The history of a war of expansion and empire that reverberates today in talk of border walls and deportation.
Viewed through a retrospective lens, the American invasion of Mexico in 1846, an act of single-sided aggression, has eerie parallels with later incursions in Vietnam and Iraq. For one thing, all were adventures that enjoyed public support at first but that lost backing as time wore on. It was also precipitated, writes Guardino (History/Indiana Univ.; The Time of Liberty: Popular Political Culture in Oaxaca, 1750-1850, 2005, etc.) in this vigorous, readable account, by an American president who “had to hide crucial information and engage in intense partisan maneuvering to start the war.” Moreover, during the two years of conflict, Mexicans waged a fierce guerrilla war, while in response, the Americans “increasingly made civilians responsible for the activities of guerrillas” and committed terrible reprisals. The American soldiers, writes the author, “saw guerrilla warfare not as proof of Mexican nationalism but instead as proof that many Mexicans were violent and treacherous racial inferiors.” In a narrative that blends set-piece accounts of battle, profiles of individual combatants, and wide-ranging explorations of larger issues, Guardino examines the inevitability of American victory, which proved Pyrrhic. Some of our received wisdom about the conflict, he argues, does not hold up. The Mexican forces, for example, didn’t break and run at every encounter but in the main fought capably, especially the members of the volunteer militias and National Guard. Mexico, only recently independent of Spain, was defeated in the end as much by a lack of materials and funds as by force of arms. Furthermore, the author writes, the Mexican-American War preceded and in some ways produced two civil wars, one in Mexico and the other in the U.S. The Mexican war revealed how disunited the U.S. was, with sharp regional distinctions and, of course, the issue of slavery looming over the whole enterprise.
The Mexican-American War is too little studied today. Guardino’s swift-moving, broad-ranging history is a welcome remedy.