I recently overheard a speaker refer to the “Mexican War.” He had no ill intentions, but I should have corrected him. It was, more properly, the “U.S.-Mexican War.”

It is known in Mexico as the “Guerra de los Estados Unidos a México.” Many Mexicans speak of, sadly, the “Yankee Invasion.” Sometimes, in the U.S., the event is termed the “Mexican-American War.” But any reader can realize the confusion and inappropriateness of that term.

The War followed the 1845 U.S. annexation of Texas, a Mexican province. Mexico, an independent Republic since 1824, had invited immigrants to its northeast territory—in retrospect, an ironic move that lead to their government’s loss of power. Mexico, at that time, was politically divided and militarily unprepared for international conflict.

The U.S. was rife with “manifest destiny” propaganda, claiming the U.S. had a “God-given right” to own the Atlantic to the Pacific. Southerners, such as President Polk, looked for more land where they could extend slavery. He moved troops into Mexico and used defensive attacks as pretext to call for Congress to declare war. General Taylor crossed the Nueces border into Mexico and Major General Winfield Scott invaded Vera Cruz and proceeded (much as Cortéz had done) into Mexico City.

Northern lawmakers opposed, to no avail. In Mexico City, young military school cadets, resisted, finally committing suicide rather than submit (the “Niños Héroes”). The War was the first U.S. armed conflict on foreign soil. There were severe consequences for the Americans and double those losses for Mexicans. The conflict pitted a divided Mexico against an expansionist administration of the U.S. When the dust cleared (and the blood dried) Mexico had lost one-half of its territory. Besides Texas, that included all of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and California. Even a take-over of Baja California was attempted.

The formal termination was found in terms dictated by the U.S. in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (Tratado de Guadalupe Hidalgo, in Spanish), a lop-sided agreement, still in force. Many of its provisions, e.g., protecting the human rights of former Mexican citizens, were ignored in practice. The agreement has stalked U.S.-Mexican relations ever since. The treaty ensured Mexico would remain undeveloped for decades. (To the north of the new Rio Grande border, gold was discovered days after the signing of the treaty.) In the U.S., within a decade after the treaty, former Mexicans, now Mexican Americans, became a disenfranchised, poverty-stricken minority.

Los Niños Héroes

Significant events related to the War and Treaty remain. Abolitionists (to slavery) opposed the War. Historian and philosopher, Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” became the standard of peaceful resistance to unjust policies for future activists. During the war, others resisted. Veterans of Irish Catholic descent formed the Batallón de San Patricio and fought with Mexico, outraged by U.S./Protestant military officers’ treatment of Catholic Mexicans. They are remembered and revered in Mexico. The War became a training ground for officers and troops for both the North and South in years following (John Eisenhower, “The U.S. War with Mexico, 1846-1848”).

And beware: “your sins will find you out.” After the War, U.S. General Zachary “Old Rough and Ready” Taylor parlayed his reputation as war hero into a successful campaign for presidency in 1848. In effect, that killed the Whig party. His wealth and militarism had beguiled the party. It never recovered from his loutish behavior, his complete inexperience in government. He was—until recently—the worst president in U.S. history.

Could there be a lesson there for our current situation? History will not be kind to those who choose power over principle. Neither will history be kind to a society which will not search its conscience nor change behavior. We must rebuild good relations with Mexico. If we, as Americans, do not resolve to disavow racism, militarism, “saber-rattling,” or loutish leaders, we deserve the fate that befalls us. God help us.