Timothy J. Henderson. A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and Its War with the United States. New York: Hill & Wang, 2007. xxii + 216 pp. $25.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8090-6120-4.
Reviewed by Gregory Hospodor (Department of History, Delta State University)
Published on H-War (June, 2008)
Choosing Glorious Defeat
Historians confront a difficult question when they address the causes of the Mexican American War of 1846-48. That an expansionist impulse, most often referred to as Manifest Destiny, brought the United States into conflict with Mexico is a given, but what about Mexico? By any objective measure, Mexico stood little chance to triumph in a war with the United States--the economy of the United States was at least thirteen times larger; its population three times greater; its regular army, though smaller, was well trained and armed with modern weapons; its internal political scene appeared tranquil in comparison to Mexico's; and the list goes on. Yet, why did Mexico choose to fight a war it would almost certainly lose?
Few historians have bothered to delve deeply into the Mexican side of the story. Historians from north of the Rio Grande have focused most often on the intricacies of American diplomacy and military operations. When they did consider causation from the Mexican point of view, they often got it wrong. An older generation, led most notably by Pulitzer Prize winner Justin Harvey Smith, assessed Mexican hubris as a primary cause of the war. Thus interpreted, Mexico welcomed a conflict that it naively thought it could win. In watered down form, echoes of this interpretation persist even today. In Mexico, the conflict has often been too painful an event to warrant close scrutiny. Yankee expansionism was the cause, which allowed Mexican scholars to focus on what appeared to be more pressing questions, those that revolved around and found resolution in the Mexican Revolution. Fortunately, the situation has begun to change during the last fifteen years or so. For example, Irving Levinson (2005) and Pedro Santoni (1996) have published important books that provide a more nuanced consideration of the Mexican side of the war. Timothy J. Henderson's A Glorious Defeat is a welcome addition to this trend.
Henderson's book is a synthetic introduction to the topic, which accounts for both its strengths and weaknesses. Look elsewhere for detailed mining and analysis of primary sources. Notes are few and confined to quotations from published sources, which will make it difficult for anyone who is not a Mexican specialist to follow where the author rests in current historiographical debates. Henderson does, however, provide a useful and comprehensive list of suggestions for further reading. Look elsewhere, too, for detailed coverage of the military aspects of the war. At times, the reader is also left wishing for more; clearly, depth was sacrificed in the interest of brevity. These quibbles, of course, come with the territory and do not detract materially from the book's value. The synthetic format's strength rests in its breadth of coverage chronologically and topically, and Henderson's chapters march relentlessly from independence in 1821 toward the denouement of the war itself. Those who teach the history of Mexico know that the tumultuous period between independence and La Reforma is especially tough on undergraduates. Henderson's treatment of the period is both approachable and sophisticated at the same time. I have yet to run across a better introduction to this period of Mexican history for the undergraduate or general reader. This said, the specialist will find little new here.
Henderson argues that chaotic domestic political conditions between 1821 and 1846 created a situation where the only option open to Mexico's leaders was war with the United States, a war that many recognized their country would lose. Endemic conflict, even civil war, between various groups of liberal federalists and conservative centralists undermined the rule of law; inhibited both economic development and the creation of a sense of national unity; and created opportunities for ambitious, unscrupulous, powerful risk takers to come to the fore, most notably Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Many of Mexico's politicos agreed on only one thing--that the lower classes, which constituted the vast bulk of the population, had to be suppressed. Indeed, the real fear of insurrection led to a situation that resembled men fighting over possession of a lifeboat: all need take care that their actions did not sink their very means of survival. Hobbled by domestic turmoil, Mexico confronted its northern neighbor's expansionism. The problem of holding on to the borderlands proved a Gordian knot. Good ideas and intentions abounded, but energy and focus were lacking. With Texas's de facto independence won in 1836, the related issues of bringing the breakaway province to heel and standing up to the United States became hobby horses in the internecine political struggle among factions in Mexico proper; the issues were used to attack a political opponent's courage and manhood. In this environment, calm realism was declaimed as cowardice, and the situation only worsened with the annexation of Texas by the United States in 1845. Moderate federalists, such as President Jose Joaquin de Herrera, recognized that Mexico was unprepared for war, but proved helpless to stop the rush toward it. Instead, "the desperate glory of death on the battlefield seemed preferable to the ignominy of compromise and surrender" (p. 191). The same divisions that brought Mexico to war contributed to its defeat and the disastrous consequences it entailed.
As well as providing a cogent introduction to the topic, Henderson's book serves as a pointed reminder of the powerful and baneful effect of bellicose political discourse. Drawing historical parallels is always dangerous, but the exercise, however inadequate, can prove illuminating. Like Henderson's Mexico, the American South in the 1840s and 1850s saw the creation of a political hobby horse, the defense of slavery, which squelched reasonable voices and eventually led to secession, war, and defeat. Similarly, the issue of Alsace-Lorraine contributed to France's welcoming of war in 1914. And, Cato the Elder's constant refrain that Carthage must be destroyed helped shape Rome's policy during the Punic Wars.
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Gregory Hospodor. Review of Henderson, Timothy J., A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and Its War with the United States.
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