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James K. Polk

James K. Polk and the U.S. Mexican War: A Policy Appraisal

A Conversation With David M. Pletcher
Indiana University

James.K. Polk James K. Polk

Some people believe that President James K. Polk intentionally provoked the war with Mexico. What do you say about that?

What Polk wanted was to push Mexico into negotiating with the United States, and he was willing to create a threat of war to do this. If he had to fight, he wanted a short war and a quick victory. He never expected a long-drawn-out war. The Army was not ready for war and had never fought so far from home before. The country was divided. So Polk was taking a considerable risk in his bold stand toward Mexico.

Negotiations might have been possible if Polk had tried a different approach. Mexico had refused to recognize either the independence of Texas or its annexation by the United States, and when annexation occurred, broke relations and withdrew its minster from Washington. Polk rightly believed that he had to restore diplomatic relations, so he sent a special temporary envoy to Mexico. The Mexicans expected that envoy, John Slidell, would offer an indemnity to settle the Texas question, after which Mexico would receive him or someone else as permanent minister. Instead Polk made Slidell permanent minister and instructed him to open negotiations for the sale of California, ignoring Texas completely.

This did not suit the Mexicans at all. If they started by making a concession on Slidell’s status they would probably never get any settlement on Texas. Also Polk had backed up Slidell by sending troops to the Rio Grande, which Texans claimed was their proper boundary. The Mexican president, José Herrera, was newly in office and not very powerful. He did not dare receive Slidell for fear of being overthrown, as the opposition press was accusing him of planning to betray the country by selling Texas. Since he could not be received, Slidell left Mexico City for a town a few miles away, and Herrera sent troops to the Rio Grande to confront the Americans. Matters had reached an impasse.

Polk now needed an excuse to declare war, expecting at the most to fight a few skirmishes on the Rio Grande and then start negotiating. The Mexicans gave him the excuse he needed. The general commanding their troops on the Rio Grande sent a force across the river, and it ambushed a detachment of Americans and killed or captured all of them. The American general, Zachary Taylor, reported this action as a Mexican attack and concluded: "I presume this means the beginning of war." Polk and his cabinet prepared a declaration of war. Congress, badly divided between war and peace, had to support American soldiers under attack and voted to send supplies and reinforcements, whereupon Polk’s Democratic supporters convinced them that they might as well declare war altogether.

But Polk still did not expect the Mexicans to put up much of a fight. When his brother in Europe learned of what had happened, he wanted to come home and enlist, but Polk told him not to, as the war would soon be over.

How important was the Texan boundary controversy as a cause of the war?

For Polk it was more an excuse than a real cause. When he took office in 1845, the Texans occupied most of what is now east Texas, and San Antonio was only a frontier settlement. The Texans, like most American westerners, wanted to expand, and several years before Polk became president, they had sent a military expedition to take Santa Fe, to the west. The Mexicans beat them, so they had no claim to that part of the Rio Grande valley.

The Mexicans also tried to reconquer the rest of Texas but failed, so an uneasy balance remained. When the United States annexed Texas, Polk promised to protect the Texans from Mexico’s wrath and sent troops under Taylor to Corpus Christi. When Slidell went to Mexico, Taylor moved to the Rio Grande and built a temporary fort. Obviously the Texan boundary dispute was a proper subject for negotiation with Mexico, but Polk made it part of his strong stand.

Polk was negotiating with England at the same time over Oregon, wasn’t he? How did this affect his relations with Mexico?

Years before the U.S. and Britain had agreed to occupy the Oregon territory (modern Oregon, Washington state, and British Columbia) jointly as a temporary settlement. When Polk became president, negotiations had been reopened, and the states of the Middle West were clamoring for the U.S. to annex the whole territory.

Polk wanted to work out a compromise settlement without alienating the Western Senators and Congressmen, whose votes he needed for the rest of his legislative program. His idea was to stall until England took the initiative in offering a settlement. About the time Slidell went to Mexico he succeeded, and England showed a disposition to negotiate some sort of compromise. Up to that point Polk had been reluctant to force matters with Mexico. Fortunately for him, the British government became involved in a cabinet crisis of their own and did not want a quarrel with the U.S. Their more moderate attitude toward Oregon, in a sense, freed Pok to press Mexico harder. (After the war began, the U.S. and England split the Oregon territory along the line of the present U.S.-Canadian border. The Western politicians were dissatisfied but eventually accepted the settlement.)

Why did Polk try to bluff Mexico into negotiating instead of using persuasion?

Polk was very anxious to purchase California from Mexico, and he knew that Mexico would refuse to give it up. He thought there was no time to be lost, as he feared that England would seize it as a strong point on the Pacific. The London government had no such plans, for it had no claims on California as England did on Oregon. England was about to settle the Oregon controversy with the U.S. and was not likely to start another Anglo-American crisis over California.

Drawing of the White HouseBut Polk’s stubborn, aggressive, self-confident personality was the underlying reason for his policy of taking a strong stand and bluffing his opponents — "stonewalling," as we might call if now. The characteristics he shared with his mentor and patron Andrew Jackson. He had grown up in the lower Mississippi valley during the last stages of the Spanish Empire and had learned to hate and mistrust the deceitful Spanish "dons," with whom he now identified the Mexicans. Their weak, fumbling government only aroused his contempt. Americans at that time generally respected the British for their strength, and so did Polk. But England, he thought, would take anything she could. In both cases, he felt, the wisest course was what we would now call "eyeball" diplomacy — staring hard at the opponent and expecting him to blink first. This technique was beginning to work with England, and Polk had no doubt that it would also work with Mexico.

Unfortunately, this was exactly the wrong tactic to employ against Mexico, for it offended the Mexicans sense of honor and made the Mexicans dig in their heels and fight harder, even in a losing cause. A British diplomat who was familiar with the Spanish temperament said, "A Spaniard is like a mule. If you are riding this mule along a precipice and you spur him too hard, it will back off the cliff with you and take you down the chasm with him."

A good diplomat has to alternate tenacity and pliability, as the situation requires. He also has to be able to see the negotiation from the viewpoint of his opponent, as well as his own. Polk could do neither of these things; indeed, I think he had an inward contempt for diplomatic solutions.

What were the effects of Polk’s errors in negotiation?

The most immediate and obvious effect was a war lasting a year and nine months. In this war nearly 13,000 American men lost their lives and the country incurred expenses amounting to about $100,000 million. As a result of the U.S.-Mexican War, the settlement of the Oregon boundary and the annexation of Texas, the U.S. gained about 1.2 million square miles of land, over one-third of its present territory. But it incurred a number of indirect effects from the war, and these cannot be ignored. On the positive side, it took a big step up toward becoming a great power, on a par with Britain, France, and Russia, for the older nations respected strength, and American generals and soldiers had displayed this in abundance, even against a weaker foe.

But on the negative side, the war exacted heavy intangible costs as well. Latin Americans have usually looked up to us as a model of a liberal, democratic society and a government. Now, after our attack on Mexico, there began to be talk of "the colossus of the North." The United States had always been known for distasteful boasting and loud talk; after the war this became louder, and the feats of the American army suggested that the world might expect more than talk in the future. Worst of all, the Texas question and even more the war itself created an open wound of sectionalism inside the country, and the spread of slavery rose to the top of the list of public problems demanding solution. The war trained a generation of soldiers for the civil strife to come; it also trained the minds of the public at large.

Polk might have avoided these mixed effects of the war with a different line of diplomacy as president.