BOOK REVIEW: ‘A Wicked War’

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A WICKED WAR: POLK, CLAY, LINCOLN, AND THE 1846 U.S. INVASION OF MEXICO
By Amy S. Greenberg
Alfred A. Knopf, $30, 244 pages

The title of this book about the U.S-Mexican War (1846-47) gives away the author’s bias. It is lifted from a statement Ulysses S. Grant made in 1867, 20 years after the war ended.

The author, Amy Greenberg, is described on the jacket as “a leading scholar of Manifest Destiny.” It seems odd, therefore, that in this book she does not document the popularity of that concept among the people of James K. Polk’s time.

A theme running throughout the book is that Polk lied to Congress and the people, using a pretext to wage war. Ms. Greenberg also makes much of the point that this was the first case of one republic going to war with another. Ever since its independence from Spain in 1822, Mexico’s republican status was tenuous. There were constant power struggles among factions and frequent changes of president. One result was that possessions, notably Alta, Calif. (today’s state) had little oversight from Mexico. American settlers, the British and Russians all had designs on the real estate. Polk wanted to acquire California and was willing to pay for it.

Early in his presidency, Polk had a conversation with Navy Secretary George Bancroft in which he laid out his four goals: acquire California, settle the Oregon boundary dispute with the British, lower tariffs and create an independent Treasury (which foreshadowed the Federal Reserve system). The author quotes from this conversation, although no known transcript exists. She says that Bancroft was “shocked” by Polk’s objectives, although this is unlikely. Bancroft himself was an expansionist.

Polk was a dour workaholic who made few friends and kept his own counsel, but he achieved all four of his goals during his only four-year term. By the time he left office, he was burned out. He died three months later.

Despite the author’s judgment that Polk was a man lacking moral scruples, she is a good writer, and the story of the war and its antecedents moves along at a brisk pace. She tells that story by following the careers and moves of Polk, Henry Clay (his Whig rival for the presidency in 1844), Abraham Lincoln, John J. Hardin (Lincoln’s predecessor in Congress, who died a hero’s death in the Mexican War) and Nicholas Trist (a ranking State Department official). She also explores the considerable importance of Sarah Polk as her husband’s partner and best friend.

Texas was admitted to the Union just before Polk was inaugurated. It had been a breakaway republic from Mexico for 10 years. It brought with it an unresolved boundary dispute. Mexico claimed that the international boundary was the Nueces River. Texas and the United States claimed it was the Rio Grande, to the south. Mexico had refused to recognize the Texas Republic. After its annexation, Mexico broke off diplomatic relations with the United States. In addition to the boundary dispute, the United States sought reparations for some of its citizens from Mexico. An independent commission said Mexico should pay the United States $2 million to compensate these people. It refused.

When Mexico also refused to negotiate, Polk sent troops to the disputed area in case Mexico should cross the river. Its troops did just that, killing 11 American troops. Polk considered this an act of war and asked Congress for permission to invade Mexico. Since the action had occurred in disputed territory was Polk a war provocateur? Congress debated, after which it voted heavily in favor of his request. The author asserts that the opposition, “watched helplessly as Polk’s supporters ruthlessly stifled debate and foisted war on Congress and the country.”

There is no question that many Americans favored expansion of the nation all the way to the Pacific. Some of these were Westerners; others, Southern slave owners who saw the possibility of new slave states entering the Union. Many Whigs, especially in the Northeast, were abolitionists and strongly against the admission of any more slave states.

As casualties grew and advances came more slowly, by early 1847, popularity of the war declined. The author claims at one point that most Americans opposed the war, but offers no proof because there is none. She also says, “The majority of the people in Mexico steadfastly believed the Nueces River was the rightful boundary,” but again offers no proof. Ringing statements of public figures no doubt denote support, but in the absence of public opinion polls, sweeping conclusions seem unwarranted.

Despite her disdain for Polk, Ms. Greenberg pays him something of a compliment: ” … during his single brilliant term, he accomplished a feat that earlier presidents would have considered impossible.”

• Peter Hannaford’s latest book is “Presidential Retreats: Where They Went and Why They Went There” (Threshold Editions).

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