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Book Review: A Wicked War - Polk, Clay, Lincoln and the 1846 US Invasion of Mexico

At the outset of A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln and the 1846 US Invasion of Mexico, historian Amy Greenberg takes it as a foregone conclusion that the Mexican-American War was an act of unjust aggression, formulated by an expansionist president who was beholden to the proponents of slavery. While it would have been preferable for the author to first present the facts and then reach a conclusion, this book is nonetheless a fresh and interesting analysis of the conflict that became known as "Mr. Polk's War." The author looks at new aspects of this war that have never been so thoroughly canvassed before, such as wartime atrocities, the evolution of anti-war sentiment at home, conscientious objection and the political dilemma faced by many politicians striving to balance competing factors of conscience and electability.

WickedWar

In telling the story of the "wicked war" (a title taken from a description of the conflict contained in the memoirs of Ulysses Grant), the author follows five historical figures who figured prominently in the event. The author has no love for President James Polk, who is portrayed as someone bent on prosecuting an unjust war against a weaker nation in order to take through force what could not be gained through negotiation. While other historians have debated the question of whether or not the southern boundary of Texas was the Rio Grande river (where American troops drew attack from Mexican forces, beginning the conflict), there is no debate in the mind of the author, who is certain that the conflict began with an unjust act of provocation by an invading army. Henry Clay is portrayed as the voice of reason, even though he straddles both sides of the issue in his public oratory. Abraham Lincoln is a young congressman who protests the war and attacks a wartime president, in spite of knowledge that doing so will wound him politically. John Hardin is a politician with a bright future who abandons his rise to power for military glory and becomes a prominent casualty. Nicholas Trist is an unappreciated diplomat who ultimately brokers a peace, to the chagrin of his expansionist president.

This book portrays a side of the Mexican War that is ignored by most historians, who generally play up the nationalistic and patriotic fervor and the tales of glory on the battlefield. Greenburg sets out the conditions leading up to the way and describes how and why she believes the war began. Although she says that her book will not contain a technical military account of the major battles, she actually does an excellent job of describing what happened and why smaller US forces were able to emerge victorious in many of the major battles of the war, in a concise but coherent manner. But where this book excels is in its telling of many of the stories of the war that are left out of most other histories: the undisciplined state militias and the atrocities they committed against the Mexican civilian populace, the problems of communication between the war department and the armies in 1846, the rates of desertion and the reasons for it, and how a popular war became an unpopular one. The author superbly describes the transition of the hearts and minds of the American populace as the war goes from one enjoying popular patriotic support to one that has the public questioning why the country went to war and if all of the tragic loss of life is really worth it. Although the author does not expressly make the comparison, it is easy for readers to see historic parallels to Vietnam and Iraq, as the author shows that decline in public support for foreign wars is not a recent phenomenon,

There are times when the author goes too far in projecting her hypothesis. For example, she vilifies not only James Polk, but also first lady Sarah Polk, referring to the war as "Mr. and Mrs. Polk's War", but fails to make a convincing case as to why the first lady is deserving of such scorn. She also presents Henry Clay as the conscience of the anti-war sentiment, especially in reference to a powerful critical speech Clay gave when wartime dissent was at its highest. But while she acknowledges that Clay has also generated pro-war rhetoric when it suited his political purposes or audiences, this hypocrisy is ignored.

Despite its imperfections, this is an excellent history of an important conflict often overlooked by historians. Its consideration of issues often left out of most wartime histories make it an exceptionally good read. My only criticism is that it would have been even more compelling if the author had let her conclusions follow the evidence, rather than the reverse.
Tags: author: g, genre: non-fiction, review, subject: history
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