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Mexico Then, Iraq Now

I came across another currently-relevant passage from A People's History of the United States, this one involving the Mexican-American War. The expansionist movement was in full swing during the 1840s, with the U.S. setting its sights on the conquest of Texas. President James Polk was just itching to get justification for attacking Mexico, and had U.S. troops massed on the north bank of the Rio Grande.

Polk: "Up to this time, as we knew, we had heard of no open act of aggression by the Mexican army, but that the danger was imminent that such acts would be committed. I said that in my opinion we had ample cause of war, and that it was impossible...that I could remain silent much longer...that the country was excited and impatient on the subject.

There's that notorious word "imminent" again--apparently, the Bush doctrine of preemptive war isn't a new one. But at least Polk went to the trouble of having the army incite the retreating Mexicans into an attack. Polk finally got what he was looking for in April 1846, when a U.S. patrol was ambushed. Zinn continues:

The country was not yet "excited and impatient." But the President was. When the dispatches arrived from General Taylor telling of casualties from the Mexican attack, Polk summoned the cabinet to hear the news, and they unanimously agreed he should ask for a declaration of war.
John Schroder, in Mr. Polk's War: "The disciplined Democratic majority in the House responded with alacrity and high-handed efficiency to Polk's war recommendations."

The bundles of official documents accompanying the war message, supposed to be evidence for Polk's statement, were not examined, but were tabled immediately by the House. Debates on the bill providing volunteers and money for the war was limited to two hours...barely a half-hour was left for discussion of the issues.

(The opposition Whigs) were not so powerfully against the military action that they would stop it by denying men and money for the operation. They did not want to risk the accusation theat they were putting American soldiers in peril by depriving them of the materials necessary to fight. The result was that Whigs joined Democrats in voting overwhelmingly for the war resolution, 174 to 14.

Schroeder: "(Throughout the war) the politically sensitive Whig minority could only harry the administration with a barrage of verbiage while voting for every appropriation which the military campaigns required."

War is declared with insufficient debate and review of the supporting evidence, and the minority party in Congress verbally opposes the war while faithfully voting in favor of all resolutions and approprations. Sounds too familiar. Abraham Lincoln was first elected to the House after the war was already underway; in July 1846 he addressed the House in response to the patriotism of the Whigs being questioned based on their opposition to the war:

"You Democrats say we Whigs have always opposed the war...The declaration that we have always opposed the war is true or false, according as one may understand the term 'oppose the war.' If to say 'the war was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the President" be opposing the war, then the Whigs have very generally opposed it...But if, when the war had begun, and become the cause of the country, the giving of our money and our blood, in common with yours, was support of the war, then it it not true that we have always opposed the war. With few individual exceptions, you have constantly had our votes here for all the necessary supplies..."

Then, as now, it's possible to support the troops while opposing the administration which started the war in the first place. There's absolutely nothing unpatriotic about such opposition. One more Zinn comment:

Accompanying all this aggressiveness was the idea that the United States would be giving the blessings of liberty and democracy to more people.

Or more white males, at least. Indians, blacks and women were still officially considered inferior, and not entitled to the same luxuries. And conservatives today still aren't sure what to think of them.

February 24, 2004 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink