“We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God”—America’s War in Mexico, 1846-8
We can easily defeat the armies of Mexico, slaughter them by thousands, and pursue them perhaps to their capital; we can conquer and “annex” their territory; but what then? Have the histories of the the ruin of Greek and Roman liberty consequent on such extensions of empire by the sword no lesson for us? Who believes that a score of victories over Mexico, the “annexation” of half her provinces, will give us more Liberty, a purer Morality, a more prosperous Industry, than we now have?... Is not Life miserable enough, comes not Death soon enough, without resort to the hideous enginery of War?
--Horace Greeley, Editor, The New York Tribune, May 12, 1846
The Emperor Napleon needed money, hard cash, to prosecute his war against the British, Germans, Austrians and Russians, and so he sold Louisiana and a great deal more to Pres. Thomas Jefferson of the US, in 1803, for a price of $15 million, or approximately 4 cents per acre—a bargain at the time, an unimaginable bargain still (no one had consulted the Native Americans, who did not believe anyone could “own” land, anyhow, and the whites did not care what they thought). The fledgling America now found itself with a new, albeit weak, neighbor, Mexico, which went on to win its own 1821 revolution against Spain, and thereby gained what are now New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, and part of Colorado.
In 1836, a loud-mouthed and boldly-acting bunch of Texicans broke off from Mexico in 1836 and declared themselves “The Lone Star Republic,” with more than a little not-so-covert aid from the US, which desired “Pacific frontage,” as it was called, for trade expansion. The Slave States were always looking to expand, as cotton depleted the soil. In 1845, Congress brought Texas into the Union as a slave state.
James Polk, a Democrat and expansionist, occupied the Presidency, and he was eager to add land and states. When he ordered Gen. Zachary Taylor to move US troops to the Rio Grande, it was a direct challenge to Mexico—that is, a provocation. Taylor had opposed Texas annexation, but he was a good soldier, and followed orders.
In America proper, we have no record of how ordinary Americans, the native-born and immigrants both, felt about any rumors of war—there were no public opinion polls at the time, no Facebook to transmit half-baked rumors, no TV, radio or Web. Most of the people hungered for information, and the press was happy to beat the drums for War. Here is the New York Morning News: “Young and ardent spirits that throng the cities…want but a direction to their restless energies, and their attention is already fixed on Mexico” (quoted in Zinn, p. 158).
At the same time, Taylor’s force, by entering Mexico, had broken international law, both then and today. A military incident followed: one of his aides, a Col. Cross, was ambushed and killed—Taylor assumed by “Mexican guerrillas,” though we will never know; he was buried with full military honors, and Taylor prepared to avenge his death (Zinn, 2010, p. 151).
Still, here is the dissenting voice of another officer on Taylor’s staff, who left us his diary. Col. Ethan Allen Hitchcock, 3rd Infantry Regt., Commanding:
I have said from the first that the US are the aggressors (sic)….We have not one particle of right to be here….It looks as if the [US] government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses, for, whatever becomes of this army, there is no doubt of a war between the US and Mexico….My heart is not in this business…but, as a military man, I am bound to execute orders (Zinn, p. 151).
After a US patrol of Taylor’s troopers were surrounded, attacked by Mexicans, and wiped out—sixteen dead, others wounded, the rest captured—Taylor sent messages to the governors of Texas and Louisiana, asking them to recruit 5,000 volunteers, as he had pre-planned with Washington prior to his departure, and he sent a dispatch to the President: “Hostilities may now be considered as commenced.”
Historians agree that Polk, by his actions in sending Taylor, “had incited war by sending American soldiers into what was disputed territory, historically controlled and inhabited by Mexicans” (Schroeder, J., Mr. Polk’s War, quoted in Zinn, p. 152).
At the war’s beginning, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois of the Whig Party was not yet serving in Congress. In 1846, his “spot resolutions” became famous—he challenged Polk to “specify the exact spot where American blood was shed ‘on the American soil’” (Zinn, p. 153). He continued, speaking against the Democrat-held House on behalf of the Whigs:
The marching of an army into the midst of a peaceful Mexican settlement, frightening the inhabitants away, leaving their growing crops and other property to destruction, to you may appear a perfectly amiable, peaceful, unprovoking procedure; but it does not appear so to us…. (Zinn, p. 154).
In Brooklyn NY, the young poet Walt Whitman, caught up in the war fever, wrote in the Brooklyn Eagle, “Yes: Mexico must be thoroughly chastised! …Let our arms now be carried with a spirit which shall teach the world that, while we are not forward for a quarrel, America knows how to crush, as well as how to expand!”
It is noteworthy that his later poetry struck a distinctly anti-war tone, in “Song of Myself” and “Leaves of Grass.”
When white Americans spoke about the Mexicans themselves, there was a strong element of racism, as well. The American Review talked of Mexicans yielding to “a superior population, insensibly oozing into her territories, changing her customs, and out-living, out-trading, exterminating her weaker blood.” Senator H.V. Johnson spoke of “manifest destiny,” meaning that the “Anglo-Saxon race” was destined to conquer the entire continent (quoted in Zinn, p. 155).
In Concord, MA, in a famous incident, Henry David Thoreau took a stand, refusing to pay a poll tax, knowing that it would be used to fund what he considered an unjust war. Accordingly, to punish him, the town fathers of Concord put him in jail. When his friend and fellow Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson came to visit him, he exclaimed, “Thoreau, what are you doing in there?”
To which Thoreau replied, “Emerson, what are you doing out there?”
His friends eventually paid the fine, and Thoreau went on to write On Civil Disobedience, which influenced both Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Finally, it was the common soldier who marched, fought, looted, raped, and suffered.
Although they had volunteered to go to war, and by far the greater number of them honored their commitments by creditably sustaining hardship and battle, and behaved as well as soldiers in a hostile country are apt to behave, they did not like the army, they did not like war, and generally speaking, they did not like Mexico or the Mexicans. This was the majority: disliking the job, resenting the discipline and caste system of the army, and wanting to get out and go home.
--Chronicles of the Gringos, quoted in Zinn, p. 168
But today, between Israel and Palestine, the Negev and Gaza: what is to be done? The question stands….