Occupation Blues: Let’s Not Forget the Mexican War

News Abroad

Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.

Seeking historical parallels for the American experience in Iraq, commentators on the political right often evoke the World War II imagery of Americans liberating oppressed peoples from the yoke of tyranny. On the other hand, critics of the war in Iraq often equate the Bush administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq with the quagmire of the Vietnam War. These polar opposites from the more recent past often obscure our view of the invasion and occupation of Mexico from 1846 to 1848; a history which should give us pause as we contemplate what to do about the mess in Iraq.

President James K. Polk misled the American people and Congress when he asserted that a Mexican attack upon the forces of General Zachary Taylor constituted the shedding of “American blood upon American soil.” In reality, Taylor’s army encamped along the Rio Grande was in disputed territory claimed by both Mexico and the United States. Sounding a bit like John Kerry, many politicians complained that they would not have originally supported the war if they were fully aware of all the facts surrounding the initiation of hostilities. Nevertheless, the Polk administration attained its Declaration of War, and American forces moved quickly to occupy the lightly populated and defended Mexican outposts of New Mexico and California. When this seizure failed to convince the Mexican government to acquiesce in the territorial demands of the United States, Polk ordered Taylor to advance into northern Mexico. After seizing Matamoros and achieving victories at Buena Vista and Palo Alto, Taylor forced Mexico’s Army of the North to redeploy to San Luis Potosi, approximately 400 miles south of the Rio Grande. When the Mexican authorities continued to resist the American demands for California, New Mexico, and Texas, President Polk and Secretary of War William Marcy ordered an army under the command of General Winfield Scott to conduct an amphibious operation at the port of Vera Cruz and to advance on Mexico City.

Meanwhile, Taylor’s army of occupation in northern Mexico encountered considerable opposition from a Mexican insurgency fueled by the failure of American troops to provide security and stability. The occupation of northern Mexico marked the first experience of the U. S. Army with controlling foreign territory since the failed invasion of Canada during the War of 1812. One of Taylor’s major problems was his reliance upon volunteer forces, many of them from Texas, who were not subject to the discipline of the American military justice system. The regular troops enjoyed some support from the local population by establishing a hospital in Matamoros. As the volunteers replaced the regulars as occupation forces, however, assaults, rapes, and murders were perpetrated upon the Mexican citizenry. When Taylor took little action to discipline the volunteers, Mexican public opinion turned against the occupying forces. Guerrilla attacks against the Americans increased and gained support among the populace. In response to these attacks upon American troops and supply lines by irregular Mexican forces, Taylor announced that any Mexican who attacked the army of occupation would be tried by American military tribunals. In addition, Taylor ordered that local populations and leaders would be held responsible for any partisan activity in their region. While these punitive actions were successful in limiting partisan raids by the end of 1847, they did not exactly win the hearts and minds of the Mexican people. Nevertheless, General John Wool, who replaced Taylor in November 1847, insisted that American troops displayed “great forbearance and moderation” during the occupation.

Meanwhile, to the south General Scott was determined to take a different approach to insurgency than the somewhat laissez-faire attitude of Taylor. Scott’s area of control extended some 280 miles from the port of Vera Cruz to Mexico City, straddling Mexico’s National Highway. Scott’s goal was to capture Mexico City and force the Mexican government to accept American terms. With a force of approximately 10,000 men Scott faced a Mexican army under Santa Anna which outnumbered him by a margin of three to one. Scott could little afford to have many of his troops tied down by guerrilla activities.

Accordingly, Scott pursued a policy of gaining the support of the Mexican people by maintaining stability and punishing any atrocities committed against Mexican civilians by occupying forces. A student of military history, Scott was convinced that the crimes committed by occupying French forces against the Spanish people had contributed to the downfall of Napoleon. On February 19, 1847, Scott issued General Order No. 20, which made rape, murder, assault, robbery, desecration of churches, and destruction of private property court-martial offenses for all Mexicans and regular American troops. In addition, Scott’s orders applied to all American civilians in Mexico, allowing the General, despite the misgivings of the Polk administration, to exercise tighter control over the volunteer forces.

Upon the surrender of Vera Cruz on March 27, 1847, Scott arranged to have food distributed to the local population, which had suffered during the American siege. Local markets reopened when Mexicans were assured their property would be respected and Americans guilty of crimes against the people would be punished. Locals were also paid by the Americans to clear the streets of debris caused by the conflict. Local customs were also respected when Scott refused to raze the San Juan de Ulua castle, a cultural landmark in Vera Cruz. Scott assured Secretary of War Marcy that the citizens of Vera Cruz were “cheerful and assured of protection.”

This more enlightened approach, however, did not prevent Scott’s troops from being harassed by the Light Corps, trained volunteers fighting in military units under the command of the Mexican government. These partisan forces were active along the Vera Cruz-Mexico City corridor by May 1847, making travel along the National Highway hazardous for American troops. The capture of Mexico City on September 14, 1847 did not ease Scott’s plight. While the regular Mexican army deserted the capital, citizens rose up against the invaders. The use of close range artillery brought the insurgency to a rapid and bloody conclusion. Meanwhile, the Light Corps continued to harass convoys, infiltrate American units, and kill any stragglers. Increasingly frustrated by the activities of the Light Corps, Scott instituted a scorched-earth policy to deny the guerrillas sanctuary. On 12 December 1847, Scott equated the guerrillas with murderers and ordered that no quarter be given. Scott was retreating from the policy which had successfully pacified Vera Cruz.

With the collapse of the regular Mexican army, rebellions against the central government occurred throughout the country, and these outbreaks often targeted the American army of occupation. In an effort to restore order, the Mexican government agreed to terms in February 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. A truce signed on March 6, 1848 curtailed hostilities, and the occupying United States forces agreed to support the existing government against peasant rebellions in exchange for the disbanding of guerrilla warfare against American troops. The agreement accomplished what United States military activity alone had failed to achieve.

The history of the American military occupation in Mexico suggests that similar mistakes were made when the United States rushed into Iraq without an adequate plan to deal with the civilian population after toppling the regime. Much like Polk’s Secretary of the Treasury Robert Walker’s perception of the Mexican people, Vice President Dick Cheney believed that the Iraqis would welcome the Americans as liberators. Any good will for ousting Saddam Hussein was quickly squandered as the occupying forces were unable to provide essential services and security for the Iraqi people. While perhaps not as flagrant as the atrocities committed by volunteers during the Mexican War, independent contractors for the American occupation exploited the Iraqi people. The resentment against an army of occupation has fueled support for the insurgency, and now the occupying force finds it increasingly difficult to not be drawn into sectarian disputes bordering on a civil war. The American experience as an occupying power in Mexico from 1846 to 1848 does not bode well for the present. It might behoove us to better remember the troubling history of the Mexican-American War.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

This is quite a stretch even for HNN.
The Mexican War was waged for clear consistent and tangible objectives (territorial acquisitions), competently and quickly obtained (in 2 years), and had no serious repercussions for U.S. foreign policy elsewhere. Superficial and tangential similarities to Dick Cheney's Iraq fiasco cannot erase these colossal differences.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

"The handling of the Mexican war still has serious repercussions for U.S. foreign policy as it can be blamed for the rampant anti-US sentiment in the Mexican population."

Yes, that is why I specifically said in my first comment above,
"no serious repercussions for U.S. foreign policy" ELSEWHERE, e.g. outside of Mexico (in sharp contrast to the MANY recent and still current and serious and worsening repercussions outside of Iraq).

America is and has been disliked in many other contries for many reasons (while also being widely admired and envied -albeit much less so since the current gang of incompetents took hold in Washington DC), but in 1848 the "Yanqui" did "go home" from the majority of Mexican territory not annexed under Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Don H Doyle - 4/1/2007

I've been doing some research and writing on the American occupation of Mexico and could not help thinking and seeing it through the lens of our current adventure in the Middle East. What is interesting is that the war began with clear, though disgraceful in my view, objectives of provoking a war in order to bring Mexico terms that would force it to pay reparations in territory. US forces managed to defeat militarily the Mexican army, invade the country, and occupy the capital and large portions of the interior, they could not force the Mexican government to come to terms. In the winter of '47-48 there was a surge of interest in annexing "All Mexico," fueled by the vision of the "regeneration" of a benighted people. The US, they imagined, would bring capitalist prosperity, good government, and American morality to Mexico. Opponents protested that this violated basic principles of voluntarism and equality in the nation and put the US in league with European empires and tyrants. John C. Calhoun argued eloquently on this principle, and on the racist grounds that this would bring 7 million mixed race Indians into the American nation. This was an important and fascinating precedent to a recurring impulse in American nationalism to remake the world in our own image.

I enjoyed this piece. Thank you.
--Don Doyle, University of South Carolina

Yehudi Amitz - 12/12/2006

The author writes very clearly that:
"The American experience as an occupying power in Mexico from 1846 to 1848 does not bode well for the present. It might behoove us to better remember the troubling history of the Mexican-American War."
The article describes mistakes made by the US Army, occupying power, fixed during the occupation. It can be interpreted as fixing the mistakes of the present war.
As far as US foreign policy is concerned, the Mexican war was apart of the chain of events that amended the Monroe Doctrine with the Roosevelt Corollary. USA went from isolationist neutrality to active participation in the World affairs, culminating with the first world war and of course all the history following this war.
After all the Mexican war was in fact a replacement of European power (Spanish followed by French) by the power of the USA on Mexican territory after a short period of independence.

Hans H. W. Wall - 12/11/2006

The handling of the Mexican war still has serious repercussions for U.S. foreign policy as it can be blamed for the rampant anti-US sentiment in the Mexican population. Just look at the countless monuments for the fallen Mexican cadets of the Chapultepec castle.
<Quote>The cadets are honored by an imposing monument at the entrance to Chapultepec Park; and the name Niños Héroes, along with the cadets' individual names, are commonly given to streets, squares and schools across the country. For many years they appeared on the MXP $5000 banknote, and they currently appear on the MXN $50 coin. Metro Niños Héroes on the Mexico City Metro is also named for them.<Unquote - source Wikipedia>