This week marks the 180th Anniversary of the siege of the Alamo. Ten years later, the United States’ westward territorial ambitions culminated in the Mexican-American War (April 25th, 1846 – February 2, 1848).
The Mexican War — so overshadowed by the Civil War 15 years later — draws relatively little attention within American popular histories.
The war itself was not overwhelming popular. An ex-President John Quincy Adams, then a Massachusetts Congressman, voted against President Polk’s call for a declaration of war with Mexico. As an Illinois Congressman, Abraham Lincoln opposed the war. Henry David Thoreau famously spent his night of jailed disobedience after refusing to pay a war tax.
To its detractors, the war was a barely veiled imperial land grab that strengthened the slave powers.
Basically, the United States wanted to buy Mexico’s land. They didn’t want to sell. So we took it: what would become California, Nevada, Utah with parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. Manifest Destiny
No wonder the Mexican War does not have a prominent place within high school curriculums.
So when politicians like Donald Trump shout about building a Wall, the historical irony is palpable. We need a wall to protect our sovereignty from a “Mexican invasion” in part because we did such a good job taking away half their sovereign soil.
As a boy, I loved The American Heritage New Illustrated History of the United States. I tended to gravitate toward the war volumes first. On the cover of Volume 7 was doomed Davy Crockett clubbing a faceless Mexican. (At the time, I did not see how carefully the scene displays triumphant whiteness as the brown Mexican soldiers are fodder for the outnumbered but heroic Texans.)
When I looked again at the volume, I wondered what do Mexicans see when they look at the same pictures BELOW?
Josue is the author of Against Machismo: Young Adult Voices in Mexico City
As Josue says, in Mexico the Mexican-American War is hardly a footnote in history:
Mexican historians blame the loss on flaws in their government and disastrous leadership.
But, the war is understood not just in Mexico but all over Latin America as a defining moment in US-Latin American relations. The blame for American actions rests squarely in Washington.
When I taught this topic in college courses I would ask the following question: you live in a potentially wealthy country but you know that your government has been in turmoil. Terrible instability. You wake up one day to find that half of your country is gone. The country to the north has taken advantage of the weakness of your government. Now here is the question: How do you explain it to your kids? How do you reconcile that disaster? How do contemporary Mexicans respond emotionally to this history? They have 180 years of textbook accounts and childhood simplifications. And lots of paintings and film reconstructions. It’s all baked in over many generations. That is why Mexicans often turn to Europe for ideas and not to the United States. They understand the US as an economic partner but not necessarily an ideological or spiritual partner.
As for the American Heritage pictures, Josue says they would elicit little response from Mexicans today (although in the captions he offers a few observations). As he says, Mexicans have their own folklore about gringos.
Looking over the battlefields of yore, Josue adds:
Let’s be clear, the Americans had faster, more accurate cannon fire. That’s what made the difference. The Mexicans had far nicer uniforms and marching styles. LOL how sad. My reaction to heroic paintings of people getting blown up? Numb. Sad.
Yes, sad. And the pictures serve as cautionary tale when we invoke American exceptionalism. We would have really been exceptional if we had listened to Addams, Lincoln, Thoreau and Douglass.
And on Trump’s Wall? To my surprise, Josue says Mexico might actually pay for it:
Trump as president would create bitter feelings in Mexico City. The idea of making Mexico pay for a wall may be feasible given the trade imbalance but it will come at a huge price for the US. We might get $10b but we will create $100b in tension and animosity.
Trump’s proposal is a foreign policy based on trade war and “import substitution” (meaning that he wants products to be manufactured in USA). Because we have a huge internal market, the US will survive, but countries like Japan will suffer terribly during a trade war. China would be in real trouble. Mexico will muddle through.