Irving W. Levinson
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. Please check back later for the full article.
The Mexico-United States War ranks among the most consequential events in the history of both nations. Although the casus belli for the declaration of war by the United States, on May 12, 1846, was the Mexican ambush of a U.S. Army patrol in the disputed Nueces Strip on April 25 of that year, the underlying cause was the desire of both nations to control the Mexican provinces of Nuevo Mexico and California. President James Knox Polk identified the acquisition of that territory as the principal objective of his administration.
The conflict also remains noteworthy for the extent to which the political milieu in both countries proved as important as the events on the battlefields. Mexico’s unity and growth had been severely set back by a devastating war of independence (1810–1821), by multiple golpes del estado, by the failure of two constitutions to produce a structure acceptable to both Conservatives and Liberals, and by enmities generated by the socio-economic structure. In the United States, the national unity evident at the outbreak of the war faded in the face of sectional rivalries, unexpectedly high casualties, and declining relations between the executive and legislative branches.
The military phases of the war fall into two segments. In the first, forces considerably smaller than those that would later be employed fought in Texas and in the Mexican provinces of Nuevo Mexico, California, Tamaulipas, and Nuevo Leon. When U.S. victories in northern Mexico failed to produce the anticipated Mexican surrender, the second phase of the conflict began on March 9, 1847, with General Winfield Scott’s invasion of central Mexico, and ended with his entrance into Mexico City on September 14, 1847.
In the seven months following, both governments sought to obtain the best terms. A rising tide of violent rural rebellion in Mexico and a rising tide of Whig opposition to the Polk administration in Washington served as catalysts during the negotiations. Two agreements, the February 2, 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and the March 6, 1848 Truce Agreement brought hostilities a close.
Consequences of the conflict included the Mexico’s loss of 529,000 square miles of territory, the consequent emergence of the United States as the dominant continental power, the dispossession of many Mexican citizens living in what had become U.S. territory, and the re-establishment of Mexican sovereignty over territories in rebellion.
Antonio López de Santa Anna (b. Xalapa, February 21, 1794; d. Mexico City, June 21, 1876) was one of the most notorious military caudillos of 19th-century Mexico. He was involved in just about every major event of the early national period and served as president on six different occasions (1833–1835, 1839, 1841–1843, 1843–1844, 1846–1847, and 1853–1855). U.S. Minister Plenipotentiary Waddy Thompson during the 1840s would come to the conclusion that: “No history of his country for that period can be written without constant mention of his name.”1 For much of the 1820s to 1850s he proved immensely popular; the public celebrated him as “Liberator of Veracruz,” the “Founder of the Republic,” and the “Hero of Tampico” who repulsed a Spanish attempt to reconquer Mexico in 1829. Even though he lost his leg defending Veracruz from a French incursion in 1838, many still regarded him as the only general who would be able to save Mexico from the U.S. intervention of 1846–1848. However, Mexicans, eventually, would remember him more for his defeats than his victories. Having won the battle of the Alamo, he lost the battle of San Jacinto which resulted in Texas becoming independent from Mexico in 1836. Although he recovered from this setback, many subsequently blamed him for Mexico’s traumatic defeat in the U.S.-Mexican War, which ended with Mexico ceding half of its territory to the United States. His corruption paired with the fact that he aligned himself with competing factions at different junctures contributed to the accusation that he was an unprincipled opportunist. Moreover, because he authorized the sale of La Mesilla Valley to the United States (in present-day southern Arizona) in the 1853 Gadsden Purchase, he was labeled a vendepatrias (“fatherland-seller”). The repressive dictatorship he led donning the title of “His Serene Highness” in 1853–1855, also gave way to him being presented thereafter as a bloodthirsty tyrant, even though his previous terms in office were not dictatorial. Albeit feted as a national hero during much of his lifetime, historians have since depicted Santa Anna as a cynical turncoat, a ruthless dictator, and the traitor who lost the U.S.-Mexican War on purpose. However, recent scholarship has led to a significant revision of this interpretation. The aim of this article is to recast our understanding of Santa Anna and his legacy bearing in mind the latest findings. In the process it demonstrates how important it is to engage with the complexities of the multilayered regional and national contexts of the time in order to understand the politics of Independent Mexico.