The US went to war against Mexico in 1846 for territory pure and simple. But why, asks Henderson (History/Auburn Univ.), did Mexico go to war against the US?
The answers are suggestive—and valuable, inasmuch as the great majority of books on that war have not bothered to ask how the Mexicans felt about the enterprise. Henderson looks at Mexico’s economic and social conditions: Independent of Spain 45 years after the US declared independence from England, the nation inherited a wholly different approach to the law, the market and daily life from that of its northern neighbor, in particular the belief in mercantilism, a strongly planned central economy that specifically favored the rich. When Santa Anna took his troops to Texas to suppress the rebellion of a decade earlier, he had to pay for them out of pocket, since the federal treasury was all but bankrupt; yet, of course, his position allowed him to become a millionaire many times over, even by modern standards. Mexico’s economic weakness, writes Henderson, was matched by difficult politics pitting pro-Enlightenment liberals against pro-Catholic conservatives, the handful of moderates enjoying almost no influence. All parties agreed, in principle, that a war against the US was inevitable; as a noted general observed as early as 1827, “The North Americans have conquered whatever territory adjoins them,” although his warning failed to spark an effort to modernize or otherwise prepare the army for that conflict. What would happen, many Mexican elites predicted, was that the war would forge a nation of Mexico, uniting Indians and creoles and giving a sense of common purpose. It did not work, Henderson notes: In the end, Mexico wound up ceding 55 percent of its land, and it would be politically unstable for decades to come.
Some provocative side notes on why the US did not annex Mexico—something that, Henderson observes, some gringos call for even today.