Library of Congress A theatrical poster for "Pain's great war spectacle: The Siege of Vera Cruz," c1890.

Border Battle

The Ugly Legacy of the Mexican-American War

In This Review

A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico
by Amy S. Greenberg
Knopf, 2012
344 pp. $30.00
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A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico. By Amy S. Greenberg. Knopf, 2012, 344 pp. $30.00 (paper, $16.95).

Every country sooner or later confronts the sins of its past, though rarely all at once. In recent decades, historians of the United States have revealed and explored the sins of American imperialism, recounting in detail Washington’s interventions in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Yet they have largely overlooked American meddling in Mexico. Consequently, few in the United States recognize that the Mexican-American War (1846–48) was Washington’s first major imperialist venture. Fewer still would understand why future U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, who fought in Mexico as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, would come to see it as the country’s most “wicked war.”

For Mexicans, the war was a national catastrophe. Their sense of depression receded nearly 20 years later, when Mex
ican forces fought off a second foreign occupation by France under Napoleon III. Yet the U.S. invasion was too harrowing to forget. It became institutionalized in national myth: in the heroic legend of the Niños Héroes, the boy martyrs of the war’s final battle, at Chapultepec; in the many monuments at the sites of major battles; and in the museums that house relics of the Mexican resistance. Today, one still sees traces of the war in the defensive and distrustful character of Mexican nationalism. For more than a century and a half, Mexico has remained deeply suspicious of its northern “gringo” neighbors, who might yet seize another slice of territory at a moment’s notice.

CHARACTER DRAMA

In recent decades, a number of worthwhile books have been published, in both Mexico and the United States, on various aspects of the war. Most, however, have been intended for academic audiences. Greenberg’s is the first that offers the kind of narrative history that, with sensitivity and balance, introduces the general reader to this remote and largely forgotten drama. It