Memorial Day—-A Dissenting View, Part 3: Honor the heroes, but also examine the causes of war

The Mexican War, 1846

The United States, which wants to buy California from Mexico, has just incorporated Texas into the United States. Texas is a former province of Mexico that won its independence from Mexico after a short war of rebellion. The successful revolution came in part because an unstable Mexican government revoked the constitution that guaranteed certain rights to provinces. Mexico has been unstable; it has had many constitutions since winning its independence from Spain in 1821. The central government has been having problems with many of its distant provinces.

A consistent theme of Mexican history in the 19th century was how much power the central government and states should have. Should the nation be centralized or de-centralized? This will be a problem continuing into the early 20th century in Mexico. Constitutions and strong man regimes will come and go.

By 1846, President James Polk, a follower of American nationalist Andrew Jackson, has become president of the United States. He is ready to take the country to war with Mexico if he can’t negotiate the purchase of various Mexican lands. Mexico is a nation perennially short of cash, but Polk isn’t too particular the methods he will use to accomplish his goal, which is primarily obtaining California. Polk, in the mold of his hero Jackson, is also involved in a dispute with Britain over Oregon. Jackson detested the British.

The Mexican government rebuffs all attempts by the United States to buy California. Mexico is led by General Santa Anna. He is one of the worst leaders in its troubled history. He lost the battle of San Jacinto, which led to Texas independence. However, the boundaries between Mexico and the new republic of Texas were not properly set. Texas, another economic basket case that was dithering with foreign powers just before the war, ends its independent status and joins the United States.

But now where does Mexico now begin and the United States end?

Here is the perfect dispute for Polk, or any leader hellbent on war, to take the United States to war. The United States puts troops on one side of the border. Mexico puts its soldiers on the other side of the border. They are in close proximity. Somebody fires. Men die. War has begun. Polk claims that American blood has been shed on American soil and the country has no choice but to declare war. Mexico and the United States are at war, a war in which the United States will grab large parts of the Southwest and California.

How did it start?

Polk has engaged in what will become one of the most common weapons of what will become the Imperial Presidency. It is an end run around the original constitution that will be used by unscrupulous chief executives both democrat and republican. They will talk peace in public. During elections they promise peace, but privately put U.S. troops in harm’s way. Then, when U.S. forces are fired on, these presidents feign outrage and say the United States had no choice; that it was pushed into war.

It is a trick that will be played by many of Polk’s successors from Woodrow Wilson to FDR to Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam etc. (For instance, in the case of Johnson, he knew that it was highly questionable that American warships were fired on in the Gulf of Tonkin. Nevertheless, he takes the country to war even though most of the country voted in the elections of 1964 not to go war. Forty-eight years before Wilson, who was negotiating with the British at the time his people were bragging that he “kept us out of war,” wins re-election. Five months later the United States enters World War I).

The Mexican War will go on for some two years and many generals as well as leaders in Congress will condemn it, including a young officer who will become famous in the next war, U.S. Grant.

President Polk, said Congressman Abraham Lincoln, must have begun the war motivated by a desire for “military glory—that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood—that serpent’s eye, that charms to destroy.” (The quotation is from the book “Lincoln” by David Donald). It is interesting that Lincoln, who questioned if U.S. soldiers were attacked by Mexicans, will complain about the showers of blood because in the next war, one he will preside over as president, there will be more blood showers.

The Civil War

Certainly any sane, fair minded, person, no matter what side he or she favors, would have to say that the American Civil War, besides being an incredible slaughter, was one of the greatest tragedies in our history. One of the great tragedies of the war was the total war strategies used by the North in the last years of the war as depicted in the fascinating book “Sherman’s Ghosts.” Grant, Sherman’s superior, and Lincoln sanctioned feral acts of war. These included terrible things done to private property and civilians as well as the mistreatment of prisoners of war, something that apparently was happening on both sides (Some of them were described in the play “The Andersonville Trial,” a play that details the mistreatment of Union soldiers, but only hints that Southern soldiers could also be mistreated). These acts of war are horrible things that had never been tried on a massive scale before in any war. And, unfortunately, they have been become the norm in a lawless world.

The war was, among other things, about slavery. About half the states permitted it. But it was a dying institution. It was largely doomed by the triumphs of the Industrial Revolution. And by the way, the North, in the first 18 months of the war, was not committed to ending slavery. Any debate about this can be shown by reading President Lincoln’s first inaugural message.

The war was also about states’ rights. This was a view of the constitution by Southern states. They argued that liberty was based on a decentralized view of the constitution that allowed for maximum freedom for the individual states and, in extreme cases, contended that states were free to leave the union when they thought their rights were in jeopardy. (A right nearly claimed by some Northern states at the Hartford Convention in the last days of the War of 1812, a war that was unpopular in much of New England).

Since the North was not initially ready to end slavery and since the South just wanted to go its own way, Lord John Russell, Britain’ foreign minister during the American Civil war, would say of the war, “The North was fighting for empire and the South was fighting for independence.”

But it was also about the economic differences between the North and the South. The latter was a natural free trade region, more rural than the urban North. The big industrialists of the North wanted the protections of high tariff walls, which many Southerners believed hurt them. So the war was about a number of things, but ultimately, I believe it was about two parts of the country that were evolving in different ways, but by 1861 were unable to settle their differences. War was the worst way to settle them.

Carl Schurz, a one-star Northern general in the civil war and later a member of Congress, had been disgusted by the war’s slaughters. By the way, our civil war, the first total war, again as detailed in the book “Sherman’s Ghosts,” astounded many European military observers. They could not believe how generals on both sides threw away lives through their blunders. Their insane massed formations and charges straight into the newly efficient murderous fire of the long rifle were at times virtually suicidal.

Think of Grant’s enormous loss of men at the Wilderness in 1864 and Burnside’s stubborn insistence on charging and charging again into murderous Confederate fire at Fredericksburg in 1862. In the latter, it practically led to a mutiny of corp. commanders when Burnside, said by some historians to be the worst general of the war, wanted to continue the attack on heavily fortified Confederate positions. These, along with what Schurz had witnessed in Germany in the revolution of 1848, were sad spectacles. Schurz saw them first hand and never wanted them to happen again. Schurz knew the Civil War was a slaughterhouse, even for the winning side.

Indeed, a military historian, in Walter Mills’, “Arms and Man. A Study of American Military History,” quotes one civil war veteran as saying that “a unit that had lost no more than 10 percent of its strength in any major action of the Civil War would have been regarded as having been hardly seriously engaged. In the big Civil War battles casualties of 50 percent for units were not unusual and of 80 or 90 percent were not unheard of.” No wonder Grant, one of the most “successful” of Union generals, was labelled “a butcher” by some in the North. That’s even though he ultimately was arguably the most successful general of the war.

It was precisely these moral quandaries that made Schurz—an abolitionist who thought that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation should have come sooner—grimace and make comments that sounded like the dissents of the British radicals Cobden and Bright over the wasteful, superfluous wars of the British Empire.

Our disastrous civil war was so unlike the recent historical experience of Czechoslovakia. Here we had two very different societies that emerged from the nightmare of Communism that found a peaceful way found to settle their differences. For instance, the Czech Republic allowed Slovakia to go its own way without a civil war. One would think that simply letting the South peacefully go its own way might have been one way to settle the disputes of 1861. However, that wasn’t the American way.

And millions of Americans killed each other. It is a tragedy that still haunts our country. And the slaughter that was sanctioned by this war—and the brutal methods of win at any cost led, I believe, to the Indian Wars of the late 19th century as documented in the Helen Jackson book, “A Century of Dishonor.”

These wars are to the shame of our nation, a nation of great accomplishments but also disgraces. Without the acknowledgement of the latter, painful as it is for all honest Americans, these mistakes will be repeated with more useless wars. And one of them followed the end of the American Civil War 33 years later.

The Spanish-American War 1898

One can with honor and decency easily debate for either side in the American Civil War. The North can, for example, argue it was a force for ending slavery. The South can argue that it was following the principles of the original constitution—an argument accepted by the historian Lord Acton—and that late in the war it was ready to free the slaves. However, there is, I believe, simply no argument that can be made in behalf of the United States going to war against the floundering and often corrupt Spanish Empire, which was too weak to fight any first-class power. To me, this war was as useless, and yes ill-moral, as the Vietnam War of my youth.

There was no threat to the United States from Spain, an empire in its last throes trying to hold on to its last significant pieces, the Philippines and Cuba. Before the war, there was inconvenience to the United States as yet another revolt in nearby Cuba (There had been several in the 19th century) in 1898 was causing problems. However, there was no security threat to the United States. Some Cuban revolutionaries, realizing they weren’t quite strong enough to defeat the flaccid Spanish Empire, came to the United States to lobby Congress. They spread lurid stories of Spanish atrocities against Cubans and of American women strip searched in Cuba. Some of these stories had some truth, but some were made up out of whole cloth by yellow journalists looking to boost circulation.

At the same time, some republicans in Congress were starting to condemn America’s traditional isolationist foreign policy. They thought jingoism and American Empire would be a good campaign issue. A war with Spain would help this movement, they believed, and keep them in power since the nation had just elected a new republican president in 1896.

The Spanish-American War was a war that Carl Schurz, a Congressional leader, lobbied President McKinley not to fight. Initially the president, elected in 1896, agreed and promised Schurz in a letter not to give in to the “jingo spirit.” But then he let himself drift into war with the collapsing Spanish Empire. A short, but bloody war ensued.

John Hay, Secretary of State under McKinley’s successor, called it “the Splendid Little War.” How the killing of people in a superfluous war is “splendid” or in any way good is a question that I believe every person should consider. And, if one disagrees, the person should visit a veterans’ hospital. President George W. Bush, in his memoir, “Decision Points,” describes such visits. Much to his credit, the visits made him wonder about the war and the supposed weapons of mass destruction—inaccurately reported by the New York Times just before the war—that were one of the war’s justifications.

McKinley gave in to popular opinion. It had been stoked by publisher Randolph Hearst along with other yellow press barons with often false atrocity stories that even rival yellow press publisher Joseph Pulitzer complained were often exaggerations (Ironically, when real atrocities were committed against the Cuban people, a Spanish general, Wyler, named as his inspiration the American Civil War general W. T. Sherman and his rampage through the South in 1864. This was a rampage in which cities, farms, homes and even sometimes libraries were burned).

Just before the war an American warship, the Maine, is sent to Havana on a good will visit. The Spanish government asks that it is not sent. It is sent. It blows up in Havana harbor.

The yellow journalist insisted that the Spanish had blown up the American battleship Maine in Havana harbor. Decades later, in a book by American Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover published both in Spanish and English, it was proven that there was no evidence of Spanish sabotage. That was the most likely cause of the explosion was an internal explosion that can be blamed on the sloppiness of the American captain. He had not kept the ship in good condition.

By the way, when the ship exploded, many Spanish sailors dived into the sea to try to save Americans. A few months later, those Spanish sailors would be enemies of the Americans. Spain, with a collapsing empire, with ill-equipped armed forces and many domestic problems, had no desire to fight the United States or any great power in 1898.

But Schurz, along with philosopher William Graham Sumner—who believed that through the wagging of the war Spain had “conquered” America even though it lost because the United States had taken on Spain’s corrupt imperial mantle—warned that victory over Spain could be dangerous for the victor. A democracy, Schurz argued in opposing annexations after the Spanish-American War, could not “play the king over subject populations without creating in itself ways of thinking and habits of action most dangerous to its own vitality.”

Schurz, a Civil War, detested the militarization of society that came with war and relentless war preparations. He had seen too much of it in his lifetime.

Yes, the United States militarily won the Spanish-American War. But in the process, many critics claimed, it was throwing away historic values. The United States, in less than twenty years, was now going to fight another war and, in no imaginable way, could this war be called splendid.

About The Author

Gregory Bresiger

Gregory Bresiger is an independent business journalist from Queens, New York. His Personal Finance articles have appeared in publications such as The New York Post & Financial Advisor Magazine. He is the author of the eBooks “Personal Finance For People Who Hate Personal Finance” and “MoneySense”.