Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and Its War with the United States by Timothy J. Henderson

Growing up in Texas, I studied the state's history in 5th, 7th, and 12th grades of public school. I know the stories of Stephen Austin's colony, the Alamo, the Battle of San Jacinto, and the years of the Republic of Texas quite well. The presentation was always, of course, from the viewpoint of the victors. In A Glorious Defeat, Timothy J. Henderson examines the Mexican part in the war or wars. (Do you count the Texas Revolution as part of the U.S. War with Mexico?) Rather than assign blame, he examines the social, economic, and political forces in Mexico leading up to and existing through the war. Then he describes the legacy for both countries.

The central point is that many Mexican leaders knew that their country would lose the war before the fighting ever started. The young country, independent from Spain for only fifteen years when the Texas colonists rebelled, was poor, sparsely populated, and politically divided. The liberals wanted to form a democracy, while the conservatives wanted to establish a European style monarchy. The political sides only agreed that the United States was taking advantage of their country's weakness. Most of the leaders foresaw the inevitable loss of Texas, New Mexico, and California. So, why did they reject U.S. purchase offers and fight a losing battle?

According to Henderson, fighting the U.S. was seen by the Mexicans as patriotic and opposing the war became politically suicidal. Few dared to speak up, and they were exiled or executed. As a result, the military drafted poor and native peoples (few of the landed or merchant classes served) and sent them on military campaigns without weapons, food, or clothing. Many died of starvation or disease before battle. Desertion was rampant.

While Henderson concentrates on telling the story of the country as a whole, he does include tales of key figures, such as Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, Vicente Guerrero, and Anastacio Bustamente. The saddest of the stories is about General Manuel de Mier y Teran, who commits suicide rather than see all his grim predictions come true.

Many public libraries are short on materials about this war that preceded and in ways led to the American Civil War. It is a good purchase and a good read.

Henderson, Timothy J. A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and Its War with the United States. New York: Hill & Wang, 2007. ISBN 9780809061204


Nonanon said...

Ooh, I love nonfiction told from a slightly different than the norm viewpoint. I'm going to track this one down!

Tony said...

I'm sure it's a great work, one that destroys that myth of the need for Manifest Destiny's Imperialism that I was taught in high school.

But unfortunately, my local library doesn't have a clue :[

Grand Canyon Hiker said...

Hi, I don't know how I stumbled on your blog, but I like it, and I've been following it for a few weeks. I'm enjoying your book reviews, and I recently got Plato And Platypus Went Into a Bar. Good recommendation, thank you.

It is the trend now for us to look at our past from the other guy's perspective, and "A Glorius Defeat..." appears to be following, to some degree, the "Letters from Iwo Jima" tradition, an encouraging development in our historical focus. They say that the story is told by the winner, and we have been telling the story our way for a long time. We are now giving voice to those who heretofore have been ignored.

Having said that, I feel that I also have to say that there is a tendency for a pity the vanquished, root for the underdog, and pooh-pooh the winner attitude to develop around these works even when the authors did not intend it. We must keep our minds open. One book does not make for a complete support or refutation of any historical point of view.

I love these works because they open up the debate in new ways, and because they give credibility to our conclusions now that they are more broadly informed.

Thank you once again, this book is now on my must read list.

cbjames said...

Grand Canyon Hiker raises and interesting point. We should not automatically pity the vanquished just because of one book, unless, perhaps, it is a very good book. T

One problem though, is that there is usually just one book presenting the vanquished side. The "winning" side gets a substantial number of books to present different points of view, or variations on their point of view. The "losing" side gets very few.

One foot note: By the end of both "Letters from Iwo-Jima" and "Flags of Our Fathers" I found myself supporting the decision to use atomic bombs to bring about a quick end to the war. Not a decision to brag about, or even be happy about, but a needed step. I don't think the filmmakers wanted me to, but if that one battle for than one tiny, uselss island, was that bad, then that war needed to end as fast as possible by any means necessary.


C.B. James said...

Enjoyed the book. It's well worth reading. Thanks for the recommendation.

I have a review on my blog