Blaming America First–For The Mexican War

Blaming America First – for the Mexican War
By William R. Hawkins | October 11, 2006

Left-wing academics will use the auspices of the History Channel to denounce the United States as a bully launching a war of conquest in the Mexican War. The academics seem to liken the embattled Texicans (who stole Aztlan) to modern illegal immigrants and portray the modern antiwar movement as the successors of Abraham Lincoln.

On September 29, the History Channel premiered a two-hour documentary on the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, which will air again on Friday, October 13. The well-regarded cable channel promoted the program by tying it to current issues, stating, At a time when immigration reform continues to be one of the most heated topics in political and business circles, this 2-hour special reexamines the controversial war that resulted in the United States taking control of what was nearly half of Mexico's territory.

The show featured interviews with both Mexican and American historians to ensure accuracy from both nations' points of view but was not hosted by a scholar. Instead, boxer Oscar de la Hoya opened the presentation and he wasnt there just for star power. He talked about his dual citizenship, having been born in the United States from Mexican parents. And while he was proud to have won an Olympic Gold Medal for the USA, he considered his victory had been won for both countries. Though he did not add much to the narrative, when he did, La Hoya spoke from the Mexican perspective.

Five historians comment throughout the show. The two Mexican professors, Jesus Velasco Marquez and Joselina Zoralda Vasquez, defend Mexicos honor at every turn. The three American scholars, Associate Professor Brian Delay of the University of Colorado, Assoc. Prof. Sam W. Haynes of the Univ. of Texas-Arlington, and author Bruce Winders, were generally critical of U.S. policy. According to the shows producer, Jim Lindsay, Haynes brief book James Polk and the Expansionist Impulse was the principle source for the documentary. Lindsey is also quoted as saying:

There are parallels between the war thats going on today and the war in Mexico. There was certainly in the 1840s a rush to war, and afterwards a great deal of second-guessing on the part of Congress as to whether or not this was the right policy for the United States.

Not the right policy? Victory in the Mexican War gained for the United States all of Texas, California, and everything in between, comprising most of what is now New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. Next to the War of Independence and the Union victory in the Civil War, the Mexican War was the most important conflict endowing the United States with, as Prof. Delay noted, the wealth and security we enjoy today. Yet, it is not much remembered because, according to Delay, we want to believe we are a virtuous people who would not fight a war in this way even though we are happy with the results.

Mexican textbooks claim that the American southwest was stolen and will someday be regained. Radical elements in the movement championing an open border between the U.S. and Mexico, and not just amnesty for the millions of illegal immigrants who have crossed the existing border, hope to someday fulfill this irredentist ambition.

This is ironic because it was the influx of American settlers into California and Texas that lost these territories to Mexico in the first place. The History Channel program does not mention that from 1824 to 1830, promises of cheap land and tax breaks attracted Americans to settle in Texas on the condition they become Roman Catholic and swear allegiance to Mexico. But the number of American colonists alarmed the Mexican government, which prohibited future immigration and tried to coax its own people to move north in 1830. But American farmers, ranchers and merchants kept coming. In response to the repressive dictatorship of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the Texicans revolted in 1835. They declared their independence a year later and established it on the battlefield.

In December 1845, President Jose Herrera told his state governors that regaining Texas would be useless because not enough Mexicans could be persuaded to move there to hold it. The same could be said for California and the rest of the Northern Territory. As Prof. Vasquez notes, Mexico was unpopulated in the north because conditions there were so difficult.

The proximate cause of the Mexican War was where to draw the international border after Texas joined the United States in 1845. Texas had claimed the Rio Grande river (also known as the Del Norte), but neither this line nor the independence of Texas itself had been recognized by the Mexican government. President James K. Polk tried to buy the disputed area, as well as California and New Mexico. This was how President Thomas Jefferson had obtained the vast Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon, who knew he couldnt hold the territory and needed the money. The Mexican government seemed in the same plight, bankrupt and on the brink of civil war.

The History Channel did not mention that a military coup overthrew Herrera during the negotiations. Another coup brought Santa Anna back from exile in Cuba. He had talked his way past the U.S. naval blockade by promising to negotiate peace, but had never intended to do anything wage war. There was wild talk about not only retaking Texas but of marching on New Orleans.

With diplomacy failing, President Polk sent 3,400 soldiers under General (and future president) Zachary Taylor to enforce the U.S.-Texas boundary claim. All the scholars on the History Channel documentary argue this was an American attempt to bully Mexico into selling the Northern Territories, but that is a hard assertion to maintain given that Mexico had four times as many soldiers under arms as the United States. Mexico had a regular army of 19,000 soldiers plus a 10,000-man militia, most of whom were on permanent active duty and led by professional officers. The U.S. had a regular army of only 7,000 scattered across the western frontier.

The Mexican-American War began when a U.S. patrol was ambushed north of the Rio Grande on April 25, 1846. Eleven U.S. soldiers were killed. (The attack is reenacted by the History Channel.) President Polk asked Congress to declare war on May 11, the day after word of the battle reached Washington. The House vote was 174-14, but the Senate passed the war proclamation by only one vote.

Though heavily outnumbered in every major battle, the Americans outfought their opponents. For example, at Cerro Gordo, 1,400 Americans outflanked and defeated 4,000 entrenched Mexicans, and it took only 7,400 U.S. troops to drive 16,000 enemy soldiers out of Mexico City. The History Channel does a good job on the military aspects of the campaign, aided by well-crafted re-enactments and location filming. The commentators agree that better U.S. planning, superior artillery tactics, and tenacity allowed the Americans to carry the day. The Mexican historians understandably stress the determination of their soldiers to defend their homeland against aggression. Given prominent mention is the legend of the six military cadets who fought to the death at Chapultepec, the last one wrapping himself in the Mexican flag and throwing himself off the battlements rather than surrender.

The audience will have hopefully learned the unstated lesson of this story, and apply it to current conflicts. Americas enemies are not just going to go away or have a change of heart. They must be defeated. The only choices left to any enemy should be either surrender or suicide.

The History Channel does mention that the war was popular, noting that in Tennessee, 30,000 volunteers showed up wanting to enlist. The name of University of Tennessee athletic teams, The Volunteers, is linked to this episode.

The programs focus, however, is on the antiwar movement. Many Whigs were against expansion, and some Democrats were concerned about presidential power. The documentary opened by mentioning Congressman Abraham Lincoln had called the war unconstitutional. The Whigs were willing to accept Mexicos claims to the border and denounced Polk, a Democrat, for sending U.S. troops into harms way to contest the issue. Lincoln introduced the infamous spot resolution demanding that Polk prove the spot where American blood had been shed was U.S. territory. Yet when Congress voted Texas into the union, it had officially accepted the Rio Grande as its border and even incorporated it into a Congressional district in the House of Representatives.

Prof. Marquez rekindled this argument, claiming that Polk absolutely lied about the ambush having taken place on American soil. Vasquez claims that Polk provoked Mexico into firing the first shot by sending troops into Mexican territory and that his message to Congress was full of lies. At stake was disputed territory, and such a difference of opinion does not mean either side is lying. Such matters are settled by power. In a veiled reference to current events, Haynes talked of how members of Congress felt railroaded by President Bush, who had not allowed adequate time for debate before going to war. Delay twice argued that the U.S. invaded a weaker neighbor because we wanted what she had and this act changed the character of America for the worse.

There was also an attempt to argue that Mexican resistance was stronger than anticipated; thus, the war was prolonged, feeding antiwar sentiment. But Mexico City fell in September 1847, only 16 months after war was declared. A U.S. column had taken Santa Fe in May 1846, and on July 7, 1846, California was declared ready for annexation with the successful uprising by American settlers under the Bear Flag. Given the vast territory and the slow pace of movement and communications 160 years ago, the Mexican campaign was rapid. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo met all of Polks territorial objectives. He had completed Americas march across the continent, gaining strategic California ports to open the Pacific.

In the conclusion of the History Channel documentary, Haynes again tries to indoctrinate the audience with left-wing morality.

Polk does more than any other Chief Executive to make the United States a hemispheric power. That in and of itself is a remarkable accomplishment. But it is the means by which that was accomplished that has made many American historians rather uneasy. He does bully a weaker nation…This was a war of conquest.

Haynes represents the liberal-left preference for placing abstract values above such concrete principles as American livelihood, let alone liberty. He says the war presented the U.S. with a moral dilemma: would America be a good nation or a great nation? To be good means to put the self-determination of neighbors ahead of our own self-interest, he asserts.

Which is why it is so dangerous to the wealth and security of the country to ever allow the Left to gain power. Going into the fall elections, the Democrats are making White House competence in Iraq and Afghanistan an issue. But history and ideology make it clear that the objective of left-wing policy is not to be more effective, but simply to promote a leftist agenda. Leftist criticism of the Mexican-American War shows just how far this self-defeating ideology can go. The History Channel inadvertently performed a valuable service: it showed how left-wing sentiments can imperil the United States during a war fought along its own borders, not to mention conflicts overseas.

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William R. Hawkins is Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the U.S. Business and Industrial Council in Washington, D.C.