Danny Sjursen talks about the Mexican-American War, a seldom-discussed conflict that he maintains holds lessons for America today. Sjursen describes a pattern that by now—with our long experience of the war on terrorism—should be all too familiar: a U.S. president deliberately setting up the conditions for war, forcing another country to react, lying about America’s involvement, and then eventually having to remain in the country as an occupying and rebuilding force for years afterward. At the time, several prominent politicians and generals inveighed against the war as unnecessary and unjust, but to little avail. Despite its relevance, this war has been all but forgotten by Americans today.
Discussed on the show:
- “The Tortured Legacy of the Mexican-American War, Part 1” (The Future of Freedom Foundation)
- A People’s History of the United States
- A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. army major and former history instructor at West Point. He writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and he’s the author of “Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet.
This episode of the Scott Horton Show is sponsored by: NoDev NoOps NoIT, by Hussein Badakhchani; The War State, by Mike Swanson; WallStreetWindow.com; Tom Woods’ Liberty Classroom; ExpandDesigns.com/Scott; Listen and Think Audio; TheBumperSticker.com; and LibertyStickers.com.
The following is an automatically generated transcript.
All right, y’all welcome it’s Scott Horton Show. I am the director of the Libertarian Institute editorial director of antiwar.com, author of the book Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan. And I’ve recorded more than 5000 interviews going back to 2003, all of which are available at ScottHorton.org. You can also sign up to the podcast feed. The full archive is also available at youtube.com/ScottHortonShow. Hey guys on the line, it’s Danny Sjursen. former Army major. He was in Iraq war to Afghanistan. He wrote the book, Ghost writers of Baghdad, and he’s written all over the place for everything important on the internet, including and especially antiwar.com Calm, and where he is a contributing writer, and whatever we call him, and also the future Freedom Foundation fff.org. And this one is called the tortured legacy of the Mexican American War part one, which means I’ve only read part one, part two and three, but I want to hear the whole thing. So go ahead, Mr. Former history professor at West Point, and tell us all about the Mexican American war.
Danny Sjursen 1:32
Well, you know, I
Scott Horton 1:34
welcome the show, Danny, how are you?
Danny Sjursen 1:37
Yeah, no, thanks for having me. And, you know, I’m always happy to geek out a little so Mexican wars. Great.
Scott Horton 1:43
Yeah. And you know what, this is one that I know a little bit about, cuz I did read Zen. But, and I know a little bit about it, other than that, too, but Well, I’m sure. happy to hear all about it all over again. So please go ahead.
Danny Sjursen 1:58
Yeah, you know, I got it. A very different take on the Mexican American War as I, you know, read past the sort of triumphalist histories, especially in grad school and then having the opportunity to teach it. And you know, I do a lot of historical analogy pieces, and anybody who specializes in anything or has an interest in anything wants to tell you that their war or their subject is the one that’s, you know, most relevant to today. So, you know, that can be exhausting. But I think that on a number of levels, while there aren’t, you know, perfect parallels in history and there aren’t perfect lessons to be learned. The Mexican American war is not only fascinating in its own right, but does have certain significant parallels to today. So what do I mean Well, we’re talking about an era of regime change wars right the first the first American regime change of a you know, large fellow Republic, which is you know, interesting, a flawed republic of course, and, you know, we kind of like pick the rulers of some Barbary pirates states a little bit during Jefferson, but for the most part, this is the big regime change war. There’s a race factor. There’s an internal sort of civil war factor in the United States, mainly political. There’s massive political dissent. There’s even a significant amount of military dissent up to an including, you know, mutinies and folks joining the other side, you know, from the American army. And, and it really does divide the nation. You know, Emerson said something to the effect of, you know, will win the Mexican War, but it’ll be you know, basically the poison, that victory that will divide the nation. You know, of course, the Civil War comes later and his prediction came true. It’s sort of the end of a two party system or the first or second two party system in America, the Whigs and the Democrats. And what it the reason it ends is not only because they became so tribal but because it became so regional. And so I’ll get to that but you know, there used to be northern democrats and Southern Democrats and northern wigs and southern wigs and you know, after the Mexican War There wasn’t much of that at all. And so to say, you know, I’ll start quick, but then kind of let you guide it. I mean, the thing to keep in mind as we think about Iraq and God, how many American wars, the Mexican American War, which was an invasion, which was ultimately an occupation that everyone forgets about that part for, you know, several months, like a military occupation, civil disorder, all this guerrilla war, but an regime change, quite literally. And it was all sold on false pretenses. The whole shebang. We made war inevitable, through, you know, the posturing of our military on the border and actually crossing the internationally recognized border, but also just political rhetoric and dealings with the Native Americans and then just you know, annexing Texas, annexing Texas, which you know, was still considered Mexican territory by most countries in the world and certainly by Mexico. So, you know, we set the wore out, we set the conditions we drive Mexico to the point of war. But then even when the you know, causes belly kind of happens, the president Polk, you know who’s a true believer, by the way, you know, he says, well, American blood was spilled on American soil, what he’s referring to is that some American Calvary man, about a dozen of them were were killed. But the problem is that he said American blood on American soil. Well, it’s true that American blood was shed. What’s not so clear is that that American blood was shed on American soil because, you know, this was, you know, south of the waste River, which was the recognized border and not the real ground at the time. So it was really iffy across the board. That center center was a lie.
Scott Horton 5:48
No, no, no, it was the new oasis.
Danny Sjursen 5:50
Yeah, it was the new Oasis was
Scott Horton 5:52
embarrasing the hell out of me, I’m from here.
Danny Sjursen 5:55
But But you know, but San Francisco is of course interesting because that goes back to the text and we’re so you know, For now, my point is that we set the conditions for war we just ended up and then we actually, at the moment of conflict, we lied about it right? The President lied about it. And you
Scott Horton 6:10
know something about that, too, just makes it easy to remember also is that Abraham Lincoln helped make himself famous by making a big deal about this on the floor of the US House, and they nicknamed him spotty Lincoln. Like, this is a nickname that he got making fun of him for saying, Wait a minute, which spot on the map? Did this skirmish take place again, on this side of the line or that side of the line? It’s kind of relevant?
Danny Sjursen 6:34
Yeah, I mean, look, one of the things I say in the first section is that like the Mexican American War, this largely forgotten war kind of defines or helps define the careers of five American presidents. And so the one is a former president john quincy adams, one of his finest hours is, you know, totally intransigent and unwilling to go along with this war, when the rest of the Whigs who remind me a lot of Democrats when the rest of the wigs folded over the Iraq, I mean, Mexican War, right? He wouldn’t. Right there was I think about a dozen of them and they call I forget what they called them. They were basically the intransigence, you know, they just they weren’t going to have it like the insufferable and he led that and I mean, I mean, john quincy adams dies on the basically on the floor of the house, okay. He’s, like, carried away after he has like an aneurysm. And what he was doing in that moment, was loudly yelling, no refusing to even pass like an end of war legislation. That was totally symbolic. All it was gonna do was like, basically thank the generals for their patriotic service in the war. And he wouldn’t even do that. He was like, this is a bad war. This is a lie. This is evil. You know, so that’s, that’s quincy adams kind of
Scott Horton 7:49
I didn’t know that story that that was how he died.
Danny Sjursen 7:52
Dude, it’s a wild story. It’s in my last segment, but yeah, you can look it up. There’s a lot of good books that cover it. But Amy Greenberg is one of the newer ones. So then the GOP Hulk, right so Polk is the Democratic president. He’s a, they called him young Hickory, because he was a protege and an admirer, almost a funding admirer of, you know, Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson. So he kind of is actually hand picked as a dark horse to become the Democratic president handpicked I mean by jackson and does get the nomination wins. He’s an odd guy. For a number of reasons. One of them is that he says and follows through that he’s only going to run for one term, you know, but he also is very political and wants the democrats to succeed him you know, he doesn’t want like the wigs to take charge but he’s a true believer from all intents and purposes he works hard. He’s got a wife who’s almost a little bit like a feminist and he like lets her help him with decisions which is weird given his background as you know he’s a southerner and a Tennessee guy but uh, you know, Polk a true believer, he’s a manifest destiny sea to shining sea, you know, points, political generals, all that. Then you got a three future generals President Zachary Taylor, who commands the northern army though the one that’s you know, along the Texas border, he becomes a wig president. Most of the generals in the army at the time were wigs, actually, the professional generals, even though Taylor commanded a lot of volunteers and militiamen, and then you got grant, and grants interesting because it’s his first war. And his quote is that it was a wicked war, and that he had a terrible time of the Mexican War. And he felt awful about it. And the quote, he said, is I but I had not the courage to resign. So grant was anti war in his first war. Now he didn’t, you know, become a conscientious objector. But through the rest of his life, it really bothered him. And he and he spoke about it just constantly, you know, especially later in life. And then finally, Lincoln, who you brought up right old, spotty, Lincoln. Lincoln, kind of makes his career initially during his opposition to the Mexican American war, but actually in the short term, it hurts them. So Lincoln’s from Illinois and he’s from it. Or he represents Illinois. He’s a freshman, a class of 1848 end of the war wig in a district and in a state that is highly pro war, for the most part, the South and the, what was called the the West. The time was really the Midwest today was highly pro war. He’s told by his friends, you know, go easy on this anti war thing, you’re going to lose your seat, and yet he does what you mentioned in his first floor speech, which was traditionally the freshmen kinda are like seen but not heard. And they, their first floor speech is kind of conservative and, you know, not very intense. Instead, he calls the president out, you know, and says that he, you know, the whole thing is a lie. Lincoln does lose his seat. He’s a one term, Congressman, and exactly what happened. What could we expect that to happen? But of course, he you know, builds that into a career that’s imperfect but often times built on a degree Principle. And it’s an interesting moment for him. And then the final guy worth mentioning, I promise is, the last one is clay, who’s probably, you know, in some ways, he’s like the Hillary Clinton or something of his day in the sense that he’s like the most qualified person not to be president. Right? Or whatever. You know, I mean, the, you know, I’m not a Hillary Clinton fan, but you know, that people say that and clay, you know, ran three or four times. And clay son, another difference from today, right. Clay son dies. He’s like a colonel. And, you know, he has favorites on volunteers and is killed in combat. And big deal. You know, it was it was it was big news at the time. And, you know, it’s probably his finest moment to where, you know, he sort of, especially after the death of his son, he’d been like, somewhat cautious early on, although he had like hinted again about his opposition to the war. But uh, but he challenges a very strongly in fact, one of the most famous anti war speeches by a prominent politician he gave in Lexington, Kentucky, which is where his wife was from, or knows where he’s promised where he’s from, as well. I’m sorry, I messed that up. It’s where he’s from. And it’s like a very famous speech. I mean, everybody’s there. It’s like a million hours. But it’s really good. If you read if you have the time to read it. Well on his way to Washington, to take his seat as a freshman, Congress person, stopping in town sort of happens to happen is a young Abraham Lincoln, whose wife Mary Todd is from the area is from the same place in Kentucky as clay, Lincoln hears the speech is blown away by it. He’s already a Henry Clay aficionado. He calls him like his idol early in life. And a lot of folks have speculated on the effect that it obviously had on Lincoln and Lincoln does write some of it down in his diary of how profound it was. So look, there’s just a lot of stuff happening in the Mexican War. And so I could make it a story on just how fascinating it is, but and we can go in whatever direction you want next, but what I would say is a lot of this fascination And coincidence is almost too good to be true and therefore well worth telling. But it’s actually pretty relevant to some of like, the forever wars and the lies and the regime change in the internal politics of anti war to the extent that it exists today.
Scott Horton 13:13
Yeah. Here’s where I want to go. Here’s what I want to know. What happened to the Mexicans?
Danny Sjursen 13:19
Yeah, that’s an important question. No one really ever talks about the Mexicans, right? We put their name in the war. We even put them first right? We even front loaded them in the name of the war. But they’re not reported on very often until more recent scholarship. I’ve gotten into a lot of arguments over social media about this article, because a lot of folks you know, want to say, Oh, you know, you’re saying America is bad and you’re not pointing out the flaws in Mexico. Of course, they haven’t read the next three parts. So they don’t know that I do. In fact, well, the point is Mexico is there a week in New Republic and they are very fractured at the outset. They have had strong men, but then they’ve also had more liberals. They’re very divided politically at home. and Mexico doesn’t even really have a firm grip on, you know, the northern provinces that we later on next right which become California, New Mexico and all this and Texas, they have very tenuous hold on that. In fact, they can barely fight off the Apaches and the comanches I mean that northern Mexican settlements are getting wiped out and there’s like a great migration South back towards Mexico City. The Indians are winning in many cases, which makes the job of the American army easier, which explains some of the early victories especially out west Mexico is the war in the north the original theater for the first year which is Zachary Taylor the fighting just south of Texas. It goes pretty well for the Americans although the Mexicans fight gallon Lee actually throughout the throughout this war, by the way, they fight gallantly, but you know, it’s slow and it’s a long march to Mexico City and tough terrain and desert and all this so the Winfield Scott, another famous you know, West Point or and general who runs but doesn’t win the presidency is a he leads the first ever major American army amphibious invasion. One of the great logistical feats, frankly, I mean, the Duke of Wellington said it was like the greatest logistical feat like of the time, right? So because he was still alive and so then he marches to Mexico City and like all the guys who become famous Civil War generals, you’ve heard of them, right Robert E. Lee, George picket, all these guys are there and some of them make big names for themselves. pickets, like this flamboyant guy who charges up to pull the peg which is like this fortress, but Mexico City falls. Now here’s where it gets interesting. No one ever talks about this part of the war. The story usually ends with the fall of Mexico City, but the Americans have nobody to surrender to them. Because the kind of temporary dictator back in power after his fault, the Alamo and San Jacinto, you know, Santa Ana, he’s gone. And there’s this like division between the conservative oligarchs in the Met and the liberals, so to speak in Mexico City. By the way, the Mexican people, a whole bunch of them don’t quit. And the guerrilla war continues and actually lots and lots of Americans are killed ambushed, right in addition, all the guys that died of disease, and Scott’s down there with the State Department rep, basically, this guy next slide out who was sent by pull up, but eventually abandoned spoke and they want to make peace as fast as possible and get the heck out of dodge. Because it’s not going so great for the Americans down there. And it turns out that running a messy, broken Republic on the verge of civil war, sound familiar is difficult. Eventually, they cobbled together against the wishes of Polk who wants a harder piece bargain wants to take even more of Mexico wants even more, you know, doesn’t you know, just want to pay them anything and all this. They basically make a deal on the ground largely because there’s no internet and good communications. So there’s a lot of distance and they cobbled together sort of like a liberal coalition and they they make peace with it, of course take the northern third plus of Mexico, but the story Even the more sophisticated scholarship ends there. But Mexico doesn’t ever really recover, you know, for quite a long time. I don’t remember the numbers, although I think it’s in one of my later segments. You know, they go through an enormous amount of governments, presidents and all this over the course of really the next 70 to 80 years. And of course, the the Americans are responsible for all of that. But we certainly played a really great role like we have in so many other countries, some of which that I’ve occupied myself in in creating fomenting the disorder that really made this young Republic remember, it was only 25 years old at the time of the war. So Americans have having to intervene and famously, you know, in the banana War era, several times around the turn of the century dealing with some of this disorder and like civil war that follows through and I’ll just say Finally, in the immediate aftermath, or relatively immediate aftermath around the time of our civil war, Mexico, which has gone through all these presidents and governments and goes massively into debt to the Europeans is invaded by France, right with some help from the British in the 1860s and occupied by the French army for quite some time and a Austrian, you know, kind of second son, Prince Maximilian is put in charge of the Mexican throne for several years until his government falls to Benito Juarez and he’s executed by firing squad. Point is, you know, Mexico becomes what we would now call like a failed state that requires quote, unquote, requires intervention from outside powers, all of which ends very poorly both for the outside powers and of course, especially for the Mexican so long answer, but I think that’s the most interesting part of the story. No one talks a damn thing about
Scott Horton 18:43
Yeah, call it blowback.
Hey, so you mentioned earlier offhand, but then when a different direction, but I wish you’d elaborate about these American army deserters who, as you say in the article, went AWOL in numbers that make the Vietnam War pale in comparison. And not only that, but they actually not all of them, but some of them didn’t just leave, but they switch sides in the war. How could that be?
Danny Sjursen 20:28
Yeah. I mean, just you know, starting with the smaller stuff, although it’s prominent, okay. So the highest per capita casualty rate of Americans of any American War, Mexican War. I mean, who knows that right, just in terms of between disease and combat death and how small the numbers involved because our army was relatively small even with the augmentation of the militias so massive, it’s a death factory next. I mean, guys just don’t come back. massive amounts of gr resistance eight percent desertion rate you know highest ever in American War Vietnam pales in comparison and then a few hundred more than a few less than several hundred mostly Irish Catholic immigrants who populated the regular army in huge numbers throughout the period and well into the Indian Wars of the late 19th century they join the enemy that part of it is the way they were treated in the American army and the way they were treated as immigrants you know, Irish were, you know, depicted as apes at this time largely in American political cartoons. And also just the Catholic heritage had some effect and Mexican propaganda which you know, there is sort of a latent and not so latent strain I can even speak to some extent up till today of like underdog, anti Imperial anti oppression and the Irish character which was probably even stronger than and so this like Mexican problem propaganda which had been calling and targeting especially the Irish and Catholic immigrants. Hey, you’re on the wrong side like you’re the invader It works on a huge number. I mean, I don’t think there’s another instance. Besides, you know, the revolution, which is more of a civil war. I don’t think there’s another instance of a large enough group, going AWOL from American army that they form their own Battalion, the San Patricio Battalion, the St. Patrick’s battalion. And they fight marvelously. For the Mexican army with incredible courage. Most of them die in combat. They bring special skills to the Mexican army because the thing that the American army was best at, right? The the Mexicans were equally brave and sometimes more. The thing that we’ve had over them was engineering skills, and even more so to artillery. And so the San Patricio guys were able to like help the Mexicans with that so they were considered very useful, but most die in combat, because they know what’s going to happen to them if they surrender. So in some cases, Mexican soldiers retreated in the St. Patrick’s guys fought to the end. Those who were captured I don’t have the stats. In front of me, but suffice it to say that many, many, many like scores were executed by the American army for treason, some had their sentences commuted to you know, life in prison. And the Mexicans To this day, have a lot of monuments and celebrate the St. Patrick’s battalion as heroes. So this was interesting. And you know, we talked today about military descent around whether it’s these protests or the COVID response or the wars. And you know, there’s a lot of generals who’ve come out and I’m skeptical of these faults even when I agree with what they say. But yeah, the generals were critical of the war. Scott and Taylor are the two major generals while active in service they didn’t like go public against the war but they were critical of folks policy. They leaked a lot of stuff. They fought him tooth and nail about strategy. They were even dubious about the, you know, efficacy, the war at the mid level. In the lower level, the lieutenants and captains in particular, you know, there’s even more rumblings most stay on and do their duty but grants the most famous guy who was given wildly just turned off by what he saw in Mexico, but it is important to note that, you know, I think of like the 40 odd major battles in the Civil War, I think 39 were commanded by like a West Point or on both sides. The exact numbers are easy to Google, but it’s staggering. Well, what they don’t mention is that, you know, 95 or more percent of those generals who we often list for their Western credentials, were also Mexican War veterans, most of whom were on that triumphant march from Veracruz to Mexico City with general Scott and General Lee, who is much in the news for all the Confederate naming. I was a lieutenant and then a captain and in probably the most important battle campaign to get around the major Mexican bought, you know, defensive position on the way to Mexico City personally scouted like a impossible path, like around the Mexican lines and is, you know, mentioned this dispatches, and so you know, he makes his name and I mean, you name you name a famous Civil War general and I can basically tell you that he was in Mexico and maybe even tell you a little something about it. And it’s, uh, it’s really important. It’s the major combat experience for the guys who become the generals in the war.
Scott Horton 25:27
Yep. Yeah, it’s, that’s the history of American history, right. There is wars and then generals moving to political prominence. Lots and lots of that. But now, so help me remember right, because I mentioned Howard Zinn earlier there. And there’s something very memorable about the Mexican American war there, although I’m not certain. Now, it’s been so many years since I read it, who it was, but I think maybe it was Taylor, who had written in his diaries or letters back home or something. During the war, that this is absolutely disgusting what we’re doing and the atrocities and the aggression and I just can’t stand it. I hate it so much. You remember what I’m talking about there?
Danny Sjursen 26:12
Yeah. So Taylor’s private correspondence is very skeptical of what we’re doing in Mexico a lot of guilt none of it public and completely anti pulk I mean, the the abhorrence that Taylor and Scott but a felt for pulk is really rivals the way a lot of these like retired generals seem to be so reflexively anti Trump, I mean, not to create perfect analogy, but the persona of Hulk was just bothersome in the extremes. A lot of these generals, of course, like in most cases, we found this out later and they didn’t really do anything about it. And you know, Taylor ride says war heroes status to become the Whig candidate. And then Victor in the, you know, 1848 election, so like right after the war, but like, let’s think about this for a second. You want to talk about like cynicism and irony. The Whigs who were dubious about the war from the start, but rolled over because they remembered what happened to the Federalists when they oppose the war of 1812, which is that they were destroyed as a party, they went away. I mean, they were totally discredited as traitors. So the Whigs that learned that lesson, so they go along with the war they don’t believe in until a grassroots anti war movement, the first in American history really at the grassroots forms that everyone knows about Thoreau and civil disobedience what that was about Mexico, and then only then just like our democrats today, and since Vietnam, then then they jump on the bandwagon and Co Op the anti war movement, but so then they become very anti war, and it’s probably the biggest, you know, political anti war effort in American history is a great parallel there
Scott Horton 27:55
with iraq war one, it didn’t quite destroy the Democratic Party, but Bill Clinton and john kerry and Joe Biden had all opposed iraq war one and then never lived it down. And we’re so embarrassed by that. And of course, when iraq war two came around, none of them were willing to make that same mistake again. So they made the opposite mistake by supporting it.
Danny Sjursen 28:14
It’s a great point. I mean, Bob Kerry of Nebraska, a Navy SEAL Medal of Honor winner, was groomed and expected to be president. In many ways. He was the perfect guy, right? He’s from the Midwest conservative state, but he’s a democrat. He’s a war hero, but his opposition to the Persian Gulf War was largely considered to have made him you know, untenable as a candidate. But, you know, my final point I guess, on the wigs is the irony. So the cynical wigs who suddenly become massively anti war many of them principal, most of its cynical, they then in order to beat the democrats right after the war, run, the heat one of the two hero generals from that war and Taylor wasn’t exactly like run on his anti war credentials, he runs on the triumphalism of the fact that he’s a national hero. And so the Whigs wanted power so bad, you know, that they they ran a general and there’s just like a degree of irony there, you know, I think and also just parallels the political calculus of the duopoly and it’s timeless,
Scott Horton 29:18
and they almost did run Wesley Clark in Oh, four. I mean, there’s pretty close parallel there.
Danny Sjursen 29:24
Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. It’s an interesting thing. And, you know, I don’t know, I don’t know how long we have. But you know, we’re
Scott Horton 29:31
working on at all um, yeah, that’s
Danny Sjursen 29:33
fine. I’ll tell you some other time. We’ll talk about the Alamo. I’m sure you’re interested in that down in Texas. I am and you
Scott Horton 29:38
have a great write up on it. And I already know that you’re absolutely right. Which sucks. Right? It is what it is. And so we’ll look forward to parts two and three. Of course, we might wait at antiwar.com and run them all together. Something that
Danny Sjursen 29:54
I wish they would do that. I wish that they would run them all together. But yeah, it’s good. Yeah.
Scott Horton 29:57
Yeah. FFF likes to do The tortured legacy of the Mexican American War Danny shirts firstname.lastname@example.org thanks again But
Danny Sjursen 30:09
hey, thanks God always glad to do it.
Scott Horton 30:11
The Scott Horton show, Antiwar Radio can be heard on kpfk 90.7 FM in LA, APSradio.com antiwar.com ScottHorton.org and libertarianinstitute.org