The Mexican War: A (sort of) Honest War
A War That is Hard to Celebrate
James Polk was a "manifest destiny" president who wanted the United States to spread from sea to shining sea. As part of his expansion program, he negotiated a deal with the British to split the Oregon Territory in two with the United States taking complete control over the Southern portion. The big prize in his mind, however, was California with its potential thriving West Coast ports.
The only trouble was that Mexico controlled California along with the modern states of Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. While the desert landscapes of these future southwestern states did not seem particularly valuable, they could at least provide land routes to California. Although the United States was built by confiscating land from the previous Native American inhabitants, it would have looked bad if the United States had just marched into Mexican territory and started grabbing territory. Mexico, like the United States, was a former colony of a European nation, and most if its inhabitants were at least partially white.
Fortunately for Polk and other expansion advocates, an opportunity presented itself that would allow the United States to expand without looking like the aggressor. Almost a decade earlier, some people living in Texas, most of them immigrants from the United States, successfully fought a short war for independence against Mexico. Most Texans wanted to be immediately admitted to the United States, but efforts to add Texas to the United States failed for nine years, largely because many Northerners did not like the idea of adding more slave territory to the country. There was also some concern, for good reason, that annexing Texas could cause tension or even war with Mexico. But after the aforementioned Polk was elected president, Southern expansionists, looking to defend and promote their "peculiar institution" of slavery, managed to muster enough Congressional support to push Texas annexation through. The Republic of Texas had now become an American state, and the South had found a way to maintain a delicate balance of power with the North in the US Senate, at least for the time being.
As one might expect, this decision by the United States soured relations with Mexico. Many Mexicans never accepted the legality of what Texas had done and still saw the territory as rightfully theirs. But the annexation of Texas by the United States also raised a simple practical question: where exactly was the border between Texas and the United States? Back when Texas was part of Mexico, this was obviously not an issue, and when Texas declared independence, Mexico was not going to negotiate a formal border with a small weak nation that it did not officially recognize. A border dispute with the United States, however, was an entirely different matter.
For President Polk, this border dispute with Mexico proved to be a golden opportunity. After making an offer to settle this border dispute by buying California and the Southwest, an offer that Mexico soundly rejected, Polk moved on to plan B. If he were to move American troops into territory claimed by both nations, there was a good chance that Mexican forces would attack. Polk could then go to Congress and request a declaration of war, claiming that American forces were attacked on American soil. The United States would then be free to invade Mexico in the name of self-defense. Mexico ended up taking the bait, and Polk quickly made his argument for war to Congress. While many in Congress, particularly Northern members of the Whig Party, had their doubts about the self-defense claim and saw this as another effort to expand slave territory, the overwhelming majority of Congressmen followed a basic rule of governance that has been a good rule of thumb throughout American (and world) history: when in doubt, vote for the war. The last thing any Congressman wants is to appear unpatriotic.
The rest of the story played out predictably. While the United States was not exactly a great military power at this point in history, Mexico proved to be even more incompetent. The United States would ultimately invade both the heart of Mexico and its lands in North America, winning every battle but one. Some Americans hoped to annex all of Mexico as part of their dream of the United States one day controlling the entire Western Hemisphere.
In the end, the United States decided to take "only" the northern half of Mexico. The problem with taking the bottom part was that the United States would have gained far more than just land. It would have also acquired all of those brown people with their various social and economic problems. The top part, on the other hand, was lightly populated, and California had always been the big prize anyway. In order to create the appearance of buying territory rather than conquering it, the United States paid Mexico $18 million - largely in the form of taking over responsibility for Mexican debts - for this huge chunk of land. The United States also promised to respect the rights of the relatively small number of Mexican-Americans who had just seen their homeland change hands, a promise that was often not honored. Shortly after the war ended, gold was struck in California, hundreds of thousands of people poured in, California was quickly made a state (giving the North a one state advantage over the South), and the rest you might say is history.
Like all countries, Americans have a history of glorifying their nation's past wars. This has been particularly true with the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War II, and, to a lesser extent, World War I. People like to remember these as struggles of good versus evil in which the United States was fighting for noble principles. You would be hard pressed, however, to find many tales of glory from the Mexican War that have stirred the hearts of Americans for the past 170 years. Few Americans today know much of anything about the details of this conflict. Hell, I am a history instructor, and I know significantly less about the Mexican War than other more publicized conflicts. I guess it's hard to get excited about a war that was so clearly just a land grab covered up by claims of self-defense and $18 million.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that those more noble and celebrated wars were not necessarily as noble as advertised. Americans did not all rally as one people to take down an extremely brutal overlord in the American Revolution. The North was not primarily fighting to free the slaves during the Civil War. In World War II, the United States committed many brutal and highly questionable actions on its road to victory, a victory largely made possible because Americans were willing to work with Stalin's Soviet Union. This is not to say that these wars were all bad. It is just an acknowledgment that war is always a nasty business, and clear lines between good and evil cannot always be found. Wars tend to be more about power, wealth, land, and status than about noble ideals like freedom and democracy. At least with the Mexican War, we recognize it for what it was, assuming we choose to remember it at all.