engaged in low-intensity warfare with what they saw as rebel forces along the contested border.
Feeling vulnerable, and full of mostly recent emigrants from the United States, the Texan republic almost immediately petitioned Washington for annexation, followed by statehood. While many Americans, especially in the rural South and Midwest, expected and supported the immediate accession of Texas, it would take nearly a decade for that to occur. In Washington annexation was a dicey and polarizing issue. At the time, the two major parties — Whigs and Democrats — were somewhat geographically diverse. There were still northern and southern wings of each party. The northern factions of both Whigs and Democrats weren’t enthusiastic about adding a huge southern state to the union and thereby upsetting the delicate regional slave/free balance. Furthermore, the establishment leadership in the two parties realized, prudently, that the absorption of Texas — still internationally recognized as Mexican soil — was essentially tantamount to a declaration of war.
However, President John Tyler, an accidental executive who had succeeded William Henry Harrison after a fluke bout of pneumonia killed him just weeks into his presidency, was desperate. Though the bumbling Tyler was nominally a Whig like his former boss, his Democrat-flavored states’ rights policies had alienated his own party, specifically its elder statesman leader, Henry Clay. By 1844, now a president without a party, and seeking to win his own term, Tyler hoped that unilateral Texas annexation would play well with populist sentiment and prove his salvation. In February, the American representative he had sent to Texas exceeded even Tyler’s already stretched intentions and, after secret negotiations, promised the new republic military and naval support immediately upon annexation. The signed document basically committed the U.S. military to war with Mexico.
This article was originally published in the April 2020 edition of Future of Freedom.