- A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and Its War with the United States
In this book, Timothy Henderson undertakes the task of explaining “why Mexico went to war with the United States in 1846, and why that war went so badly for Mexico” (xvii). More specifically, he seeks to explain these things to a U.S. audience, whose historical literature on the subject is limited. While he acknowledges the valuable work of scholars such as Gene Brack, Jaime Rodriguez O., and Cecil Robinson, he describes the bulk of the English-language work on the war as too focused on military campaigns from the U.S. perspective. He sees his explanation as particularly necessary in the present era, when Mexicans and Mexican Americans are often stereotyped and dehumanized in the context of the debate over immigration.
Henderson rejects claims that Mexico went to war out of some delusional arrogance. Rather, his thesis is that Mexico entered the war because it was weak, and its leaders knew it. A history of frustration and failure in the first decades after independence left Mexico’s leaders humiliated and desperate to restore national honor. Had it been much stronger, Mexico might have held on to Texas and its other northern lands. Had Mexico been a little stronger, and thus a little more secure in [End Page 154] its nationhood, its leaders might have been able to negotiate a settlement short of war. Henderson argues that it was Mexico’s profound weakness that made war—even a hopeless war—seem like the only acceptable response to pressure from the United States.
The first three chapters of the book detail the development of Mexico’s weakness at its center and its northern periphery. The third chapter, “The Problem of Texas,” is particularly compelling in its use of first-person narratives to reveal the anxieties of Mexican officials who watched Mexico’s hold on its northeastern borderland grow ever more tenuous.
The fourth chapter takes us through the Texas Rebellion, and the fifth through its aftermath. Henderson describes Mexican politics between 1836 and 1845 as centered on the desperate longing to reconquer the lost province. He does a fine job of showing how Antonio López de Santa Anna managed to capitalize on this longing to regain Texas, even though it had been he who led the disastrous campaign that failed to suppress the rebellion. It is easy to paint Santa Anna as an absurd villain who keeps reappearing in Mexican politics like a running gag in a low comedy. Such depictions, however, reduce all Mexicans to the status of players bound inexorably to the same tragicomic script. Henderson gives us instead a Santa Anna who was able to return to office because he offered something his fellow Mexicans genuinely and reasonably desired—a restoration of the nation’s pride and territory. Henderson does not sugarcoat Santa Anna’s venality and incompetence, but he shows how, in context, many Mexicans thought that he looked like the best available choice of leaders.
The sixth and seventh chapters cover the U.S. annexation of Texas and the war that followed. Henderson continues to focus on Mexican politics, so military history receives little attention. He does, however, weave together the politics of Mexico and the United States in a way that will make this part of the story more accessible to readers from north of the border. In a short epilogue, Henderson restates his thesis and discusses the enduring impacts of the war on the United States, Mexico, and the borderland between them.
This book makes a solid contribution to a limited body of English-language literature. It might fairly be marketed to Americanists with an ad beginning, “if you read just one book about Mexico. . . .” More importantly, it raises the question of whether one book is sufficient to make an educated Americanist. “Mexico” and “America” were and are overlapping geographic, historic, and demographic entities. This book [End Page 155] implicitly challenges the adequacy of an early “American” republic...