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The Aftermath of War

Many Truths Constitute the Past: The Legacy of the U.S.-Mexican War

A Conversation With David J. Weber
Southern Methodist University

As Americans, as we try to understand this war, we see it inevitably through the eyes of those sources that are most intelligible to us — through English language sources, through the diaries and letters of soldiers who fought at the time, and through our own newspaper accounts. Historically, we've had something of a one-sided view of this war, largely because we've seen it through our own side. Increasingly though, we as historians and as Americans have come to see that there are many different points of view about an event like this. We've become more sophisticated reading Spanish and then talking to Spanish-speaking historians in Mexico. Reading their sources, we start to see the war is much more multidimensional. It was not just about Mexico versus the U.S., but within the United States there was a division of opinion — a minority opposed to the war. Within Mexico, there were profound divisions of opinion as well. It's only in seeing all of these different viewpoints, all of these voices, that we can really understand the complexity of this event.

When we study history in school, we expect to find the truth of history. Our teachers demand it of us. We take exams in which there's a right answer — it's either true or false.

Photograph of books and papers on a deskThose of us who study history for a living understand very well that there are many truths. There are many valid points of view about a historical event. Not all of them may be right, but they may be valid. A person who sees only a little part of an event may understand it the wrong way, because they're not privy to seeing the whole picture — someone else may have a bigger picture. But the person who saw the event from one vantage point still saw it and what they saw was real. So, I think it's better to think many truths constitute the past, rather than to think of a single truth.

This war between the United States and Mexico, about which Americans have known and cared so little, made a profound difference in the United States' future shape — in our wealth with the discovery of gold in California and in our image of ourselves as an expansionist, transcontinental empire, which later became a major player on the global stage. The war certainly shaped the area in which many of us live today from Texas all the way to California. We would be tourists in those regions were it not for the war.

For Mexicans, the reverse is certainly the case. Mexico lost the rich potential of California and its fabulous gold mines, lost the potential of the agricultural potential and the water resources that this region might have offered for what is today northern Mexico. And instead of a great pride in becoming an expansionist country that the United States developed into, Mexico developed a massive inferiority complex as a result of that war, wondering where they had gone wrong as a nation. How could it lose half of its national territory? The war became a scar on the national psyche that would last well into this century and was quite in sharp contrast to our own loss of memory, largely about this victorious moment for Americans.

I think one reason why Americans have also forgotten about this war with Mexico is that much of it was fought on Mexican soil, or it was fought in one corner of the U.S., which is now the American Southwest. Our national history always seems to unfold in the 13 Colonies to the east of the Mississippi. The west has always been regarded as a regional story. So this war appears to be regional, although its consequences are manifestly national. And if we're to write American history as being truly the history of all America, then the battles that took place in this region, the peoples in this region and their stories need to be incorporated into that larger fabric of American history.

I also think, in part, the U.S.-Mexican War was obliterated from the United States' national memory by the Civil War, which followed in its heels. The "great victory" began to crumble in the midst of sectional conflict, and then Americans killing Americans, which became the great story if one wanted to think about conflict in the middle of the century. The U.S.-Mexican War then was forgotten. One wonders a bit if the victory in a war that was, after all, a war of aggression to seize territory was not conveniently forgotten by Americans, because it's not one of the more honorable moments in American history.

Among historians who have tried to assess the war and the degree of culpability on either side, the traditional view is expressed early in the century by Justin Smith. This was a victorious and wonderful moment for Americans. Today I think very few historians take that position. Most historians that I know, and I don't think I know an exception to this, view the war as a war of national aggression on the part of the United States, simply to gain territory. It wasn't that we wanted to fight a war to gain territory, but we do have the sense that Polk bullied Mexico, pushed Mexico to a point where he thought it would cave in, and we would get what we wanted. When Mexico didn't cave in, we finally took what we wanted in a war.

When the war ended there were close to 75,000 Mexicans living in the conquered territory, from California to Texas. And they had the choice of either going back to Mexico or staying in the United States. If they stayed, they could choose Mexican or U.S. citizenship. If they didn't declare their choice, after a year they would be automatically citizens of the United States. Many of them discovered that they had become second-class citizens — that American laws were not extended equally to them. Justice was delayed and therefore denied. Many of them lost their rights to own land, for reasons that are quite complicated. But clearly in the end, Mexicans from California to New Mexico lost their properties, and began to feel, as expressed by some of them, that they had become foreigners in their native land.

Many of us who contemplate the past would like to have clear, unambiguous answers about the past. But the answers are not ever to be unambiguous. The past, of course, exists. I'm not denying that there is an objective past, but all that remains is in our memories or in the sources and our ability to use those sources. As a result, we understand the past only in imperfect ways. Those ways often tell us as much about us and our reconstructions of the past as they do about the past itself. It appears inevitable to me that we're going to continue to retell the story of the war between the United States and Mexico to future generations, and tell it differently as the interests of each generation shift and as we use our memories selectively to get the kind of answers from the past that we often wish to receive.