Monday, February 2, 2015

A review of “The U.S.-Mexican War 1846-1848” (PBS series)

"The occupation, separation, and annexation [of Texas] were, from the inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American Union."

Ulysses S. Grant, in "Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant," Chapter III

I live in a region of the United States that was once controlled by Mexico (in the state of Arizona), so I live daily with the effects of a war from the 1840's. Few people could put this war in the right half-century, let alone the correct decade; and fewer still could name any major battles or players in this war. Nonetheless, the effects of the war are all around us, and it has entered discussions about contemporary politics on more than one occasion. On topics ranging from illegal immigration to anti-Hispanic racism to foreign policy towards Mexico, we in the American Southwest are often reminded of this war; and in less controversial ways, we are reminded of it in the many place names of Spanish origin that surround our homes. From names of streets to names of cities to names of entire states, the influence of Spanish place names are all around us, which were often borrowed in their turn from the native peoples of the region. Mexican culture is all around us, from Spanish taught in schools to the remarkable Mexican food that many of us eat; and the region would belong to Mexico still, if not for a long-ago war from the 1840's.

Mexico lost half its territory to the United States in this war ...

The war was, of course, fought between the United States and Mexico, and was the only major war between our two nations. There have been border skirmishes since then (notably one in the 1910's), but nothing on the massive scale of this one from the 1840's. Mexico lost half its territory to the United States in this war, and several American states were formed out of the land transferred in the peace treaty. The war was undoubtedly an act of imperialist aggression motivated (to some degree, at least) by racism, but there's more to the story than that. Imperialism and racism are favorite topics of liberal PBS; but surprisingly, the network manages to tell the story in a documentary for television with a minimum of political correctness, and manages to stick to the facts about this topic most of the time. My judgments might not completely agree with theirs, but I have to hand it to them that their documentary about this war is extremely interesting, and it is of tremendous value to the student of American history, particularly those who (like me) live in the Southwest. Thus, I thought I would offer my review of this documentary here.

Battle of San Jacinto - Texas, 1836

The Texan War of Independence was the biggest cause of this war

For starters, the documentary covers the Texan War of Independence; which to a large degree was the reason that this larger and later war broke out. The documentary takes delight in pointing out that white Americans were immigrating to Mexican-controlled Texas illegally, in violation of Mexican law - a reminder that the Mexicans are not the only people who have crossed borders illegally, but also that Mexicans have likewise seen the need to control their borders, and that the United States is not the only nation that has protected its sovereignty with immigration restrictions. (But that's a topic for another post.)

Antonio López de Santa Anna

Controversies over how the war started ...

They cover how the Gringos in Texas instigated a revolt against the Mexican government, which led to the independent nation of Texas. The Mexican legislature refused to recognize the independence of Texas, but it is well-acknowledged that it was signed over to the Texans by Santa Anna, when he was taken prisoner after the Battle of San Jacinto. There was some controversy then (and still exists some today) over how much of the land was actually signed over, but it is well-documented that the treaties signed by Santa Anna during his imprisonment put the border at the Rio Grande - rather than at the Nueces River, as the Mexican government later claimed. The documentary seems not to acknowledge this, perhaps bowing to the many Mexican commentators they use (who are interesting, by the way), who agree with their government's original position. But regardless of the correct boundary, it is a moot point now, as the U.S. motivations for war against Mexico were not based on these treaties anyway. They were the ostensible reasons given to rally the public, but the imperialism and racism motives were the true ones, and PBS is right to point this out. The American government didn't go to war over this particular boundary dispute.

Battle of Chapultepec - Mexico City, 1847

The coverage of the war itself is quite good, though ...

The more interesting episodes, in my opinion, are the ones dealing with the war itself - with the many battles and campaigns, and with the many interesting people on both sides that the documentary quotes from. The Mexican soldiers fought hard and bravely, but the Mexican generals and political leaders were another story. Mexico was cursed at this time with a considerable degree of political and military incompetence, with no one moreso than Santa Anna himself. The conduct of their generals did not live up to the conduct of their brave soldiers, and their soldiers' courage was wasted by bad generalship. The U.S. generals, on the other hand, were extremely competent; and their campaigns were strategic and tactical masterpieces. (Their justification on ethical grounds is a different matter, although I do not fault the American soldiers for fighting for their country and doing their duty. The blame for the war was on President Polk and his allies, not - generally speaking - on the American military.)

James K. Polk, then-president of the United States

Controversies over the legacy of the war ...

The documentary benefits from interesting commentary by both U.S. and Mexican commentators, including a few American commentators of Mexican ancestry; and their section on the war's legacy is extremely interesting. No one in the documentary, even on the Mexican side, advocates giving the American Southwest back to Mexico; and one of the Mexican commentators even says that "We can't change geography." I don't know that I'd want to anyway, as this region is my home just as it was theirs; and I wouldn't want to be driven out of it any more than nineteenth-century Mexicans did. More to the point, the Hispanics living in this region today almost universally want to be American citizens; and many have borne considerable hardships to get out of Mexico and enter free soil. I don't think turning the region back over to Mexico would benefit anybody, and those who long for it are indulging in a pipe dream, born more of political correctness than political reality.

This documentary (fortunately) keeps the political correctness to a minimum here

I don't always agree with the documentary, but I will say again that they manage to keep the political correctness to a minimum, and stick to the interesting facts of what happened. That's about the best you can say for a documentary - that it sticks to what happened, and keeps as objective as the subject matter will allow. (History is by nature subjective, but some things in it are more factual; and there is more room for objectivity in those parts.)

I would recommend this documentary to others interested in the topic, and can easily say that their telling of the war is interesting, and that it would satisfy the search for knowledge about the subject. If you're curious about the topic of the U.S.-Mexican War, this is the place to go to satisfy it.

Footnote to this blog post:

Ulysses S. Grant later said that "For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure, and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory." (Source: "Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant," Chapter III)

DVD at Amazon

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Mexican War of Independence (1810)

California Gold Rush program (PBS)

Timeline of United States military history:

French and Indian War 1754-1763
American Revolutionary War 1775-1783
War of 1812 (technically 1812-1815)
U.S.-Mexican War 1846-1848
American Civil War 1861-1865
Reconstruction 1865-1877
Spanish-American War 1898
World War One 1917-1918
World War Two 1941-1945
Korean War 1950-1953
Other wars to be covered later


  1. Jeff, I'm going to start following your blog more.


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