A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent

In This Review

A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent
By Robert W. Merry
Simon & Schuster, 2009
592 pp. $30.00
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Merry's extraordinary study of the Polk administration succeeds on two levels. First, it brilliantly accomplishes its primary task of gathering together various elements of U.S. politics to present a clear narrative account of the tenure of one of the most important but least studied figures in U.S. history. Second, it pulls off the far more difficult feat of making the history and politics of a faraway period useful to contemporary readers. James Polk's administration was dominated by the Mexican-American War, a conflict primarily remembered in the United States today as an easy, if morally tainted, victory. Merry demolishes the cakewalk view of the war, demonstrating just how politically tortuous and risky Polk's path to victory really was, and how large a role luck (and quiet British diplomatic assistance) played in the triumph. At the same time, he qualifies the conventional view of Mexico as the innocent victim of cold-blooded aggression and avarice. Arrogance and fecklessness marked Mexico's approach to its dangerous neighbor, and the Mexican catastrophe was brought on as much by Mexico's own reckless folly as by American greed.