David S. Heidler, Jeanne T. Heidler. The Mexican War. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2006. xxiv + 224 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-313-32792-6.
Reviewed by Ricardo Herrera (U.S. Army Combat Studies Institute)
Published on H-War (August, 2006)
A Mexican War Gem
The Mexican War is a well-researched and clearly written introduction to the war between Mexico and its sister republic, the United States. This book, one of the Greenwood Guides to Historic Events 1500-1900, was written with high school students and undergraduates in mind. Historians David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler have accomplished the series's intent in their work's breadth, analysis, and delivery. Although written as an introductory text, more sophisticated students, including specialists in American history, will find the brief "Biographies of Notable People," the selected "Primary Documents of the Period," and the "Annotated Bibliography" useful references.
The authors examine the conflict from both U.S. and Mexican perspectives, paying careful, indeed very welcome, attention to the colonial origins that shaped both nations, but also to the internal conflicts driving some of the more important political considerations within the two countries. More broadly, they analyze how Americans and Mexicans understood themselves as peoples. This is quite a bit to expect from a guide written for the uninitiated. Mostly, the authors realize it by balancing breadth, concision, and analysis with a clear narrative structure. For astute readers, there are some gems.
At the heart of the conflict, the authors write, "it was always, first and foremost, about the land" (p. 22). Issues over "owning, settling, taming, and using ... it ... caused the war between the United States and Mexico" and were the basis for the American Civil War (pp. 21-22). Thus, Mexican land desired by the United States and Mexican land ceded to the United States, as well as the inability of Americans to determine whether that conquered land should be free or slave, lay at the heart of these conflicts. Not without cause, this argument might raise concern as appearing grossly reductionist or even monocausal, yet it is here that the authors are at their most provocative. The struggle between Mexico and the United States was a contest between an inward-looking empire--unsure of its future and identity, hesitant over what to embrace or to reject from an omnipresent past, but anxious to preserve what it had--against an outward-looking, expansive empire that seemingly paid little heed to its own past, and looked to the future for validation.
There are times, however, that the authors' conclusions lend themselves to arguments of historic inevitability over contingency and human agency. In the concluding chapter, "Legacies," Heidler and Heidler connect the Mexican War with the American Civil War by humanizing the ties between the two conflicts through the well-worn stories of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. Dramatizing the story is fair enough, but the authors remove human agency and historical contingency in the coming of the Civil War, when they write that "that contest had been foreordained by the one years before in Mexico, the occasion when the scruffy lieutenant met the dazzling captain in the middle of nowhere, on a road that led ultimately to Appomattox" (p. 149). In other words, the American Civil War was destined. Will the students who read The Mexican War walk away with the belief that the discipline of history is little more than the unfolding of the preordained, bereft of free will, human agency, or contingency?
The Mexican War is a good book, and it is worthy of serious consideration. The underlying issues of the war as well as Heidler and Heidler's subtext are worthwhile considerations as the United States and Mexico continue to struggle over borders, lands, and people.
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Ricardo Herrera. Review of Heidler, David S.; Heidler, Jeanne T., The Mexican War.
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