Lessons from the Mexican War We Ignore at Our Peril

News Abroad

Mr. Pinheiro is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, where he works as assistant editor of the Papers of George Washington. He is also a writer for the History News Service .

Many Americans look no further into their past than the Vietnam War for instructive analogies about Iraq. They had better search further.

While comparisons of Iraq with Vietnam may stir Howard Dean's supporters to send him their milk money, they obscure rather than clarify what's needed to "win the peace" in Iraq.

The Vietnam experience justifiably impels Americans to question Pentagon statements, presidential promises and the need of armed intervention overseas. Understandably, a "second Vietnam" is a sequel no American wants to see. But Vietnam is not a particularly useful experience on which to draw in the case of Iraq.

The Vietnam War was fundamentally different from Operation Iraqi Freedom. It pitted Americans and South Vietnamese against the Soviet-supported North Vietnamese and their Vietcong guerrillas. Many Vietnamese viewed their fight as a war of independence. In Iraq, on the other hand, coalition forces and Iraqi police face domestic and foreign terrorists committed not to independence but actually to blocking Iraq's road to democratic self-rule.

The obsession with avoiding "quagmires" helped create many of the problems America now faces. Fear of getting bogged down led Americans to flee Beirut in the 1980s and Somalia in the 1990s. It also influenced President Clinton's profligate use of cruise missiles and high-altitude bombing tactics, which worked against Serbia in 1999 but killed many civilians. In 1998, American missiles demolished empty tents in Afghanistan and mistakenly destroyed a medical facility in Sudan. These actions told terrorists the United States lacked the will to engage in a ground war because it still suffered from what President George H. W. Bush called the "Vietnam Syndrome." They were right -- before Sept. 11, 2001.

To find a truly instructive analogy to the current situation we have to look all the way back to a war that warrants only a paragraph or two in most high-school textbooks: the Mexican War of 1846-1848. In that war, Americans for the first time occupied a nation different in language, religion and basic cultural assumptions from their own.

Americans discovered in Mexico that mixing religious rhetoric with military action is foolish and dangerous. Many in 1847 blamed the Catholic "monster which is miscalled religion" for Mexico's unstable and sickly democracy. This sentiment resulted in calls by evangelical Protestants to proselytize Mexico not just in the name of a "pure Gospel" but also of democracy.

So convinced were Mexicans that the U.S. Army would destroy their religion that to avoid guerrilla attacks and unrest American generals issued proclamations guaranteeing Mexicans, "Your religion, your altars and churches . . . shall be protected and remain inviolate." This worked.

Yesterday's anti-Catholic sentiment is not unlike today's argument that Islam and democracy simply cannot mix. It also calls to mind Gen. William Boykin's inflammatory statement -- in 2003 -- that "my God [is] a real God," whereas Muslims worship "an idol." Influential Southern Baptists like Albert Mohler have even called on Christians to exploit Iraq's occupation by sending missionaries there. These men seem unaware their rhetoric leads some Iraqis to believe al-Qaeda's accusation that America seeks to destroy Islam.

Anti-Islamic rhetoric, like anti-Catholic invective, is protected as free speech in the United States. Americans are free as well to call on President Bush immediately to bring American troops home for fear Iraq will be a "second Vietnam." However, the fact that such statements are protected speech makes them no less irresponsible. The former only fuels terrorists' ability to attract new killers while the latter reassures them their attacks are breaking American will.

Iraq will not be the last time some Americans attempt to shoehorn a military conflict into a "one size fits all" Vietnam analogy. In Operation Desert Storm, Bosnia, Serbia and Afghanistan, Americans voiced similar fears. Yet each of these "second Vietnams" proved so different from their specious label as to make such comparisons more efforts in panic than in reasoned analysis. Notably, all were military successes.

If we want comparisons that are meant to instruct Americans and not just incite them to partisan political action, we must look elsewhere in our history.

When American troops left Mexico in 1848, they left it in disarray. Besides illustrating the good sense of understanding and taking seriously Iraqis' fervent religious beliefs, the Mexican War reminds us of the need for a real victory in Iraq, not the quick-exit end anti-war protesters call for.

Bush claims he intends to make Iraq a stable, secure and democratic force in the troubled Middle East. Such an outcome would demonstrate American will power. It would save future American lives and ensure that those lost remain honorable sacrifices and not become wasted deaths. A democratic Iraq is the only victory worth having.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service , an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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Clyde W. Howard - 1/22/2004

Look, NO war (or for that matter any collective human endeavor - or individual endeavor) in my observation is the result of a single factor. It's always more complicated than any one account will present.

I do rather question the idea that, in 1848, we thought West Coast ports would do much to facilitate the China Trade. After all, if you carried the stuff to the West Coast, what were you going to do with it? No railroads, and don't tell me anybody palnned to ship silk, porcelin, or tea across the North American continent at that time with wagons. Plenty of other reasons to be interested in that area though.

i don't know if Polk's war message was really prepared prior to any triggering incidents, but I expect he was looking for something he could hang one on - it is certainly clear to me that Polk expected (and was looking for, despite a good deal of opposition - very principlee opposition, and justly so) some sort of incident he could use to justify war from the time Texas was annexed.

As far as an anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist issue in Ms. Connet's comment, that's the impression I gained. If it isn't there, I apologize. but I think it is.

Beyond that, Saddam Hussein was a dangerous man. Made more dangerous by his country's oil and the proximity of other people's oil. Certainly oil is a factor, though probably not as much a one as many think 9i.e., we didn't topple Saddam Hussein in order to gain control for American companies - that isn't going to happen; locals won't and shouldn't stand for it).

Oscar Chamberlain - 1/19/2004

Did the spread of democracy mean the spread of it to the inhabitants or did it mean the spread of white democracy?

In the 1840s, nearly all state constitutions had racial qualfications, and there was no common definition of what national citizenship was.

I doubt if there was any significant desire to offer the franchise to large numbers of (former) Mexicans. It would have particularly odious to nearly all Americans as the numbers in the interior would have made regions there eligible for statehood under existing U.S. traditions.

David Salmanson - 1/19/2004

While you are entirely correct that the war was fought for territory, that was only one reason. Many, many Americans, particularly those in the all-Mexico movement, which favored annexation of all of Mexico to the United States, considered the liberation of Mexico and the spread of Protestantism and democracy crucial war aims. After the fact, we tend to view our borders as those envisioned by our national ancestors. However, they did not always see it that way. Indeed, some in the Democratic party saw the United States eventually controlling all of North and South America from Hudson's Bay to Tierra del Fuego. D. W. Meinig has some interesting counterfactuals in his geographic history of the United States, The Shaping of America. One's relevant to the Mexican war can be found in the second volume.

Lloyd Drako - 1/18/2004

The comparison between Gulf War II and the Mexican War breaks down over one simple fact: the US did not fight in 1846 to foster democracy among the Mexicans or liberate them from popish idolatry, but to win territory.

Lloyd Drako - 1/18/2004

The main point of the Mexican War was to win territory--Lebensraum if you prefer. Whether the Mexicans in what was left of Mexico persisted in their popish idolatry, or adopted American-style constitutional democracy, was and is entirely beside the point.

David Michaelsen - 1/17/2004

Dr. Pinheiro makes a compelling comparison between Iraq War II and the Mexican War, particularly in calling attention to the religious dimension of the conflict--a dimension most reasonable people would rather do without. However, there are some other instructive comparative points to consider.

The doctrine guiding both wars was strikingly similar. Both Polk and Bush made a case for "pre-emptive" war--if we don't get them now, they're gonna get us. Polk's precedent for that position was that Mexico had conducted border raids into Texas before it was annexed, and he managed to provoke a response when he sent General Taylor's troops into disputed territory. His administration also viewed fighting Mexico as an indirect way of countering England--since Mexico barely had a hold on its northern territories (demographically, politically, militarily). So how easy, and how bad, would it be if the English took California? Incidentally, Mexicans were vying for English protection for their northern territories by soliciting their diplomatic support and by soliciting any surplus populations of Catholic rif-raff (i.e. Irish) that the English might be willing to send over in order to populate and defend California against those rapacious Americans.

Additionally, both wars suffered horribly from a total lack of a postwar plan, and both have an element of "quagmire" that is distinct from the Vietnam quagmire. The Vietnam quagmire ocurred largely because we didn't know how to fight the war or even who to shoot at. The Mexican/Iraq quagmires ocurred because we didn't know what to do after we won the war. Both were relatively "easy" to win (Mexican war less so), but confusion ensued after the capital was taken. U.S. troops occupied Mexico City for ten months before pro and anti-slavery policy makers back in Washington could decide exactly how much land should be annexed and before Mexican hawks (who dominated in the 1840s) could swallow the bitter pill of the Hidalgo treaty.

David Salmanson - 1/15/2004

Mr. Howard,
Where do you see anti-Zionist and/or anti-Semitic overtones in Ms. Connett's comments. It is possible to be against the War in Iraq and still be a Zionist.

On a larger point, while religion is important in both wars there are other parallels as well: Both wars were planned prior to acts of provocation. Polk's War message was written before word of actual conflict had arrived in DC. (To be fair, the removal of Saddam has been official US policy since at least the Clinton administration and, I believe, Bush the elder's as well) Both wars have important economic factors. In the Mexican War it was a desire for the two key ports on the Pacific San Diego and San Francisco that could facilitate the China trade. While oil may not be the most important factor in the Iraq war, it is, undeniably, a factor. We can disagree how much of a factor later. So in both cases national economic interests were at stake. It is important to remember that their were a wide variety of views from anti-War (Lincoln and Thoreau come to mind) to all-Mexico annexationists, to just California. The anti-Catholic rhetoric is very important when considering how boundaries were drawn but so too, was racial rhetoric.

For further reading on circumstances leading up to the Mexican War and Mexican war diplomacy see Manifest Destiny and Mission (which may lead to comparisons with the Spanish American War if you believe in the Mission part of things) and Thomas Hietala's Manifest Design: Anxious Aggrandizement in Jacksonian America.

Ben H. Severance - 1/14/2004

Dr. Pinheiro is quite right to draw our attention to the badly neglected Mexican War; the parallels are many and worth noting. 1) Until 2003, the Mexican War marked the only other time that the U.S. deliberately invaded a foreign country and sacked its capital. And General Winfield Scott's march on Mexico City should rank as one of America's great feat-at-arms, comparable in its own way to the recent blitzkrieg the U.S. military meted out to the hapless Iraqi army last year. 2) While "axis of evil" ideology partly explains George Bush's current war in Iraq, Manifest Destiny propelled James K. Polk in 1846. One could argue that appellations of "evil" seem absurd to most Americans today, but Manifest Destiny reflected a widespread expansionist attitude among 19th-Century Americans. Furthermore, while it remains to be seen what becomes of Bush's military success in Iraq, Polk understood the limits of military action. After defeating Mexico, he quickly negotiated the acquisition of what became the Southwest U.S. and withdrew the army. Significantly, he also paid Mexico $15 million (an identical sum also paid to Mexico in 1853 for the Gadsen Purchase), an act that may suggest that Polk hoped to do with dollars what Bush is striving to do with military pacification, namely facilitate efforts at democracy. Fortunately for the U.S. in the late 1840s, no insurgency arose in California or New Mexico (the populations there were sparse and non-nationalistic). 3) Like the Baath Party in Iraq, the Centralists in Mexico, including that arch opportunist Santa Anna, had no qualms suppressing their ethnic peoples; Mexico was a sham republic where aristocratic generals held real power. To be sure, the oppression paled in comparison to the systematic death squads that roamed Iraq under Saddam, but there was some validity to the American propaganda in the 1840s that Mexico was an autocratic danger. 4) As Dr. Pinheiro has ably pointed out, religious fears also influenced both wars--anti-Catholicism then and anti-Islam now, both extreme outlooks that Polk found distasteful in his day, but which Bush seems inclined to embrace today. 5) U.S. victory over Mexico inaugurated a hatred for the Yankee that persists South of the Border to this day. Similarly, U.S. occupation of Iraq has exacerbated an already pronounced anti-Americanism in the Middle East. Yet, while the various Mexican governments over the years have often regarded the U.S. with suspicion, the Mexican people have increasingly seen it as the land of opportunity that it truly is. Whether or not Western ways and economic resources have the same effect in Iraq must await the judgment of time.

These are only some of the points of comparison and discussion. I applaud Dr. Pinheiro for raising the issue in his thoughtful essay. And I applaud his courage for submitting his ideas to the often vicious scrutiny of the HNN readers, many of whom treat pearls like swine or use an article as a pretext to engage in tirades while ignoring the contents of what they have presumably just read.

Ben Severance

Clyde W. Howard - 1/14/2004

Don't think the war in Iraq is "over releigion" - though the attack on the US on 9-11-2001 was certainly at least partially religious in its motivation.

I think it should be noted that the United States is a secular nation, is (as a nation, whatever certain individuals including the apparently anit-Zionist, and possibly anti-Semitc, Ms. Cornett, may be) and is tolerant of all religions. I do not see that much evidence of religious tolerance can be seen in nations that are Muslim majority,a nd certainly none can be found in "Islamic" republics or monarchies (anybody for attempting to missionary in Saudi Arabia?).

About the only parallel I see, at this point, between Vietnam and Iraq is that there is more enthusiasm in the sitting administration than exists among the population at large. And that we are seeing a very noisy bunch of (as best I can tell) left-wing protestors who are trying to damage American interests at home. I rather resented those folks back when i was in Vietnam (despite recognizing they had a right to exist, I always hoped that some of them would step over the line and get squashed like bugs) since I felt they made my job harder and more dangerous. I also had a sneaking hope they'd cause the administration to decide to pull out so I could come home early from a war we obviously didn't have the will to win. I rather imagine the young folks in Iraq feel much the same about the current antis, at leasta s far as the bit about making the job harder and more dangerous is concerned. The issue of will to win remains to be dealt with.

Barbara Cornett - 1/14/2004

You say that because we are bogged down in Iraq that we ought not to compare it to being bogged down in Viet Nam. Your argument seems to be some kind of bait and switch, now you see it now you don't. Switching back and forth between the Mexican war and the Viet Nam war and then hoping that somehow people will be convinced that being bogged down in Iraq is ok because Mexico was Catholic and Iraq is Islamic. Your article makes no sense.

Being bogged down in Iraq and spending 160 billion dollars there that we don't have is a situation that stands all on its own. and thats not even mentioning the money that we will have to pay in the future that we don't have that will go down a black hole in Iraq.

Viet Nam was not sitting on the world's second largest supply of oil. Iraq could use their own money to rebuild their nation which we had no right to invade in the first place.

You say Bush claims he intends to make Iraq a stable, secure and democratic force in the troubled middle east. Well Bush says a lot of things. He told us Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and that he was connected to 9-11 so that he could lie us into Iraq in the first place. The war was about weapons of mass destruction. Remember? Now bait and switch and suddenly its about bringing democracy to Iraq. bologna

The fact is the Iraqi people are not going to be able to make any choices on their own unless those choices benefit the oil and Zionists interests of the corporate criminals in the white House. so you can shovel that bs to the fools who listened to bush's lies in the first place.

IF Bush hadn't brought religion into the gov in the first place these Chrsitians wouldn't have the power to wage war on Islam with the backing of the US gov. Bush is the problem. Perhaps you would do better to compare Bush to fascist and dictatorial leaders in history rather then attempt to compare Iraq to the Mexican war.

The US doesn't have to prove that we have the will to invade countries. IF we are threatened we have the will to defend ourselves. IF anyone is suicidal enough to attack us. What Bush has proven is that the US is willing to illegally wage agressive war against a country that has done nothing to us and to lie about the reasons for starting a war.

You speak about Bush as having the will to go to war but that ignores the fact that he has yet to capture bin laden and bring him to justice and that bin laden is free and planning more attacks on the US which Bush will no doubt once again use to invade Syria, Iran, Libya, North Korea and maybe even Cuba. Oh, he has the will to war all right, he's shown the world what he is capable of but that doesn't have anything to do with the Mexican war or Catholicizim or Islam.

I don't think the world's religions are fighting one another. I think governments like the US government is fighting others and making religion an issue so they can get support for their endless wars just like they lied about wmd in order to get support. Take the current white house out of the equation and war won't be stirred up over religion.

Clyde W. Howard - 1/13/2004

Well, I think I find myself in substantial agreement with teh column. Indeed the Mexican War is probably a better model for our current involvement in Iraq than Vietnam - but like all models, an imperfect one.

i don't know about either the writer of the column or the reply, but I spent a year in Vietnam, so i have some perspective on how the people who actually fought the war (as opposed to the policy makers in their safe and sanitary Ivory Towers in Foggy Bottom) felt about it. Most of us (I was a juniot Army officer, a captain by the time I got in country in 1968) were there because a bunch of fools (our usual characterization of people like LBJ and Robert STRANGE MacNamara - we all thought his middle name was extremely appropriate - was far too obscene to post here) had sent us. But we also were all of the opinion that duty required us to comply with the lawful orders of our superiors, and so we went, however ill-advised we thought it was.

Contact with the current generation of military officers (I have several young men I know on active duty) suggests they have much the same attitude. Few of the men on the ground seem to be crusaders - and they have the same high opinion (that's writ sarcastical in case you couldn't tell) of the culture and inhabitants of Iraq that we did of the Vietnamese half a life ago.

Truthfully, I see the Mexican experience as one it brought on itself (what sort of place would allow Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna to become president several times?), and I don't particularly fault the US for leaving once its immediate objectives had been obtained. Whether Mexico had been satbilized or not - it was a mess when we went to war and if a bigger one afterwards, well, there is a lesson there. Don't start a fight with somebody who is bigger and meaner than you are. Iraq is NOT a place I think we need to try and make into a civilized and democratic (with a small "d") place. That is a rcipe for, as the respondent tot he column said, for endless occupation, since the Iraqis are to a high degree of probability incapable of accepting a democratic form of government. Indeed, it seems likely that NO Islamic nation is capable of that - Islam, with its emphasis on the entertwining of state and religion is inherently hostile to genuine democracy and religious tolerance.

I'd say finish the job of making sure the palce is disarmed, tehn come home and let them sort their own destiny out. Which will, hopefully, involve the disintegration of the "nation of IRaq" (and artificial construct) into a group of squabbling tribal groups taht will eb too busy killing and stealing from each other to be much bother to the rest of the world.

Frank Little - 1/12/2004

"Understandably, a "second Vietnam" is a sequel no American wants to see."

"No More Vietnams" was the title of the crook Richard Nixon's autobiography, reflecting the horror of the U.S. ruling class at LOSING this colonial war at the hands of the heroic Vietnamese workers and peasants. In fact, as Che Guevara put it, "Two, Three, Many Vietnams" (i.e. further humiliating military setbacks for the U.S. imperialists and their lackeys -- starting in Iraq) would make the world a safer place for everyone.

"The Vietnam War ... pitted Americans and South Vietnamese against the Soviet-supported North Vietnamese and their Vietcong guerrillas."

What self-serving patriotic rubbish. The U.S. took over a brutal colonial war against the Vietnamese once the French imperialists' defeat at Dien-Bien Phu made it clear they were about to lose at the hands of their former slaves.

"In Iraq, on the other hand, coalition forces and Iraqi police face domestic and foreign terrorists committed not to independence but actually to blocking Iraq's road to democratic self-rule."

So Iraqis resisting the U.S. military occupation of their country are "domestic and foreign terrorists"? One wonders whether the neocons actually swallow the crap they dish out...

Oh yeah, the Iraqi resistance is committed to "blocking Iraq's road to democratic self-rule" (i.e. permanent colonial occupation by U.S. bases)!

This would be kind of funny if it weren't so disturbing. Kind of like waking up in a bad hollywood remake of an Orwell novel. But you can't switch the channel...