This morning I switched over to CBS in advance of Face the Nation while I was working and happened to catch the last half hour of CBS News Sunday Morning. One segment they featured was an “historical” piece focusing on the Mexican American war, featuring an interview with author Amy S. Greenberg. She published a book last year titled, “A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico.” As the title will probably tell you, she’s not approaching the subject as a fan of the Manifest Destiny doctrine. A transcript of the entire segment is available here.
“James K. Polk went to Congress and said American blood had been shed on American soil, but almost nobody except Americans claimed that the land where the blood was shed was actually American soil,” Greenberg said. “When Zachary Taylor marched his troops between the Nueces and the Rio Grande, he was marching through land which everybody, including the residents of that territory, believed to be Mexican land.”
“So they were basically looking for a fight?” asked Rocca.
“Absolutely. No question about it.”
I’m sure we can have a debate over the motivations and strategies of Polk and the Eminent Domain doctrine, but the host seemed to feel a need to make the conversation a bit more topical by bringing in the immigration reform debate. This is where the author really digs in her heels and finds her voice.
So how do Mexicans today view the war?
“Well, as a disaster,” said museum director Salvador Rueda. “Mexico lost half of their own territory.”
For Rueda, the end of the war was the beginning of a long love/hate relationship between Mexico and the United States over what is known to them as Invasion Americana — “American Invasion.”
Greenberg says the conflict matters today because “A lot of people live in land that was taken from Mexico in this war, taken from Mexico, and they’re not aware of that. I believe a lot of the immigration debate that’s going on now operates in a vacuum, where people are not realizing that in fact Mexicans are here in lands that once belonged to Mexico.”
I’m assuming the tone of the entire book runs along those lines. There seems to be a recurring theme in the author’s comments which seeks to tie the Polk era to more recent events. One excellent example was when she led off by saying, “There was no great ideological reason why we were going to war against Mexico. It was the first war that was started with a presidential lie.” It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see where she was going with that one, but the host chose not to follow up on it.
The book received a fairly glowing review from the Washington Post when it first debuted, but when Peter Hannford got hold of it for the Washington Times, some uncomfortable elements were pointed out.
The title of this book about the U.S-Mexican War (1846-47) gives away the author’s bias. It is lifted from a statement Ulysses S. Grant made in 1867, 20 years after the war ended.
The author, Amy Greenberg, is described on the jacket as “a leading scholar of Manifest Destiny.” It seems odd, therefore, that in this book she does not document the popularity of that concept among the people of James K. Polk’s time.
A theme running throughout the book is that Polk lied to Congress and the people, using a pretext to wage war. Ms. Greenberg also makes much of the point that this was the first case of one republic going to war with another. Ever since its independence from Spain in 1822, Mexico’s republican status was tenuous. There were constant power struggles among factions and frequent changes of president. One result was that possessions, notably Alta, Calif. (today’s state) had little oversight from Mexico. American settlers, the British and Russians all had designs on the real estate. Polk wanted to acquire California and was willing to pay for it.
If you’re looking for some interesting Sunday reading, go through both of those reviews. It’s a fascinating period of history, and while Greenberg has a lot of bias on display to answer for, the Washington Times piece includes plenty of salient points about the Polk administration, manifest destiny and the war with Mexico. It’s a good read.