Wednesday’s Book Review: “The U.S. War with Mexico: A Brief History with Documents”

41yeONB5uvLThe U.S. War with Mexico: A Brief History with Documents. Edited by Ernesto Chavez. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2008.

The 1846-1848 Mexican-American War may be interpreted as a bald-faced adventure in conquest; it may also be interpreted as an unfolding of “Manifest Destiny” in which the U.S. is bringing the “blessings of liberty” to the benighted peoples of the American Southwest. There are a range of interpretations in between and beyond these two poles.

This short general history emphasizes the racism of American invaders over the Mexican people and the imperialism that the author believes motivated the war. Ernesto Chavez, a professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso, offers a brief introduction that ranges widely in time and space to fashion a narrative that suggests the racist tendencies in American society as predominant in this war.

One example of this is in the discussion of the manner in which the Polk administration dealt with the British in negotiating the Oregon boundary at 49 degrees latitude when the president had campaign on the slogan 54’ 40” or fight. They didn’t fight and ended up compromising. Not so with Mexico; the U.S. went to war and conquered that nation. It imposed its own settlement annexing what is now the American Southwest, including parts of California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico. Chavez insists that this was because of the U.S.’s “racialized outlook” (p. 15).

I would never conclude that the U.S. in not a racist nation, clearly it is, but fighting Mexico is quite a lot different than fighting the greatest empire on Earth at the time. It would be an easy decision in 1846 not to fight a two front war, and to negotiate a settlement with the stronger of the two antagonists regardless of a racialized outlook. I’m not sure I would assign racism as the fundamental reason for these divergent ways of dealing with Great Britain and Mexico. Moreover, the U.S. had already gone to war twice since 1776, so it’s not like the two nations’ Anglo heritage kept them from fighting.

After a short introduction there is a selection of interesting documents that offering unique perspectives on the story, as well as a timeline, and an annotated bibliography. These are all useful attributes of this fine short introduction to a very complex topic.

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