Our ‘Wicked War’

Private Collection/Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman Images
The Battle of Buena Vista, also known as the Battle of La Angostura, during the Mexican-American War, February 1847

One of the odd things about the controversy over monuments to the Confederacy is that they memorialize the losing side in the Civil War. Americans generally prefer to remember the winners. In Washington, D.C., both the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument celebrate leaders of the successful rebellion against Great Britain. The Lincoln Memorial honors the man who presided over the Union throughout the Civil War. There are monuments to both World War I and World War II. The exception is the stunning Vietnam Memorial, an appropriately somber reminder of a war the United States failed to win.

Conspicuously missing from the nation’s capital is a monument to the Mexican-American War, which lasted from May 1846 to February 1848. The omission is all the more curious because the victory of the United States was so complete. The war secured the military reputations of some of America’s most famed generals. One of them, Zachary Taylor, rode that reputation to the presidency in 1848. The strategic and tactical brilliance displayed by another, Winfield Scott, is still considered among the most impressive in the history of warfare. The fruits of victory were no less monumental. The bulk of northern Mexico was ceded to the US, and from that territory were carved most of the states of the American Southwest—California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, as well as parts of Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Colorado. Compare the maps of Mexico and the United States in 1845 with those of 1850, and it’s impossible to miss how much Mexico lost and how much the United States gained.

Why, then, no memorial? Part of the answer lies in the war’s unsavory origins, which even at the time dismayed leading American statesmen. John Quincy Adams excoriated President James Knox Polk for the lies and manipulations he resorted to in order to get the war started. In one of the most fiercely polemical speeches of his career, the young Abraham Lincoln denounced Polk on the floor of Congress, defying the president to name the precise “spot” where Mexico supposedly invaded American soil. Henry Clay inspired a wave of antiwar rallies with his vigorous assault on the Polk administration. Controversial in its time, the war remained so long after it ended. Ulysses Grant wondered whether there was ever “a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico.” Many decades later, in more measured tones, Attorney General Robert Kennedy said he “thought the United States had been unjustified in its war with Mexico,” adding that he “didn’t think it was a very bright chapter in our history.”

Recent historians, even those who most appreciate Polk’s impressive political skills, nonetheless recognize that the man was secretive to a fault and impulsively…

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