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American Expansionism Under Polk – A Book Review

January 30, 2018

Racism, Greed, and Poverty Drove the Citizen-Soldiers of the Mexican-American War

American expansionism is an ever-present threat in many parts of the world. Wherever, the United States has chosen to impose its democracy on a country in conflict, those populations suffer horribly. One of the early examples came in the form of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, revisited in Peter Guardino’s The Dead March (Harvard, 2017), a scholarly study of the conflict that details the flaws in both countries.

During his single term in office, President James K. Polk (1945-49) spearheaded the land-grab policy that fomented the war. Under his expansionist administration, the U.S. acquired vast stretches of land enlarging the country’s boundaries to California. Some of it was acquired through negotiation. The Oregon Territory, the Louisiana Purchase and Alaska are examples. But where diplomatic persuasion didn’t get the job done, Polk did not hesitate to bring in the army to do the heavier persuading. Such was the case in 1946 when he decided that Mexico no longer held sovereign rights to the northern portion of its territory.

Through two years of short skirmishes, many desertions, and long occupations, Polk’s army, led first by General Zachary Taylor, then Major General Winfield Scott ultimately led to victory in Mexico City. For his limited role, Taylor was seen as a national hero and that carried him into the White House after Polk.

Guardino spends much of his book exploring the reasons for the war and those that contributed to Mexico’s defeat. Some historians argue that it came because Mexico was not a fully developed nation, but Guardino disagrees. “In short,” he writes, “Mexico lost the war because it was poor.” Many of the American soldiers, both citizens and regular army recruits, were also poor, but none was so poor as the Mexican soldier.

Perhaps the obvious poverty of Mexicans gave the Americans a sense of superiority. More likely, though, was their view that they were racially superior to the Mexicans. “White Americans already saw Blacks, Native Americans, and people of mixed race as inferior, and many Mexicans had mixtures of white, black and Native American ancestry,” Guardino notes. Protestant soldiers also viewed the Mexican soldier’s belief in Catholicism as more “proof of racial inferiority.”

Guardino explains that the U.S. government, even though the nation was still in much conflict, was much wealthier and could afford to sustain a long war. The Mexican government, racked by indecision and political intrigue, was not able to muster the funds. At one point it was so broke that it passed a law allowing it to tax the Catholic Church. That led to something called the “Polkos Rebellion,” a movement to condemn the government for this method of financing the conflict.

Guardino probes other categories of analysis in conjunction with race and religion as he unfolds the history of the two-year conflict, including details on each battle. Gender, for example, is a key aspect of life in the Mexican army. “The extreme poverty faced by lower-class Mexican women who lost their husbands to recruitment was the root cause of one of the most striking differences” between the two armies. He highlights the role of soladeras, women who provided for their men on the battlefield.

Another force driving the American soldier was the belief that “Mexico was an extremely violent place where death was meted out casually.” But Guardino cites the violence that existed everywhere in the U.S. at the time when he asserts that “they might better have looked in the mirror.”

Guardino points out that the war was in many ways a prelude to the Civil War a decade or so later. Men who distinguished themselves on the battlefield during the war with Mexico – General Robert E. Lee, for example, and future president Ulysses S. Grant – became military leaders on opposite sides when the U.S. went to war with itself. They adopted similar tactics, albeit with more refined killing machines, including the targeting of civilians with the goal of further terrorizing the enemy.

The Jacksonian Era, the period during and after Andrew Jackson’s presidency, is said to be a period of developing democracy. In Polk’s case, it seems it provided an opportunity to invade other people’s homeland by force as part of the grand scheme called Manifest Destiny.

The Dead March offers much in explaining how the concept was applied in the mid-19th century to deadly effect, especially in Mexico, and we can easily extrapolate from that history the continuing threat of American expansionism in the world today.


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