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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Mexican War

I recently finished reading the book So Far from God: The U.S. War With Mexico, 1846-1848, written by historian John S. D. Eisenhower, son of the former President. As the immigration debate has heated up, many lefties have pointed out that the US stole most of what is now the American southwest--Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, California--from Mexico. I read the book in an attempt to learn just how true that was.

My basic conclusion--adding those states, or taking them from Mexico, was not a huge crime. The way it was done, however, was. Here are the details, as I understand it:

Mexico did not become independent from Spain until 1821. The war for independence had lasted eleven years, and was at least as much Mexicans fighting Mexicans as it was Mexicans fighting Spaniards. The people living in Mexico at the time were in four major ethic groups: 1) Spanish, born in Spain; 2) Creoles, of pure Spanish blood but born in Mexico; 3)Mestizos, of mixed Spanish and indigenous ("Indian") blood; and 4) the indigenous population. The main push for independence came from the Creoles fighting the Spanish. Both sides attempted to co-opt or simply use the other classes to achieve their ends. Independence was finally gained more because Spain faced other distractions elsewhere than because they were defeated by Mexican revolutionaries.

The end result was a huge, sparsely-populated nation with nasty ethnic divisions. The Catholic Church and various regional warlords generally had as much real power as the government in Mexico City (which changed constantly). Communication (which in the first half of the 19th century was pretty much synonymous with transportation) with the distant parts of the country was practically non-existent. Furthermore, the areas which eventually became parts of the US were sparsely populated, and few of the people living there had any political or emotional attachment to the new nation of Mexico. Soon, settlers from the growing giant to the northeast, the US, started moving into these territories, and there was little that Mexico could do to stop them.

The first area heavily settled was Texas. By the 1830's the American settlers far outnumbered both the indigenous and Mexican populations there. These Texans fought a nasty little war with Mexico, and proclaimed their independence in 1836. As more Americans moved in and fortified Texas, the chance of Mexico ever winning it back grew more remote. While this must have rankled some of the leaders in Mexico City, it became much worse when the Americans in Texas applied to Washington to become a state. Having a rebellious province was one thing; losing a huge chunk of territory to a neighboring country was another. Nevertheless, there was little Mexico could do about it except send some troops up to the border.

And this was a problem, since the border wasn't really well defined. Mexico considered the Nueces River, which runs through Corpus Christi, to be the southern border of Texas, but the Texans and Americans claimed the border was the Rio Grande, some 130 miles farther south. As soon as Texas was admitted to the Union, President Polk sent American troops down to Corpus Christi. Shortly thereafter, they crossed the Nueces and marched on down to the Rio Grande. Eventually the Mexicans killed some of them, and Polk had his causus belli. (Which was basically that Mexicans had killed Americans on "American" soil, that being disputed land which may or may not have been part of a territory very recently admitted to the Union.)

So far, so bad. Admitting Texas was a provocation, to be sure, but it certainly recognized facts on the ground. It probably would have eventually become accepted fact without any war if Polk hadn't sent the troops in. But the US wasn't satisfied with just Texas, or even Texas extended to the Rio Grande. Many in the government believed that it was the "manifest destiny" of the US to extend from sea to shining sea, and they wanted California and everything in between. While this annexation probably could have been accomplished eventually in the same manner as it was with Texas--with American settlers becoming "facts on the ground"--Polk and his Democratic supporters didn't want to wait. They wanted to beat Mexico up in a war and force them to cede the territories. So that's what they did. General Zachary Taylor marched his troops on the Monterrey, and General Winfield Scott landed troops at Veracruz. They besieged Veracruz, pounding it for days with heavy artillery until it surrendered. The troops then marched on towards Mexico City, leaving death and destruction in their wake. Eventually they forced the Mexican government, such as it was, to the negotiating table, and got them to "sell" half of their territory to the US for $15 million, giving the land grab a thin veneer of legitimacy.

My conclusion, based on reading this one book, is that adding the western states wasn't that much of a crime--chances are they would have become part of the US anyway. But the march from the Nueces to the Rio Grande was an unnecessary and illegal provocation, while the marches to Monterrey and from Veracruz to Mexico City were completely criminal and without any legitimate cause.

It is interesting that the "facts on the ground" argument is now reversing--in most of the states which were added, white Americans are now in the minority. The "facts on the ground" argument may soon argue for these states being rejoined to Mexico.

A couple of other interesting notes. Opponents of the war, including Abraham Lincoln, were accused of aiding the enemy and being traitors. Also, members of the Whig party, who was at first mostly opposed to the war, generally voted for funding it, out of fear that voting against "supporting the troops" would hurt their chances politically. The Whigs basically ceased to exist eight years after the war ended. A lesson for our Democrats, perhaps?