Cowboys and Kalashnikovs: Comparing the Mexican-American War to the Conflict in Ukraine
Porfirio Diaz, who dominated Mexico at the turn of the twentieth century, once famously diagnosed the dual source of his country’s misfortunes. "Poor Mexico,” he lamented, “so far from God, so close to the United States."
Diaz knew of what he spoke. The nineteenth century was a particularly unhappy one for U.S.-Mexican relations. By 1848, Mexico had been impelled to cede—by force of arms or its implied threat—what is now thestate of Texas, and subsequently the entire southwestern United States. For Mexico, this period involved a disastrous loss of fertile, if sparsely populated, territory. For the United States, it was an unsurpassed geostrategic bonanza, and was arguably the single most important event in transforming the country into a transcontinental great power. A messianic, national-chauvinist, white-supremacist fervor—the animating concept of which, “Manifest Destiny,” was first popularized in 1845—drove the United States to annex Texas that same year, and to fight its great expansionary war of 1846-1848.
Indeed, Texas was the catalyst for the whole affair. In the early 1820s, the Mexican government invited Americans to settle the Mexican state ofCoahuila y Tejas, as long as they agreed to certain stipulations (such as conversion to Catholicism and the banning of slavery). The settlers often refused, leading to tensions with Mexican officials. In 1830, further American immigration to Tejas was forbidden. A few years later, federal officials in Mexico City began to attempt to concentrate power in the capital, disturbing regional autonomy. Incensed, “Texians,” as they were then known, waged a secessionist campaign against the Mexican government, winning independence in 1836.
The final status of Texas was never assured: some Americans wanted a friendly but independent buffer state, while others favored direct incorporation into the union. Others still—especially abolitionists, since an independent Texas or American Texas would both presumably be ardent slave states—thought poorly of the whole affair, and would very likely have been satisfied with continued Mexican suzerainty over the whole southwest. (Henry David Thoreau spent his famous night in jail because of his refusal to pay taxes to an unjust U.S. government—that is, one fighting what he considered an immoral war in Mexico.)
It was the question of slavery that kept Texas out of the union for nearly a decade, but once admitted—under President James Polk, a slyly belligerent nationalist—westward expansion took on an inexorable cast. In April 1846, Polk had U.S. troops cross the previously agreed-upon Mexico-Texas border, the Nueces River, and journey much farther west, to the Rio Grande. When Mexican troops then attacked, Polk used this as pretext for war (claiming that the American soldiers were assaulted on domestic soil). By September 1847, victorious U.S. troops were occupying Mexico City. Negotiations there between the belligerents led to the aforementioned transfer (for a price) of California and the rest of the desert southwest.