A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico

BY AMY S. GREENBERG

VINTAGE, 370 PAGES, $8.88

Few of America’s foreign wars have been as controversial in their own time as the U.S.-Mexican War. The conflict shattered the American narrative that their foreign policy was different from the aggressive European wars waged for territorial expansion. Up until this time American battles fought against native tribes and Barbary pirates had been self-described as purely defensive. The war with Mexico, however, was America’s first aggressive conflict against another independent republic. It was loudly denounced in America from the very beginning, and a vocal antiwar community formed to oppose the invasion of Mexico. It also had a higher rate of desertion than in any other American war. Entire Mexican battalions were formed of former U.S. soldiers who had deserted and volunteered to fight for the enemy. In her book, “A Wicked War,” Amy Greenberg makes the case that few people carry more blood on their hands for dragging America into this conflict than President James K. Polk.

Polk was a Southern Democrat through and through, proudly standing in opposition to the urban elite Whigs, and the banks and factories that financed them. Faced with the massive task of following in the path of his mentor, Andrew Jackson, Polk believed that he could reinvigorate the Democratic Party and unite America against the Whigs through the gospel of Manifest Destiny.

 

James K. Polk

James K. Polk

The push west could solve all of America’s problems. It could provide the immigrant masses crowding American cities with land of their own to farm and a stake in society, as well as reinforce patriarchy by providing men with a means of supporting their families in an environment where strength and physical skill mattered. It would buttress American democracy by reducing the growing strength of manufacturing in the economy and the influence of the northeastern urban elite who profited front that system. And Alta California, on the far west coast, was home to harbors that might allow the United States to compete with Europe for control of trade with China. Expansion would make America strong. Expansionism was a winning political issue and the best policy for the country. But—and Polk believed this in his very soul—it was also right. (Greenberg, “A Wicked War,” p. 36)

 

But California belonged to Mexico, which meant that Polk first had to plan a way to wrestle it free, and convince Congress to support him in it.

Already within the first few months of his presidency Polk had managed to insult Mexico by ignoring Texas’s disputed status, something which had deterred previous presidents, and annexing it into the United States. Further offensive diplomatic gestures were intended to provoke Mexican nationalists, while being disguised as attempts to treat with the Mexican President. All the while Polk was dispatching war ships to threaten Mexican ports, and ordering the American army deep into disputed territory in order to push Mexico into firing the first shots.

 

He [Polk] certainly didn’t want to be blamed for sparking a war. No, he was counting on some bullying, and just a bit of brinksmanship to create a messy little incident that would do the trick. Like most Americans, Polk felt a deep disdain for the racially mixed population of Mexico, and confidence that they would capitulate when faced with the resolution and might of the United States. He was furthermore convinced that their leaders were both corrupt and cowardly. When faced with war, they would certainly sell him California. (p. 76)

 

Even if Polk couldn’t provoke Mexico into throwing the first punch he would declare war. Polk privately confided that he had “made up” his mind to send a declaration of war to Congress “very soon” (p. 102-103). And later that same week he asked his cabinet if they would support such a declaration. In his opinion there already was “ample cause for war” and “it was impossible that we could stand in statu quo, or that I could remain silent much longer” (p. 103). “[T]he country was excited and impatient on the subject,” and if he failed to respect the nation’s democratic desires, “I would not be doing my duty” (103). All but one of the cabinet agreed that Polk should request Congress to approve war against Mexico the following Tuesday. Only four hours later did he receive news that U.S. troops and Mexican soldiers had clashed in the disputed region inside the Nueces Strip. Eager to take advantage of the situation, Polk spent the rest of that day and the next, eagerly drafting up a declaration of war to be presented to Congress.

Read the entire article at ShotGlassofHistory.com