Chemical Plant Disaster Agency in Trump’s Crosshairs

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by William G. Schulz / Reveal.

On a warm morning in April, workers at a Wisconsin oil refinery were conducting a routine shutdown for maintenance. Suddenly, a gasoline cracking unit exploded, and the workers watched in horror as a huge fireball ripped through the plant. They ran for their lives, barely escaping the blast.

Debris from the explosion ruptured a tank, which spilled more than half a million gallons of hot asphalt that burst into flames and burned for nine hours. Black smoke spread over the port town of Superior. Eleven workers were injured, and about 40,000 people were evacuated from nearby homes and schools.

Within 24 hours of the explosion at the Husky Energy Inc. refinery, a small team of federal investigators arrived. Their mission, Superior Mayor Jim Paine reassured residents, was to “find out what happened and how we prevent it in the future.”

Earlier this month, after a three-month probe, the investigators from the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board concluded that a faulty valve at the plant caused the explosion. The board plans to issue recommendations that aim to prevent such an accident from happening again at a refinery.

But despite the warm welcome in Superior – and wide recognition of its expertise in chemical plant disasters – this small, independent federal agency is teetering on the brink of elimination.

The Trump administration has twice in its budgets attempted to shut down the Chemical Safety Board; so far, Congress has rejected the attempts. For the 2019 fiscal year, both the House and Senate have proposed restoring full funding.

But the assaults appear to be taking a toll. Hostility from the Trump administration and disarray from its efforts to eliminate the agency follow years of leadership turmoil and high turnover that started during the Obama administration. In 2015, its chairman, who was embroiled in a congressional investigation into poor management, resigned under pressure – yet leadership problems remain.

Combined, these problems threaten to cripple the agency’s investigations of chemical plant disasters, according to interviews and reports obtained by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. A report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general says the turmoil “if not addressed, may seriously impede the agency’s ability to achieve its mission efficiently and effectively.”

The Trump administration argues that the Chemical Safety Board duplicates the work of other federal agencies. Administration budget documents also cite unspecified complaints from industry and other federal agencies about the board’s recommendations for new regulations of the chemical industry.

Health and safety advocates and labor unions say the board is essential because aging oil and chemical facilities have had some of the deadliest and costliest industrial accidents in the past two decades.

More than 12,000 plants store or handle toxic or flammable chemicals in the United States. Under worst-case scenarios for more than 2,500 of these facilities, between 10,000 and 1 million people could be harmed, according to a 2012 Congressional Research Service report. An estimated 4.6 million children at nearly 10,000 schools are within 1 mile of a plant that handles hazardous chemicals, according to the Center for Effective Government.

Local officials, including emergency responders, often have little information about the chemicals and safety conditions at the plants in their communities. The chemical industry keeps much of this information under wraps, invoking national security and a need to protect confidential business information.

“Millions of people live and work in the shadow of high-risk chemical plants that store and use highly hazardous chemicals,” said Jordan Barab, a former board investigator who now blogs about worker safety.

Little-Known Federal Agency

Over its 20-year history, the Chemical Safety Board has investigated more than 150 explosions, fires and spills at chemical plants and oil refineries.

Included are the 2012 Chevron refinery fire in Richmond, California, whichdrove about 15,000 people to seek medical care, and the 2013 West Fertilizer Co. explosion in Texas, where 15 people, including 12 emergency responders, died and 350 homes were damaged or destroyed.

Similar to the National Transportation Safety Board, which probes airplane, ship and railroad accidents, the Chemical Safety Board has no regulatory authority and does not issue fines or prosecute companies. But its findings often point to problems that other agencies may act upon: It has issued 815 recommendations designed to prevent tragedies at oil and chemical plants.

Established by Congress in the wake of two chemical plant explosions in Texas that killed or injured more than 350 workers, the board has a staff of 35 and a budget of $11 million a year – miniscule compared with other federal agencies. For the next fiscal year, the House has proposed $12 million in funding, while the Senate has proposed $11 million.

Mike Wright, director of health, safety and environment for the United Steelworkers, has called the board “one of the best bargains in Washington. If it has prevented even one accident, it has saved far more money than its budget over its entire history.”

The Trump administration has justified its proposal to eliminate the agency by saying other agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the EPA, already do similar investigative work.

“Congress intended CSB to be an investigative arm that is wholly independent of the rulemaking, inspection, and enforcement authorities of its partner agencies,” according to Trump administration budget documents. “While CSB has done some useful work on its investigations, its overlap with other agency investigative authorities has often generated friction. The previous management sought to focus CSB’s recommendations on the need for greater regulation of industry, which frustrated both regulators and industry.”

There apparently was friction between two federal agencies during the investigation of the West Fertilizer disaster in Texas. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives concluded that the cause was arson, while the Chemical Safety Board reported that unsafe storage practices for combustible materials contributed to the explosion and a lack of sprinklers spread the flames. The bureau kept Chemical Safety Board investigators away from the site for four weeks, which hampered their ability to investigate the explosion, according to a board report.

The White House did not disclose any evidence that industry groups or companies have complained about the board’s investigations or recommendations.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical companies, told Reveal in a statement that its members “find considerable value in the CSB’s work – especially the reports and materials generated by the Board as part of its investigations.” The investigations “raise industry awareness to potential problems” and “have benefitted ACC, its members and the public.” The industry group, however, declined to answer questions.

But former board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso, who resigned under pressure in 2015, blames his ouster on retaliation by some Republican members of Congress for his agency’s aggressive investigations of oil company accidents, including the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico; the 2010 Tesoro refinery accident in Anacortes, Washington; and the 2012 Chevron refinery fire in California.

In those three investigations, the board made recommendations “that were opposed by industry groups … and their friendly congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives,” Moure-Eraso said. The overarching recommendation was that federal regulations should require refineries and offshore oil platforms to continually meet higher safety standards and reduce risk.

Moure-Eraso said industry groups welcome investigations because they improve safety for their workers and neighbors. But, he added, the groups oppose some of the board’s recommendations.

“When changes on improving protections require regulation, the support abruptly ends,” he said.

For example, after the Texas fertilizer plant explosion, the Obama administration enacted safety measures requiring more detailed public reporting of chemical hazards and improved safety training. But under President Donald Trump, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt moved to rescind most of the new rules, saying they would cost the industry too much – an estimated $88 million a year – and could make public information about chemical plants that would be useful to terrorists.

Moure-Eraso said the board’s highly technical investigations are not duplicated by federal regulatory agencies, which “obviously have failed to prevent some major chemical accidents.”

The EPA inspector general’s office under the Trump administration appears to agree. In a June report, the office said the board’s work complements other agencies’ work because “the root causes of an incident go beyond whether there was a violation of a regulation.”

Adam Carlesco, staff counsel for the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which represents government employees, said the chemical industry has stalled efforts to improve reporting of chemical plant accidents.

His group has sued to enforce a part of the board’s statutory authority that says it must compel companies to report plant accidents directly to the board. When the board tried to do this in 2009, industry groups called it burdensome. The pushback eventually led the board to drop the effort.

‘Agency in Disarray’

During the Obama administration, two House committees investigated charges that the board under Moure-Eraso had an abusive and hostile work environment and conspired to punish agency whistleblowers. No details about the whistleblowers were released publicly.

Also, the EPA’s inspector general criticized the number and pace of investigations. A 2014 report by the two House committees called it an “agency in disarray.”

The turmoil continues. Since January, the board has lost seven of its 18 investigators. In June, its chairwoman since 2015, Vanessa Sutherland, resigned and took a vice presidency job with a railroad company. And the EPA inspector general’s June report identified more mismanagement problems, including evidence that an unidentified board member improperly shared information with a labor union representative.

The inspector general’s office reported “negative impact from the President’s continued proposal to eliminate the agency.”

“This budget uncertainty impedes the CSB’s ability to attract, hire and retain staff,” according to the report, which added that the board “should continue to work with Congress toward achieving funding needs wherever possible.”

Earlier this month, U.S. Reps. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., chairman of the Interior, Energy and Environment Subcommittee, wrote the White House asking that Trump nominate a new chairman because the vacancy “could plunge the agency into further chaos.”

The board members and chairman are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

“Recent reports indicate mismanagement and improper conduct continue to undermine the CSB’s mission,” the congressmen wrote.

Living in Fear in Superior

Debates about budgets and board leadership are not much of a balm for people who live with oil and chemical plants in their communities.

Residents of the Twin Ports area – the cities of Superior, population 27,000, and Duluth, Minnesota – still live in fear of the Husky Energy plant after the April accident.

Those who live near the refinery said the explosion was so powerful that they could feel the detonation. They now understand a harsh reality shared by millions of Americans: An accident at a chemical plant or refinery in their community could level their homes or injure them with toxic gases or smoke.

“I watched this … scary thing happen off my back porch,” Superior resident Renee Goodrich said at a City Council meeting a few days after the accident.

“Looking back, the normal pace of that day was terrifying,” said resident Gabriela Vo. “Were the citizens of Pompeii just going about their daily lives when the fateful volcano erupted? The smoke alone was enough to raise health concerns, let alone the possibility of the town blowing up.”

The black smoke posed some health risks due to high concentrations of fine particles, but after it cleared, monitoring by company and county officials showed no air pollutants violated health standards.

Husky pledged cooperation and transparency with officials, and the Chemical Safety Board investigators said the company granted them full access to its plant and records. The company declined to answer questions from Reveal, citing the ongoing investigation.

The investigators concluded that a worn-out valve in a fluid catalytic cracking unit – equipment used to refine gasoline – allowed air to contact flammable chemicals, triggering the explosion. The board now is developing its recommendations on how to avoid such accidents.

It could have been a catastrophe: The board’s investigators reported that debris flew 200 feet into an asphalt tank. A storage tank filled with highly toxic hydrogen fluoride sits in the same area, just 150 feet away from the cracking unit that exploded. It was undamaged. If it had ruptured, the fumes could have caused severe injuries or deaths.

The company said the plant has a system of safeguards that would have prevented release of the gas, which is used to make high-octane gasoline, even if the tank had been punctured.

“The (hydrogen fluoride) storage tank is designed with multiple protection levels including a dedicated deluge system that douses the tank with a water curtain to keep it cooled and mitigate potential releases,” the company said in a statement.

But many locals – including Pat Farrell, a University of Minnesota Duluth soil scientist who is pushing for safety changes – think the town got lucky.

“One piece of shrapnel would have been all that was necessary for a major disaster, the scale of which the Twin Ports here have never seen,” Farrell said.

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American History for Truthdiggers: The Fraudulent Mexican-American War (1846-48)

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Maj. Danny Sjursen.

Editor’s note: The past is prologue. The stories we tell about ourselves and our forebears inform the sort of country we think we are and help determine public policy. As our current president promises to “make America great again,” this moment is an appropriate time to reconsider our past, look back at various eras of United States history and re-evaluate America’s origins. When, exactly, were we “great”?

Below is the 15th installment of the “American History for Truthdiggers” series, a pull-no-punches appraisal of our shared, if flawed, past. The author of the series, Danny Sjursen, an active-duty major in the U.S. Army, served military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught the nation’s checkered, often inspiring past when he was an assistant professor of history at West Point. His war experiences, his scholarship, his skill as a writer and his patriotism illuminate these Truthdig posts.

Part 15 of “American History for Truthdiggers.”

See: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6; Part 7; Part 8; Part 9; Part 10; Part 11Part 12; Part 13; Part 14;.

* * *

The United States of America conquered half of Mexico. There isn’t any way around that fact. The regions of the U.S. most affected by “illegal” immigration—California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas—were once part of the Republic of Mexico. They would have remained so if not for the Mexican-American War (1846-48). Those are the facts, but they hardly tell the story. Few Americans know much about this war, rarely question U.S. motives in the conflict and certainly never consider that much of America’s land—from sea to shining sea—was conquered.

Many readers will dispute this interpretation. Conquest is the natural order of the world, the inevitable outgrowth of clashing civilizations, they will insist. Perhaps. But if true, where does the conquest end, and how can the U.S. proudly celebrate its defense of Europe against the invasions by Germany and/or the Soviet Union? This line of militaristic reasoning—one held by many senior conservative policymakers even today—rests on the slipperiest of slopes. Certainly nations, like individuals, must adhere to a certain moral code, a social contract of behavior.

In this installment I will argue that American politicians and soldiers manufactured a war with Mexico, sold it to the public and then proceeded to conquer their southern neighbor. They were motivated by dreams of cheap farmland, California ports and the expansion of the cotton economy along with its peculiar partner, the institution of slavery. Our forebears succeeded, and they won an empire. Only in the process they may have lost something far more valuable in the moral realm.

(Mis)Remember the Alamo!: Texas and the Road to War

“The Fall of the Alamo” or “Crockett’s Last Stand,” by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk. This 1903 painting, on display in the Texas governor’s mansion, shows the famed frontiersman, at center wielding a rifle, battling to the death. Mexican accounts hold that Davy Crockett surrendered and later was executed. (Wikimedia Commons)

We all know the comforting tale. It has been depicted in countless Hollywood films starring the likes of John Wayne, Alec Baldwin and Billy Bob Thornton. “Remember the Alamo!” It remains a potent battle cry, especially in Texas, but also across the American continent. In the comforting tale, a myth really, a couple of hundred Texans, fighting for their freedom against a dictator’s numerically superior force, lost a battle but won war—inflicting such losses that Mexico’s defeat became inevitable. Never, in this telling, is the word “slavery” or the term “illegal immigration” mentioned. There is no room in the legend for critical thinking or fresh analysis. But since the independence and acquisition of Texas caused the Mexican-American War, we must dig deeper and reveal the messy truth.

Until 1836, Texas was a distant northern province of the new Mexican Republic, a republic that had only recently won its independence from the Spanish Empire, in 1821. The territory was full of hostile Indian tribes and a few thousand mestizos and Spaniards. It was difficult to rule, and harder to settle—but it was indisputably Mexican land. Only, Americans had long had their eyes on Texas. Some argued that it was included (it wasn’t) in the Louisiana Purchase, and “Old Hickory” himself, Andrew Jackson, wanted it badly. Indeed, his dear friend and protégé Sam Houston would later fight the Mexicans and preside as a president of the nascent Texan Republic. Thirty-two years before the Texan Revolution of Anglo settlers against the Mexican government, in 1803, Thomas Jefferson had even declared that [the Spanish borderlands] “are ours the first moment war is forced upon us.” Jefferson was prescient but only partly correct: War would come, in Texas in fact, but it would not be forced upon the American settlers.

Others besides politicians coveted Texas. In 1819, a filibusterer (one who leads unsanctioned adventures to conquer foreign lands), an American named James Long, led an illegal invasion and tried but failed to establish an Anglo republic in Texas. Then, in 1821, Mexico’s brand new government made what proved to be a fatal mistake: It opened the borders to legal American immigration. It did so to help develop the land and create a buffer against the powerful Comanche tribe of West Texas but stipulated that the Anglos must declare loyalty to Mexico and convert to Catholicism. The Mexicans should have known better.

The Mexican Republic abolished slavery in 1829, more than three decades before its “enlightened” northern neighbor. Unfortunately nearly all the Anglo settlers, who were by now flooding into the province, hailed from the slaveholding American South and had brought along many chattel slaves. By 1830, there were 20,000 American settlers and 2,000 slaves compared with just 5,000 Mexican inhabitants. The settlers never intended to follow Mexican law or free their slaves, and so they didn’t. Not really anyway. Most officially “freed” their black slaves and immediately forced them to sign a lifelong indentured servitude contract. It was simply American slavery by another name.

After Santa Anna—Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón, an authoritarian but populist president—seized power, his centralizing instincts and attempts to enforce Mexican policies (such as conversion to Catholicism and the ban on slavery) led the pro-autonomy federalists in Texas (most of whom were Americans) to rebel. It was 1835, and by then there were even more Americans in Texas: 35,000, in fact, outnumbering the Hispanics nearly 10 to 1. Many of the new settlers had broken the law, entering Texas after Santa Anna had ordered the border closed, as was his sovereign right to do.

What followed was a political, racial and religious war pitting white supremacist, Protestant Anglos against a centralizing Mexican republic led by a would-be despot. The Texan War of Independence (1835-36) was largely fought with American money, American volunteers and American arms (even then a prolific resource in the United States). The war was never truly limited to Texas, Tejanos or Mexican provincial politics. It was what we now call a proxy war for land waged between the U.S. and the Mexican Republic.

Furthermore, though Santa Anna was authoritarian, certain Texans saw him as their best hope for freedom. As Santa Anna’s army marched north, many slaves along the Brazos River saw an opportunity and rebelled. Most were killed, some captured and later hanged. And, while slavery was not, by itself, the proximate cause of the Texan Rebellion, it certainly played a significant role. As the Mexican leader marched north with his 6,000 conscripts, one Texas newspaper declared that “[Santa Anna’s] merciless soldiery” was coming “to give liberty to our slaves, and to make slaves of ourselves.” So, once again—as in America’s earlier revolution against Britain—white Americans clamored about their own liberty and feared to death that the same might be granted to their slaves. When (spoiler alert) Santa Anna’s army was eventually defeated, the Mexican retreat gathered numbers as many slave escapees and fearful Hispanics sought their own version of “freedom” south of the Anglo settlements.

Surely, the most evocative image of the Texas War of Independence was the heroic stand of 180 Texans at the Alamo. “Alamo” has entered the American lexicon as a term for any hopeless, yet gallant, stand. And, no doubt, the outnumbered defenders demonstrated courage in their doomed stand. The slightly less than 200 defenders were led by a 26-year-old failed lawyer named William Barret Travis and included the famed frontiersman Davy Crockett, a former Whig member of the U.S. House of Representatives. All would be killed. Still, the battle wasn’t as one-sided or important as the mythos would have it. The defenders actually held one of the strongest fortifications in the Southwest, had more and superior cannons than the attackers and were armed mainly with rifles that far outranged the outdated Mexican muskets. Additionally, the Mexicans were mostly underfed, undersupplied conscripts who often had been forced to enlist and had marched north some 1,000 miles into a difficult fight. Despite inflicting disproportionate casualties on the Mexicans, the stand at the Alamo delayed Santa Anna by only four days. Furthermore, despite the prevalent “last stand” imagery, at least seven defenders (according to credible Mexican accounts long ignored)—probably including Crockett himself—surrendered and were executed.

None of this detracts from the courage of any man defending a position when outnumbered at least 10 to 1, but the diligent historian must reframe the battle. The men inside the Alamo walls were pro-slavery insurgents. As applied to them, “Texan,” in any real sense, is a misnomer. Two-thirds were recent arrivals from the United States and never intended to submit to sovereign Mexican authority. What the Battle of the Alamo did do was whip up a fury of nationalism in the U.S. and cause thousands more recruits to illegally “jump the border”—oh, the irony—and join the rebellion in Texas.

Eventually, Santa Anna, always a better politician than a military strategist, was surprised and defeated by Sam Houston along the banks of the San Jacinto River. The charging Americans yelled “Remember the Alamo!” and sought their revenge. Few prisoners were taken in the melee; perhaps hundreds were executed on the spot. The numbers speak for themselves: 630 dead Mexicans at the cost of two Americans. It is instructive that the Mexican policy of no quarter at the Alamo is regularly derided, yet few north of the Rio Grande remember this later massacre (and probable war crime).

Still, Santa Anna was defeated and forced, under duress (and probably pain of death), to sign away all rights to Texas. The Mexican Congress, as was its constitutional prerogative, summarily dismissed this treaty and would continue its reasonable legal claim on Texas indefinitely. Nonetheless, the divided Mexican government and its exhausted army were in no position (though attempts were made) to recapture the wayward northern province. Texas was “free,” and a thrilled—and no doubt proud—President Jackson recognized Houston’s Republic of Texas on “Old Hickory’s” very last day in office.

Thousands more Americans flowed into the republic over the next decade. By 1845, there were 125,000 (mostly Anglo) inhabitants and 27,000 slaves—that’s more enslaved blacks than Hispanic natives! One result of the war was the expansion and empowerment of the American institution of slavery. Because of confidence in the inevitable spread of slavery, the average sale price of a slave in the bustling New Orleans human-trafficking market rose 21 percent within one year of President John Tyler’s decision to annex Texas (during his final days in office) in 1845. According to international law, Texas remained Mexican. Tyler’s decision alone was tantamount to a declaration of war. Still, for at least a year, the Mexicans showed restraint and unhappily accepted the de facto facts on the ground.

<b>American Blood Upon American Soil?: The Specious Case for War</B>

It took an even greater provocation to kick off a major interstate war between America and Mexico. And that provocation indeed came. In 1844, in one of the more consequential elections in U.S. history, a Jackson loyalist (nicknamed “Young Hickory”) and slaveholder, James K. Polk, defeated the indefatigable Whig candidate Henry Clay. Clay preferred restraint with respect to Texas and Mexico; he wished instead to improve the already vast interior of the existing United States as part of his famed “American System.” Unfortunately for the Mexicans, Clay was defeated, and the fervently expansionist Polk took office in 1845. His election demonstrates the contingency of history; for if Clay had won, war might have been avoided, slavery kept from spreading in the Southwest, and America spared a civil war. It was not to be. Just before Polk took office, a dying Andrew Jackson provided him the sage advice that would spark a bloody war: “Obtain it [Texas] the United States must, peaceably if we can, but forcibly if we must.”

“American Progress,” an 1872 painting by John Gast, shows Manifest Destiny—the belief that the United States should expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean—moving westward across the American continent, bringing light as it faces the darkness of unconquered lands.

In the end, it was Polk who would order U.S. troops south of the disputed Texas border and spark a war. Still, the explanation for war was bigger than any one incident. A newspaperman of the time summarized the millenarian scene of fate pulling Americans westward into the lands of Mexicans and Indians. John L. O’Sullivan wrote, “It has become the United States’ manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” There was an American sense of mission, clear from the very founding of Puritan Massachusetts, to multiply and inhabit North America from ocean to ocean. Mexico and the few remaining native territories were all that stood in the way of American destiny by 1846. As the historian Daniel Walker Howe has written, “&nbsp;‘Manifest Destiny’ served as both label and a justification for policies that might otherwise simply been called … imperialism.”

Polk was, at least in terms of accomplishing what he set out to do, one of the most successful presidents in U.S. history. He declared that his administration had “four great measures.” Two involved expansion: “the settlement of the Oregon territory with Britain, and the acquisition of California and a large district on the coast.” Within three years he would have both and more. Interestingly, though, Polk wielded different tactics for each acquisition. First, Oregon: Britain and the U.S. had agreed to jointly rule this territory, which at that time reached north to the border with Alaska. Expansionist Democrats who coveted the whole of Oregon ran on the party slogan “54°40′ or Fight!” (a reference to the latitude at the top of the Oregon of that day, a line that marks today’s southern border of the state of Alaska). In the end, however, Polk would not fight Great Britain for Canada. Instead, he compromised, setting the modern boundary between Washington state and British Columbia.

In his dealings with the much less powerful Mexicans, however, Polk took an entirely different, more openly bellicose approach. Here, it seems, he expected if not preferred a war. Was his compromise in Oregon reflective of great-power politics (Britain remained a formidable opponent, especially at sea) or tainted by race and white supremacist notions about the weakness of Hispanic civilization? Historians still argue the point. What we can say is that many Democratic supporters of Polk delighted over the Oregon Compromise, for, as one newspaper declared: “We can now thrash Mexico into decency at our leisure.”

War it would be. In the spring of 1846, President Polk sent Gen. Zachary Taylor and 4,000 troops along the border between Texas and Mexico. Polk claimed all territory north of the Rio Grande River despite the fact that the Mexican province had always established Texas’ border further north at the Nueces River. Polk wanted Taylor to secure the southerly of the two disputed boundaries—probably in contravention of established international law. No one should have been surprised, then, when in April a reconnaissance party of U.S. dragoons was attacked by Mexican soldiers south of the Nueces River. Polk, of course, wily politician that he was, acted absolutely shocked upon hearing the news and immediately began drafting a war message—even though, in fact, his administration had been on the verge of asking Congress for a war declaration anyway! In the exact inverse of his negotiations with Britain over Oregon, Polk had made demands (that Mexico sell California and recognize Texan independence) he knew would probably be rejected by Mexico City, and then sent soldiers where he knew they would probably provoke war. And, oh, how well it worked.

Indeed, Polk’s administration had already set plans in motion for naval and land forces to immediately converge on California and New Mexico when the outbreak of war occurred. Both the U.S. Army and Navy complied and within a year occupied both Mexican provinces. Lest the reader believe the local Hispanics were indifferent to the invasion, homegrown rebellions broke out (and were swiftly suppressed) in both locales. Polk got his war declaration soon after the fight in south Texas. In a blatant obfuscation, Polk announced to the American people that “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory, and shed American blood upon American soil. War exists, and notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself.” He knew this to be false.

So did many Whigs in the opposition party, by the way. Still, most obediently voted for war, fearing the hypernationalism of their constituents and remembering the drubbing Federalists had taken for opposing the War of 1812. In cowardly votes of 174-14 in the House (John Quincy Adams, the former president, was one notable dissenting vote) and 40-2 in the Senate, the Congress succumbed to war fever. The small skirmish near the Nueces River was just a casus belli for Polk; America truly went to war to seize, at the very least, all of northern Mexico.

<B>Gen. Winfield Scott and the Defeat of Mexico</B>

On the surface, the two sides in the Mexican-American War were unevenly matched. The U.S. population of 17 million citizens and 3 million slaves dwarfed the 7 million Mexicans (4 million of whom were Indians). Their respective economies were even more lopsided, for America had emerged strong from its market and communications revolutions. Mexico had only recently (1821) gained its independence, and its political situation was fragile and fluctuating. The U.S. had existed independently for some 60 years and already had fought two wars with Britain and countless battles with Indian tribes. America was ready to flex its muscles.

Many observers assumed the war would be easy and short. It was not to be. Most Americans underestimated the courage, resolve and nationalism of Mexican soldiers and civilians alike. That the U.S. won this war—and most of the battles—was due primarily to superiority in artillery, leadership and logistics. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York had trained, and numerous Indian wars had seasoned, a generation of junior and mid-grade officers. Many of the lieutenants and captains who directly led U.S. Army formations in Mexico (one thinks of Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman and James Longstreet, to name only a handful) would serve, either for the North or the South, as general officers in the U.S. Civil War (1861-65). Some of these officers involved in the Mexican-American War relished the glory of exotic conquest; others were horrified by a war they deemed immoral.

It must be remembered that the U.S. Army that entered and conquered Mexico represented a slaveholding republic fighting against an abolitionist nation-state. Many Southern officers brought along slaves and servants on the quest to spread “liberty” to the Mexicans. Some of the enslaved took the opportunity to escape into the interior of a non-slaveholding country. The irony was astounding.

President Polk’s Army was also highly politicized during the conflict. While the existing regular Army officers tended to be Whigs (in favor, as they were, of internal improvements and centralized finance to the benefit of the military), all 13 generals that Polk appointed were avowed partisan Democrats. Polk’s biggest fear—which would indeed come to fruition in the election of Gen. Zachary Taylor as president in 1848—was that a Whiggish hero from the war he began would best his party for the presidency.

When it became clear in 1846 that Gen. Taylor’s initial thrust south into the vast Mexican hinterland could win battles but not the war, Gen. Winfield Scott (a hero of the War of 1812) was ordered to lead an amphibious thrust at the Mexican capital. Indeed, Scott’s militarily brilliant operational campaign constituted the largest American seaborne invasion until D-Day in World War II. It took months of hard fighting and several more months of tenuous occupation, but Scott’s attack effectively ended the war by late 1847.

Still, conducting this war was extremely hard, indeed more difficult than it should have been, on both Taylor and Scott. This was due to President Polk’s decision (reminiscent of George W. Bush’s decision during the Iraq War) to cut taxes and wage war simultaneously. Indeed, Gen. Scott became so short on troops and supplies that he decided to cut off his line of logistics and “live off the land.” This was a clever but risky maneuver that his subordinates—U.S. Grant and William T. Sherman—would remember and mimic in the U.S. Civil War.

There was plenty of room for courage and glory on both sides of the Mexican-American War. It is no accident that the contemporary U.S. Marine Corps Hymn speaks of the “Halls of Montezuma,” or that several grandiose rock carvings of key battle names in Mexico unapologetically adorn my own alma mater at West Point. On the other side, the Mexican people still celebrate the gallant defense, and deaths, of six cadets—known as Los Niños Héroes—who manned the barricades of their own national military academy.

Nevertheless there was (and always is) an uglier, less romantic side of the conflagration. Nine thousand two hundred seven men deserted the U.S. Army in Mexico, or some 8.3 percent of all troops—the highest ever rate in an American conflict and double that of the Vietnam War. Hundreds of Catholic Irish immigrant soldiers responded to Mexican invitations and not only deserted the U.S. Army but joined the Mexican army, as the San Patricio (Saint Patrick’s) Battalion. Dozens were later captured and hanged by their former comrades.

America’s military also waged a violent, brutal war that often failed to spare the innocent. In northern Mexico, Gen. Taylor’s artillery pounded the city of Matamoros, killing hundreds of civilians. Indeed, Taylor’s army of mostly volunteers regularly pillaged villages, murdering Mexican citizens for either retaliation or sport. Many regular Army officers decried the behavior of these volunteers, and one officer wrote, “The majority of the volunteers sent here are a disgrace to the nation; think of one of them shooting a woman while washing on the banks of the river—merely to test his rifle; another tore forcibly from a Mexican woman the rings from her ears.” In the later bombardment of Veracruz, American mortar fire inflicted on the elderly, women or children two-thirds of the 1,000 Mexican casualties. Capt. Robert E. Lee (who would later lead the Confederate Army in the U.S. Civil War) was horrified, commenting that “my heart bled for the inhabitants, it was terrible to think of the women and children.”

It should come as little surprise, then, that when the U.S. Army seized cities, groups of Mexican guerrilla fighters—usually called rancheros—often rose in rebellion. Part of the U.S. effort in Mexico became a counterinsurgency. Take my word for it, people (Iraqis, for example) rarely take kindly to occupation, and the mere presence of foreigners often generates insurgents. All told, the American victory cost the U.S. Army 12,518 lives (seven-eighths of the deaths because of disease, due largely to poor sanitation). Many thousands more Mexican troops and civilians died. This aspect of the war, events that tarnish glorious imagery and language, is rarely remembered, but it would be well if it were.

Courageous Dissent: Whigs, Artists, Soldiers and the Opposition to the Mexican-American War

War, as it does, initially united the country in a spirit of nationalism, but ultimately the war and its spoils would divide the U.S., nearly to its breaking point. Few mainstream Whigs—those of the opposition party—initially demonstrated the courage to dissent. They knew, deep down, that this war was wrong, but also remembered the fate of the Federalist Party, which had been labeled treasonous and soon disappeared due to its opposition to the War of 1812. Other Whigs were simply dedicated nationalists: The U.S. was their country, right or wrong. But there were courageous voices, a few dissenters in the wilderness. Some you know; others are anonymous, lost to history. All were patriots.

Many were politicians: those entrusted with the duty to dissent in times of national error. Though only a dozen or so Whigs had the fortitude to vote against the war declaration in 1846, a few were vocal. One was Rep. Luther Severance, who responded to President Polk’s “American blood on American soil” fallacy by exclaiming that “[i]t is on Mexican soil that blood has been shed” and Mexicans “should be honored and applauded” for their “manly resistance.”

Another was former President John Quincy Adams, who at the time was a member of the U.S. House from Massachusetts (he was the only person to serve in Congress after being president). It was Adams, we must remember, who as secretary of state in 1821, had presciently warned Americans against foreign military adventures. “But she [America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” he wrote, for “[Were she to do so] the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force … she might become the dictatress of the world.” Adams had seen the Mexican War coming back in 1836, when his avowed opponent President Andrew Jackson considered annexation of the Texan Republic. Then, Adams had said, “Are you not large and unwieldy enough already? Have you not Indians enough to expel from the land of their fathers’ sepulchre?”

Another staunch opponent of the war was a little known freshman Whig congressman from Illinois, a lanky fellow named Abraham Lincoln. As soon as he took his seat in the House, Lincoln immediately rebuked President Polk’s initial explanation for declaring war. “The President, in his first war message of May 1846,” Lincoln told his audience, “declares that the soil was ours on which hostilities were commenced by Mexico; Now I propose to try to show, that the whole of this–issue and evidence–is, from beginning to end, the sheerest deception.” The future president would later summarize the conflict as “a war of conquest fought to catch votes.” And, indeed it was.

Prominent artists and writers also opposed the war; such people often do, and we should take notice of them. The Transcendentalist writers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson each took up the pen to attack the still quite popular conquest of Mexico. Thoreau, who served prison time, turned a lecture into an essay now known as “Civil Disobedience.” Emerson was even more succinct, declaring, “The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as a man who swallowed the arsenic which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.” He couldn’t have known how right he was; arguments over the expansion of slavery in the lands seized from Mexico would indeed take the nation to the brink of civil war in just a dozen years.

One expects dissent from artists. These men and women tend to be unflinching and to demonstrate a willingness to stand against the grain, against even the populist passions of an inflamed citizenry. But … soldiers? Surely they must remain loyal and steadfast to the end, and so, too often, they are. Not so in Mexico. A surprising number of young officers—like Lee at the bombardment of Veracruz—despised the war. More than a few likely suffered from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One lieutenant colonel, Ethan Hitchcock, even attacked the justification for war. He wrote, “We have not one particle of right to be here. It looks as if the [U.S.] government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have the pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses.” Perhaps the most honest and self-effacing critique of the war came from a young subaltern named U.S. Grant (who along with his then-comrade R.E. Lee would later lead one of the two opposing armies in the Civil War). Grant, a future president and West Point graduate, wrote that he “had a horror of the Mexican War … only I had not the moral courage enough to resign.”

Finally, let us return to the powerful and unwavering dissent of John Quincy Adams, for the Mexican War, not his presidency, may constitute his finest hour. On Feb. 21, 1848, the speaker of the House called for a routine vote to bestow medals and adulation on the victorious generals of the late Mexican War. The measure passed, of course, but when the “nays” were up for roll call a voice from the back bellowed “No!” It was the 80-year-old former president. Adams then rose in an apparent effort to speak, but his face reddened and he collapsed. Carried to a couch, he slipped into unconsciousness and died two days later. John Quincy Adams was mortally stricken in the act of officially opposing an unjust war. That we remember the victories of the Mexican-American War but not Adams’ dying gesture surely must reflect poorly on us and our collective remembrances.

A Long Shadow Cast: The ‘Peace’ of 1848

From the war’s start, there was never any real question of leaving Mexico without extracting territory. Indeed, by late 1847 there was considerable Democratic support for taking the whole country. That the U.S. did not is due mainly to Polk’s peace commissioner ignoring orders and his own firing to negotiate a compromise. But there was something else. Many Democrats from the South—who had applauded the war from the start—now flinched before the prospect of taking on the entirety of Mexico and its decidedly brown and Catholic population. There was inherent fear of racial mixing, racial impurity and heterogeneity. John Calhoun, the political stalwart from South Carolina, even declared, “Ours is the government of the white man!” And, in 1848, Calhoun was right, indeed.

Even the Wilmot Proviso, an attempt by a Northern congressman to forestall any conquest in Mexico, was tinged with racism. Rep. David Wilmot called his amendment a “White Man’s Proviso,” to “preserve for free white labor a fair country, a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil, of my own race and own color, can live without the disgrace which association with Negro slavery brings upon free labor.” Wilmot’s proposal, unsurprisingly, never passed muster. But it nearly tore the Congress asunder, with Northern and Southern politicians at each other’s throats. Northerners generally feared the expansion of slave states and of what they called “slave power.” The Whig Party itself nearly divided—and eventually would—into its Northern and Southern factions. As we will see, arguments about what land to seize from Mexico and what to do with it (should it be slave or free?) would shatter the Second Party System—of Whigs and Democrats—and take the nation one step closer to the civil war many (like John Quincy Adams) had long feared. The “peace” of 1848, known to history as the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, would certainly cast a long shadow.

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In the end, the U.S. expended over 12,000 lives and millions of dollars to make a new colony of nearly half of Mexico—an area two and a half times the size of France and including parts or all of the current states of California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Much of the land remained heavily Hispanic for decades and effectively under military government for many years (New Mexico until 1912!). The real losers were the Indian and Hispanic people of the new American Southwest. The U.S. gained 100,000 Spanish-speaking inhabitants after the treaty and even more native Americans. Under Mexican law, both groups were considered full citizens! Under American stewardship, race was a far more detrimental factor. The results were (despite supposed protections in the treaty) the seizure of millions of acres of Hispanic-owned land and, in California, Indian slavery and decimation as 150,000 natives dwindled to less than 50,000 in just 10 years of U.S. control. During the postwar period, California’s governor literally called for the “extermination” of the state’s Indians. This aspect of the war’s end is almost never mentioned at all.

Words matter, and we must watch our use of terms and language. Mexico hadn’t invaded Texas; Texas was Mexico. Polk manufactured a war to expand slavery westward and increase pro-slavery political power in the Senate. Was, then, America an empire in 1848? Is it today? And why does the very term “empire” make us so uncomfortable?

So what, then, are readers to make of this mostly forgotten war? Perhaps this much: It was as unnecessary as it was unjust. Nearly all Democrats supported it, and most Whigs simply acquiesced. Others, however, knew the war to be wrong and said so at the time. Through an ethical lens, the real heroes of the Mexican-American War weren’t Gens. Taylor and Scott, but rather artists such as Henry David Thoreau; a former president, John Quincy Adams; and Abraham Lincoln, then an obscure young Illinois politician. There are many kinds of courage, and the physical sort shouldn’t necessarily predominate. In this view, the moral view, protest is patriotic.

So, let me challenge you to think on this: Our democracy was undoubtedly achieved through undemocratic means—through conquest and colonization. Mexicans were just some of the victims, and, today, in the American Southwest, tens of millions of U.S. citizens reside, in point of fact, upon occupied territory.

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To learn more about this topic, consider the following scholarly works:

• Rodolfo Acuna, “Occupied Mexico: A History of Chicanos” (1988).
• James West Davidson, Brian DeLay, Christine Leigh Heyrman, Mark H. Lytle and Michael B. Stoff, “Experience History: Interpreting America’s Past,” Chapter 14. “Western Expansion and the Rise of the Slavery Issue, 1820-1850” (2011).
• Daniel Walker Howe, “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-48” (2007).

Maj. Danny Sjursen, a regular contributor to Truthdig, is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” He lives with his wife and four sons in Lawrence, Kan. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his new podcast, “Fortress on a Hill,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris “Henri” Henrikson.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

 

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American History for Truthdiggers: The Fraudulent Mexican-American War (1846-48)

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Maj. Danny Sjursen.

Editor’s note: The past is prologue. The stories we tell about ourselves and our forebears inform the sort of country we think we are and help determine public policy. As our current president promises to “make America great again,” this moment is an appropriate time to reconsider our past, look back at various eras of United States history and re-evaluate America’s origins. When, exactly, were we “great”?

Below is the 15th installment of the “American History for Truthdiggers” series, a pull-no-punches appraisal of our shared, if flawed, past. The author of the series, Danny Sjursen, an active-duty major in the U.S. Army, served military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught the nation’s checkered, often inspiring past when he was an assistant professor of history at West Point. His war experiences, his scholarship, his skill as a writer and his patriotism illuminate these Truthdig posts.

Part 15 of “American History for Truthdiggers.”

See: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6; Part 7; Part 8; Part 9; Part 10; Part 11Part 12; Part 13; Part 14;.

* * *

The United States of America conquered half of Mexico. There isn’t any way around that fact. The regions of the U.S. most affected by “illegal” immigration—California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas—were once part of the Republic of Mexico. They would have remained so if not for the Mexican-American War (1846-48). Those are the facts, but they hardly tell the story. Few Americans know much about this war, rarely question U.S. motives in the conflict and certainly never consider that much of America’s land—from sea to shining sea—was conquered.

Many readers will dispute this interpretation. Conquest is the natural order of the world, the inevitable outgrowth of clashing civilizations, they will insist. Perhaps. But if true, where does the conquest end, and how can the U.S. proudly celebrate its defense of Europe against the invasions by Germany and/or the Soviet Union? This line of militaristic reasoning—one held by many senior conservative policymakers even today—rests on the slipperiest of slopes. Certainly nations, like individuals, must adhere to a certain moral code, a social contract of behavior.

In this installment I will argue that American politicians and soldiers manufactured a war with Mexico, sold it to the public and then proceeded to conquer their southern neighbor. They were motivated by dreams of cheap farmland, California ports and the expansion of the cotton economy along with its peculiar partner, the institution of slavery. Our forebears succeeded, and they won an empire. Only in the process they may have lost something far more valuable in the moral realm.

(Mis)Remember the Alamo!: Texas and the Road to War

“The Fall of the Alamo” or “Crockett’s Last Stand,” by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk. This 1903 painting, on display in the Texas governor’s mansion, shows the famed frontiersman, at center wielding a rifle, battling to the death. Mexican accounts hold that Davy Crockett surrendered and later was executed. (Wikimedia Commons)

We all know the comforting tale. It has been depicted in countless Hollywood films starring the likes of John Wayne, Alec Baldwin and Billy Bob Thornton. “Remember the Alamo!” It remains a potent battle cry, especially in Texas, but also across the American continent. In the comforting tale, a myth really, a couple of hundred Texans, fighting for their freedom against a dictator’s numerically superior force, lost a battle but won war—inflicting such losses that Mexico’s defeat became inevitable. Never, in this telling, is the word “slavery” or the term “illegal immigration” mentioned. There is no room in the legend for critical thinking or fresh analysis. But since the independence and acquisition of Texas caused the Mexican-American War, we must dig deeper and reveal the messy truth.

Until 1836, Texas was a distant northern province of the new Mexican Republic, a republic that had only recently won its independence from the Spanish Empire, in 1821. The territory was full of hostile Indian tribes and a few thousand mestizos and Spaniards. It was difficult to rule, and harder to settle—but it was indisputably Mexican land. Only, Americans had long had their eyes on Texas. Some argued that it was included (it wasn’t) in the Louisiana Purchase, and “Old Hickory” himself, Andrew Jackson, wanted it badly. Indeed, his dear friend and protégé Sam Houston would later fight the Mexicans and preside as a president of the nascent Texan Republic. Thirty-two years before the Texan Revolution of Anglo settlers against the Mexican government, in 1803, Thomas Jefferson had even declared that [the Spanish borderlands] “are ours the first moment war is forced upon us.” Jefferson was prescient but only partly correct: War would come, in Texas in fact, but it would not be forced upon the American settlers.

Others besides politicians coveted Texas. In 1819, a filibusterer (one who leads unsanctioned adventures to conquer foreign lands), an American named James Long, led an illegal invasion and tried but failed to establish an Anglo republic in Texas. Then, in 1821, Mexico’s brand new government made what proved to be a fatal mistake: It opened the borders to legal American immigration. It did so to help develop the land and create a buffer against the powerful Comanche tribe of West Texas but stipulated that the Anglos must declare loyalty to Mexico and convert to Catholicism. The Mexicans should have known better.

The Mexican Republic abolished slavery in 1829, more than three decades before its “enlightened” northern neighbor. Unfortunately nearly all the Anglo settlers, who were by now flooding into the province, hailed from the slaveholding American South and had brought along many chattel slaves. By 1830, there were 20,000 American settlers and 2,000 slaves compared with just 5,000 Mexican inhabitants. The settlers never intended to follow Mexican law or free their slaves, and so they didn’t. Not really anyway. Most officially “freed” their black slaves and immediately forced them to sign a lifelong indentured servitude contract. It was simply American slavery by another name.

After Santa Anna—Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón, an authoritarian but populist president—seized power, his centralizing instincts and attempts to enforce Mexican policies (such as conversion to Catholicism and the ban on slavery) led the pro-autonomy federalists in Texas (most of whom were Americans) to rebel. It was 1835, and by then there were even more Americans in Texas: 35,000, in fact, outnumbering the Hispanics nearly 10 to 1. Many of the new settlers had broken the law, entering Texas after Santa Anna had ordered the border closed, as was his sovereign right to do.

What followed was a political, racial and religious war pitting white supremacist, Protestant Anglos against a centralizing Mexican republic led by a would-be despot. The Texan War of Independence (1835-36) was largely fought with American money, American volunteers and American arms (even then a prolific resource in the United States). The war was never truly limited to Texas, Tejanos or Mexican provincial politics. It was what we now call a proxy war for land waged between the U.S. and the Mexican Republic.

Furthermore, though Santa Anna was authoritarian, certain Texans saw him as their best hope for freedom. As Santa Anna’s army marched north, many slaves along the Brazos River saw an opportunity and rebelled. Most were killed, some captured and later hanged. And, while slavery was not, by itself, the proximate cause of the Texan Rebellion, it certainly played a significant role. As the Mexican leader marched north with his 6,000 conscripts, one Texas newspaper declared that “[Santa Anna’s] merciless soldiery” was coming “to give liberty to our slaves, and to make slaves of ourselves.” So, once again—as in America’s earlier revolution against Britain—white Americans clamored about their own liberty and feared to death that the same might be granted to their slaves. When (spoiler alert) Santa Anna’s army was eventually defeated, the Mexican retreat gathered numbers as many slave escapees and fearful Hispanics sought their own version of “freedom” south of the Anglo settlements.

Surely, the most evocative image of the Texas War of Independence was the heroic stand of 180 Texans at the Alamo. “Alamo” has entered the American lexicon as a term for any hopeless, yet gallant, stand. And, no doubt, the outnumbered defenders demonstrated courage in their doomed stand. The slightly less than 200 defenders were led by a 26-year-old failed lawyer named William Barret Travis and included the famed frontiersman Davy Crockett, a former Whig member of the U.S. House of Representatives. All would be killed. Still, the battle wasn’t as one-sided or important as the mythos would have it. The defenders actually held one of the strongest fortifications in the Southwest, had more and superior cannons than the attackers and were armed mainly with rifles that far outranged the outdated Mexican muskets. Additionally, the Mexicans were mostly underfed, undersupplied conscripts who often had been forced to enlist and had marched north some 1,000 miles into a difficult fight. Despite inflicting disproportionate casualties on the Mexicans, the stand at the Alamo delayed Santa Anna by only four days. Furthermore, despite the prevalent “last stand” imagery, at least seven defenders (according to credible Mexican accounts long ignored)—probably including Crockett himself—surrendered and were executed.

None of this detracts from the courage of any man defending a position when outnumbered at least 10 to 1, but the diligent historian must reframe the battle. The men inside the Alamo walls were pro-slavery insurgents. As applied to them, “Texan,” in any real sense, is a misnomer. Two-thirds were recent arrivals from the United States and never intended to submit to sovereign Mexican authority. What the Battle of the Alamo did do was whip up a fury of nationalism in the U.S. and cause thousands more recruits to illegally “jump the border”—oh, the irony—and join the rebellion in Texas.

Eventually, Santa Anna, always a better politician than a military strategist, was surprised and defeated by Sam Houston along the banks of the San Jacinto River. The charging Americans yelled “Remember the Alamo!” and sought their revenge. Few prisoners were taken in the melee; perhaps hundreds were executed on the spot. The numbers speak for themselves: 630 dead Mexicans at the cost of two Americans. It is instructive that the Mexican policy of no quarter at the Alamo is regularly derided, yet few north of the Rio Grande remember this later massacre (and probable war crime).

Still, Santa Anna was defeated and forced, under duress (and probably pain of death), to sign away all rights to Texas. The Mexican Congress, as was its constitutional prerogative, summarily dismissed this treaty and would continue its reasonable legal claim on Texas indefinitely. Nonetheless, the divided Mexican government and its exhausted army were in no position (though attempts were made) to recapture the wayward northern province. Texas was “free,” and a thrilled—and no doubt proud—President Jackson recognized Houston’s Republic of Texas on “Old Hickory’s” very last day in office.

Thousands more Americans flowed into the republic over the next decade. By 1845, there were 125,000 (mostly Anglo) inhabitants and 27,000 slaves—that’s more enslaved blacks than Hispanic natives! One result of the war was the expansion and empowerment of the American institution of slavery. Because of confidence in the inevitable spread of slavery, the average sale price of a slave in the bustling New Orleans human-trafficking market rose 21 percent within one year of President John Tyler’s decision to annex Texas (during his final days in office) in 1845. According to international law, Texas remained Mexican. Tyler’s decision alone was tantamount to a declaration of war. Still, for at least a year, the Mexicans showed restraint and unhappily accepted the de facto facts on the ground.

<b>American Blood Upon American Soil?: The Specious Case for War</B>

It took an even greater provocation to kick off a major interstate war between America and Mexico. And that provocation indeed came. In 1844, in one of the more consequential elections in U.S. history, a Jackson loyalist (nicknamed “Young Hickory”) and slaveholder, James K. Polk, defeated the indefatigable Whig candidate Henry Clay. Clay preferred restraint with respect to Texas and Mexico; he wished instead to improve the already vast interior of the existing United States as part of his famed “American System.” Unfortunately for the Mexicans, Clay was defeated, and the fervently expansionist Polk took office in 1845. His election demonstrates the contingency of history; for if Clay had won, war might have been avoided, slavery kept from spreading in the Southwest, and America spared a civil war. It was not to be. Just before Polk took office, a dying Andrew Jackson provided him the sage advice that would spark a bloody war: “Obtain it [Texas] the United States must, peaceably if we can, but forcibly if we must.”

“American Progress,” an 1872 painting by John Gast, shows Manifest Destiny—the belief that the United States should expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean—moving westward across the American continent, bringing light as it faces the darkness of unconquered lands.

In the end, it was Polk who would order U.S. troops south of the disputed Texas border and spark a war. Still, the explanation for war was bigger than any one incident. A newspaperman of the time summarized the millenarian scene of fate pulling Americans westward into the lands of Mexicans and Indians. John L. O’Sullivan wrote, “It has become the United States’ manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” There was an American sense of mission, clear from the very founding of Puritan Massachusetts, to multiply and inhabit North America from ocean to ocean. Mexico and the few remaining native territories were all that stood in the way of American destiny by 1846. As the historian Daniel Walker Howe has written, “&nbsp;‘Manifest Destiny’ served as both label and a justification for policies that might otherwise simply been called … imperialism.”

Polk was, at least in terms of accomplishing what he set out to do, one of the most successful presidents in U.S. history. He declared that his administration had “four great measures.” Two involved expansion: “the settlement of the Oregon territory with Britain, and the acquisition of California and a large district on the coast.” Within three years he would have both and more. Interestingly, though, Polk wielded different tactics for each acquisition. First, Oregon: Britain and the U.S. had agreed to jointly rule this territory, which at that time reached north to the border with Alaska. Expansionist Democrats who coveted the whole of Oregon ran on the party slogan “54°40′ or Fight!” (a reference to the latitude at the top of the Oregon of that day, a line that marks today’s southern border of the state of Alaska). In the end, however, Polk would not fight Great Britain for Canada. Instead, he compromised, setting the modern boundary between Washington state and British Columbia.

In his dealings with the much less powerful Mexicans, however, Polk took an entirely different, more openly bellicose approach. Here, it seems, he expected if not preferred a war. Was his compromise in Oregon reflective of great-power politics (Britain remained a formidable opponent, especially at sea) or tainted by race and white supremacist notions about the weakness of Hispanic civilization? Historians still argue the point. What we can say is that many Democratic supporters of Polk delighted over the Oregon Compromise, for, as one newspaper declared: “We can now thrash Mexico into decency at our leisure.”

War it would be. In the spring of 1846, President Polk sent Gen. Zachary Taylor and 4,000 troops along the border between Texas and Mexico. Polk claimed all territory north of the Rio Grande River despite the fact that the Mexican province had always established Texas’ border further north at the Nueces River. Polk wanted Taylor to secure the southerly of the two disputed boundaries—probably in contravention of established international law. No one should have been surprised, then, when in April a reconnaissance party of U.S. dragoons was attacked by Mexican soldiers south of the Nueces River. Polk, of course, wily politician that he was, acted absolutely shocked upon hearing the news and immediately began drafting a war message—even though, in fact, his administration had been on the verge of asking Congress for a war declaration anyway! In the exact inverse of his negotiations with Britain over Oregon, Polk had made demands (that Mexico sell California and recognize Texan independence) he knew would probably be rejected by Mexico City, and then sent soldiers where he knew they would probably provoke war. And, oh, how well it worked.

Indeed, Polk’s administration had already set plans in motion for naval and land forces to immediately converge on California and New Mexico when the outbreak of war occurred. Both the U.S. Army and Navy complied and within a year occupied both Mexican provinces. Lest the reader believe the local Hispanics were indifferent to the invasion, homegrown rebellions broke out (and were swiftly suppressed) in both locales. Polk got his war declaration soon after the fight in south Texas. In a blatant obfuscation, Polk announced to the American people that “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory, and shed American blood upon American soil. War exists, and notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself.” He knew this to be false.

So did many Whigs in the opposition party, by the way. Still, most obediently voted for war, fearing the hypernationalism of their constituents and remembering the drubbing Federalists had taken for opposing the War of 1812. In cowardly votes of 174-14 in the House (John Quincy Adams, the former president, was one notable dissenting vote) and 40-2 in the Senate, the Congress succumbed to war fever. The small skirmish near the Nueces River was just a casus belli for Polk; America truly went to war to seize, at the very least, all of northern Mexico.

<B>Gen. Winfield Scott and the Defeat of Mexico</B>

On the surface, the two sides in the Mexican-American War were unevenly matched. The U.S. population of 17 million citizens and 3 million slaves dwarfed the 7 million Mexicans (4 million of whom were Indians). Their respective economies were even more lopsided, for America had emerged strong from its market and communications revolutions. Mexico had only recently (1821) gained its independence, and its political situation was fragile and fluctuating. The U.S. had existed independently for some 60 years and already had fought two wars with Britain and countless battles with Indian tribes. America was ready to flex its muscles.

Many observers assumed the war would be easy and short. It was not to be. Most Americans underestimated the courage, resolve and nationalism of Mexican soldiers and civilians alike. That the U.S. won this war—and most of the battles—was due primarily to superiority in artillery, leadership and logistics. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York had trained, and numerous Indian wars had seasoned, a generation of junior and mid-grade officers. Many of the lieutenants and captains who directly led U.S. Army formations in Mexico (one thinks of Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman and James Longstreet, to name only a handful) would serve, either for the North or the South, as general officers in the U.S. Civil War (1861-65). Some of these officers involved in the Mexican-American War relished the glory of exotic conquest; others were horrified by a war they deemed immoral.

It must be remembered that the U.S. Army that entered and conquered Mexico represented a slaveholding republic fighting against an abolitionist nation-state. Many Southern officers brought along slaves and servants on the quest to spread “liberty” to the Mexicans. Some of the enslaved took the opportunity to escape into the interior of a non-slaveholding country. The irony was astounding.

President Polk’s Army was also highly politicized during the conflict. While the existing regular Army officers tended to be Whigs (in favor, as they were, of internal improvements and centralized finance to the benefit of the military), all 13 generals that Polk appointed were avowed partisan Democrats. Polk’s biggest fear—which would indeed come to fruition in the election of Gen. Zachary Taylor as president in 1848—was that a Whiggish hero from the war he began would best his party for the presidency.

When it became clear in 1846 that Gen. Taylor’s initial thrust south into the vast Mexican hinterland could win battles but not the war, Gen. Winfield Scott (a hero of the War of 1812) was ordered to lead an amphibious thrust at the Mexican capital. Indeed, Scott’s militarily brilliant operational campaign constituted the largest American seaborne invasion until D-Day in World War II. It took months of hard fighting and several more months of tenuous occupation, but Scott’s attack effectively ended the war by late 1847.

Still, conducting this war was extremely hard, indeed more difficult than it should have been, on both Taylor and Scott. This was due to President Polk’s decision (reminiscent of George W. Bush’s decision during the Iraq War) to cut taxes and wage war simultaneously. Indeed, Gen. Scott became so short on troops and supplies that he decided to cut off his line of logistics and “live off the land.” This was a clever but risky maneuver that his subordinates—U.S. Grant and William T. Sherman—would remember and mimic in the U.S. Civil War.

There was plenty of room for courage and glory on both sides of the Mexican-American War. It is no accident that the contemporary U.S. Marine Corps Hymn speaks of the “Halls of Montezuma,” or that several grandiose rock carvings of key battle names in Mexico unapologetically adorn my own alma mater at West Point. On the other side, the Mexican people still celebrate the gallant defense, and deaths, of six cadets—known as Los Niños Héroes—who manned the barricades of their own national military academy.

Nevertheless there was (and always is) an uglier, less romantic side of the conflagration. Nine thousand two hundred seven men deserted the U.S. Army in Mexico, or some 8.3 percent of all troops—the highest ever rate in an American conflict and double that of the Vietnam War. Hundreds of Catholic Irish immigrant soldiers responded to Mexican invitations and not only deserted the U.S. Army but joined the Mexican army, as the San Patricio (Saint Patrick’s) Battalion. Dozens were later captured and hanged by their former comrades.

America’s military also waged a violent, brutal war that often failed to spare the innocent. In northern Mexico, Gen. Taylor’s artillery pounded the city of Matamoros, killing hundreds of civilians. Indeed, Taylor’s army of mostly volunteers regularly pillaged villages, murdering Mexican citizens for either retaliation or sport. Many regular Army officers decried the behavior of these volunteers, and one officer wrote, “The majority of the volunteers sent here are a disgrace to the nation; think of one of them shooting a woman while washing on the banks of the river—merely to test his rifle; another tore forcibly from a Mexican woman the rings from her ears.” In the later bombardment of Veracruz, American mortar fire inflicted on the elderly, women or children two-thirds of the 1,000 Mexican casualties. Capt. Robert E. Lee (who would later lead the Confederate Army in the U.S. Civil War) was horrified, commenting that “my heart bled for the inhabitants, it was terrible to think of the women and children.”

It should come as little surprise, then, that when the U.S. Army seized cities, groups of Mexican guerrilla fighters—usually called rancheros—often rose in rebellion. Part of the U.S. effort in Mexico became a counterinsurgency. Take my word for it, people (Iraqis, for example) rarely take kindly to occupation, and the mere presence of foreigners often generates insurgents. All told, the American victory cost the U.S. Army 12,518 lives (seven-eighths of the deaths because of disease, due largely to poor sanitation). Many thousands more Mexican troops and civilians died. This aspect of the war, events that tarnish glorious imagery and language, is rarely remembered, but it would be well if it were.

Courageous Dissent: Whigs, Artists, Soldiers and the Opposition to the Mexican-American War

War, as it does, initially united the country in a spirit of nationalism, but ultimately the war and its spoils would divide the U.S., nearly to its breaking point. Few mainstream Whigs—those of the opposition party—initially demonstrated the courage to dissent. They knew, deep down, that this war was wrong, but also remembered the fate of the Federalist Party, which had been labeled treasonous and soon disappeared due to its opposition to the War of 1812. Other Whigs were simply dedicated nationalists: The U.S. was their country, right or wrong. But there were courageous voices, a few dissenters in the wilderness. Some you know; others are anonymous, lost to history. All were patriots.

Many were politicians: those entrusted with the duty to dissent in times of national error. Though only a dozen or so Whigs had the fortitude to vote against the war declaration in 1846, a few were vocal. One was Rep. Luther Severance, who responded to President Polk’s “American blood on American soil” fallacy by exclaiming that “[i]t is on Mexican soil that blood has been shed” and Mexicans “should be honored and applauded” for their “manly resistance.”

Another was former President John Quincy Adams, who at the time was a member of the U.S. House from Massachusetts (he was the only person to serve in Congress after being president). It was Adams, we must remember, who as secretary of state in 1821, had presciently warned Americans against foreign military adventures. “But she [America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” he wrote, for “[Were she to do so] the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force … she might become the dictatress of the world.” Adams had seen the Mexican War coming back in 1836, when his avowed opponent President Andrew Jackson considered annexation of the Texan Republic. Then, Adams had said, “Are you not large and unwieldy enough already? Have you not Indians enough to expel from the land of their fathers’ sepulchre?”

Another staunch opponent of the war was a little known freshman Whig congressman from Illinois, a lanky fellow named Abraham Lincoln. As soon as he took his seat in the House, Lincoln immediately rebuked President Polk’s initial explanation for declaring war. “The President, in his first war message of May 1846,” Lincoln told his audience, “declares that the soil was ours on which hostilities were commenced by Mexico; Now I propose to try to show, that the whole of this–issue and evidence–is, from beginning to end, the sheerest deception.” The future president would later summarize the conflict as “a war of conquest fought to catch votes.” And, indeed it was.

Prominent artists and writers also opposed the war; such people often do, and we should take notice of them. The Transcendentalist writers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson each took up the pen to attack the still quite popular conquest of Mexico. Thoreau, who served prison time, turned a lecture into an essay now known as “Civil Disobedience.” Emerson was even more succinct, declaring, “The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as a man who swallowed the arsenic which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.” He couldn’t have known how right he was; arguments over the expansion of slavery in the lands seized from Mexico would indeed take the nation to the brink of civil war in just a dozen years.

One expects dissent from artists. These men and women tend to be unflinching and to demonstrate a willingness to stand against the grain, against even the populist passions of an inflamed citizenry. But … soldiers? Surely they must remain loyal and steadfast to the end, and so, too often, they are. Not so in Mexico. A surprising number of young officers—like Lee at the bombardment of Veracruz—despised the war. More than a few likely suffered from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One lieutenant colonel, Ethan Hitchcock, even attacked the justification for war. He wrote, “We have not one particle of right to be here. It looks as if the [U.S.] government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have the pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses.” Perhaps the most honest and self-effacing critique of the war came from a young subaltern named U.S. Grant (who along with his then-comrade R.E. Lee would later lead one of the two opposing armies in the Civil War). Grant, a future president and West Point graduate, wrote that he “had a horror of the Mexican War … only I had not the moral courage enough to resign.”

Finally, let us return to the powerful and unwavering dissent of John Quincy Adams, for the Mexican War, not his presidency, may constitute his finest hour. On Feb. 21, 1848, the speaker of the House called for a routine vote to bestow medals and adulation on the victorious generals of the late Mexican War. The measure passed, of course, but when the “nays” were up for roll call a voice from the back bellowed “No!” It was the 80-year-old former president. Adams then rose in an apparent effort to speak, but his face reddened and he collapsed. Carried to a couch, he slipped into unconsciousness and died two days later. John Quincy Adams was mortally stricken in the act of officially opposing an unjust war. That we remember the victories of the Mexican-American War but not Adams’ dying gesture surely must reflect poorly on us and our collective remembrances.

A Long Shadow Cast: The ‘Peace’ of 1848

From the war’s start, there was never any real question of leaving Mexico without extracting territory. Indeed, by late 1847 there was considerable Democratic support for taking the whole country. That the U.S. did not is due mainly to Polk’s peace commissioner ignoring orders and his own firing to negotiate a compromise. But there was something else. Many Democrats from the South—who had applauded the war from the start—now flinched before the prospect of taking on the entirety of Mexico and its decidedly brown and Catholic population. There was inherent fear of racial mixing, racial impurity and heterogeneity. John Calhoun, the political stalwart from South Carolina, even declared, “Ours is the government of the white man!” And, in 1848, Calhoun was right, indeed.

Even the Wilmot Proviso, an attempt by a Northern congressman to forestall any conquest in Mexico, was tinged with racism. Rep. David Wilmot called his amendment a “White Man’s Proviso,” to “preserve for free white labor a fair country, a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil, of my own race and own color, can live without the disgrace which association with Negro slavery brings upon free labor.” Wilmot’s proposal, unsurprisingly, never passed muster. But it nearly tore the Congress asunder, with Northern and Southern politicians at each other’s throats. Northerners generally feared the expansion of slave states and of what they called “slave power.” The Whig Party itself nearly divided—and eventually would—into its Northern and Southern factions. As we will see, arguments about what land to seize from Mexico and what to do with it (should it be slave or free?) would shatter the Second Party System—of Whigs and Democrats—and take the nation one step closer to the civil war many (like John Quincy Adams) had long feared. The “peace” of 1848, known to history as the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, would certainly cast a long shadow.

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In the end, the U.S. expended over 12,000 lives and millions of dollars to make a new colony of nearly half of Mexico—an area two and a half times the size of France and including parts or all of the current states of California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Much of the land remained heavily Hispanic for decades and effectively under military government for many years (New Mexico until 1912!). The real losers were the Indian and Hispanic people of the new American Southwest. The U.S. gained 100,000 Spanish-speaking inhabitants after the treaty and even more native Americans. Under Mexican law, both groups were considered full citizens! Under American stewardship, race was a far more detrimental factor. The results were (despite supposed protections in the treaty) the seizure of millions of acres of Hispanic-owned land and, in California, Indian slavery and decimation as 150,000 natives dwindled to less than 50,000 in just 10 years of U.S. control. During the postwar period, California’s governor literally called for the “extermination” of the state’s Indians. This aspect of the war’s end is almost never mentioned at all.

Words matter, and we must watch our use of terms and language. Mexico hadn’t invaded Texas; Texas was Mexico. Polk manufactured a war to expand slavery westward and increase pro-slavery political power in the Senate. Was, then, America an empire in 1848? Is it today? And why does the very term “empire” make us so uncomfortable?

So what, then, are readers to make of this mostly forgotten war? Perhaps this much: It was as unnecessary as it was unjust. Nearly all Democrats supported it, and most Whigs simply acquiesced. Others, however, knew the war to be wrong and said so at the time. Through an ethical lens, the real heroes of the Mexican-American War weren’t Gens. Taylor and Scott, but rather artists such as Henry David Thoreau; a former president, John Quincy Adams; and Abraham Lincoln, then an obscure young Illinois politician. There are many kinds of courage, and the physical sort shouldn’t necessarily predominate. In this view, the moral view, protest is patriotic.

So, let me challenge you to think on this: Our democracy was undoubtedly achieved through undemocratic means—through conquest and colonization. Mexicans were just some of the victims, and, today, in the American Southwest, tens of millions of U.S. citizens reside, in point of fact, upon occupied territory.

* * *

To learn more about this topic, consider the following scholarly works:

• Rodolfo Acuna, “Occupied Mexico: A History of Chicanos” (1988).
• James West Davidson, Brian DeLay, Christine Leigh Heyrman, Mark H. Lytle and Michael B. Stoff, “Experience History: Interpreting America’s Past,” Chapter 14. “Western Expansion and the Rise of the Slavery Issue, 1820-1850” (2011).
• Daniel Walker Howe, “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-48” (2007).

Maj. Danny Sjursen, a regular contributor to Truthdig, is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” He lives with his wife and four sons in Lawrence, Kan. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his new podcast, “Fortress on a Hill,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris “Henri” Henrikson.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

 

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American History for Truthdiggers: The Fraudulent Mexican-American War (1846-48)

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Maj. Danny Sjursen.

Editor’s note: The past is prologue. The stories we tell about ourselves and our forebears inform the sort of country we think we are and help determine public policy. As our current president promises to “make America great again,” this moment is an appropriate time to reconsider our past, look back at various eras of United States history and re-evaluate America’s origins. When, exactly, were we “great”?

Below is the 15th installment of the “American History for Truthdiggers” series, a pull-no-punches appraisal of our shared, if flawed, past. The author of the series, Danny Sjursen, an active-duty major in the U.S. Army, served military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught the nation’s checkered, often inspiring past when he was an assistant professor of history at West Point. His war experiences, his scholarship, his skill as a writer and his patriotism illuminate these Truthdig posts.

Part 15 of “American History for Truthdiggers.”

See: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6; Part 7; Part 8; Part 9; Part 10; Part 11Part 12; Part 13; Part 14;.

* * *

The United States of America conquered half of Mexico. There isn’t any way around that fact. The regions of the U.S. most affected by “illegal” immigration—California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas—were once part of the Republic of Mexico. They would have remained so if not for the Mexican-American War (1846-48). Those are the facts, but they hardly tell the story. Few Americans know much about this war, rarely question U.S. motives in the conflict and certainly never consider that much of America’s land—from sea to shining sea—was conquered.

Many readers will dispute this interpretation. Conquest is the natural order of the world, the inevitable outgrowth of clashing civilizations, they will insist. Perhaps. But if true, where does the conquest end, and how can the U.S. proudly celebrate its defense of Europe against the invasions by Germany and/or the Soviet Union? This line of militaristic reasoning—one held by many senior conservative policymakers even today—rests on the slipperiest of slopes. Certainly nations, like individuals, must adhere to a certain moral code, a social contract of behavior.

In this installment I will argue that American politicians and soldiers manufactured a war with Mexico, sold it to the public and then proceeded to conquer their southern neighbor. They were motivated by dreams of cheap farmland, California ports and the expansion of the cotton economy along with its peculiar partner, the institution of slavery. Our forebears succeeded, and they won an empire. Only in the process they may have lost something far more valuable in the moral realm.

(Mis)Remember the Alamo!: Texas and the Road to War

“The Fall of the Alamo” or “Crockett’s Last Stand,” by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk. This 1903 painting, on display in the Texas governor’s mansion, shows the famed frontiersman, at center wielding a rifle, battling to the death. Mexican accounts hold that Davy Crockett surrendered and later was executed. (Wikimedia Commons)

We all know the comforting tale. It has been depicted in countless Hollywood films starring the likes of John Wayne, Alec Baldwin and Billy Bob Thornton. “Remember the Alamo!” It remains a potent battle cry, especially in Texas, but also across the American continent. In the comforting tale, a myth really, a couple of hundred Texans, fighting for their freedom against a dictator’s numerically superior force, lost a battle but won war—inflicting such losses that Mexico’s defeat became inevitable. Never, in this telling, is the word “slavery” or the term “illegal immigration” mentioned. There is no room in the legend for critical thinking or fresh analysis. But since the independence and acquisition of Texas caused the Mexican-American War, we must dig deeper and reveal the messy truth.

Until 1836, Texas was a distant northern province of the new Mexican Republic, a republic that had only recently won its independence from the Spanish Empire, in 1821. The territory was full of hostile Indian tribes and a few thousand mestizos and Spaniards. It was difficult to rule, and harder to settle—but it was indisputably Mexican land. Only, Americans had long had their eyes on Texas. Some argued that it was included (it wasn’t) in the Louisiana Purchase, and “Old Hickory” himself, Andrew Jackson, wanted it badly. Indeed, his dear friend and protégé Sam Houston would later fight the Mexicans and preside as a president of the nascent Texan Republic. Thirty-two years before the Texan Revolution of Anglo settlers against the Mexican government, in 1803, Thomas Jefferson had even declared that [the Spanish borderlands] “are ours the first moment war is forced upon us.” Jefferson was prescient but only partly correct: War would come, in Texas in fact, but it would not be forced upon the American settlers.

Others besides politicians coveted Texas. In 1819, a filibusterer (one who leads unsanctioned adventures to conquer foreign lands), an American named James Long, led an illegal invasion and tried but failed to establish an Anglo republic in Texas. Then, in 1821, Mexico’s brand new government made what proved to be a fatal mistake: It opened the borders to legal American immigration. It did so to help develop the land and create a buffer against the powerful Comanche tribe of West Texas but stipulated that the Anglos must declare loyalty to Mexico and convert to Catholicism. The Mexicans should have known better.

The Mexican Republic abolished slavery in 1829, more than three decades before its “enlightened” northern neighbor. Unfortunately nearly all the Anglo settlers, who were by now flooding into the province, hailed from the slaveholding American South and had brought along many chattel slaves. By 1830, there were 20,000 American settlers and 2,000 slaves compared with just 5,000 Mexican inhabitants. The settlers never intended to follow Mexican law or free their slaves, and so they didn’t. Not really anyway. Most officially “freed” their black slaves and immediately forced them to sign a lifelong indentured servitude contract. It was simply American slavery by another name.

After Santa Anna—Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón, an authoritarian but populist president—seized power, his centralizing instincts and attempts to enforce Mexican policies (such as conversion to Catholicism and the ban on slavery) led the pro-autonomy federalists in Texas (most of whom were Americans) to rebel. It was 1835, and by then there were even more Americans in Texas: 35,000, in fact, outnumbering the Hispanics nearly 10 to 1. Many of the new settlers had broken the law, entering Texas after Santa Anna had ordered the border closed, as was his sovereign right to do.

What followed was a political, racial and religious war pitting white supremacist, Protestant Anglos against a centralizing Mexican republic led by a would-be despot. The Texan War of Independence (1835-36) was largely fought with American money, American volunteers and American arms (even then a prolific resource in the United States). The war was never truly limited to Texas, Tejanos or Mexican provincial politics. It was what we now call a proxy war for land waged between the U.S. and the Mexican Republic.

Furthermore, though Santa Anna was authoritarian, certain Texans saw him as their best hope for freedom. As Santa Anna’s army marched north, many slaves along the Brazos River saw an opportunity and rebelled. Most were killed, some captured and later hanged. And, while slavery was not, by itself, the proximate cause of the Texan Rebellion, it certainly played a significant role. As the Mexican leader marched north with his 6,000 conscripts, one Texas newspaper declared that “[Santa Anna’s] merciless soldiery” was coming “to give liberty to our slaves, and to make slaves of ourselves.” So, once again—as in America’s earlier revolution against Britain—white Americans clamored about their own liberty and feared to death that the same might be granted to their slaves. When (spoiler alert) Santa Anna’s army was eventually defeated, the Mexican retreat gathered numbers as many slave escapees and fearful Hispanics sought their own version of “freedom” south of the Anglo settlements.

Surely, the most evocative image of the Texas War of Independence was the heroic stand of 180 Texans at the Alamo. “Alamo” has entered the American lexicon as a term for any hopeless, yet gallant, stand. And, no doubt, the outnumbered defenders demonstrated courage in their doomed stand. The slightly less than 200 defenders were led by a 26-year-old failed lawyer named William Barret Travis and included the famed frontiersman Davy Crockett, a former Whig member of the U.S. House of Representatives. All would be killed. Still, the battle wasn’t as one-sided or important as the mythos would have it. The defenders actually held one of the strongest fortifications in the Southwest, had more and superior cannons than the attackers and were armed mainly with rifles that far outranged the outdated Mexican muskets. Additionally, the Mexicans were mostly underfed, undersupplied conscripts who often had been forced to enlist and had marched north some 1,000 miles into a difficult fight. Despite inflicting disproportionate casualties on the Mexicans, the stand at the Alamo delayed Santa Anna by only four days. Furthermore, despite the prevalent “last stand” imagery, at least seven defenders (according to credible Mexican accounts long ignored)—probably including Crockett himself—surrendered and were executed.

None of this detracts from the courage of any man defending a position when outnumbered at least 10 to 1, but the diligent historian must reframe the battle. The men inside the Alamo walls were pro-slavery insurgents. As applied to them, “Texan,” in any real sense, is a misnomer. Two-thirds were recent arrivals from the United States and never intended to submit to sovereign Mexican authority. What the Battle of the Alamo did do was whip up a fury of nationalism in the U.S. and cause thousands more recruits to illegally “jump the border”—oh, the irony—and join the rebellion in Texas.

Eventually, Santa Anna, always a better politician than a military strategist, was surprised and defeated by Sam Houston along the banks of the San Jacinto River. The charging Americans yelled “Remember the Alamo!” and sought their revenge. Few prisoners were taken in the melee; perhaps hundreds were executed on the spot. The numbers speak for themselves: 630 dead Mexicans at the cost of two Americans. It is instructive that the Mexican policy of no quarter at the Alamo is regularly derided, yet few north of the Rio Grande remember this later massacre (and probable war crime).

Still, Santa Anna was defeated and forced, under duress (and probably pain of death), to sign away all rights to Texas. The Mexican Congress, as was its constitutional prerogative, summarily dismissed this treaty and would continue its reasonable legal claim on Texas indefinitely. Nonetheless, the divided Mexican government and its exhausted army were in no position (though attempts were made) to recapture the wayward northern province. Texas was “free,” and a thrilled—and no doubt proud—President Jackson recognized Houston’s Republic of Texas on “Old Hickory’s” very last day in office.

Thousands more Americans flowed into the republic over the next decade. By 1845, there were 125,000 (mostly Anglo) inhabitants and 27,000 slaves—that’s more enslaved blacks than Hispanic natives! One result of the war was the expansion and empowerment of the American institution of slavery. Because of confidence in the inevitable spread of slavery, the average sale price of a slave in the bustling New Orleans human-trafficking market rose 21 percent within one year of President John Tyler’s decision to annex Texas (during his final days in office) in 1845. According to international law, Texas remained Mexican. Tyler’s decision alone was tantamount to a declaration of war. Still, for at least a year, the Mexicans showed restraint and unhappily accepted the de facto facts on the ground.

<b>American Blood Upon American Soil?: The Specious Case for War</B>

It took an even greater provocation to kick off a major interstate war between America and Mexico. And that provocation indeed came. In 1844, in one of the more consequential elections in U.S. history, a Jackson loyalist (nicknamed “Young Hickory”) and slaveholder, James K. Polk, defeated the indefatigable Whig candidate Henry Clay. Clay preferred restraint with respect to Texas and Mexico; he wished instead to improve the already vast interior of the existing United States as part of his famed “American System.” Unfortunately for the Mexicans, Clay was defeated, and the fervently expansionist Polk took office in 1845. His election demonstrates the contingency of history; for if Clay had won, war might have been avoided, slavery kept from spreading in the Southwest, and America spared a civil war. It was not to be. Just before Polk took office, a dying Andrew Jackson provided him the sage advice that would spark a bloody war: “Obtain it [Texas] the United States must, peaceably if we can, but forcibly if we must.”

“American Progress,” an 1872 painting by John Gast, shows Manifest Destiny—the belief that the United States should expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean—moving westward across the American continent, bringing light as it faces the darkness of unconquered lands.

In the end, it was Polk who would order U.S. troops south of the disputed Texas border and spark a war. Still, the explanation for war was bigger than any one incident. A newspaperman of the time summarized the millenarian scene of fate pulling Americans westward into the lands of Mexicans and Indians. John L. O’Sullivan wrote, “It has become the United States’ manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” There was an American sense of mission, clear from the very founding of Puritan Massachusetts, to multiply and inhabit North America from ocean to ocean. Mexico and the few remaining native territories were all that stood in the way of American destiny by 1846. As the historian Daniel Walker Howe has written, “&nbsp;‘Manifest Destiny’ served as both label and a justification for policies that might otherwise simply been called … imperialism.”

Polk was, at least in terms of accomplishing what he set out to do, one of the most successful presidents in U.S. history. He declared that his administration had “four great measures.” Two involved expansion: “the settlement of the Oregon territory with Britain, and the acquisition of California and a large district on the coast.” Within three years he would have both and more. Interestingly, though, Polk wielded different tactics for each acquisition. First, Oregon: Britain and the U.S. had agreed to jointly rule this territory, which at that time reached north to the border with Alaska. Expansionist Democrats who coveted the whole of Oregon ran on the party slogan “54°40′ or Fight!” (a reference to the latitude at the top of the Oregon of that day, a line that marks today’s southern border of the state of Alaska). In the end, however, Polk would not fight Great Britain for Canada. Instead, he compromised, setting the modern boundary between Washington state and British Columbia.

In his dealings with the much less powerful Mexicans, however, Polk took an entirely different, more openly bellicose approach. Here, it seems, he expected if not preferred a war. Was his compromise in Oregon reflective of great-power politics (Britain remained a formidable opponent, especially at sea) or tainted by race and white supremacist notions about the weakness of Hispanic civilization? Historians still argue the point. What we can say is that many Democratic supporters of Polk delighted over the Oregon Compromise, for, as one newspaper declared: “We can now thrash Mexico into decency at our leisure.”

War it would be. In the spring of 1846, President Polk sent Gen. Zachary Taylor and 4,000 troops along the border between Texas and Mexico. Polk claimed all territory north of the Rio Grande River despite the fact that the Mexican province had always established Texas’ border further north at the Nueces River. Polk wanted Taylor to secure the southerly of the two disputed boundaries—probably in contravention of established international law. No one should have been surprised, then, when in April a reconnaissance party of U.S. dragoons was attacked by Mexican soldiers south of the Nueces River. Polk, of course, wily politician that he was, acted absolutely shocked upon hearing the news and immediately began drafting a war message—even though, in fact, his administration had been on the verge of asking Congress for a war declaration anyway! In the exact inverse of his negotiations with Britain over Oregon, Polk had made demands (that Mexico sell California and recognize Texan independence) he knew would probably be rejected by Mexico City, and then sent soldiers where he knew they would probably provoke war. And, oh, how well it worked.

Indeed, Polk’s administration had already set plans in motion for naval and land forces to immediately converge on California and New Mexico when the outbreak of war occurred. Both the U.S. Army and Navy complied and within a year occupied both Mexican provinces. Lest the reader believe the local Hispanics were indifferent to the invasion, homegrown rebellions broke out (and were swiftly suppressed) in both locales. Polk got his war declaration soon after the fight in south Texas. In a blatant obfuscation, Polk announced to the American people that “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory, and shed American blood upon American soil. War exists, and notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself.” He knew this to be false.

So did many Whigs in the opposition party, by the way. Still, most obediently voted for war, fearing the hypernationalism of their constituents and remembering the drubbing Federalists had taken for opposing the War of 1812. In cowardly votes of 174-14 in the House (John Quincy Adams, the former president, was one notable dissenting vote) and 40-2 in the Senate, the Congress succumbed to war fever. The small skirmish near the Nueces River was just a casus belli for Polk; America truly went to war to seize, at the very least, all of northern Mexico.

<B>Gen. Winfield Scott and the Defeat of Mexico</B>

On the surface, the two sides in the Mexican-American War were unevenly matched. The U.S. population of 17 million citizens and 3 million slaves dwarfed the 7 million Mexicans (4 million of whom were Indians). Their respective economies were even more lopsided, for America had emerged strong from its market and communications revolutions. Mexico had only recently (1821) gained its independence, and its political situation was fragile and fluctuating. The U.S. had existed independently for some 60 years and already had fought two wars with Britain and countless battles with Indian tribes. America was ready to flex its muscles.

Many observers assumed the war would be easy and short. It was not to be. Most Americans underestimated the courage, resolve and nationalism of Mexican soldiers and civilians alike. That the U.S. won this war—and most of the battles—was due primarily to superiority in artillery, leadership and logistics. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York had trained, and numerous Indian wars had seasoned, a generation of junior and mid-grade officers. Many of the lieutenants and captains who directly led U.S. Army formations in Mexico (one thinks of Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman and James Longstreet, to name only a handful) would serve, either for the North or the South, as general officers in the U.S. Civil War (1861-65). Some of these officers involved in the Mexican-American War relished the glory of exotic conquest; others were horrified by a war they deemed immoral.

It must be remembered that the U.S. Army that entered and conquered Mexico represented a slaveholding republic fighting against an abolitionist nation-state. Many Southern officers brought along slaves and servants on the quest to spread “liberty” to the Mexicans. Some of the enslaved took the opportunity to escape into the interior of a non-slaveholding country. The irony was astounding.

President Polk’s Army was also highly politicized during the conflict. While the existing regular Army officers tended to be Whigs (in favor, as they were, of internal improvements and centralized finance to the benefit of the military), all 13 generals that Polk appointed were avowed partisan Democrats. Polk’s biggest fear—which would indeed come to fruition in the election of Gen. Zachary Taylor as president in 1848—was that a Whiggish hero from the war he began would best his party for the presidency.

When it became clear in 1846 that Gen. Taylor’s initial thrust south into the vast Mexican hinterland could win battles but not the war, Gen. Winfield Scott (a hero of the War of 1812) was ordered to lead an amphibious thrust at the Mexican capital. Indeed, Scott’s militarily brilliant operational campaign constituted the largest American seaborne invasion until D-Day in World War II. It took months of hard fighting and several more months of tenuous occupation, but Scott’s attack effectively ended the war by late 1847.

Still, conducting this war was extremely hard, indeed more difficult than it should have been, on both Taylor and Scott. This was due to President Polk’s decision (reminiscent of George W. Bush’s decision during the Iraq War) to cut taxes and wage war simultaneously. Indeed, Gen. Scott became so short on troops and supplies that he decided to cut off his line of logistics and “live off the land.” This was a clever but risky maneuver that his subordinates—U.S. Grant and William T. Sherman—would remember and mimic in the U.S. Civil War.

There was plenty of room for courage and glory on both sides of the Mexican-American War. It is no accident that the contemporary U.S. Marine Corps Hymn speaks of the “Halls of Montezuma,” or that several grandiose rock carvings of key battle names in Mexico unapologetically adorn my own alma mater at West Point. On the other side, the Mexican people still celebrate the gallant defense, and deaths, of six cadets—known as Los Niños Héroes—who manned the barricades of their own national military academy.

Nevertheless there was (and always is) an uglier, less romantic side of the conflagration. Nine thousand two hundred seven men deserted the U.S. Army in Mexico, or some 8.3 percent of all troops—the highest ever rate in an American conflict and double that of the Vietnam War. Hundreds of Catholic Irish immigrant soldiers responded to Mexican invitations and not only deserted the U.S. Army but joined the Mexican army, as the San Patricio (Saint Patrick’s) Battalion. Dozens were later captured and hanged by their former comrades.

America’s military also waged a violent, brutal war that often failed to spare the innocent. In northern Mexico, Gen. Taylor’s artillery pounded the city of Matamoros, killing hundreds of civilians. Indeed, Taylor’s army of mostly volunteers regularly pillaged villages, murdering Mexican citizens for either retaliation or sport. Many regular Army officers decried the behavior of these volunteers, and one officer wrote, “The majority of the volunteers sent here are a disgrace to the nation; think of one of them shooting a woman while washing on the banks of the river—merely to test his rifle; another tore forcibly from a Mexican woman the rings from her ears.” In the later bombardment of Veracruz, American mortar fire inflicted on the elderly, women or children two-thirds of the 1,000 Mexican casualties. Capt. Robert E. Lee (who would later lead the Confederate Army in the U.S. Civil War) was horrified, commenting that “my heart bled for the inhabitants, it was terrible to think of the women and children.”

It should come as little surprise, then, that when the U.S. Army seized cities, groups of Mexican guerrilla fighters—usually called rancheros—often rose in rebellion. Part of the U.S. effort in Mexico became a counterinsurgency. Take my word for it, people (Iraqis, for example) rarely take kindly to occupation, and the mere presence of foreigners often generates insurgents. All told, the American victory cost the U.S. Army 12,518 lives (seven-eighths of the deaths because of disease, due largely to poor sanitation). Many thousands more Mexican troops and civilians died. This aspect of the war, events that tarnish glorious imagery and language, is rarely remembered, but it would be well if it were.

Courageous Dissent: Whigs, Artists, Soldiers and the Opposition to the Mexican-American War

War, as it does, initially united the country in a spirit of nationalism, but ultimately the war and its spoils would divide the U.S., nearly to its breaking point. Few mainstream Whigs—those of the opposition party—initially demonstrated the courage to dissent. They knew, deep down, that this war was wrong, but also remembered the fate of the Federalist Party, which had been labeled treasonous and soon disappeared due to its opposition to the War of 1812. Other Whigs were simply dedicated nationalists: The U.S. was their country, right or wrong. But there were courageous voices, a few dissenters in the wilderness. Some you know; others are anonymous, lost to history. All were patriots.

Many were politicians: those entrusted with the duty to dissent in times of national error. Though only a dozen or so Whigs had the fortitude to vote against the war declaration in 1846, a few were vocal. One was Rep. Luther Severance, who responded to President Polk’s “American blood on American soil” fallacy by exclaiming that “[i]t is on Mexican soil that blood has been shed” and Mexicans “should be honored and applauded” for their “manly resistance.”

Another was former President John Quincy Adams, who at the time was a member of the U.S. House from Massachusetts (he was the only person to serve in Congress after being president). It was Adams, we must remember, who as secretary of state in 1821, had presciently warned Americans against foreign military adventures. “But she [America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” he wrote, for “[Were she to do so] the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force … she might become the dictatress of the world.” Adams had seen the Mexican War coming back in 1836, when his avowed opponent President Andrew Jackson considered annexation of the Texan Republic. Then, Adams had said, “Are you not large and unwieldy enough already? Have you not Indians enough to expel from the land of their fathers’ sepulchre?”

Another staunch opponent of the war was a little known freshman Whig congressman from Illinois, a lanky fellow named Abraham Lincoln. As soon as he took his seat in the House, Lincoln immediately rebuked President Polk’s initial explanation for declaring war. “The President, in his first war message of May 1846,” Lincoln told his audience, “declares that the soil was ours on which hostilities were commenced by Mexico; Now I propose to try to show, that the whole of this–issue and evidence–is, from beginning to end, the sheerest deception.” The future president would later summarize the conflict as “a war of conquest fought to catch votes.” And, indeed it was.

Prominent artists and writers also opposed the war; such people often do, and we should take notice of them. The Transcendentalist writers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson each took up the pen to attack the still quite popular conquest of Mexico. Thoreau, who served prison time, turned a lecture into an essay now known as “Civil Disobedience.” Emerson was even more succinct, declaring, “The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as a man who swallowed the arsenic which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.” He couldn’t have known how right he was; arguments over the expansion of slavery in the lands seized from Mexico would indeed take the nation to the brink of civil war in just a dozen years.

One expects dissent from artists. These men and women tend to be unflinching and to demonstrate a willingness to stand against the grain, against even the populist passions of an inflamed citizenry. But … soldiers? Surely they must remain loyal and steadfast to the end, and so, too often, they are. Not so in Mexico. A surprising number of young officers—like Lee at the bombardment of Veracruz—despised the war. More than a few likely suffered from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One lieutenant colonel, Ethan Hitchcock, even attacked the justification for war. He wrote, “We have not one particle of right to be here. It looks as if the [U.S.] government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have the pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses.” Perhaps the most honest and self-effacing critique of the war came from a young subaltern named U.S. Grant (who along with his then-comrade R.E. Lee would later lead one of the two opposing armies in the Civil War). Grant, a future president and West Point graduate, wrote that he “had a horror of the Mexican War … only I had not the moral courage enough to resign.”

Finally, let us return to the powerful and unwavering dissent of John Quincy Adams, for the Mexican War, not his presidency, may constitute his finest hour. On Feb. 21, 1848, the speaker of the House called for a routine vote to bestow medals and adulation on the victorious generals of the late Mexican War. The measure passed, of course, but when the “nays” were up for roll call a voice from the back bellowed “No!” It was the 80-year-old former president. Adams then rose in an apparent effort to speak, but his face reddened and he collapsed. Carried to a couch, he slipped into unconsciousness and died two days later. John Quincy Adams was mortally stricken in the act of officially opposing an unjust war. That we remember the victories of the Mexican-American War but not Adams’ dying gesture surely must reflect poorly on us and our collective remembrances.

A Long Shadow Cast: The ‘Peace’ of 1848

From the war’s start, there was never any real question of leaving Mexico without extracting territory. Indeed, by late 1847 there was considerable Democratic support for taking the whole country. That the U.S. did not is due mainly to Polk’s peace commissioner ignoring orders and his own firing to negotiate a compromise. But there was something else. Many Democrats from the South—who had applauded the war from the start—now flinched before the prospect of taking on the entirety of Mexico and its decidedly brown and Catholic population. There was inherent fear of racial mixing, racial impurity and heterogeneity. John Calhoun, the political stalwart from South Carolina, even declared, “Ours is the government of the white man!” And, in 1848, Calhoun was right, indeed.

Even the Wilmot Proviso, an attempt by a Northern congressman to forestall any conquest in Mexico, was tinged with racism. Rep. David Wilmot called his amendment a “White Man’s Proviso,” to “preserve for free white labor a fair country, a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil, of my own race and own color, can live without the disgrace which association with Negro slavery brings upon free labor.” Wilmot’s proposal, unsurprisingly, never passed muster. But it nearly tore the Congress asunder, with Northern and Southern politicians at each other’s throats. Northerners generally feared the expansion of slave states and of what they called “slave power.” The Whig Party itself nearly divided—and eventually would—into its Northern and Southern factions. As we will see, arguments about what land to seize from Mexico and what to do with it (should it be slave or free?) would shatter the Second Party System—of Whigs and Democrats—and take the nation one step closer to the civil war many (like John Quincy Adams) had long feared. The “peace” of 1848, known to history as the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, would certainly cast a long shadow.

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In the end, the U.S. expended over 12,000 lives and millions of dollars to make a new colony of nearly half of Mexico—an area two and a half times the size of France and including parts or all of the current states of California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Much of the land remained heavily Hispanic for decades and effectively under military government for many years (New Mexico until 1912!). The real losers were the Indian and Hispanic people of the new American Southwest. The U.S. gained 100,000 Spanish-speaking inhabitants after the treaty and even more native Americans. Under Mexican law, both groups were considered full citizens! Under American stewardship, race was a far more detrimental factor. The results were (despite supposed protections in the treaty) the seizure of millions of acres of Hispanic-owned land and, in California, Indian slavery and decimation as 150,000 natives dwindled to less than 50,000 in just 10 years of U.S. control. During the postwar period, California’s governor literally called for the “extermination” of the state’s Indians. This aspect of the war’s end is almost never mentioned at all.

Words matter, and we must watch our use of terms and language. Mexico hadn’t invaded Texas; Texas was Mexico. Polk manufactured a war to expand slavery westward and increase pro-slavery political power in the Senate. Was, then, America an empire in 1848? Is it today? And why does the very term “empire” make us so uncomfortable?

So what, then, are readers to make of this mostly forgotten war? Perhaps this much: It was as unnecessary as it was unjust. Nearly all Democrats supported it, and most Whigs simply acquiesced. Others, however, knew the war to be wrong and said so at the time. Through an ethical lens, the real heroes of the Mexican-American War weren’t Gens. Taylor and Scott, but rather artists such as Henry David Thoreau; a former president, John Quincy Adams; and Abraham Lincoln, then an obscure young Illinois politician. There are many kinds of courage, and the physical sort shouldn’t necessarily predominate. In this view, the moral view, protest is patriotic.

So, let me challenge you to think on this: Our democracy was undoubtedly achieved through undemocratic means—through conquest and colonization. Mexicans were just some of the victims, and, today, in the American Southwest, tens of millions of U.S. citizens reside, in point of fact, upon occupied territory.

* * *

To learn more about this topic, consider the following scholarly works:

• Rodolfo Acuna, “Occupied Mexico: A History of Chicanos” (1988).
• James West Davidson, Brian DeLay, Christine Leigh Heyrman, Mark H. Lytle and Michael B. Stoff, “Experience History: Interpreting America’s Past,” Chapter 14. “Western Expansion and the Rise of the Slavery Issue, 1820-1850” (2011).
• Daniel Walker Howe, “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-48” (2007).

Maj. Danny Sjursen, a regular contributor to Truthdig, is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” He lives with his wife and four sons in Lawrence, Kan. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his new podcast, “Fortress on a Hill,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris “Henri” Henrikson.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

 

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American History for Truthdiggers: The Fraudulent Mexican-American War (1846-48)

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Maj. Danny Sjursen.

Editor’s note: The past is prologue. The stories we tell about ourselves and our forebears inform the sort of country we think we are and help determine public policy. As our current president promises to “make America great again,” this moment is an appropriate time to reconsider our past, look back at various eras of United States history and re-evaluate America’s origins. When, exactly, were we “great”?

Below is the 15th installment of the “American History for Truthdiggers” series, a pull-no-punches appraisal of our shared, if flawed, past. The author of the series, Danny Sjursen, an active-duty major in the U.S. Army, served military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught the nation’s checkered, often inspiring past when he was an assistant professor of history at West Point. His war experiences, his scholarship, his skill as a writer and his patriotism illuminate these Truthdig posts.

Part 15 of “American History for Truthdiggers.”

See: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6; Part 7; Part 8; Part 9; Part 10; Part 11Part 12; Part 13; Part 14;.

* * *

The United States of America conquered half of Mexico. There isn’t any way around that fact. The regions of the U.S. most affected by “illegal” immigration—California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas—were once part of the Republic of Mexico. They would have remained so if not for the Mexican-American War (1846-48). Those are the facts, but they hardly tell the story. Few Americans know much about this war, rarely question U.S. motives in the conflict and certainly never consider that much of America’s land—from sea to shining sea—was conquered.

Many readers will dispute this interpretation. Conquest is the natural order of the world, the inevitable outgrowth of clashing civilizations, they will insist. Perhaps. But if true, where does the conquest end, and how can the U.S. proudly celebrate its defense of Europe against the invasions by Germany and/or the Soviet Union? This line of militaristic reasoning—one held by many senior conservative policymakers even today—rests on the slipperiest of slopes. Certainly nations, like individuals, must adhere to a certain moral code, a social contract of behavior.

In this installment I will argue that American politicians and soldiers manufactured a war with Mexico, sold it to the public and then proceeded to conquer their southern neighbor. They were motivated by dreams of cheap farmland, California ports and the expansion of the cotton economy along with its peculiar partner, the institution of slavery. Our forebears succeeded, and they won an empire. Only in the process they may have lost something far more valuable in the moral realm.

(Mis)Remember the Alamo!: Texas and the Road to War

“The Fall of the Alamo” or “Crockett’s Last Stand,” by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk. This 1903 painting, on display in the Texas governor’s mansion, shows the famed frontiersman, at center wielding a rifle, battling to the death. Mexican accounts hold that Davy Crockett surrendered and later was executed. (Wikimedia Commons)

We all know the comforting tale. It has been depicted in countless Hollywood films starring the likes of John Wayne, Alec Baldwin and Billy Bob Thornton. “Remember the Alamo!” It remains a potent battle cry, especially in Texas, but also across the American continent. In the comforting tale, a myth really, a couple of hundred Texans, fighting for their freedom against a dictator’s numerically superior force, lost a battle but won war—inflicting such losses that Mexico’s defeat became inevitable. Never, in this telling, is the word “slavery” or the term “illegal immigration” mentioned. There is no room in the legend for critical thinking or fresh analysis. But since the independence and acquisition of Texas caused the Mexican-American War, we must dig deeper and reveal the messy truth.

Until 1836, Texas was a distant northern province of the new Mexican Republic, a republic that had only recently won its independence from the Spanish Empire, in 1821. The territory was full of hostile Indian tribes and a few thousand mestizos and Spaniards. It was difficult to rule, and harder to settle—but it was indisputably Mexican land. Only, Americans had long had their eyes on Texas. Some argued that it was included (it wasn’t) in the Louisiana Purchase, and “Old Hickory” himself, Andrew Jackson, wanted it badly. Indeed, his dear friend and protégé Sam Houston would later fight the Mexicans and preside as a president of the nascent Texan Republic. Thirty-two years before the Texan Revolution of Anglo settlers against the Mexican government, in 1803, Thomas Jefferson had even declared that [the Spanish borderlands] “are ours the first moment war is forced upon us.” Jefferson was prescient but only partly correct: War would come, in Texas in fact, but it would not be forced upon the American settlers.

Others besides politicians coveted Texas. In 1819, a filibusterer (one who leads unsanctioned adventures to conquer foreign lands), an American named James Long, led an illegal invasion and tried but failed to establish an Anglo republic in Texas. Then, in 1821, Mexico’s brand new government made what proved to be a fatal mistake: It opened the borders to legal American immigration. It did so to help develop the land and create a buffer against the powerful Comanche tribe of West Texas but stipulated that the Anglos must declare loyalty to Mexico and convert to Catholicism. The Mexicans should have known better.

The Mexican Republic abolished slavery in 1829, more than three decades before its “enlightened” northern neighbor. Unfortunately nearly all the Anglo settlers, who were by now flooding into the province, hailed from the slaveholding American South and had brought along many chattel slaves. By 1830, there were 20,000 American settlers and 2,000 slaves compared with just 5,000 Mexican inhabitants. The settlers never intended to follow Mexican law or free their slaves, and so they didn’t. Not really anyway. Most officially “freed” their black slaves and immediately forced them to sign a lifelong indentured servitude contract. It was simply American slavery by another name.

After Santa Anna—Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón, an authoritarian but populist president—seized power, his centralizing instincts and attempts to enforce Mexican policies (such as conversion to Catholicism and the ban on slavery) led the pro-autonomy federalists in Texas (most of whom were Americans) to rebel. It was 1835, and by then there were even more Americans in Texas: 35,000, in fact, outnumbering the Hispanics nearly 10 to 1. Many of the new settlers had broken the law, entering Texas after Santa Anna had ordered the border closed, as was his sovereign right to do.

What followed was a political, racial and religious war pitting white supremacist, Protestant Anglos against a centralizing Mexican republic led by a would-be despot. The Texan War of Independence (1835-36) was largely fought with American money, American volunteers and American arms (even then a prolific resource in the United States). The war was never truly limited to Texas, Tejanos or Mexican provincial politics. It was what we now call a proxy war for land waged between the U.S. and the Mexican Republic.

Furthermore, though Santa Anna was authoritarian, certain Texans saw him as their best hope for freedom. As Santa Anna’s army marched north, many slaves along the Brazos River saw an opportunity and rebelled. Most were killed, some captured and later hanged. And, while slavery was not, by itself, the proximate cause of the Texan Rebellion, it certainly played a significant role. As the Mexican leader marched north with his 6,000 conscripts, one Texas newspaper declared that “[Santa Anna’s] merciless soldiery” was coming “to give liberty to our slaves, and to make slaves of ourselves.” So, once again—as in America’s earlier revolution against Britain—white Americans clamored about their own liberty and feared to death that the same might be granted to their slaves. When (spoiler alert) Santa Anna’s army was eventually defeated, the Mexican retreat gathered numbers as many slave escapees and fearful Hispanics sought their own version of “freedom” south of the Anglo settlements.

Surely, the most evocative image of the Texas War of Independence was the heroic stand of 180 Texans at the Alamo. “Alamo” has entered the American lexicon as a term for any hopeless, yet gallant, stand. And, no doubt, the outnumbered defenders demonstrated courage in their doomed stand. The slightly less than 200 defenders were led by a 26-year-old failed lawyer named William Barret Travis and included the famed frontiersman Davy Crockett, a former Whig member of the U.S. House of Representatives. All would be killed. Still, the battle wasn’t as one-sided or important as the mythos would have it. The defenders actually held one of the strongest fortifications in the Southwest, had more and superior cannons than the attackers and were armed mainly with rifles that far outranged the outdated Mexican muskets. Additionally, the Mexicans were mostly underfed, undersupplied conscripts who often had been forced to enlist and had marched north some 1,000 miles into a difficult fight. Despite inflicting disproportionate casualties on the Mexicans, the stand at the Alamo delayed Santa Anna by only four days. Furthermore, despite the prevalent “last stand” imagery, at least seven defenders (according to credible Mexican accounts long ignored)—probably including Crockett himself—surrendered and were executed.

None of this detracts from the courage of any man defending a position when outnumbered at least 10 to 1, but the diligent historian must reframe the battle. The men inside the Alamo walls were pro-slavery insurgents. As applied to them, “Texan,” in any real sense, is a misnomer. Two-thirds were recent arrivals from the United States and never intended to submit to sovereign Mexican authority. What the Battle of the Alamo did do was whip up a fury of nationalism in the U.S. and cause thousands more recruits to illegally “jump the border”—oh, the irony—and join the rebellion in Texas.

Eventually, Santa Anna, always a better politician than a military strategist, was surprised and defeated by Sam Houston along the banks of the San Jacinto River. The charging Americans yelled “Remember the Alamo!” and sought their revenge. Few prisoners were taken in the melee; perhaps hundreds were executed on the spot. The numbers speak for themselves: 630 dead Mexicans at the cost of two Americans. It is instructive that the Mexican policy of no quarter at the Alamo is regularly derided, yet few north of the Rio Grande remember this later massacre (and probable war crime).

Still, Santa Anna was defeated and forced, under duress (and probably pain of death), to sign away all rights to Texas. The Mexican Congress, as was its constitutional prerogative, summarily dismissed this treaty and would continue its reasonable legal claim on Texas indefinitely. Nonetheless, the divided Mexican government and its exhausted army were in no position (though attempts were made) to recapture the wayward northern province. Texas was “free,” and a thrilled—and no doubt proud—President Jackson recognized Houston’s Republic of Texas on “Old Hickory’s” very last day in office.

Thousands more Americans flowed into the republic over the next decade. By 1845, there were 125,000 (mostly Anglo) inhabitants and 27,000 slaves—that’s more enslaved blacks than Hispanic natives! One result of the war was the expansion and empowerment of the American institution of slavery. Because of confidence in the inevitable spread of slavery, the average sale price of a slave in the bustling New Orleans human-trafficking market rose 21 percent within one year of President John Tyler’s decision to annex Texas (during his final days in office) in 1845. According to international law, Texas remained Mexican. Tyler’s decision alone was tantamount to a declaration of war. Still, for at least a year, the Mexicans showed restraint and unhappily accepted the de facto facts on the ground.

<b>American Blood Upon American Soil?: The Specious Case for War</B>

It took an even greater provocation to kick off a major interstate war between America and Mexico. And that provocation indeed came. In 1844, in one of the more consequential elections in U.S. history, a Jackson loyalist (nicknamed “Young Hickory”) and slaveholder, James K. Polk, defeated the indefatigable Whig candidate Henry Clay. Clay preferred restraint with respect to Texas and Mexico; he wished instead to improve the already vast interior of the existing United States as part of his famed “American System.” Unfortunately for the Mexicans, Clay was defeated, and the fervently expansionist Polk took office in 1845. His election demonstrates the contingency of history; for if Clay had won, war might have been avoided, slavery kept from spreading in the Southwest, and America spared a civil war. It was not to be. Just before Polk took office, a dying Andrew Jackson provided him the sage advice that would spark a bloody war: “Obtain it [Texas] the United States must, peaceably if we can, but forcibly if we must.”

“American Progress,” an 1872 painting by John Gast, shows Manifest Destiny—the belief that the United States should expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean—moving westward across the American continent, bringing light as it faces the darkness of unconquered lands.

In the end, it was Polk who would order U.S. troops south of the disputed Texas border and spark a war. Still, the explanation for war was bigger than any one incident. A newspaperman of the time summarized the millenarian scene of fate pulling Americans westward into the lands of Mexicans and Indians. John L. O’Sullivan wrote, “It has become the United States’ manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” There was an American sense of mission, clear from the very founding of Puritan Massachusetts, to multiply and inhabit North America from ocean to ocean. Mexico and the few remaining native territories were all that stood in the way of American destiny by 1846. As the historian Daniel Walker Howe has written, “&nbsp;‘Manifest Destiny’ served as both label and a justification for policies that might otherwise simply been called … imperialism.”

Polk was, at least in terms of accomplishing what he set out to do, one of the most successful presidents in U.S. history. He declared that his administration had “four great measures.” Two involved expansion: “the settlement of the Oregon territory with Britain, and the acquisition of California and a large district on the coast.” Within three years he would have both and more. Interestingly, though, Polk wielded different tactics for each acquisition. First, Oregon: Britain and the U.S. had agreed to jointly rule this territory, which at that time reached north to the border with Alaska. Expansionist Democrats who coveted the whole of Oregon ran on the party slogan “54°40′ or Fight!” (a reference to the latitude at the top of the Oregon of that day, a line that marks today’s southern border of the state of Alaska). In the end, however, Polk would not fight Great Britain for Canada. Instead, he compromised, setting the modern boundary between Washington state and British Columbia.

In his dealings with the much less powerful Mexicans, however, Polk took an entirely different, more openly bellicose approach. Here, it seems, he expected if not preferred a war. Was his compromise in Oregon reflective of great-power politics (Britain remained a formidable opponent, especially at sea) or tainted by race and white supremacist notions about the weakness of Hispanic civilization? Historians still argue the point. What we can say is that many Democratic supporters of Polk delighted over the Oregon Compromise, for, as one newspaper declared: “We can now thrash Mexico into decency at our leisure.”

War it would be. In the spring of 1846, President Polk sent Gen. Zachary Taylor and 4,000 troops along the border between Texas and Mexico. Polk claimed all territory north of the Rio Grande River despite the fact that the Mexican province had always established Texas’ border further north at the Nueces River. Polk wanted Taylor to secure the southerly of the two disputed boundaries—probably in contravention of established international law. No one should have been surprised, then, when in April a reconnaissance party of U.S. dragoons was attacked by Mexican soldiers south of the Nueces River. Polk, of course, wily politician that he was, acted absolutely shocked upon hearing the news and immediately began drafting a war message—even though, in fact, his administration had been on the verge of asking Congress for a war declaration anyway! In the exact inverse of his negotiations with Britain over Oregon, Polk had made demands (that Mexico sell California and recognize Texan independence) he knew would probably be rejected by Mexico City, and then sent soldiers where he knew they would probably provoke war. And, oh, how well it worked.

Indeed, Polk’s administration had already set plans in motion for naval and land forces to immediately converge on California and New Mexico when the outbreak of war occurred. Both the U.S. Army and Navy complied and within a year occupied both Mexican provinces. Lest the reader believe the local Hispanics were indifferent to the invasion, homegrown rebellions broke out (and were swiftly suppressed) in both locales. Polk got his war declaration soon after the fight in south Texas. In a blatant obfuscation, Polk announced to the American people that “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory, and shed American blood upon American soil. War exists, and notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself.” He knew this to be false.

So did many Whigs in the opposition party, by the way. Still, most obediently voted for war, fearing the hypernationalism of their constituents and remembering the drubbing Federalists had taken for opposing the War of 1812. In cowardly votes of 174-14 in the House (John Quincy Adams, the former president, was one notable dissenting vote) and 40-2 in the Senate, the Congress succumbed to war fever. The small skirmish near the Nueces River was just a casus belli for Polk; America truly went to war to seize, at the very least, all of northern Mexico.

<B>Gen. Winfield Scott and the Defeat of Mexico</B>

On the surface, the two sides in the Mexican-American War were unevenly matched. The U.S. population of 17 million citizens and 3 million slaves dwarfed the 7 million Mexicans (4 million of whom were Indians). Their respective economies were even more lopsided, for America had emerged strong from its market and communications revolutions. Mexico had only recently (1821) gained its independence, and its political situation was fragile and fluctuating. The U.S. had existed independently for some 60 years and already had fought two wars with Britain and countless battles with Indian tribes. America was ready to flex its muscles.

Many observers assumed the war would be easy and short. It was not to be. Most Americans underestimated the courage, resolve and nationalism of Mexican soldiers and civilians alike. That the U.S. won this war—and most of the battles—was due primarily to superiority in artillery, leadership and logistics. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York had trained, and numerous Indian wars had seasoned, a generation of junior and mid-grade officers. Many of the lieutenants and captains who directly led U.S. Army formations in Mexico (one thinks of Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman and James Longstreet, to name only a handful) would serve, either for the North or the South, as general officers in the U.S. Civil War (1861-65). Some of these officers involved in the Mexican-American War relished the glory of exotic conquest; others were horrified by a war they deemed immoral.

It must be remembered that the U.S. Army that entered and conquered Mexico represented a slaveholding republic fighting against an abolitionist nation-state. Many Southern officers brought along slaves and servants on the quest to spread “liberty” to the Mexicans. Some of the enslaved took the opportunity to escape into the interior of a non-slaveholding country. The irony was astounding.

President Polk’s Army was also highly politicized during the conflict. While the existing regular Army officers tended to be Whigs (in favor, as they were, of internal improvements and centralized finance to the benefit of the military), all 13 generals that Polk appointed were avowed partisan Democrats. Polk’s biggest fear—which would indeed come to fruition in the election of Gen. Zachary Taylor as president in 1848—was that a Whiggish hero from the war he began would best his party for the presidency.

When it became clear in 1846 that Gen. Taylor’s initial thrust south into the vast Mexican hinterland could win battles but not the war, Gen. Winfield Scott (a hero of the War of 1812) was ordered to lead an amphibious thrust at the Mexican capital. Indeed, Scott’s militarily brilliant operational campaign constituted the largest American seaborne invasion until D-Day in World War II. It took months of hard fighting and several more months of tenuous occupation, but Scott’s attack effectively ended the war by late 1847.

Still, conducting this war was extremely hard, indeed more difficult than it should have been, on both Taylor and Scott. This was due to President Polk’s decision (reminiscent of George W. Bush’s decision during the Iraq War) to cut taxes and wage war simultaneously. Indeed, Gen. Scott became so short on troops and supplies that he decided to cut off his line of logistics and “live off the land.” This was a clever but risky maneuver that his subordinates—U.S. Grant and William T. Sherman—would remember and mimic in the U.S. Civil War.

There was plenty of room for courage and glory on both sides of the Mexican-American War. It is no accident that the contemporary U.S. Marine Corps Hymn speaks of the “Halls of Montezuma,” or that several grandiose rock carvings of key battle names in Mexico unapologetically adorn my own alma mater at West Point. On the other side, the Mexican people still celebrate the gallant defense, and deaths, of six cadets—known as Los Niños Héroes—who manned the barricades of their own national military academy.

Nevertheless there was (and always is) an uglier, less romantic side of the conflagration. Nine thousand two hundred seven men deserted the U.S. Army in Mexico, or some 8.3 percent of all troops—the highest ever rate in an American conflict and double that of the Vietnam War. Hundreds of Catholic Irish immigrant soldiers responded to Mexican invitations and not only deserted the U.S. Army but joined the Mexican army, as the San Patricio (Saint Patrick’s) Battalion. Dozens were later captured and hanged by their former comrades.

America’s military also waged a violent, brutal war that often failed to spare the innocent. In northern Mexico, Gen. Taylor’s artillery pounded the city of Matamoros, killing hundreds of civilians. Indeed, Taylor’s army of mostly volunteers regularly pillaged villages, murdering Mexican citizens for either retaliation or sport. Many regular Army officers decried the behavior of these volunteers, and one officer wrote, “The majority of the volunteers sent here are a disgrace to the nation; think of one of them shooting a woman while washing on the banks of the river—merely to test his rifle; another tore forcibly from a Mexican woman the rings from her ears.” In the later bombardment of Veracruz, American mortar fire inflicted on the elderly, women or children two-thirds of the 1,000 Mexican casualties. Capt. Robert E. Lee (who would later lead the Confederate Army in the U.S. Civil War) was horrified, commenting that “my heart bled for the inhabitants, it was terrible to think of the women and children.”

It should come as little surprise, then, that when the U.S. Army seized cities, groups of Mexican guerrilla fighters—usually called rancheros—often rose in rebellion. Part of the U.S. effort in Mexico became a counterinsurgency. Take my word for it, people (Iraqis, for example) rarely take kindly to occupation, and the mere presence of foreigners often generates insurgents. All told, the American victory cost the U.S. Army 12,518 lives (seven-eighths of the deaths because of disease, due largely to poor sanitation). Many thousands more Mexican troops and civilians died. This aspect of the war, events that tarnish glorious imagery and language, is rarely remembered, but it would be well if it were.

Courageous Dissent: Whigs, Artists, Soldiers and the Opposition to the Mexican-American War

War, as it does, initially united the country in a spirit of nationalism, but ultimately the war and its spoils would divide the U.S., nearly to its breaking point. Few mainstream Whigs—those of the opposition party—initially demonstrated the courage to dissent. They knew, deep down, that this war was wrong, but also remembered the fate of the Federalist Party, which had been labeled treasonous and soon disappeared due to its opposition to the War of 1812. Other Whigs were simply dedicated nationalists: The U.S. was their country, right or wrong. But there were courageous voices, a few dissenters in the wilderness. Some you know; others are anonymous, lost to history. All were patriots.

Many were politicians: those entrusted with the duty to dissent in times of national error. Though only a dozen or so Whigs had the fortitude to vote against the war declaration in 1846, a few were vocal. One was Rep. Luther Severance, who responded to President Polk’s “American blood on American soil” fallacy by exclaiming that “[i]t is on Mexican soil that blood has been shed” and Mexicans “should be honored and applauded” for their “manly resistance.”

Another was former President John Quincy Adams, who at the time was a member of the U.S. House from Massachusetts (he was the only person to serve in Congress after being president). It was Adams, we must remember, who as secretary of state in 1821, had presciently warned Americans against foreign military adventures. “But she [America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” he wrote, for “[Were she to do so] the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force … she might become the dictatress of the world.” Adams had seen the Mexican War coming back in 1836, when his avowed opponent President Andrew Jackson considered annexation of the Texan Republic. Then, Adams had said, “Are you not large and unwieldy enough already? Have you not Indians enough to expel from the land of their fathers’ sepulchre?”

Another staunch opponent of the war was a little known freshman Whig congressman from Illinois, a lanky fellow named Abraham Lincoln. As soon as he took his seat in the House, Lincoln immediately rebuked President Polk’s initial explanation for declaring war. “The President, in his first war message of May 1846,” Lincoln told his audience, “declares that the soil was ours on which hostilities were commenced by Mexico; Now I propose to try to show, that the whole of this–issue and evidence–is, from beginning to end, the sheerest deception.” The future president would later summarize the conflict as “a war of conquest fought to catch votes.” And, indeed it was.

Prominent artists and writers also opposed the war; such people often do, and we should take notice of them. The Transcendentalist writers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson each took up the pen to attack the still quite popular conquest of Mexico. Thoreau, who served prison time, turned a lecture into an essay now known as “Civil Disobedience.” Emerson was even more succinct, declaring, “The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as a man who swallowed the arsenic which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.” He couldn’t have known how right he was; arguments over the expansion of slavery in the lands seized from Mexico would indeed take the nation to the brink of civil war in just a dozen years.

One expects dissent from artists. These men and women tend to be unflinching and to demonstrate a willingness to stand against the grain, against even the populist passions of an inflamed citizenry. But … soldiers? Surely they must remain loyal and steadfast to the end, and so, too often, they are. Not so in Mexico. A surprising number of young officers—like Lee at the bombardment of Veracruz—despised the war. More than a few likely suffered from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One lieutenant colonel, Ethan Hitchcock, even attacked the justification for war. He wrote, “We have not one particle of right to be here. It looks as if the [U.S.] government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have the pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses.” Perhaps the most honest and self-effacing critique of the war came from a young subaltern named U.S. Grant (who along with his then-comrade R.E. Lee would later lead one of the two opposing armies in the Civil War). Grant, a future president and West Point graduate, wrote that he “had a horror of the Mexican War … only I had not the moral courage enough to resign.”

Finally, let us return to the powerful and unwavering dissent of John Quincy Adams, for the Mexican War, not his presidency, may constitute his finest hour. On Feb. 21, 1848, the speaker of the House called for a routine vote to bestow medals and adulation on the victorious generals of the late Mexican War. The measure passed, of course, but when the “nays” were up for roll call a voice from the back bellowed “No!” It was the 80-year-old former president. Adams then rose in an apparent effort to speak, but his face reddened and he collapsed. Carried to a couch, he slipped into unconsciousness and died two days later. John Quincy Adams was mortally stricken in the act of officially opposing an unjust war. That we remember the victories of the Mexican-American War but not Adams’ dying gesture surely must reflect poorly on us and our collective remembrances.

A Long Shadow Cast: The ‘Peace’ of 1848

From the war’s start, there was never any real question of leaving Mexico without extracting territory. Indeed, by late 1847 there was considerable Democratic support for taking the whole country. That the U.S. did not is due mainly to Polk’s peace commissioner ignoring orders and his own firing to negotiate a compromise. But there was something else. Many Democrats from the South—who had applauded the war from the start—now flinched before the prospect of taking on the entirety of Mexico and its decidedly brown and Catholic population. There was inherent fear of racial mixing, racial impurity and heterogeneity. John Calhoun, the political stalwart from South Carolina, even declared, “Ours is the government of the white man!” And, in 1848, Calhoun was right, indeed.

Even the Wilmot Proviso, an attempt by a Northern congressman to forestall any conquest in Mexico, was tinged with racism. Rep. David Wilmot called his amendment a “White Man’s Proviso,” to “preserve for free white labor a fair country, a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil, of my own race and own color, can live without the disgrace which association with Negro slavery brings upon free labor.” Wilmot’s proposal, unsurprisingly, never passed muster. But it nearly tore the Congress asunder, with Northern and Southern politicians at each other’s throats. Northerners generally feared the expansion of slave states and of what they called “slave power.” The Whig Party itself nearly divided—and eventually would—into its Northern and Southern factions. As we will see, arguments about what land to seize from Mexico and what to do with it (should it be slave or free?) would shatter the Second Party System—of Whigs and Democrats—and take the nation one step closer to the civil war many (like John Quincy Adams) had long feared. The “peace” of 1848, known to history as the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, would certainly cast a long shadow.

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In the end, the U.S. expended over 12,000 lives and millions of dollars to make a new colony of nearly half of Mexico—an area two and a half times the size of France and including parts or all of the current states of California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Much of the land remained heavily Hispanic for decades and effectively under military government for many years (New Mexico until 1912!). The real losers were the Indian and Hispanic people of the new American Southwest. The U.S. gained 100,000 Spanish-speaking inhabitants after the treaty and even more native Americans. Under Mexican law, both groups were considered full citizens! Under American stewardship, race was a far more detrimental factor. The results were (despite supposed protections in the treaty) the seizure of millions of acres of Hispanic-owned land and, in California, Indian slavery and decimation as 150,000 natives dwindled to less than 50,000 in just 10 years of U.S. control. During the postwar period, California’s governor literally called for the “extermination” of the state’s Indians. This aspect of the war’s end is almost never mentioned at all.

Words matter, and we must watch our use of terms and language. Mexico hadn’t invaded Texas; Texas was Mexico. Polk manufactured a war to expand slavery westward and increase pro-slavery political power in the Senate. Was, then, America an empire in 1848? Is it today? And why does the very term “empire” make us so uncomfortable?

So what, then, are readers to make of this mostly forgotten war? Perhaps this much: It was as unnecessary as it was unjust. Nearly all Democrats supported it, and most Whigs simply acquiesced. Others, however, knew the war to be wrong and said so at the time. Through an ethical lens, the real heroes of the Mexican-American War weren’t Gens. Taylor and Scott, but rather artists such as Henry David Thoreau; a former president, John Quincy Adams; and Abraham Lincoln, then an obscure young Illinois politician. There are many kinds of courage, and the physical sort shouldn’t necessarily predominate. In this view, the moral view, protest is patriotic.

So, let me challenge you to think on this: Our democracy was undoubtedly achieved through undemocratic means—through conquest and colonization. Mexicans were just some of the victims, and, today, in the American Southwest, tens of millions of U.S. citizens reside, in point of fact, upon occupied territory.

* * *

To learn more about this topic, consider the following scholarly works:

• Rodolfo Acuna, “Occupied Mexico: A History of Chicanos” (1988).
• James West Davidson, Brian DeLay, Christine Leigh Heyrman, Mark H. Lytle and Michael B. Stoff, “Experience History: Interpreting America’s Past,” Chapter 14. “Western Expansion and the Rise of the Slavery Issue, 1820-1850” (2011).
• Daniel Walker Howe, “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-48” (2007).

Maj. Danny Sjursen, a regular contributor to Truthdig, is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” He lives with his wife and four sons in Lawrence, Kan. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his new podcast, “Fortress on a Hill,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris “Henri” Henrikson.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

 

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American History for Truthdiggers: The Fraudulent Mexican-American War (1846-48)

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Maj. Danny Sjursen.

Editor’s note: The past is prologue. The stories we tell about ourselves and our forebears inform the sort of country we think we are and help determine public policy. As our current president promises to “make America great again,” this moment is an appropriate time to reconsider our past, look back at various eras of United States history and re-evaluate America’s origins. When, exactly, were we “great”?

Below is the 15th installment of the “American History for Truthdiggers” series, a pull-no-punches appraisal of our shared, if flawed, past. The author of the series, Danny Sjursen, an active-duty major in the U.S. Army, served military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught the nation’s checkered, often inspiring past when he was an assistant professor of history at West Point. His war experiences, his scholarship, his skill as a writer and his patriotism illuminate these Truthdig posts.

Part 15 of “American History for Truthdiggers.”

See: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6; Part 7; Part 8; Part 9; Part 10; Part 11Part 12; Part 13; Part 14;.

* * *

The United States of America conquered half of Mexico. There isn’t any way around that fact. The regions of the U.S. most affected by “illegal” immigration—California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas—were once part of the Republic of Mexico. They would have remained so if not for the Mexican-American War (1846-48). Those are the facts, but they hardly tell the story. Few Americans know much about this war, rarely question U.S. motives in the conflict and certainly never consider that much of America’s land—from sea to shining sea—was conquered.

Many readers will dispute this interpretation. Conquest is the natural order of the world, the inevitable outgrowth of clashing civilizations, they will insist. Perhaps. But if true, where does the conquest end, and how can the U.S. proudly celebrate its defense of Europe against the invasions by Germany and/or the Soviet Union? This line of militaristic reasoning—one held by many senior conservative policymakers even today—rests on the slipperiest of slopes. Certainly nations, like individuals, must adhere to a certain moral code, a social contract of behavior.

In this installment I will argue that American politicians and soldiers manufactured a war with Mexico, sold it to the public and then proceeded to conquer their southern neighbor. They were motivated by dreams of cheap farmland, California ports and the expansion of the cotton economy along with its peculiar partner, the institution of slavery. Our forebears succeeded, and they won an empire. Only in the process they may have lost something far more valuable in the moral realm.

(Mis)Remember the Alamo!: Texas and the Road to War

“The Fall of the Alamo” or “Crockett’s Last Stand,” by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk. This 1903 painting, on display in the Texas governor’s mansion, shows the famed frontiersman, at center wielding a rifle, battling to the death. Mexican accounts hold that Davy Crockett surrendered and later was executed. (Wikimedia Commons)

We all know the comforting tale. It has been depicted in countless Hollywood films starring the likes of John Wayne, Alec Baldwin and Billy Bob Thornton. “Remember the Alamo!” It remains a potent battle cry, especially in Texas, but also across the American continent. In the comforting tale, a myth really, a couple of hundred Texans, fighting for their freedom against a dictator’s numerically superior force, lost a battle but won war—inflicting such losses that Mexico’s defeat became inevitable. Never, in this telling, is the word “slavery” or the term “illegal immigration” mentioned. There is no room in the legend for critical thinking or fresh analysis. But since the independence and acquisition of Texas caused the Mexican-American War, we must dig deeper and reveal the messy truth.

Until 1836, Texas was a distant northern province of the new Mexican Republic, a republic that had only recently won its independence from the Spanish Empire, in 1821. The territory was full of hostile Indian tribes and a few thousand mestizos and Spaniards. It was difficult to rule, and harder to settle—but it was indisputably Mexican land. Only, Americans had long had their eyes on Texas. Some argued that it was included (it wasn’t) in the Louisiana Purchase, and “Old Hickory” himself, Andrew Jackson, wanted it badly. Indeed, his dear friend and protégé Sam Houston would later fight the Mexicans and preside as a president of the nascent Texan Republic. Thirty-two years before the Texan Revolution of Anglo settlers against the Mexican government, in 1803, Thomas Jefferson had even declared that [the Spanish borderlands] “are ours the first moment war is forced upon us.” Jefferson was prescient but only partly correct: War would come, in Texas in fact, but it would not be forced upon the American settlers.

Others besides politicians coveted Texas. In 1819, a filibusterer (one who leads unsanctioned adventures to conquer foreign lands), an American named James Long, led an illegal invasion and tried but failed to establish an Anglo republic in Texas. Then, in 1821, Mexico’s brand new government made what proved to be a fatal mistake: It opened the borders to legal American immigration. It did so to help develop the land and create a buffer against the powerful Comanche tribe of West Texas but stipulated that the Anglos must declare loyalty to Mexico and convert to Catholicism. The Mexicans should have known better.

The Mexican Republic abolished slavery in 1829, more than three decades before its “enlightened” northern neighbor. Unfortunately nearly all the Anglo settlers, who were by now flooding into the province, hailed from the slaveholding American South and had brought along many chattel slaves. By 1830, there were 20,000 American settlers and 2,000 slaves compared with just 5,000 Mexican inhabitants. The settlers never intended to follow Mexican law or free their slaves, and so they didn’t. Not really anyway. Most officially “freed” their black slaves and immediately forced them to sign a lifelong indentured servitude contract. It was simply American slavery by another name.

After Santa Anna—Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón, an authoritarian but populist president—seized power, his centralizing instincts and attempts to enforce Mexican policies (such as conversion to Catholicism and the ban on slavery) led the pro-autonomy federalists in Texas (most of whom were Americans) to rebel. It was 1835, and by then there were even more Americans in Texas: 35,000, in fact, outnumbering the Hispanics nearly 10 to 1. Many of the new settlers had broken the law, entering Texas after Santa Anna had ordered the border closed, as was his sovereign right to do.

What followed was a political, racial and religious war pitting white supremacist, Protestant Anglos against a centralizing Mexican republic led by a would-be despot. The Texan War of Independence (1835-36) was largely fought with American money, American volunteers and American arms (even then a prolific resource in the United States). The war was never truly limited to Texas, Tejanos or Mexican provincial politics. It was what we now call a proxy war for land waged between the U.S. and the Mexican Republic.

Furthermore, though Santa Anna was authoritarian, certain Texans saw him as their best hope for freedom. As Santa Anna’s army marched north, many slaves along the Brazos River saw an opportunity and rebelled. Most were killed, some captured and later hanged. And, while slavery was not, by itself, the proximate cause of the Texan Rebellion, it certainly played a significant role. As the Mexican leader marched north with his 6,000 conscripts, one Texas newspaper declared that “[Santa Anna’s] merciless soldiery” was coming “to give liberty to our slaves, and to make slaves of ourselves.” So, once again—as in America’s earlier revolution against Britain—white Americans clamored about their own liberty and feared to death that the same might be granted to their slaves. When (spoiler alert) Santa Anna’s army was eventually defeated, the Mexican retreat gathered numbers as many slave escapees and fearful Hispanics sought their own version of “freedom” south of the Anglo settlements.

Surely, the most evocative image of the Texas War of Independence was the heroic stand of 180 Texans at the Alamo. “Alamo” has entered the American lexicon as a term for any hopeless, yet gallant, stand. And, no doubt, the outnumbered defenders demonstrated courage in their doomed stand. The slightly less than 200 defenders were led by a 26-year-old failed lawyer named William Barret Travis and included the famed frontiersman Davy Crockett, a former Whig member of the U.S. House of Representatives. All would be killed. Still, the battle wasn’t as one-sided or important as the mythos would have it. The defenders actually held one of the strongest fortifications in the Southwest, had more and superior cannons than the attackers and were armed mainly with rifles that far outranged the outdated Mexican muskets. Additionally, the Mexicans were mostly underfed, undersupplied conscripts who often had been forced to enlist and had marched north some 1,000 miles into a difficult fight. Despite inflicting disproportionate casualties on the Mexicans, the stand at the Alamo delayed Santa Anna by only four days. Furthermore, despite the prevalent “last stand” imagery, at least seven defenders (according to credible Mexican accounts long ignored)—probably including Crockett himself—surrendered and were executed.

None of this detracts from the courage of any man defending a position when outnumbered at least 10 to 1, but the diligent historian must reframe the battle. The men inside the Alamo walls were pro-slavery insurgents. As applied to them, “Texan,” in any real sense, is a misnomer. Two-thirds were recent arrivals from the United States and never intended to submit to sovereign Mexican authority. What the Battle of the Alamo did do was whip up a fury of nationalism in the U.S. and cause thousands more recruits to illegally “jump the border”—oh, the irony—and join the rebellion in Texas.

Eventually, Santa Anna, always a better politician than a military strategist, was surprised and defeated by Sam Houston along the banks of the San Jacinto River. The charging Americans yelled “Remember the Alamo!” and sought their revenge. Few prisoners were taken in the melee; perhaps hundreds were executed on the spot. The numbers speak for themselves: 630 dead Mexicans at the cost of two Americans. It is instructive that the Mexican policy of no quarter at the Alamo is regularly derided, yet few north of the Rio Grande remember this later massacre (and probable war crime).

Still, Santa Anna was defeated and forced, under duress (and probably pain of death), to sign away all rights to Texas. The Mexican Congress, as was its constitutional prerogative, summarily dismissed this treaty and would continue its reasonable legal claim on Texas indefinitely. Nonetheless, the divided Mexican government and its exhausted army were in no position (though attempts were made) to recapture the wayward northern province. Texas was “free,” and a thrilled—and no doubt proud—President Jackson recognized Houston’s Republic of Texas on “Old Hickory’s” very last day in office.

Thousands more Americans flowed into the republic over the next decade. By 1845, there were 125,000 (mostly Anglo) inhabitants and 27,000 slaves—that’s more enslaved blacks than Hispanic natives! One result of the war was the expansion and empowerment of the American institution of slavery. Because of confidence in the inevitable spread of slavery, the average sale price of a slave in the bustling New Orleans human-trafficking market rose 21 percent within one year of President John Tyler’s decision to annex Texas (during his final days in office) in 1845. According to international law, Texas remained Mexican. Tyler’s decision alone was tantamount to a declaration of war. Still, for at least a year, the Mexicans showed restraint and unhappily accepted the de facto facts on the ground.

<b>American Blood Upon American Soil?: The Specious Case for War</B>

It took an even greater provocation to kick off a major interstate war between America and Mexico. And that provocation indeed came. In 1844, in one of the more consequential elections in U.S. history, a Jackson loyalist (nicknamed “Young Hickory”) and slaveholder, James K. Polk, defeated the indefatigable Whig candidate Henry Clay. Clay preferred restraint with respect to Texas and Mexico; he wished instead to improve the already vast interior of the existing United States as part of his famed “American System.” Unfortunately for the Mexicans, Clay was defeated, and the fervently expansionist Polk took office in 1845. His election demonstrates the contingency of history; for if Clay had won, war might have been avoided, slavery kept from spreading in the Southwest, and America spared a civil war. It was not to be. Just before Polk took office, a dying Andrew Jackson provided him the sage advice that would spark a bloody war: “Obtain it [Texas] the United States must, peaceably if we can, but forcibly if we must.”

“American Progress,” an 1872 painting by John Gast, shows Manifest Destiny—the belief that the United States should expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean—moving westward across the American continent, bringing light as it faces the darkness of unconquered lands.

In the end, it was Polk who would order U.S. troops south of the disputed Texas border and spark a war. Still, the explanation for war was bigger than any one incident. A newspaperman of the time summarized the millenarian scene of fate pulling Americans westward into the lands of Mexicans and Indians. John L. O’Sullivan wrote, “It has become the United States’ manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” There was an American sense of mission, clear from the very founding of Puritan Massachusetts, to multiply and inhabit North America from ocean to ocean. Mexico and the few remaining native territories were all that stood in the way of American destiny by 1846. As the historian Daniel Walker Howe has written, “&nbsp;‘Manifest Destiny’ served as both label and a justification for policies that might otherwise simply been called … imperialism.”

Polk was, at least in terms of accomplishing what he set out to do, one of the most successful presidents in U.S. history. He declared that his administration had “four great measures.” Two involved expansion: “the settlement of the Oregon territory with Britain, and the acquisition of California and a large district on the coast.” Within three years he would have both and more. Interestingly, though, Polk wielded different tactics for each acquisition. First, Oregon: Britain and the U.S. had agreed to jointly rule this territory, which at that time reached north to the border with Alaska. Expansionist Democrats who coveted the whole of Oregon ran on the party slogan “54°40′ or Fight!” (a reference to the latitude at the top of the Oregon of that day, a line that marks today’s southern border of the state of Alaska). In the end, however, Polk would not fight Great Britain for Canada. Instead, he compromised, setting the modern boundary between Washington state and British Columbia.

In his dealings with the much less powerful Mexicans, however, Polk took an entirely different, more openly bellicose approach. Here, it seems, he expected if not preferred a war. Was his compromise in Oregon reflective of great-power politics (Britain remained a formidable opponent, especially at sea) or tainted by race and white supremacist notions about the weakness of Hispanic civilization? Historians still argue the point. What we can say is that many Democratic supporters of Polk delighted over the Oregon Compromise, for, as one newspaper declared: “We can now thrash Mexico into decency at our leisure.”

War it would be. In the spring of 1846, President Polk sent Gen. Zachary Taylor and 4,000 troops along the border between Texas and Mexico. Polk claimed all territory north of the Rio Grande River despite the fact that the Mexican province had always established Texas’ border further north at the Nueces River. Polk wanted Taylor to secure the southerly of the two disputed boundaries—probably in contravention of established international law. No one should have been surprised, then, when in April a reconnaissance party of U.S. dragoons was attacked by Mexican soldiers south of the Nueces River. Polk, of course, wily politician that he was, acted absolutely shocked upon hearing the news and immediately began drafting a war message—even though, in fact, his administration had been on the verge of asking Congress for a war declaration anyway! In the exact inverse of his negotiations with Britain over Oregon, Polk had made demands (that Mexico sell California and recognize Texan independence) he knew would probably be rejected by Mexico City, and then sent soldiers where he knew they would probably provoke war. And, oh, how well it worked.

Indeed, Polk’s administration had already set plans in motion for naval and land forces to immediately converge on California and New Mexico when the outbreak of war occurred. Both the U.S. Army and Navy complied and within a year occupied both Mexican provinces. Lest the reader believe the local Hispanics were indifferent to the invasion, homegrown rebellions broke out (and were swiftly suppressed) in both locales. Polk got his war declaration soon after the fight in south Texas. In a blatant obfuscation, Polk announced to the American people that “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory, and shed American blood upon American soil. War exists, and notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself.” He knew this to be false.

So did many Whigs in the opposition party, by the way. Still, most obediently voted for war, fearing the hypernationalism of their constituents and remembering the drubbing Federalists had taken for opposing the War of 1812. In cowardly votes of 174-14 in the House (John Quincy Adams, the former president, was one notable dissenting vote) and 40-2 in the Senate, the Congress succumbed to war fever. The small skirmish near the Nueces River was just a casus belli for Polk; America truly went to war to seize, at the very least, all of northern Mexico.

<B>Gen. Winfield Scott and the Defeat of Mexico</B>

On the surface, the two sides in the Mexican-American War were unevenly matched. The U.S. population of 17 million citizens and 3 million slaves dwarfed the 7 million Mexicans (4 million of whom were Indians). Their respective economies were even more lopsided, for America had emerged strong from its market and communications revolutions. Mexico had only recently (1821) gained its independence, and its political situation was fragile and fluctuating. The U.S. had existed independently for some 60 years and already had fought two wars with Britain and countless battles with Indian tribes. America was ready to flex its muscles.

Many observers assumed the war would be easy and short. It was not to be. Most Americans underestimated the courage, resolve and nationalism of Mexican soldiers and civilians alike. That the U.S. won this war—and most of the battles—was due primarily to superiority in artillery, leadership and logistics. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York had trained, and numerous Indian wars had seasoned, a generation of junior and mid-grade officers. Many of the lieutenants and captains who directly led U.S. Army formations in Mexico (one thinks of Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman and James Longstreet, to name only a handful) would serve, either for the North or the South, as general officers in the U.S. Civil War (1861-65). Some of these officers involved in the Mexican-American War relished the glory of exotic conquest; others were horrified by a war they deemed immoral.

It must be remembered that the U.S. Army that entered and conquered Mexico represented a slaveholding republic fighting against an abolitionist nation-state. Many Southern officers brought along slaves and servants on the quest to spread “liberty” to the Mexicans. Some of the enslaved took the opportunity to escape into the interior of a non-slaveholding country. The irony was astounding.

President Polk’s Army was also highly politicized during the conflict. While the existing regular Army officers tended to be Whigs (in favor, as they were, of internal improvements and centralized finance to the benefit of the military), all 13 generals that Polk appointed were avowed partisan Democrats. Polk’s biggest fear—which would indeed come to fruition in the election of Gen. Zachary Taylor as president in 1848—was that a Whiggish hero from the war he began would best his party for the presidency.

When it became clear in 1846 that Gen. Taylor’s initial thrust south into the vast Mexican hinterland could win battles but not the war, Gen. Winfield Scott (a hero of the War of 1812) was ordered to lead an amphibious thrust at the Mexican capital. Indeed, Scott’s militarily brilliant operational campaign constituted the largest American seaborne invasion until D-Day in World War II. It took months of hard fighting and several more months of tenuous occupation, but Scott’s attack effectively ended the war by late 1847.

Still, conducting this war was extremely hard, indeed more difficult than it should have been, on both Taylor and Scott. This was due to President Polk’s decision (reminiscent of George W. Bush’s decision during the Iraq War) to cut taxes and wage war simultaneously. Indeed, Gen. Scott became so short on troops and supplies that he decided to cut off his line of logistics and “live off the land.” This was a clever but risky maneuver that his subordinates—U.S. Grant and William T. Sherman—would remember and mimic in the U.S. Civil War.

There was plenty of room for courage and glory on both sides of the Mexican-American War. It is no accident that the contemporary U.S. Marine Corps Hymn speaks of the “Halls of Montezuma,” or that several grandiose rock carvings of key battle names in Mexico unapologetically adorn my own alma mater at West Point. On the other side, the Mexican people still celebrate the gallant defense, and deaths, of six cadets—known as Los Niños Héroes—who manned the barricades of their own national military academy.

Nevertheless there was (and always is) an uglier, less romantic side of the conflagration. Nine thousand two hundred seven men deserted the U.S. Army in Mexico, or some 8.3 percent of all troops—the highest ever rate in an American conflict and double that of the Vietnam War. Hundreds of Catholic Irish immigrant soldiers responded to Mexican invitations and not only deserted the U.S. Army but joined the Mexican army, as the San Patricio (Saint Patrick’s) Battalion. Dozens were later captured and hanged by their former comrades.

America’s military also waged a violent, brutal war that often failed to spare the innocent. In northern Mexico, Gen. Taylor’s artillery pounded the city of Matamoros, killing hundreds of civilians. Indeed, Taylor’s army of mostly volunteers regularly pillaged villages, murdering Mexican citizens for either retaliation or sport. Many regular Army officers decried the behavior of these volunteers, and one officer wrote, “The majority of the volunteers sent here are a disgrace to the nation; think of one of them shooting a woman while washing on the banks of the river—merely to test his rifle; another tore forcibly from a Mexican woman the rings from her ears.” In the later bombardment of Veracruz, American mortar fire inflicted on the elderly, women or children two-thirds of the 1,000 Mexican casualties. Capt. Robert E. Lee (who would later lead the Confederate Army in the U.S. Civil War) was horrified, commenting that “my heart bled for the inhabitants, it was terrible to think of the women and children.”

It should come as little surprise, then, that when the U.S. Army seized cities, groups of Mexican guerrilla fighters—usually called rancheros—often rose in rebellion. Part of the U.S. effort in Mexico became a counterinsurgency. Take my word for it, people (Iraqis, for example) rarely take kindly to occupation, and the mere presence of foreigners often generates insurgents. All told, the American victory cost the U.S. Army 12,518 lives (seven-eighths of the deaths because of disease, due largely to poor sanitation). Many thousands more Mexican troops and civilians died. This aspect of the war, events that tarnish glorious imagery and language, is rarely remembered, but it would be well if it were.

Courageous Dissent: Whigs, Artists, Soldiers and the Opposition to the Mexican-American War

War, as it does, initially united the country in a spirit of nationalism, but ultimately the war and its spoils would divide the U.S., nearly to its breaking point. Few mainstream Whigs—those of the opposition party—initially demonstrated the courage to dissent. They knew, deep down, that this war was wrong, but also remembered the fate of the Federalist Party, which had been labeled treasonous and soon disappeared due to its opposition to the War of 1812. Other Whigs were simply dedicated nationalists: The U.S. was their country, right or wrong. But there were courageous voices, a few dissenters in the wilderness. Some you know; others are anonymous, lost to history. All were patriots.

Many were politicians: those entrusted with the duty to dissent in times of national error. Though only a dozen or so Whigs had the fortitude to vote against the war declaration in 1846, a few were vocal. One was Rep. Luther Severance, who responded to President Polk’s “American blood on American soil” fallacy by exclaiming that “[i]t is on Mexican soil that blood has been shed” and Mexicans “should be honored and applauded” for their “manly resistance.”

Another was former President John Quincy Adams, who at the time was a member of the U.S. House from Massachusetts (he was the only person to serve in Congress after being president). It was Adams, we must remember, who as secretary of state in 1821, had presciently warned Americans against foreign military adventures. “But she [America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” he wrote, for “[Were she to do so] the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force … she might become the dictatress of the world.” Adams had seen the Mexican War coming back in 1836, when his avowed opponent President Andrew Jackson considered annexation of the Texan Republic. Then, Adams had said, “Are you not large and unwieldy enough already? Have you not Indians enough to expel from the land of their fathers’ sepulchre?”

Another staunch opponent of the war was a little known freshman Whig congressman from Illinois, a lanky fellow named Abraham Lincoln. As soon as he took his seat in the House, Lincoln immediately rebuked President Polk’s initial explanation for declaring war. “The President, in his first war message of May 1846,” Lincoln told his audience, “declares that the soil was ours on which hostilities were commenced by Mexico; Now I propose to try to show, that the whole of this–issue and evidence–is, from beginning to end, the sheerest deception.” The future president would later summarize the conflict as “a war of conquest fought to catch votes.” And, indeed it was.

Prominent artists and writers also opposed the war; such people often do, and we should take notice of them. The Transcendentalist writers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson each took up the pen to attack the still quite popular conquest of Mexico. Thoreau, who served prison time, turned a lecture into an essay now known as “Civil Disobedience.” Emerson was even more succinct, declaring, “The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as a man who swallowed the arsenic which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.” He couldn’t have known how right he was; arguments over the expansion of slavery in the lands seized from Mexico would indeed take the nation to the brink of civil war in just a dozen years.

One expects dissent from artists. These men and women tend to be unflinching and to demonstrate a willingness to stand against the grain, against even the populist passions of an inflamed citizenry. But … soldiers? Surely they must remain loyal and steadfast to the end, and so, too often, they are. Not so in Mexico. A surprising number of young officers—like Lee at the bombardment of Veracruz—despised the war. More than a few likely suffered from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One lieutenant colonel, Ethan Hitchcock, even attacked the justification for war. He wrote, “We have not one particle of right to be here. It looks as if the [U.S.] government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have the pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses.” Perhaps the most honest and self-effacing critique of the war came from a young subaltern named U.S. Grant (who along with his then-comrade R.E. Lee would later lead one of the two opposing armies in the Civil War). Grant, a future president and West Point graduate, wrote that he “had a horror of the Mexican War … only I had not the moral courage enough to resign.”

Finally, let us return to the powerful and unwavering dissent of John Quincy Adams, for the Mexican War, not his presidency, may constitute his finest hour. On Feb. 21, 1848, the speaker of the House called for a routine vote to bestow medals and adulation on the victorious generals of the late Mexican War. The measure passed, of course, but when the “nays” were up for roll call a voice from the back bellowed “No!” It was the 80-year-old former president. Adams then rose in an apparent effort to speak, but his face reddened and he collapsed. Carried to a couch, he slipped into unconsciousness and died two days later. John Quincy Adams was mortally stricken in the act of officially opposing an unjust war. That we remember the victories of the Mexican-American War but not Adams’ dying gesture surely must reflect poorly on us and our collective remembrances.

A Long Shadow Cast: The ‘Peace’ of 1848

From the war’s start, there was never any real question of leaving Mexico without extracting territory. Indeed, by late 1847 there was considerable Democratic support for taking the whole country. That the U.S. did not is due mainly to Polk’s peace commissioner ignoring orders and his own firing to negotiate a compromise. But there was something else. Many Democrats from the South—who had applauded the war from the start—now flinched before the prospect of taking on the entirety of Mexico and its decidedly brown and Catholic population. There was inherent fear of racial mixing, racial impurity and heterogeneity. John Calhoun, the political stalwart from South Carolina, even declared, “Ours is the government of the white man!” And, in 1848, Calhoun was right, indeed.

Even the Wilmot Proviso, an attempt by a Northern congressman to forestall any conquest in Mexico, was tinged with racism. Rep. David Wilmot called his amendment a “White Man’s Proviso,” to “preserve for free white labor a fair country, a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil, of my own race and own color, can live without the disgrace which association with Negro slavery brings upon free labor.” Wilmot’s proposal, unsurprisingly, never passed muster. But it nearly tore the Congress asunder, with Northern and Southern politicians at each other’s throats. Northerners generally feared the expansion of slave states and of what they called “slave power.” The Whig Party itself nearly divided—and eventually would—into its Northern and Southern factions. As we will see, arguments about what land to seize from Mexico and what to do with it (should it be slave or free?) would shatter the Second Party System—of Whigs and Democrats—and take the nation one step closer to the civil war many (like John Quincy Adams) had long feared. The “peace” of 1848, known to history as the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, would certainly cast a long shadow.

* * *

In the end, the U.S. expended over 12,000 lives and millions of dollars to make a new colony of nearly half of Mexico—an area two and a half times the size of France and including parts or all of the current states of California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Much of the land remained heavily Hispanic for decades and effectively under military government for many years (New Mexico until 1912!). The real losers were the Indian and Hispanic people of the new American Southwest. The U.S. gained 100,000 Spanish-speaking inhabitants after the treaty and even more native Americans. Under Mexican law, both groups were considered full citizens! Under American stewardship, race was a far more detrimental factor. The results were (despite supposed protections in the treaty) the seizure of millions of acres of Hispanic-owned land and, in California, Indian slavery and decimation as 150,000 natives dwindled to less than 50,000 in just 10 years of U.S. control. During the postwar period, California’s governor literally called for the “extermination” of the state’s Indians. This aspect of the war’s end is almost never mentioned at all.

Words matter, and we must watch our use of terms and language. Mexico hadn’t invaded Texas; Texas was Mexico. Polk manufactured a war to expand slavery westward and increase pro-slavery political power in the Senate. Was, then, America an empire in 1848? Is it today? And why does the very term “empire” make us so uncomfortable?

So what, then, are readers to make of this mostly forgotten war? Perhaps this much: It was as unnecessary as it was unjust. Nearly all Democrats supported it, and most Whigs simply acquiesced. Others, however, knew the war to be wrong and said so at the time. Through an ethical lens, the real heroes of the Mexican-American War weren’t Gens. Taylor and Scott, but rather artists such as Henry David Thoreau; a former president, John Quincy Adams; and Abraham Lincoln, then an obscure young Illinois politician. There are many kinds of courage, and the physical sort shouldn’t necessarily predominate. In this view, the moral view, protest is patriotic.

So, let me challenge you to think on this: Our democracy was undoubtedly achieved through undemocratic means—through conquest and colonization. Mexicans were just some of the victims, and, today, in the American Southwest, tens of millions of U.S. citizens reside, in point of fact, upon occupied territory.

* * *

To learn more about this topic, consider the following scholarly works:

• Rodolfo Acuna, “Occupied Mexico: A History of Chicanos” (1988).
• James West Davidson, Brian DeLay, Christine Leigh Heyrman, Mark H. Lytle and Michael B. Stoff, “Experience History: Interpreting America’s Past,” Chapter 14. “Western Expansion and the Rise of the Slavery Issue, 1820-1850” (2011).
• Daniel Walker Howe, “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-48” (2007).

Maj. Danny Sjursen, a regular contributor to Truthdig, is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” He lives with his wife and four sons in Lawrence, Kan. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his new podcast, “Fortress on a Hill,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris “Henri” Henrikson.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

 

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American History for Truthdiggers: The Fraudulent Mexican-American War (1846-48)

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Maj. Danny Sjursen.

Editor’s note: The past is prologue. The stories we tell about ourselves and our forebears inform the sort of country we think we are and help determine public policy. As our current president promises to “make America great again,” this moment is an appropriate time to reconsider our past, look back at various eras of United States history and re-evaluate America’s origins. When, exactly, were we “great”?

Below is the 15th installment of the “American History for Truthdiggers” series, a pull-no-punches appraisal of our shared, if flawed, past. The author of the series, Danny Sjursen, an active-duty major in the U.S. Army, served military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught the nation’s checkered, often inspiring past when he was an assistant professor of history at West Point. His war experiences, his scholarship, his skill as a writer and his patriotism illuminate these Truthdig posts.

Part 15 of “American History for Truthdiggers.”

See: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6; Part 7; Part 8; Part 9; Part 10; Part 11Part 12; Part 13; Part 14;.

* * *

The United States of America conquered half of Mexico. There isn’t any way around that fact. The regions of the U.S. most affected by “illegal” immigration—California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas—were once part of the Republic of Mexico. They would have remained so if not for the Mexican-American War (1846-48). Those are the facts, but they hardly tell the story. Few Americans know much about this war, rarely question U.S. motives in the conflict and certainly never consider that much of America’s land—from sea to shining sea—was conquered.

Many readers will dispute this interpretation. Conquest is the natural order of the world, the inevitable outgrowth of clashing civilizations, they will insist. Perhaps. But if true, where does the conquest end, and how can the U.S. proudly celebrate its defense of Europe against the invasions by Germany and/or the Soviet Union? This line of militaristic reasoning—one held by many senior conservative policymakers even today—rests on the slipperiest of slopes. Certainly nations, like individuals, must adhere to a certain moral code, a social contract of behavior.

In this installment I will argue that American politicians and soldiers manufactured a war with Mexico, sold it to the public and then proceeded to conquer their southern neighbor. They were motivated by dreams of cheap farmland, California ports and the expansion of the cotton economy along with its peculiar partner, the institution of slavery. Our forebears succeeded, and they won an empire. Only in the process they may have lost something far more valuable in the moral realm.

(Mis)Remember the Alamo!: Texas and the Road to War

“The Fall of the Alamo” or “Crockett’s Last Stand,” by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk. This 1903 painting, on display in the Texas governor’s mansion, shows the famed frontiersman, at center wielding a rifle, battling to the death. Mexican accounts hold that Davy Crockett surrendered and later was executed. (Wikimedia Commons)

We all know the comforting tale. It has been depicted in countless Hollywood films starring the likes of John Wayne, Alec Baldwin and Billy Bob Thornton. “Remember the Alamo!” It remains a potent battle cry, especially in Texas, but also across the American continent. In the comforting tale, a myth really, a couple of hundred Texans, fighting for their freedom against a dictator’s numerically superior force, lost a battle but won war—inflicting such losses that Mexico’s defeat became inevitable. Never, in this telling, is the word “slavery” or the term “illegal immigration” mentioned. There is no room in the legend for critical thinking or fresh analysis. But since the independence and acquisition of Texas caused the Mexican-American War, we must dig deeper and reveal the messy truth.

Until 1836, Texas was a distant northern province of the new Mexican Republic, a republic that had only recently won its independence from the Spanish Empire, in 1821. The territory was full of hostile Indian tribes and a few thousand mestizos and Spaniards. It was difficult to rule, and harder to settle—but it was indisputably Mexican land. Only, Americans had long had their eyes on Texas. Some argued that it was included (it wasn’t) in the Louisiana Purchase, and “Old Hickory” himself, Andrew Jackson, wanted it badly. Indeed, his dear friend and protégé Sam Houston would later fight the Mexicans and preside as a president of the nascent Texan Republic. Thirty-two years before the Texan Revolution of Anglo settlers against the Mexican government, in 1803, Thomas Jefferson had even declared that [the Spanish borderlands] “are ours the first moment war is forced upon us.” Jefferson was prescient but only partly correct: War would come, in Texas in fact, but it would not be forced upon the American settlers.

Others besides politicians coveted Texas. In 1819, a filibusterer (one who leads unsanctioned adventures to conquer foreign lands), an American named James Long, led an illegal invasion and tried but failed to establish an Anglo republic in Texas. Then, in 1821, Mexico’s brand new government made what proved to be a fatal mistake: It opened the borders to legal American immigration. It did so to help develop the land and create a buffer against the powerful Comanche tribe of West Texas but stipulated that the Anglos must declare loyalty to Mexico and convert to Catholicism. The Mexicans should have known better.

The Mexican Republic abolished slavery in 1829, more than three decades before its “enlightened” northern neighbor. Unfortunately nearly all the Anglo settlers, who were by now flooding into the province, hailed from the slaveholding American South and had brought along many chattel slaves. By 1830, there were 20,000 American settlers and 2,000 slaves compared with just 5,000 Mexican inhabitants. The settlers never intended to follow Mexican law or free their slaves, and so they didn’t. Not really anyway. Most officially “freed” their black slaves and immediately forced them to sign a lifelong indentured servitude contract. It was simply American slavery by another name.

After Santa Anna—Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón, an authoritarian but populist president—seized power, his centralizing instincts and attempts to enforce Mexican policies (such as conversion to Catholicism and the ban on slavery) led the pro-autonomy federalists in Texas (most of whom were Americans) to rebel. It was 1835, and by then there were even more Americans in Texas: 35,000, in fact, outnumbering the Hispanics nearly 10 to 1. Many of the new settlers had broken the law, entering Texas after Santa Anna had ordered the border closed, as was his sovereign right to do.

What followed was a political, racial and religious war pitting white supremacist, Protestant Anglos against a centralizing Mexican republic led by a would-be despot. The Texan War of Independence (1835-36) was largely fought with American money, American volunteers and American arms (even then a prolific resource in the United States). The war was never truly limited to Texas, Tejanos or Mexican provincial politics. It was what we now call a proxy war for land waged between the U.S. and the Mexican Republic.

Furthermore, though Santa Anna was authoritarian, certain Texans saw him as their best hope for freedom. As Santa Anna’s army marched north, many slaves along the Brazos River saw an opportunity and rebelled. Most were killed, some captured and later hanged. And, while slavery was not, by itself, the proximate cause of the Texan Rebellion, it certainly played a significant role. As the Mexican leader marched north with his 6,000 conscripts, one Texas newspaper declared that “[Santa Anna’s] merciless soldiery” was coming “to give liberty to our slaves, and to make slaves of ourselves.” So, once again—as in America’s earlier revolution against Britain—white Americans clamored about their own liberty and feared to death that the same might be granted to their slaves. When (spoiler alert) Santa Anna’s army was eventually defeated, the Mexican retreat gathered numbers as many slave escapees and fearful Hispanics sought their own version of “freedom” south of the Anglo settlements.

Surely, the most evocative image of the Texas War of Independence was the heroic stand of 180 Texans at the Alamo. “Alamo” has entered the American lexicon as a term for any hopeless, yet gallant, stand. And, no doubt, the outnumbered defenders demonstrated courage in their doomed stand. The slightly less than 200 defenders were led by a 26-year-old failed lawyer named William Barret Travis and included the famed frontiersman Davy Crockett, a former Whig member of the U.S. House of Representatives. All would be killed. Still, the battle wasn’t as one-sided or important as the mythos would have it. The defenders actually held one of the strongest fortifications in the Southwest, had more and superior cannons than the attackers and were armed mainly with rifles that far outranged the outdated Mexican muskets. Additionally, the Mexicans were mostly underfed, undersupplied conscripts who often had been forced to enlist and had marched north some 1,000 miles into a difficult fight. Despite inflicting disproportionate casualties on the Mexicans, the stand at the Alamo delayed Santa Anna by only four days. Furthermore, despite the prevalent “last stand” imagery, at least seven defenders (according to credible Mexican accounts long ignored)—probably including Crockett himself—surrendered and were executed.

None of this detracts from the courage of any man defending a position when outnumbered at least 10 to 1, but the diligent historian must reframe the battle. The men inside the Alamo walls were pro-slavery insurgents. As applied to them, “Texan,” in any real sense, is a misnomer. Two-thirds were recent arrivals from the United States and never intended to submit to sovereign Mexican authority. What the Battle of the Alamo did do was whip up a fury of nationalism in the U.S. and cause thousands more recruits to illegally “jump the border”—oh, the irony—and join the rebellion in Texas.

Eventually, Santa Anna, always a better politician than a military strategist, was surprised and defeated by Sam Houston along the banks of the San Jacinto River. The charging Americans yelled “Remember the Alamo!” and sought their revenge. Few prisoners were taken in the melee; perhaps hundreds were executed on the spot. The numbers speak for themselves: 630 dead Mexicans at the cost of two Americans. It is instructive that the Mexican policy of no quarter at the Alamo is regularly derided, yet few north of the Rio Grande remember this later massacre (and probable war crime).

Still, Santa Anna was defeated and forced, under duress (and probably pain of death), to sign away all rights to Texas. The Mexican Congress, as was its constitutional prerogative, summarily dismissed this treaty and would continue its reasonable legal claim on Texas indefinitely. Nonetheless, the divided Mexican government and its exhausted army were in no position (though attempts were made) to recapture the wayward northern province. Texas was “free,” and a thrilled—and no doubt proud—President Jackson recognized Houston’s Republic of Texas on “Old Hickory’s” very last day in office.

Thousands more Americans flowed into the republic over the next decade. By 1845, there were 125,000 (mostly Anglo) inhabitants and 27,000 slaves—that’s more enslaved blacks than Hispanic natives! One result of the war was the expansion and empowerment of the American institution of slavery. Because of confidence in the inevitable spread of slavery, the average sale price of a slave in the bustling New Orleans human-trafficking market rose 21 percent within one year of President John Tyler’s decision to annex Texas (during his final days in office) in 1845. According to international law, Texas remained Mexican. Tyler’s decision alone was tantamount to a declaration of war. Still, for at least a year, the Mexicans showed restraint and unhappily accepted the de facto facts on the ground.

<b>American Blood Upon American Soil?: The Specious Case for War</B>

It took an even greater provocation to kick off a major interstate war between America and Mexico. And that provocation indeed came. In 1844, in one of the more consequential elections in U.S. history, a Jackson loyalist (nicknamed “Young Hickory”) and slaveholder, James K. Polk, defeated the indefatigable Whig candidate Henry Clay. Clay preferred restraint with respect to Texas and Mexico; he wished instead to improve the already vast interior of the existing United States as part of his famed “American System.” Unfortunately for the Mexicans, Clay was defeated, and the fervently expansionist Polk took office in 1845. His election demonstrates the contingency of history; for if Clay had won, war might have been avoided, slavery kept from spreading in the Southwest, and America spared a civil war. It was not to be. Just before Polk took office, a dying Andrew Jackson provided him the sage advice that would spark a bloody war: “Obtain it [Texas] the United States must, peaceably if we can, but forcibly if we must.”

“American Progress,” an 1872 painting by John Gast, shows Manifest Destiny—the belief that the United States should expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean—moving westward across the American continent, bringing light as it faces the darkness of unconquered lands.

In the end, it was Polk who would order U.S. troops south of the disputed Texas border and spark a war. Still, the explanation for war was bigger than any one incident. A newspaperman of the time summarized the millenarian scene of fate pulling Americans westward into the lands of Mexicans and Indians. John L. O’Sullivan wrote, “It has become the United States’ manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” There was an American sense of mission, clear from the very founding of Puritan Massachusetts, to multiply and inhabit North America from ocean to ocean. Mexico and the few remaining native territories were all that stood in the way of American destiny by 1846. As the historian Daniel Walker Howe has written, “&nbsp;‘Manifest Destiny’ served as both label and a justification for policies that might otherwise simply been called … imperialism.”

Polk was, at least in terms of accomplishing what he set out to do, one of the most successful presidents in U.S. history. He declared that his administration had “four great measures.” Two involved expansion: “the settlement of the Oregon territory with Britain, and the acquisition of California and a large district on the coast.” Within three years he would have both and more. Interestingly, though, Polk wielded different tactics for each acquisition. First, Oregon: Britain and the U.S. had agreed to jointly rule this territory, which at that time reached north to the border with Alaska. Expansionist Democrats who coveted the whole of Oregon ran on the party slogan “54°40′ or Fight!” (a reference to the latitude at the top of the Oregon of that day, a line that marks today’s southern border of the state of Alaska). In the end, however, Polk would not fight Great Britain for Canada. Instead, he compromised, setting the modern boundary between Washington state and British Columbia.

In his dealings with the much less powerful Mexicans, however, Polk took an entirely different, more openly bellicose approach. Here, it seems, he expected if not preferred a war. Was his compromise in Oregon reflective of great-power politics (Britain remained a formidable opponent, especially at sea) or tainted by race and white supremacist notions about the weakness of Hispanic civilization? Historians still argue the point. What we can say is that many Democratic supporters of Polk delighted over the Oregon Compromise, for, as one newspaper declared: “We can now thrash Mexico into decency at our leisure.”

War it would be. In the spring of 1846, President Polk sent Gen. Zachary Taylor and 4,000 troops along the border between Texas and Mexico. Polk claimed all territory north of the Rio Grande River despite the fact that the Mexican province had always established Texas’ border further north at the Nueces River. Polk wanted Taylor to secure the southerly of the two disputed boundaries—probably in contravention of established international law. No one should have been surprised, then, when in April a reconnaissance party of U.S. dragoons was attacked by Mexican soldiers south of the Nueces River. Polk, of course, wily politician that he was, acted absolutely shocked upon hearing the news and immediately began drafting a war message—even though, in fact, his administration had been on the verge of asking Congress for a war declaration anyway! In the exact inverse of his negotiations with Britain over Oregon, Polk had made demands (that Mexico sell California and recognize Texan independence) he knew would probably be rejected by Mexico City, and then sent soldiers where he knew they would probably provoke war. And, oh, how well it worked.

Indeed, Polk’s administration had already set plans in motion for naval and land forces to immediately converge on California and New Mexico when the outbreak of war occurred. Both the U.S. Army and Navy complied and within a year occupied both Mexican provinces. Lest the reader believe the local Hispanics were indifferent to the invasion, homegrown rebellions broke out (and were swiftly suppressed) in both locales. Polk got his war declaration soon after the fight in south Texas. In a blatant obfuscation, Polk announced to the American people that “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory, and shed American blood upon American soil. War exists, and notwithstanding all our efforts to avoid it, exists by the act of Mexico herself.” He knew this to be false.

So did many Whigs in the opposition party, by the way. Still, most obediently voted for war, fearing the hypernationalism of their constituents and remembering the drubbing Federalists had taken for opposing the War of 1812. In cowardly votes of 174-14 in the House (John Quincy Adams, the former president, was one notable dissenting vote) and 40-2 in the Senate, the Congress succumbed to war fever. The small skirmish near the Nueces River was just a casus belli for Polk; America truly went to war to seize, at the very least, all of northern Mexico.

<B>Gen. Winfield Scott and the Defeat of Mexico</B>

On the surface, the two sides in the Mexican-American War were unevenly matched. The U.S. population of 17 million citizens and 3 million slaves dwarfed the 7 million Mexicans (4 million of whom were Indians). Their respective economies were even more lopsided, for America had emerged strong from its market and communications revolutions. Mexico had only recently (1821) gained its independence, and its political situation was fragile and fluctuating. The U.S. had existed independently for some 60 years and already had fought two wars with Britain and countless battles with Indian tribes. America was ready to flex its muscles.

Many observers assumed the war would be easy and short. It was not to be. Most Americans underestimated the courage, resolve and nationalism of Mexican soldiers and civilians alike. That the U.S. won this war—and most of the battles—was due primarily to superiority in artillery, leadership and logistics. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York had trained, and numerous Indian wars had seasoned, a generation of junior and mid-grade officers. Many of the lieutenants and captains who directly led U.S. Army formations in Mexico (one thinks of Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman and James Longstreet, to name only a handful) would serve, either for the North or the South, as general officers in the U.S. Civil War (1861-65). Some of these officers involved in the Mexican-American War relished the glory of exotic conquest; others were horrified by a war they deemed immoral.

It must be remembered that the U.S. Army that entered and conquered Mexico represented a slaveholding republic fighting against an abolitionist nation-state. Many Southern officers brought along slaves and servants on the quest to spread “liberty” to the Mexicans. Some of the enslaved took the opportunity to escape into the interior of a non-slaveholding country. The irony was astounding.

President Polk’s Army was also highly politicized during the conflict. While the existing regular Army officers tended to be Whigs (in favor, as they were, of internal improvements and centralized finance to the benefit of the military), all 13 generals that Polk appointed were avowed partisan Democrats. Polk’s biggest fear—which would indeed come to fruition in the election of Gen. Zachary Taylor as president in 1848—was that a Whiggish hero from the war he began would best his party for the presidency.

When it became clear in 1846 that Gen. Taylor’s initial thrust south into the vast Mexican hinterland could win battles but not the war, Gen. Winfield Scott (a hero of the War of 1812) was ordered to lead an amphibious thrust at the Mexican capital. Indeed, Scott’s militarily brilliant operational campaign constituted the largest American seaborne invasion until D-Day in World War II. It took months of hard fighting and several more months of tenuous occupation, but Scott’s attack effectively ended the war by late 1847.

Still, conducting this war was extremely hard, indeed more difficult than it should have been, on both Taylor and Scott. This was due to President Polk’s decision (reminiscent of George W. Bush’s decision during the Iraq War) to cut taxes and wage war simultaneously. Indeed, Gen. Scott became so short on troops and supplies that he decided to cut off his line of logistics and “live off the land.” This was a clever but risky maneuver that his subordinates—U.S. Grant and William T. Sherman—would remember and mimic in the U.S. Civil War.

There was plenty of room for courage and glory on both sides of the Mexican-American War. It is no accident that the contemporary U.S. Marine Corps Hymn speaks of the “Halls of Montezuma,” or that several grandiose rock carvings of key battle names in Mexico unapologetically adorn my own alma mater at West Point. On the other side, the Mexican people still celebrate the gallant defense, and deaths, of six cadets—known as Los Niños Héroes—who manned the barricades of their own national military academy.

Nevertheless there was (and always is) an uglier, less romantic side of the conflagration. Nine thousand two hundred seven men deserted the U.S. Army in Mexico, or some 8.3 percent of all troops—the highest ever rate in an American conflict and double that of the Vietnam War. Hundreds of Catholic Irish immigrant soldiers responded to Mexican invitations and not only deserted the U.S. Army but joined the Mexican army, as the San Patricio (Saint Patrick’s) Battalion. Dozens were later captured and hanged by their former comrades.

America’s military also waged a violent, brutal war that often failed to spare the innocent. In northern Mexico, Gen. Taylor’s artillery pounded the city of Matamoros, killing hundreds of civilians. Indeed, Taylor’s army of mostly volunteers regularly pillaged villages, murdering Mexican citizens for either retaliation or sport. Many regular Army officers decried the behavior of these volunteers, and one officer wrote, “The majority of the volunteers sent here are a disgrace to the nation; think of one of them shooting a woman while washing on the banks of the river—merely to test his rifle; another tore forcibly from a Mexican woman the rings from her ears.” In the later bombardment of Veracruz, American mortar fire inflicted on the elderly, women or children two-thirds of the 1,000 Mexican casualties. Capt. Robert E. Lee (who would later lead the Confederate Army in the U.S. Civil War) was horrified, commenting that “my heart bled for the inhabitants, it was terrible to think of the women and children.”

It should come as little surprise, then, that when the U.S. Army seized cities, groups of Mexican guerrilla fighters—usually called rancheros—often rose in rebellion. Part of the U.S. effort in Mexico became a counterinsurgency. Take my word for it, people (Iraqis, for example) rarely take kindly to occupation, and the mere presence of foreigners often generates insurgents. All told, the American victory cost the U.S. Army 12,518 lives (seven-eighths of the deaths because of disease, due largely to poor sanitation). Many thousands more Mexican troops and civilians died. This aspect of the war, events that tarnish glorious imagery and language, is rarely remembered, but it would be well if it were.

Courageous Dissent: Whigs, Artists, Soldiers and the Opposition to the Mexican-American War

War, as it does, initially united the country in a spirit of nationalism, but ultimately the war and its spoils would divide the U.S., nearly to its breaking point. Few mainstream Whigs—those of the opposition party—initially demonstrated the courage to dissent. They knew, deep down, that this war was wrong, but also remembered the fate of the Federalist Party, which had been labeled treasonous and soon disappeared due to its opposition to the War of 1812. Other Whigs were simply dedicated nationalists: The U.S. was their country, right or wrong. But there were courageous voices, a few dissenters in the wilderness. Some you know; others are anonymous, lost to history. All were patriots.

Many were politicians: those entrusted with the duty to dissent in times of national error. Though only a dozen or so Whigs had the fortitude to vote against the war declaration in 1846, a few were vocal. One was Rep. Luther Severance, who responded to President Polk’s “American blood on American soil” fallacy by exclaiming that “[i]t is on Mexican soil that blood has been shed” and Mexicans “should be honored and applauded” for their “manly resistance.”

Another was former President John Quincy Adams, who at the time was a member of the U.S. House from Massachusetts (he was the only person to serve in Congress after being president). It was Adams, we must remember, who as secretary of state in 1821, had presciently warned Americans against foreign military adventures. “But she [America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” he wrote, for “[Were she to do so] the fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force … she might become the dictatress of the world.” Adams had seen the Mexican War coming back in 1836, when his avowed opponent President Andrew Jackson considered annexation of the Texan Republic. Then, Adams had said, “Are you not large and unwieldy enough already? Have you not Indians enough to expel from the land of their fathers’ sepulchre?”

Another staunch opponent of the war was a little known freshman Whig congressman from Illinois, a lanky fellow named Abraham Lincoln. As soon as he took his seat in the House, Lincoln immediately rebuked President Polk’s initial explanation for declaring war. “The President, in his first war message of May 1846,” Lincoln told his audience, “declares that the soil was ours on which hostilities were commenced by Mexico; Now I propose to try to show, that the whole of this–issue and evidence–is, from beginning to end, the sheerest deception.” The future president would later summarize the conflict as “a war of conquest fought to catch votes.” And, indeed it was.

Prominent artists and writers also opposed the war; such people often do, and we should take notice of them. The Transcendentalist writers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson each took up the pen to attack the still quite popular conquest of Mexico. Thoreau, who served prison time, turned a lecture into an essay now known as “Civil Disobedience.” Emerson was even more succinct, declaring, “The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as a man who swallowed the arsenic which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us.” He couldn’t have known how right he was; arguments over the expansion of slavery in the lands seized from Mexico would indeed take the nation to the brink of civil war in just a dozen years.

One expects dissent from artists. These men and women tend to be unflinching and to demonstrate a willingness to stand against the grain, against even the populist passions of an inflamed citizenry. But … soldiers? Surely they must remain loyal and steadfast to the end, and so, too often, they are. Not so in Mexico. A surprising number of young officers—like Lee at the bombardment of Veracruz—despised the war. More than a few likely suffered from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One lieutenant colonel, Ethan Hitchcock, even attacked the justification for war. He wrote, “We have not one particle of right to be here. It looks as if the [U.S.] government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have the pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses.” Perhaps the most honest and self-effacing critique of the war came from a young subaltern named U.S. Grant (who along with his then-comrade R.E. Lee would later lead one of the two opposing armies in the Civil War). Grant, a future president and West Point graduate, wrote that he “had a horror of the Mexican War … only I had not the moral courage enough to resign.”

Finally, let us return to the powerful and unwavering dissent of John Quincy Adams, for the Mexican War, not his presidency, may constitute his finest hour. On Feb. 21, 1848, the speaker of the House called for a routine vote to bestow medals and adulation on the victorious generals of the late Mexican War. The measure passed, of course, but when the “nays” were up for roll call a voice from the back bellowed “No!” It was the 80-year-old former president. Adams then rose in an apparent effort to speak, but his face reddened and he collapsed. Carried to a couch, he slipped into unconsciousness and died two days later. John Quincy Adams was mortally stricken in the act of officially opposing an unjust war. That we remember the victories of the Mexican-American War but not Adams’ dying gesture surely must reflect poorly on us and our collective remembrances.

A Long Shadow Cast: The ‘Peace’ of 1848

From the war’s start, there was never any real question of leaving Mexico without extracting territory. Indeed, by late 1847 there was considerable Democratic support for taking the whole country. That the U.S. did not is due mainly to Polk’s peace commissioner ignoring orders and his own firing to negotiate a compromise. But there was something else. Many Democrats from the South—who had applauded the war from the start—now flinched before the prospect of taking on the entirety of Mexico and its decidedly brown and Catholic population. There was inherent fear of racial mixing, racial impurity and heterogeneity. John Calhoun, the political stalwart from South Carolina, even declared, “Ours is the government of the white man!” And, in 1848, Calhoun was right, indeed.

Even the Wilmot Proviso, an attempt by a Northern congressman to forestall any conquest in Mexico, was tinged with racism. Rep. David Wilmot called his amendment a “White Man’s Proviso,” to “preserve for free white labor a fair country, a rich inheritance, where the sons of toil, of my own race and own color, can live without the disgrace which association with Negro slavery brings upon free labor.” Wilmot’s proposal, unsurprisingly, never passed muster. But it nearly tore the Congress asunder, with Northern and Southern politicians at each other’s throats. Northerners generally feared the expansion of slave states and of what they called “slave power.” The Whig Party itself nearly divided—and eventually would—into its Northern and Southern factions. As we will see, arguments about what land to seize from Mexico and what to do with it (should it be slave or free?) would shatter the Second Party System—of Whigs and Democrats—and take the nation one step closer to the civil war many (like John Quincy Adams) had long feared. The “peace” of 1848, known to history as the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, would certainly cast a long shadow.

* * *

In the end, the U.S. expended over 12,000 lives and millions of dollars to make a new colony of nearly half of Mexico—an area two and a half times the size of France and including parts or all of the current states of California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Much of the land remained heavily Hispanic for decades and effectively under military government for many years (New Mexico until 1912!). The real losers were the Indian and Hispanic people of the new American Southwest. The U.S. gained 100,000 Spanish-speaking inhabitants after the treaty and even more native Americans. Under Mexican law, both groups were considered full citizens! Under American stewardship, race was a far more detrimental factor. The results were (despite supposed protections in the treaty) the seizure of millions of acres of Hispanic-owned land and, in California, Indian slavery and decimation as 150,000 natives dwindled to less than 50,000 in just 10 years of U.S. control. During the postwar period, California’s governor literally called for the “extermination” of the state’s Indians. This aspect of the war’s end is almost never mentioned at all.

Words matter, and we must watch our use of terms and language. Mexico hadn’t invaded Texas; Texas was Mexico. Polk manufactured a war to expand slavery westward and increase pro-slavery political power in the Senate. Was, then, America an empire in 1848? Is it today? And why does the very term “empire” make us so uncomfortable?

So what, then, are readers to make of this mostly forgotten war? Perhaps this much: It was as unnecessary as it was unjust. Nearly all Democrats supported it, and most Whigs simply acquiesced. Others, however, knew the war to be wrong and said so at the time. Through an ethical lens, the real heroes of the Mexican-American War weren’t Gens. Taylor and Scott, but rather artists such as Henry David Thoreau; a former president, John Quincy Adams; and Abraham Lincoln, then an obscure young Illinois politician. There are many kinds of courage, and the physical sort shouldn’t necessarily predominate. In this view, the moral view, protest is patriotic.

So, let me challenge you to think on this: Our democracy was undoubtedly achieved through undemocratic means—through conquest and colonization. Mexicans were just some of the victims, and, today, in the American Southwest, tens of millions of U.S. citizens reside, in point of fact, upon occupied territory.

* * *

To learn more about this topic, consider the following scholarly works:

• Rodolfo Acuna, “Occupied Mexico: A History of Chicanos” (1988).
• James West Davidson, Brian DeLay, Christine Leigh Heyrman, Mark H. Lytle and Michael B. Stoff, “Experience History: Interpreting America’s Past,” Chapter 14. “Western Expansion and the Rise of the Slavery Issue, 1820-1850” (2011).
• Daniel Walker Howe, “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-48” (2007).

Maj. Danny Sjursen, a regular contributor to Truthdig, is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” He lives with his wife and four sons in Lawrence, Kan. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his new podcast, “Fortress on a Hill,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris “Henri” Henrikson.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

 

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District of Columbia Shoots Back in Tiff on Parade Cancellation

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by LOLITA C. BALDOR and CATHERINE LUCEY / The Associated Press.

WASHINGTON — The cancellation of President Donald Trump’s Veterans Day parade came swiftly when senior White House and Pentagon leaders saw the estimated $92 million price tag play out in public, setting off a chaotic volley of tweets and accusations between the president and the mayor of the nation’s capital.

The drama that unfolded Thursday and Friday also highlighted, not for the first time, a disconnect between the Pentagon and the White House when it comes to turning some of Trump’s more mercurial ideas into reality.

While Defense Secretary Jim Mattis dismissed the price estimate for the parade as fiction — likening the report of it as the work of someone who had been smoking pot — Trump wasn’t denying the projected costs. He was lashing out at Washington, D.C., politicians he claimed were to blame for the sky-high price.

“When asked to give us a price for holding a great celebratory military parade, they wanted a number so ridiculously high that I cancelled it. Never let someone hold you up!” Trump tweeted.

He held out hope of holding the parade next year instead, and said this year he would travel to Paris for events marking the centennial of the end of fighting in World War I, which falls on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. “Now we can buy some more jet fighters!” he added.

Despite Trump blaming municipal authorities for the high estimate, the bulk of the cost was the $50 million Pentagon portion that would cover military aircraft, equipment, personnel and other support. The remaining $42 million would cover costs borne by the city and other agencies and largely involved security costs.

The Republican president’s finger-pointing set off a social media spat with D.C.’s Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser. She shot back on Twitter Friday that she was the one who “finally got thru to the reality star in the White House with the realities ($21.6M) of parades/events/demonstrations in Trump America (sad).”

District of Columbia officials called the price-gouging charge by Trump “patently false.” A city official said the $21.6 million estimate of the costs the city would incur was their “best stab at it,” since they did not know what the exact route would be or how long it would last. The official, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said there had been little interaction with the Pentagon and few details provided.

Trump decided he wanted a military parade in Washington after he attended France’s Bastille Day celebration in the center of Paris last year. Several months later Trump praised the French parade, saying, “We’re going to have to try and top it.”

It was a demand that drew criticism not just from Trump’s political opponents but some Republicans too. As the Pentagon began planning for the U.S. version, the cost became a politically charged issue — as did the prospect of streets in the nation’s capital being churned up by tank treads.

According to officials familiar with the unfolding events, senior Pentagon leaders were briefed Wednesday about the parade costs. But officials said the estimates were still preliminary and so were not submitted to Mattis or Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private meetings and conversations.

When details came out publicly Thursday, senior White House officials, including Chief of Staff John Kelly, were angry about the $92 million amount, which was more than triple early estimates of $10 million to $30 million by the White House budget director. It’s not clear when Trump was told, but the order to cancel the parade came quickly and was made by the end of the work day. The Pentagon announced the decision just before 8 p.m.

Throughout the day, multiple U.S. officials had confirmed the $92 million estimate that was put together by the interagency parade planning group. And Pentagon officials did not push back or at any point suggest the reporting was wrong.

Still, when asked about the price Thursday evening, Mattis excoriated the media and said he had seen no such estimate.

“I’m not dignifying that number ($92 million) with a reply. I would discount that, and anybody who said (that number), I’ll almost guarantee you one thing: They probably said, ‘I need to stay anonymous.’ No kidding, because you look like an idiot. And No. 2, whoever wrote it needs to get better sources. I’ll just leave it at that,” Mattis told reporters traveling with him.

He said that whoever leaked the number to the press was “probably smoking something that is legal in my state but not in most” — a reference to his home state of Washington, where marijuana use is legal.

Mattis’ comments came hours after the estimate was made public, and not long after the cancellation decision was made — giving his staff plenty of time to ensure he was made aware of the planning estimate’s accuracy.

One reason for the political sensitivity was that Trump himself had boasted that the cancellation of a major military exercise with South Korea amid easing tensions with North Korea would save the U.S. “a tremendous amount of money.” The Pentagon later said the Korea drills, which typically take place every August, would have cost $14 million — an amount dwarfed by the estimated cost of the parade.

The cancellation of those drills, like Trump’s demand for a parade, initially caught the Defense Department unawares. Mattis was also widely viewed as being unenthusiastic about the president’s plans to set up a Space Force as a new branch of the military — but as in the other cases, he has toed the line of the commander in chief.

The parade was expected to include troops from all five armed services — the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard — as well as units in period uniforms representing earlier times in the nation’s history. It also was expected to involve a number of military aircraft flyovers, which can carry significant costs in personnel, aircraft and support.

A Pentagon planning memo released in March said the parade would feature a “heavy air component,” likely including older, vintage aircraft. It also said there would be “wheeled vehicles only, no tanks — consideration must be given to minimize damage to local infrastructure.” Big, heavy tanks could tear up streets in the District of Columbia.

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Associated Press writer Ashraf Khalil contributed to this report.

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Trump Targets Security Clearance of Justice Department Official

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by JILL COLVIN and CATHERINE LUCEY / The Associated Press.

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Friday that he suspects he’ll “very quickly” revoke the security clearance for a Justice Department official whose wife worked for the firm involved in producing a dossier on Trump’s ties to Russia.

Signaling that his efforts to target clearances over his frustration with the Russia investigation were not over, Trump tweeted that it was a “disgrace” for Bruce Ohr to be in the Justice Department.

His comments came two days after he yanked the security clearance of former CIA Director John Brennan, saying he had to do “something” about the “rigged” federal probe of Russian election interference. Critics have cast it as an act of political vengeance.

Ohr has come under Republican scrutiny for his contacts to Glenn Simpson, co-founder of Fusion GPS. The opposition research firm hired former British spy Christopher Steele during the 2016 presidential campaign to compile the dossier on Trump and his Russia ties.

Ohr’s wife, Nellie, worked for Fusion GPS during the campaign — something Trump has tweeted about to highlight his assertions of political bias behind the Russia investigation.

Former U.S. security officials on Thursday issued scathing rebukes to Trump for moving against Brennan. Trump’s admission that he acted out of frustration with the Russia probe underscored his willingness to use his executive power to fight back against an investigation he sees as a threat to his presidency. Legal experts said the dispute may add to the evidence being reviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller.

In an opinion piece in The New York Times, Brennan said Trump’s decision, announced Wednesday, to deny him access to classified information was a desperate attempt to end Mueller’s investigation. Brennan, who served under President Barack Obama and has become a vocal Trump critic, called Trump’s claims that he did not collude with Russia “hogwash.”

The only question remaining is whether the collusion amounts to a “constituted criminally liable conspiracy,” Brennan wrote.

Later Thursday, the retired Navy admiral who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden called Trump’s moves “McCarthy-era tactics.” Writing in The Washington Post, William H. McRaven said he would “consider it an honor” if Trump would revoke his clearance, as well.

“Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation,” McRaven wrote.

That was followed late Thursday by a joint letter from 15 former senior intelligence officials calling Trump’s action “ill-considered and unprecedented.” They said it “has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances — and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech.”

The signees included seven former CIA directors, six former CIA deputy directors and two former national intelligence directors, James Clapper and retired Navy Adm. Denny Blair. Clapper and former CIA Director Michael Hayden have appeared on a White House list of people who may also have their security clearances revoked.

Then on Friday, 60 former CIA officials issued their own statement, joining a chorus of opposition from the intelligence community to Trump’s decisions to threaten to or actually pull clearances. They said former government officials have a right to express unclassified views on national security issues without fear of being punished for doing so.

They said they did not necessarily concur with all the opinions expressed by Brennan, or the way in which he expressed them. But they said they believe the “country will be weakened if there is a political litmus test applied before seasoned experts are allowed to share their views.”

Trump on Wednesday openly tied his decision to strip Brennan of his clearance — and threaten nearly a dozen other former and current officials — to the ongoing investigation into Russian election meddling and possible collusion with his campaign. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump again called the probe a “rigged witch hunt” and said “these people led it!”

“So I think it’s something that had to be done,” he said.

The president’s comments were a swift departure from the official explanation given by the White House earlier Wednesday that cited the “the risks” posed by Brennan’s supposed “erratic conduct and behavior.” It marked the latest example of the president contradicting a story his aides had put forward to explain his motivations.

Attorneys said the revocation appeared to be within the president’s authority. But they noted the power play also could be used to reinforce a case alleging obstruction of justice, following the president’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey and his repeated tweets calling for the investigation to end.

Patrick Cotter, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York and a longtime white-collar defense attorney, said that while a prosecutor could argue that Trump’s targeting of clearances was intended as a warning that “if you contribute to, participate in, support the Russia probe and I find out about it, I’m going to punish you,” it is likely not obstruction in itself.

But, he said the move would be a “powerful piece of evidence” for prosecutors as part of a pattern to demonstrate an intent to use presidential power in connection with the probe.

Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor agreed.

“What it shows is that the president is fixated on the Russia investigation, he’s angry about it, and he wants to do everything he can to discourage or slow down the investigation,” he said.

Mueller and his team have been looking at Trump’s public statements and tweets as they investigate whether the president could be guilty of obstruction.

“I don’t think it advances the criminal obstruction case, but I think it’s factually relevant,” said Mark Zaid, a national security attorney. “I think it shows the state of mind and intent to interfere or impede any unfavorable discussion of his potential connection to Russia.”

Former CIA directors and other top national security officials are typically allowed to keep their clearances, at least for some period.

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Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann and Jessica Gresko contributed to this report.

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Follow Colvin and Lucey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/colvinj and https://twitter.com/catherine_lucey

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12 Top Former Intelligence Officials Join in Rebuking Trump

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by JILL COLVIN and CATHERINE LUCEY / The Associated Press.

WASHINGTON — Former U.S. security officials issued scathing rebukes to President Donald Trump on Thursday, admonishing him for yanking a top former spy chief’s security clearance in what they cast as an act of political vengeance. Trump said he’d had to do “something” about the “rigged” federal probe of Russian election interference.

Trump’s admission that he acted out of frustration about the Russia probe underscored his willingness to use his executive power to fight back against an investigation he sees as a threat to his presidency. Legal experts said the dispute may add to the evidence being reviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller.

In an opinion piece in The New York Times, former CIA Director John Brennan said Trump’s decision, announced Wednesday, to deny him access to classified information was a desperate attempt to end Mueller’s investigation. Brennan, who served under President Barack Obama and has become a vocal Trump critic, called Trump’s claims that he did not collude with Russia “hogwash.”

The only question remaining is whether the collusion amounts to a “constituted criminally liable conspiracy,” Brennan wrote.

Later Thursday, the retired Navy admiral who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden called Trump’s moves “McCarthy-era tactics.” Writing in The Washington Post, William H. McRaven said he would “consider it an honor” if Trump would revoke his clearance, as well.

“Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation,” McRaven wrote.

That was followed late Thursday by a joint letter from 12 former senior intelligence officials calling Trump’s action “ill-considered and unprecedented.” They said it “has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances — and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech.”

The signees included six former CIA directors, five former deputy directors and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Two of the signees — Clapper and former CIA Director Michael Hayden — have appeared on a White House list of people who may also have their security clearances revoked.

Trump on Wednesday openly tied his decision to strip Brennan of his clearance — and threaten nearly a dozen other former and current officials — to the ongoing investigation into Russian election meddling and possible collusion with his campaign. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump again called the probe a “rigged witch hunt” and said “these people led it!”

“So I think it’s something that had to be done,” he said.

The president’s comments were a swift departure from the official explanation given by the White House earlier Wednesday that cited the “the risks” posed by Brennan’s alleged “erratic conduct and behavior.” It marked the latest example of the president contradicting a story his aides had put forward to explain his motivations.

Attorneys said the revocation appeared to be within the president’s authority. But they noted the power play also could be used to reinforce a case alleging obstruction of justice, following the president’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey and his repeated tweets calling for the investigation to end.

Patrick Cotter, a former assistant U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of New York and a longtime white-collar defense attorney, said that while a prosecutor could argue that Trump’s targeting of clearances was intended as a warning that “if you contribute to, participate in, support the Russia probe and I find out about it, I’m going to punish you,” it is likely not obstruction in itself.

But, he said the move would be a “powerful piece of evidence” for prosecutors as part of a pattern to demonstrate an intent to use presidential power in connection with the probe.

Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor agreed.

“What it shows is that the president is fixated on the Russia investigation, he’s angry about it, and he wants to do everything he can to discourage or slow down the investigation,” he said.

Special Counsel Mueller and his team have been looking at Trump’s public statements and tweets as they investigate whether the president could be guilty of obstruction.

“I don’t think it advances the criminal obstruction case, but I think it’s factually relevant,” said Mark Zaid, a national security attorney. “I think it shows the state of mind and intent to interfere or impede any unfavorable discussion of his potential connection to Russia.”

Former CIA directors and other top national security officials are typically allowed to keep their clearances, at least for some period. But Trump said Wednesday he is reviewing the clearances of several other former top intelligence and law enforcement officials, including former FBI Director Comey and current senior Justice Department official Bruce Ohr. All are critics of the president or are people who Trump appears to believe are against him.

The initial White House statement about Brennan’s clearance made no reference to the Russia investigation. Instead, the president said he was fulfilling his “constitutional responsibility to protect the nation’s classified information,” even though he made no suggestion that Brennan was improperly exposing the nation’s secrets.

“Mr. Brennan’s lying and recent conduct characterized by increasingly frenzied commentary is wholly inconsistent with access to the nations’ most closely held secrets,” Trump said.

Just hours later, his explanation had changed.

“You look at any of them and you see the things they’ve done,” Trump told the Journal. “In some cases, they’ve lied before Congress. The Hillary Clinton whole investigation was a total sham.”

“I don’t trust many of those people on that list,” he said. “I think that they’re very duplicitous. I think they’re not good people.”

The episode was reminiscent of Trump’s shifting explanations for firing Comey and the evolving descriptions of the Trump Tower meeting between top campaign aides and a Kremlin-connected lawyer — both topics of interest to Mueller.

And it underscores why the president’s lawyers are fearful of allowing Trump to sit down for an interview with Mueller’s team, as Trump has repeatedly said he is interested in doing.

In announcing Comey’s firing, the White House initially cited the former FBI director’s handling of the probe into Democratic rival Clinton’s emails, seizing on the FBI director’s decision to divulge details of the probe to the public during her campaign against Trump.

But a few days after Comey was dismissed, Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt in an interview that he was really thinking of “this Russia thing” when he fired Comey.

Trump later changed again, tweeting that he “never fired James Comey because of Russia!”

Early this month, he admitted in a tweet that the Trump Tower meeting, which was arranged by his son, Donald Trump Jr., “was a meeting to get information on an opponent.”

That directly contradicted a July 2017 statement from Trump Jr. — written with the consultation of the White House — that claimed the meeting had been primarily about adoption.

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Associated Press writer Jessica Gresko contributed to this report.

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Follow Colvin and Lucey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/colvinj and https://twitter.com/catherine_lucey

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