to many, the fighting that began on 8 May 1846 at Palo Alto, Texas, and ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on 2 February 1848 constitutes the military history of the United States of America’s war with Mexico. This framework has remained fundamentally unchanged for more than 150 years. Then, as now, the war stands as a conventional nineteenth-century conflict fought by armies of two sovereign states in set-piece battles as well as in ongoing partisan warfare. This paradigm is seriously flawed and ought to be replaced.
Within Mexico at that time, various demographic factions – delineated along economic, racial, and other variables – prevented much of a consensus on policy, and certainly made any mandate by a mathematical majority impossible. The country was so fragmented that as one group offered intense, guerilla-style resistance to U.S. soldiers, major cities gave no resistance – not even objection – to being occupied by the U.S. Army, and in some cases seemed to even benefit from such occupation:
when U.S. forces entered Mexican territory, they crossed into a nation divided along lines of class, race, and rights. The U.S. Army marched into a nation at war with itself as well as at war with the invader. This particular duality remains essential to understanding the subsequent course of events that involved governments, armies, and civilians.
Wise military leaders – Levinson chooses Winfield Scott as an admirable example – understood this dynamic, and went to great lengths to demonstrate benevolence toward the citizens of the occupied cities. At the same time, U.S. forces in the region were dependent upon long supply lines through unsecured territory; supply convoys needed large numbers of soldiers to guard them along the way. Despite peaceful and masterful occupation of cities, therefore, the U.S. troops were at risk because supplies were uncertain, and the larger U.S. strategy endangered because many men were tied up guarding supply lines instead of attacking military targets.
Levinson compares and contrasts the U.S. presence in Mexico with the occupation of Spain by Napoleon’s troops. That latter event, thirty or forty years prior to the U.S. conflict with Mexico, was the actual origin of the term ‘guerilla’ warfare; whether it was the origin of the form of warfare itself, and not merely the word, is subject to debate: one might possibly conceive of Germanic resistance to Roman soldiers between 50 B.C. and 476 A.D. as guerilla warfare. Levinson’s point is, however, that Winfield Scott did better than Napoleon, because Scott, while facing the same type of hit-and-run adversary, did a much better job of forming friendly relations with that segment of the local population which was willing to countenance the possibility of a mutually beneficial arrangement with the occupying U.S. forces.
The guerilla-style efforts at disrupting U.S. supply lines were effective; they might have even crushed the U.S. military operations in Mexico, but they did not, largely because a significant segment of the population was indifferent to, or even slightly supportive of, the U.S. presence. This comfort with the presence of U.S. troops was the result of some Mexicans’ ambivalence with their own government.
At this point, Levinson’s narrative omits a detail included by fellow historians Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski. Their account of the same events notes that, at one point, Scott, realizing his vulnerability in depending on long and difficult-to-defend supply lines, decided to operate his army without a supply line, living off the land for needed materials. Levinson’s description of the effective guerilla operations, and their effect on those supply lines, reciprocally sheds light on Scott’s decision to abandon temporarily those lines and work without them.
As the war progressed, and the Mexican military increasingly turned its resources toward offering resistance to U.S. operations, those segments of Mexican society most opposed to the Mexican government saw an opportunity, and rebellions arose in various parts of the country. The Mexican military could not simultaneously harass U.S. troops and quell rebellions. Faced with their inability to fight basically two wars at the same time, the Mexicans – or more exactly, the Mexican government – was willing to negotiate a peace treaty. “The 2 February 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the almost equally important truce agreement of 6 March 1848” ended the war, but did not end U.S. military activity in the country. The latter document pledged U.S. military support for the Mexican government’s efforts to put down rebellions. In addition to direct military action, the United States also sold significant amounts of weapons to the Mexican army at deeply discounted prices.
Levinson’s article is important because it reminds to be alert for situations in which there is a significant internal division in one of the belligerents. Such cases appear at different points in history: in the incident involving the U.S.S. Panay, in 1937, there were three countries involved – Japan, China, and the U.S. – there were in essence six parties, because each of those countries had two major internal factions: in China, the Communists opposed the Nationalists; in Japan, the militarists were eager to expand the war, while the civilian government was not; in the United States, isolationists opposed internationalists. Mexico during the 1846-1848 war was even more fractured: there were divisions of race, divisions of wealth, and divisions of political agendas. Mexico’s internal schisms led to its inability to defend itself from the U.S., and ironically also led to military aid from the U.S.: having defeated Mexico, the U.S. found it necessary to then stabilize Mexico in order to form a lasting peace.
A final lesson to be learnt concerns the distinction between victory in battle and success in war. In Mexico, as would be the case at the end of the Second World War, the U.S. Army could destroy any enemy formation that the Americans wished to destroy. But domination of the battlefields did not guarantee the emergence of the desired postwar political result. In Mexico, a stabilization program for a cooperative government emerged as the prerequisite for peace. Similarly, the willingness of prominent Japanese and Germans made possible the transition of both nations from defeated tyrannies to emergent democracies. Clearly, Scott recognized such reality even if civilians above his grade did not. And so let us, even if it be late in the day, now praise a famous man.
The U.S. Army not only occupied, but placed its men and resources into the service of, the government it had so recently defeated – an irony. The management of the situation on the ground immediately after the peace treaty and ceasefire agreements was essential to creating a stable situation. Managing, and maintaining good working relations with, the locals during and after the war was as important as the actual battles themselves.