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THEMEXICANWAR:ASTUDYINCAUSATION

NormanA.Graebner
OnMay11,1846,PresidentJamesK.PolkpresentedhiswarmessagetoCongress.
AfterreviewingtheskirmishbetweenGeneralZacharyTaylor'sdragoonsandabodyof
MexicansoldiersalongtheRioGrande,thepresidentassertedthatMexico"haspassedthe
boundaryoftheUnitedStates,hasinvadedourterritoryandshedAmericanblooduponthe
Americansoil....Warexists,and,notwithstandingalloureffortstoavoidit,existsbyactof
Mexico."Nocountrycouldhavehadasuperiorcaseforwar.Democratsinlargenumbers(for
itwaslargelyapartisanmatter)respondedwiththepatrioticfervorwhichPolkexpectedof
them."Ourgovernmenthaspermitteditselftobeinsultedlongenough,"wroteoneGeorgian.
"Thebloodofhercitizenshasbeenspiltonherownsoil.Itappealstousforvengeance."Still,
somemembersofCongress,recallingmoreaccuratelythanthepresidentthecircumstancesof
theconflict,soonrenderedtheMexicanWarthemostreviledinAmericanhistoryatleastuntil
theVietnamWarofthe1960s.OneoutragedWhigtermedthewar"illegal,unrighteous,and
damnable,"andWhigsquestionedbothPolk'shonestyandhissenseofgeography
CongressmanJoshuaR.GiddingsofOhioaccusedthepresidentof"plantingthestandardofthe
UnitedStatesonforeignsoil,andusingthemilitaryforcesoftheUnitedStatestoviolateevery
principleofinternationallawandmoraljustice."Tovoteforthewar,admittedSenatorJohnC.
Calhoun,was"toplungeadaggerintohisownheart,andmoreso."Indeed,somecriticsin
CongressopenlywishedtheMexicanswell.
Foroveracentury,suchprofounddifferencesinperceptionhavepervadedAmerican
writingsontheMexicanWar.Eveninthepastdecade,historianshavereachedconclusionson
thequestionofwarguiltasdisparateasthosewhichseparatedPolkfromhiswartime
conservativeandabolitionistcritics....Insomemeasurethediversityofjudgmentonthe
MexicanWar,asonotherwars,isunderstandable.Bybasingtheiranalysesonofficial
rationalizations,historiansoftenignorethemoreuniversalcausesofwarwhichtranscend
individualconflictsandwhichcanestablishthebasesforgreaterconsensus.Neitherthe
officialsinWashingtonnorthoseinMexicoCityeveracknowledgedanyalternativestothe
actionswhichtheytook.Butgovernmentsgenerallyhavemorechoicesinanycontroversythan
theyarepreparedtoadmit.Circumstancesdeterminetheirextent.Themorepowerfulanation,
themoreremoteitsdangers,thegreateritsoptionsbetweenactionandinaction.Oftenforthe
weakunfortunately,thealternativeiscapitulationorwar....Polkandhisadvisersdeveloped
theirMexicanpoliciesonthedualassumptionthatMexicowasweakandthattheacquisitionof
certainMexicanterritorieswouldsatisfyadmirablythelongrangeinterestsoftheUnited
States.Withinthatcontext,Polk'spoliciesweredirect,timely,andsuccessful.Butthepresident
hadchoices.Mexico,whateveritsinternalcondition,wasnodirectthreattotheUnitedStates.
Polk,hadhesodesired,couldhaveavoidedwar;indeed,hecouldhaveignoredMexicoin
1845withabsoluteimpunity.
***
InexplainingtheMexicanWarhistorianshavedwelledonthecausesoffrictionin
AmericanMexicanrelations.Inparttheselayinthedisparatequalitiesofthetwopopulations,

inpartinthevastdiscrepanciesbetweenthetwocountriesinenergy,efficiency,power,and
nationalwealth.ThroughtwodecadesofindependenceMexicohadexperiencedacontinuous
riseandfallofgovernments;bythe1840ssurvivalhadbecometheprimaryconcernofevery
regime.Consciousoftheirweakness,thesuccessivegovernmentsinMexicoCityresentedthe
superiorpowerandeffectivenessoftheUnitedStatesandfearedAmericannotionsofdestiny
thatanticipatedtheannexationofMexico'snorthernprovinces.Havingfailedtopreventthe
formationoftheTexasRepublic,MexicoreactedtoAndrewJackson'srecognitionofTexan
independenceinMarch1837withdeepindignation.ThereaftertheMexicanraidsintoTexas,
suchastheoneonSanAntonioin1842,aggravatedthebitternessofTexanstowardMexico,for
suchforayshadnopurposebeyondterrorizingthefrontiersettlements.
Suchmutualanimosities,extensiveastheywere,donotaccountfortheMexicanWar.
GovernmentsasdividedandchaoticastheMexicanregimesofthe1840susuallyhave
difficultyinmaintainingpositiveandprofitablerelationswiththeirneighbors;theirbehavior
oftenproducesannoyance,butseldomarmedconflict.Belligerencetowardothercountrieshad
flowedthroughU.S.historylikeatorrentwithout,initself,settingoffawar.Nationsdonot
fightoverculturaldifferencesorverbalrecriminations;theyfightoverperceivedthreatstotheir
interestscreatedbytheambitionsordemandsofothers.
WhatincreasedtheanimositybetweenMexicoCityandWashingtonwasaseriesof
specificissuesoverwhichthetwocountriesperenniallyquarreled,claims,boundaries,andthe
futureofTexas.Nationshavemadeclaimsapretextforintervention,butneverapretextfor
war.Everynineteenthcenturyefforttocollectdebtsthroughforceassumedtheabsenceof
effectiveresistance,fornodebtwasworththepriceofwar.TocollectitsdebtfromMexicoin
1838,forexample,FranceblockadedMexico'sgulfportsandbombardedVeraCruz.TheU.S.
claimsagainstMexicocreatedspecialproblemswhichdiscountedtheirseriousnessasa
rationaleforwar.True,theMexicangovernmentfailedtoprotectthepossessionsandthesafety
ofAmericansinMexicofromrobbery,theft,andotherillegalactions,butU.S.citizenswere
undernoobligationtodobusinessinMexicoandshouldhaveunderstoodtheriskof
transportinggoodsandmoneyinthatcountry.MinisterWaddyThompsonwrotefromMexico
Cityin1842thatitwouldbe"withsomewhatofbadgracethatweshouldwaruponacountry
becauseitcouldnotpayitsdebtswhensomanyofourownstatesareinthesamesituation."
EvenastheUnitedStatesafter1842attemptedfutilelytocollectthe$2millionawardedits
citizensbyaclaimscommission,itwasfarmoredeeplyindebttoBritainoverspeculative
losses.MinisterWilsonShannonreportedinthesummerof1844thattheclaimsissuedefied
settlementinMexicoCityandrecommendedthatWashingtontaketheneededactiontocompel
Mexicotopay.IfPolkwouldtakeupthechallengeandsacrificeAmericanhumanandmaterial
resourcesinawaragainstMexico,hewoulddosoforreasonsotherthantheenforcementof
claims.ThepresidentknewwellthatMexicocouldnotpay,yetaslateasMay9,1846,hewas
readytoaskCongressforadeclarationofwaronthequestionofunpaidclaimsalone.
Congress'sjointresolutionforTexasannexationinFebruary1845raisedthespecterof
waramongeditorsandpoliticiansalike.Asearlyas1843theMexicangovernmenthadwarned
theAmericanministerinMexicoCitythatannexationwouldrenderwarinevitable;Mexican
officialsinWashingtonrepeatedthatwarning.ToMexico,therefore,themovetoannexTexas
wasanunbearableaffront.WithinonemonthafterPolk'sinaugurationonMarch4,General
JuanAlmonte,theMexicanministerinWashington,boardedapacketinNewYorkandsailed

forVeraCruztoseverhiscountry'sdiplomaticrelationswiththeUnitedStates.Evenbeforethe
TexasConventioncouldmeetonJuly4tovoteannexation,rumorsofapossibleMexican
invasionofTexaspromptedPolktoadvanceTaylor'sforcesfromFortJesupinLouisianadown
theTexascoast.PolkinstructedTaylortoextendhisprotectiontotheRioGrandebuttoavoid
anyareastothenorthofthatriveroccupiedbyMexicantroops.Simultaneouslythepresident
reinforcedtheAmericansquadronintheGulfofMexico."ThethreatenedinvasionofTexasby
alargeMexicanarmy,"PolkinformedAndrewJ.Donelson,theAmericanchargeinTexas,on
June15,"iswellcalculatedtoexcitegreatinteresthereandincreasesoursolicitudeconcerning
thefinalactionbytheCongressandtheConventionofTexas."PolkassuredDonelsonthathe
intendedtodefendTexastothelimitofhisconstitutionalpower.Donelsonresistedthepressure
ofthoseTexanswhowantedTaylortoadvancetotheRioGrande;instead,heplacedthe
generalatCorpusChristiontheNuecesRiver.Tayloragreedthatthelinefromthemouthof
theNuecestoSanAntoniocoveredtheTexassettlementsandaffordedafavorablebasefrom
whichtodefendthefrontier.
ThosewhotooktherumorsofMexicanaggressivenessseriouslylaudedthepresident's
action.WithTexasvirtuallyapartoftheUnitedStates,arguedtheWashingtonUnion,"We
oweittoourselves,totheproudandelevatedcharacterwhichAmericamaintainsamongthe
nationsoftheearth,toguardourownterritoryfromtheinvasionoftheruthlessMexicans."The
NewYorkMorningNewsobservedthatPolk'spolicywould,onthewhole,"commandageneral
concurrenceofthepublicopinionofhiscountry."SomeDemocraticleaders,fearfulofa
Mexicanattack,urgedthepresidenttostrengthenTaylor'sforcesandorderthemtotakethe
offensiveshouldMexicansoldierscrosstheRioGrande.Othersbelievedthereportsfrom
Mexicoexaggerated,fortherewasnoapparentrelationshipbetweenthecountry'sexpressions
ofbelligerenceanditscapacitytoact.SecretaryofWarWilliamL.Marcyadmittedthathis
informationwasnobetterthanthatofothercommentators."Ihaveatnotime,"hewrotein
July,"feltthatwarwithMexicowasprobable,anddonotnowbelieveitis,yetitisintherange
ofpossibleoccurrences.Ihaveofficiallyactedonthehypothesisthatourpeacemaybe
temporarilydisturbedwithouthoweverbelievingitwillbe."Stillconvincedthatthe
administrationhadnogroundsforalarm,MarcywroteonAugust12:"Thepresenceofa
considerableforceinTexaswilldonohurtandpossiblymaybeofgreatuse."InSeptember
WilliamS.Parrott,Polk'sspecialagentinMexico,assuredthepresidentthattherewouldbe
neitheraMexicandeclarationofwarnoraninvasionofTexas.Polkinsistedthatthe
administration'sshowofforceinTexaswouldpreventratherthanprovokewar."Idonot
anticipatethatMexicowillbemadenoughtodeclarewar,"hewroteinJuly,but"Ithinkshe
wouldhavedonesobutfortheappearanceofastrongnavalforceintheGulfandourarmy
movinginthedirectionofherfrontieronland."PolkrestatedthisjudgmentonJuly28ina
lettertoGeneralRobertArmstrong,theU.S.consulatLiverpool:"Ithinkthereneedbebut
littleapprehensionofwarwithMexico.Ifhoweversheshallbemadenoughtomakewarwe
arepreparedtomeether."ThepresidentassuredSenatorWilliamH.HaywoodofNorth
CarolinathattheAmericanforcesinTexaswouldneveraggressagainstMexico;however,they
wouldpreventanyMexicanforcesfromcrossingtheRioGrande.InconversationwithSenator
WilliamS.ArcherofVirginiaonSeptember1,thepresidentaddedconfidentlythat"the
appearanceofourlandandnavalforcesonthebordersofMexico&intheGulfwould
probablydeterandpreventMexicofromeitherdeclaringwarorinvadingTexas."Polk's

continuingconvictionthatMexicowouldnotattacksuggeststhathisdeploymentofU.S.land
andnavalforcesalongMexico'speripherywasdesignedlesstoprotectTexasthantosupport
anaggressivediplomacywhichmightextractasatisfactorytreatyfromMexicowithoutwar.
ForAnsonJones,thelastpresidentoftheTexasRepublic,Polk'sdeploymentshadprecisely
thatpurpose:
TexasneveractuallyneededtheprotectionoftheUnitedStatesafterIcameintooffice....There
wasnonecessityforitafterthe`preliminaryTreaty'aswewereatpeacewithMexico,andknew
perfectlywellthatthatGovernment,thoughshemightblusteralittle,hadnottheslightestideaof
invadingTexaseitherbylandorwater;andthatnothingwouldprovokeherto(active)hostilities,
butthepresenceoftroopsintheimmediateneighborhoodoftheRioGrande,threateningher
townsandsettlementsonthesouthwestsideofthatriver....ButDonelsonappearedsointent
upon`encumberinguswithhelp,'thatfinally,togetridofhisannoyance,hewastoldhemight
giveusasmuchprotectionashepleased....Theprotectionaskedforwasonlyprospectiveand
contingent;theprotectionhehadinviewwasimmediateandaggressive.

ForPolktheexertionofmilitaryanddiplomaticpressureonadisorganizedMexicowas
notapreludetowar.Whigcriticsofannexationhadpredictedwar;thisalonecompelledthe
administrationtoavoidaconflictoverTexas.InhismemoirsJonesrecalledthatin1845
CommodoreRobertF.Stockton,witheithertheapprovalortheconnivanceofPolk,attempted
toconvincehimthatheshouldplaceTexas"inanattitudeofactivehostilitytowardMexico,so
that,whenTexaswasfinallybroughtintotheUnion,shemightbringwarwithher."IfStockton
engagedinsuchanintrigue,heapparentlydidsoonhisowninitiative,fornoevidenceexiststo
implicatetheadministration.Polknotonlypreferredtoachievehispurposesbymeansother
thanwarbutalsoassumedthathismilitarymeasuresinTexas,limitedastheywere,would
convincetheMexicangovernmentthatitcouldnotescapethenecessityofcomingtoterms
withtheUnitedStates.Washington'spolicytowardMexicoduring1845achievedthebroad
nationalpurposeofTexasannexation.BeyondthatitbroughtU.S.powertobearonMexicoin
amannercalculatedtofurthertheprocessesofnegotiation.Whethertheburgeoningtension
wouldleadtoanegotiatedboundarysettlementortowarhingedontwofactors:thenatureof
Polk'sdemandsandMexico'sresponsetothem.Thepresidentannouncedhis9bjectivesto
Mexico'stroubledofficialdomthroughhisinstructionstoJohnSlidell,hisspecialemissarywho
departedforMexicoinNovember1845withtheassurancethatthegovernmenttherewas
preparedtoreestablishformaldiplomaticrelationswiththeUnitedStatesandnegotiatea
territorialsettlement....
***
Actually,Slidell'spresenceinMexicoinauguratedadiplomaticcrisisnotunlikethose
whichprecedemostwars.FundamentallythePolkadministration,indispatchingSlidell,gave
theMexicansthesametwochoicesthatthedominantpowerinanyconfrontationgivestothe
weaker:theacceptanceofabodyofconcretediplomaticdemandsoreventualwar.Slidell's
instructionsdescribedU.S.territorialobjectiveswithconsiderableclarity.IfMexicoknewlittle
ofPolk'sgrowingacquisitivenesstowardCaliforniaduringtheautumnof1845,Slidell
proclaimedthepresident'sintentionswithhisproposalstopurchasevaryingportionsof
Californiaforasmuchas$25million.OthercountriessuchasEnglandandSpainhad
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consignedimportantareasoftheNewWorldthroughpeacefulnegotiations,buttheUnited
States,exceptinitsMexicanrelations,hadneveraskedanycountrytopartwithaportionofits
ownterritory.YetPolkcouldnotunderstandwhyMexicoshouldrevealanyspecialreluctance
topartwithTexas,theRioGrande,NewMexico,orCalifornia.Whatmadethetermsof
Slidell'sinstructionsappearfairtohimwasMexico'smilitaryandfinancialhelplessness.Polk's
defendersnotedthatCaliforniawasnotasinequanonofanysettlementandthatthepresident
offeredtosettletheimmediatecontroversyovertheacquisitionoftheRioGrandeboundary
aloneinexchangeforthecancellationofclaims.Unfortunately,amidthepassionsofDecember
1845,suchdistinctionswerelost.Furthermore,asettlementoftheTexasboundarywouldnot
haveresolvedtheCaliforniaquestionatall.
Throughoutthecrisismonthsof1845and1846,spokesmenofthePolkadministration
repeatedlywarnedtheMexicangovernmentthatitschoiceswerelimited.InJune1845,Polk's
mouthpiece,theWashingtonUnion,hadobservedcharacteristicallythat,ifMexicoresisted
Washington'sdemands,"acorpsofproperlyorganizedvolunteers.wouldinvade,overrun,
andoccupyMexico.TheywouldenableusnotonlytotakeCalifornia,buttokeepit."
Americanofficials,intheircontemptforMexico,spokeprivatelyoftheneedtochastisethat
countryforitsannoyancesandinsults.ParrottwrotetoSecretaryofStateJamesBuchananin
Octoberthathewished"toseethispeoplewellfloggedbyUncleSam'sboys,ereweenterupon
negotiations....Iknow[theMexicans]better,perhaps,thananyotherAmericancitizenandI
amfullypersuaded,theycanneverloveorrespectus,asweshouldbelovedandrespectedby
them,untilweshallhavegiventhemapositiveproofofoursuperiority"Mexico'spretensions
wouldcontinue,wroteSlidellinlateDecember,"untiltheMexicanpeopleshallbeconvinced
byhostiledemonstrations,thatourdifferencesmustbesettledpromptly,eitherbynegotiation
orthesword."InJanuary1846theUnionpubliclythreatenedMexicowithwarifitrejectedthe
justdemandsoftheUnitedStates:"Theresultofsuchacourseonherpartmaycompelusto
resorttomoredecisivemeasures....toobtainthesettlementofourlegitimateclaims."AsSlidell
preparedtoleaveMexicoinMarch1846,heagainremindedtheadministration:"Dependupon
it,wecannevergetalongwellwiththem,untilwehavegiventhemagooddrubbing."In
WashingtononMay8,Slidelladvisedthepresident"totaketheredressofthewrongsand
injurieswhichwehadsolongbornefromMexicointoourownhands,andtoactwith
promptnessandenergy."
MexicorespondedtoPolk'schallengewithanoutwarddisplayofbelligerenceandan
inwarddreadofwar.MexicansfearedaboveallthattheUnitedStatesintendedtooverruntheir
countryandseizemuchoftheirterritory.PolkandhisadvisersassumedthatMexico,toavoid
anAmericaninvasion,wouldgiveupitsprovincespeacefully.ObviouslyMexicofaced
growingdiplomaticandmilitarypressurestonegotiateawayitsterritories;itfacednomoral
obligationtodoso.HerreraandParedeshadthesovereignrighttoprotecttheirregimesby
avoidinganyformalrecognitionofSlidellandbyrejectinganyoftheboundaryproposals
embodiedinhisinstructions,providedthatintheprocesstheydidnotendangeranylegitimate
interestsoftheAmericanpeople.AtleasttosomeMexicans,Slidell'stermsdemandednothing
lessthanMexico'scapitulation.Bywhatstandardwas$2millionaproperpaymentfortheRio
Grandeboundary,or$25millionafairpriceforCalifornia?Nogovernmentwouldhave
acceptedsuchterms.Havingrejectednegotiationinthefaceofsuperiorforce,Mexicowould
meetthechallengewithafinalgestureofdefiance.Ineithercaseitwasdestinedtolose,but

historicallynationshavepreferredtofightthantogiveawayterritoryunderdiplomaticpressure
alone.GeneM.Brack,inhislongstudyofMexico'sdeepseatedfearandresentmentofthe
UnitedStates,explainedMexico'sultimatebehaviorinsuchterms:
PresidentPolkknewthatMexicocouldofferbutfeebleresistancemilitarily,andhe
knewthatMexiconeededmoney.NoproperAmericanwouldexchangeterritoryandthe
nationalhonorforcash,butPresidentPolkmistakenlybelievedthattheapplicationof
militarypressurewouldconvinceMexicanstodoso.Theydidnotrespondlogically,but
patriotically.Leftwiththechoiceofwarorterritorialconcessions,theformercourse,
howeverdimtheprospectsofsuccess,couldbetheonlyone.

***
Mexico,initsresistance,gavePolkthethreechoiceswhicheverynationgiveanotherin
anuncompromisableconfrontation:towithdrawhisdemandsandpermittheissuestodrift,
unresolvedtoreducehisgoalsintheinterestofanimmediatesettlement;ortoescalatethe
pressuresinthehopeofsecuringaneventualsettlementonhisownterms.Normallywhenthe
internalconditionsofcountryundermineitsrelationswithothers,adiplomaticcorpssimply
remove:itselffromthehostileenvironmentandawaitsabetterday.Mexico,despiteit:
animosity,didnotendangerthesecurityinterestsoftheUnitedStates;ithadnotinvadedTexas
anddidnotcontemplateddoingso.Mexicohadrefusedtopaytheclaims,butthoseclaims
werenotequaltothepriceofaoneweekwar.WhetherMexiconegotiatedaboundaryfor
Texasin1846matteredlittle;theUnitedStatehadlivedwithunsettledboundariesfordecades
withoutconsideringwar.Settlers,intime,wouldhaveforcedadecision,butin1846theregion
betweentheNuecesandtheRioGrandewasavastgenerallyunoccupiedwilderness.Thus
therewasnothing,otherthanPolk'sambitions,topreventtheUnitedStatesfromwithdrawing
itsdiplomatsfromMexicoCityandpermittingitsrelationstodrift.ButPolk,whateverthe
languageofhisinstructions,didnotsendSlidelltoMexicotonormalizerelationswiththat
government.HeexpectedSlidelltonegotiateanimmediateboundarysettlementfavorableto
theUnitedStates,andnothingless.
RecognizingnoneedtoreducehisdemandsonMexico,Polk,withouthesitation,took
thethirdcoursewhichMexicooffered.Congressboundthepresidenttotheannexationof
Texas;thereafterthePolkadministrationwasfreetoformulateitsownpoliciestowardMexico.
WiththeSlidellmissionPolkembarkeduponaprogramofgradualcoerciontoachievea
settlement,preferablywithoutwar.Thatprogramledlogicallyfromhisdispatchinganarmyto
TexasandhisdenunciationofMexicoinhisannualmessageofDecember1845tohisnew
instructionsofJanuary1846,whichorderedGeneralTaylortotheRioGrande.ColonelAtocha,
spokesmanforthedeposedMexicanleader,AntonioLopezdeSantaAnna,encouragedPolkto
pursuehispolicyofescalation.ThepresidentrecordedAtocha'sadvice:
HesaidourarmyshouldbemarchedatoncefromCorpusChristitotheDelNorte,andastrong
navalforceassembledatVeraCruz,thatMr.Slidell,theU.S.Minister,shouldwithdrawfrom
Jalappa,andgoonboardoneofourshipsofWaratVeraCruz,andinthatpositionshould
demandthepaymentof[the]amountdueourcitizens;thatitwaswellknowntheMexican
Governmentwasunabletopayinmoney,andthatwhentheysawastrongforcereadytostrike
ontheircoastsandborder,theywould,hehadnodoubt,feeltheirdangerandagreetothe
boundarysuggested.HesaidthatParedes,Almonte,&GeneralSantaAnnawereallwillingfor

suchanarrangement,butthattheydarenotmakeituntilitwasmadeapparenttotheArchbishop
ofMexico&thepeoplegenerallythatitwasnecessarytosavetheircountryfromawarwiththe
UnitedStates.

ThereafterPolkneverquestionedtheefficacyofcoercion.Heassertedatacabinet
meetingonFebruary17that"itwouldbenecessarytotakestrongmeasurestowardsMexico
beforeourdifficultieswiththatGovernmentcouldbesettled."SimilarlyonApril18Polktold
Calhounthat"ourrelationswit]MexicohadreachedapointwhereWecouldnotstandstillbut
musttreatallnationswhetherweakorstrongalikeandthatIsawnoalternativebutstrong
measurestowardsMexico."AweeklatethepresidentagainbroughttheMexicanquestion
beforethecabinet."Iexpressedmyopinion,"henotedinhisdiary"thatwemusttakeredress
fortheinjuriesdoneusintoourownhandsthatwehadattemptedtoconciliateMexicoinvain,
andhadforborneuntilforbearancewasnolongereitheravirtueorpatriotic."Convincedthat
Paredesneededmoney,PolksuggestedtoleadingsenatorsthatCongressappropriate$1
millionbothtoencourageParedestonegotiateandtosustainhiminpoweruntiltheUnited
Statescouldratifythetreaty.ThepresidentfailedtosecureCalhoun'srequiredsupport.
Polk'spersistenceledhimandthecountrytowar.Likeallescalationsintheexertionof
force,hisdecisionrespondedlesstounwantedandunanticipatedresistancethantothe
requirementsoftheclearlyperceivedandinflexiblepurposeswhichguidedtheadministration.
Whatperpetuatedthepresident'sescalationtothepointofwarwashisdeterminationtopursue
goalstotheendwhoseachievementlayoutsidethepossibilitiesofsuccessfulnegotiations.
SenatorThomasHartBentonofMissourisawthissituationwhenhewrote:"Itisimpossibleto
conceiveofanadministrationlesswarlike,ormoreintriguing,thanthatofMr.Polk.Theywere
menofpeace,withobjectstobeaccomplishedbymeansofwar;sothatwarwasanecessity
andanindispensabilitytotheirpurpose."
PolkunderstoodfullythestateofMexicanopinion.InplacingGeneralTayloronthe
RioGrandeherevealedagainhiscontemptforMexico.Undernonationalobligationtoexpose
thecountry'sarmedforces,hewouldnothaveadvancedTaylorinthefaceofasuperior
militaryforce.Mexicohadbeenundiplomatic;itsdenunciationsoftheUnitedStateswere
insultingandprovocative.ButifMexico'sbehaviorantagonizedPolk,itdidnotantagonizethe
Whigs,theabolitionists,orevenmuchoftheDemocraticparty.Suchgroupsdidnotregard
Mexicoasathreat;theywarnedtheadministrationrepeatedlythatTaylor'spresenceontheRio
Grandewouldprovokewar.ButinthebalanceagainstpeacewasthepressureofAmerican
expansionism.MuchoftheDemocraticandexpansionistpress,havingacceptedwithout
restraintboththepurposesofthePolkadministrationanditschargesofMexicanperfidy,urged
thepresidentontomorevigorousaction....Confrontedwiththeprospectoffurtherdecline
whichtheycouldneitheracceptnorprevent,[theMexicans]lashedoutwiththeintentionof
protectingtheirselfesteemandcompellingtheUnitedStates,ifitwasdeterminedtohavethe
RioGrande,NewMexico,andCalifornia,topayforitsprizeswithsomethingotherthan
moneyOnApril23,Paredesissuedaproclamationdeclaringadefensivewaragainstthe
UnitedStates.Predictably,onedaylatertheMexicansfiredonadetachmentofU.S.dragoons.
Taylor'sreportoftheattackreachedPolkonSaturdayevening,May9.OnSundaythe
presidentdraftedhiswarmessageanddeliveredittoCongressonthefollowingdayHadPolk
avoidedthecrisis,hemighthavegainedthetimerequiredtopermittheemigrantsof1845and
1846tosettletheCaliforniaissuewithoutwar.
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WhatcloudstheissueoftheMexicanWar'sjustificationwastheacquisitionofNew
MexicoandCalifornia,forcontemporariesandhistorianscouldnotlogicallycondemnthewar
andlaudthePolkadministrationforitsterritorialachievements.Perhapsitistruethattime
wouldhavepermittedAmericanpioneerstotransformCaliforniaintoanotherTexas.Buteven
thenCalifornia'sacquisitionbytheUnitedStateswouldhaveemanatedfromtheuseofforce,
fortheeliminationofMexicansovereignty,whetherthroughrevolutionorwar,demandedthe
successfuluseofpower.Ifthepoweremployedinrevolutionwouldhavebeenlessobtrusive
thanthatexertedinwar,itsrolewouldhavebeennolessessential.Theresimplywasnoway
thattheUnitedStatescouldacquireCaliforniapeacefully.IfthedistraughtMexicoof1845
wouldnotsellthedistantprovince,noregimethereafterwouldhavedoneso.Withoutforceful
destructionofMexico'ssovereignpower,Californiawouldhaveenteredthetwentiethcentury
asanincreasinglyimportantregionofanothercountry.
ThustheMexicanWarposesthedilemmaofallinternationalrelations.Nationswhose
geographicandpoliticalstatusfailstocoincidewiththeirambitionandpowercanbalancethe
twosetsoffactorsinonlyonemanner:throughtheemploymentofforce.Theysucceedorfail
accordingtocircumstances;andfortheUnitedStates,theconditionsforachievingitsempirein
theSouthwestanditsdesiredfrontageonthePacificweresoidealthatlatergenerationscould
refertotheprocessasthemerefulfillmentofdestiny."TheMexicanRepublic,"lamenteda
Mexicanwriterin,hadamongothermisfortunesoflessaccount,thegreatoneofbeinginthe
vicinityofastrongandenergeticpeople."WhattheMexicanWarrevealedinequalmeasureis
thesimplefactthatonlythosecountrieswhichhaveachievedtheirdestiny,whateverthatmay
be,canaffordtoextolthevirtuesofpeacefulchange.
FromNormanA.Graebner,"TheMexicanWar:AStudyinCausation,"PacificHistorical
Review,vol.49,no.3(August1980),pp.405426.Copyright1980byThePacificCoast
Branch,American,HistoricalAssociation.ReprintedbypermissionofTheUniversityof
CaliforniaPressJournals.Notesomitted.