Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Zinn, Chapter 8

Chapter Eight is titled, "We Take Nothing by Conquest, Thank God." I'm afraid the sarcasm there has put me in quite a mood.

The beginning of the chapter, at least, talks about U.S. expansion westward through the Louisiana Territory, down to Texas (where the once-agreed-upon border of the Nueces River was trampled for the more-south-by-100+miles Rio Grande), west to the Pacific Ocean with California.

Indeed, one of the D.C. news papers of the time (1845) published this:

"Let the great measure of annexation be accomplished, and with it the questions of boundary and claims. For who can arrest the torrent that will pour onward to the West? The road to California will be open to us. Who will stay the march of our western people?"

Who, indeed? Not the Indians or the Mexicans, displaced, bought off, or slaughtered. 1845 was also the year that Manifest Destiny showed up in a newspaper. It has been embraced since as the idea of our god-given right to rule not just the country but to trash the planet as well.

Colonel Hitchcock wrote of the ensuing Mexican-American War, "I have said from the first that the United States are the aggressors. . . . We have not one particle of right to be here. ... It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses, for, whatever becomes of this army, there is no doubt of a war between the United States and Mexico."

And Congress had no trouble funding the war. Let me quote Zinn at length and see if you see the same similarities between the Whigs and the Democrats in regards to western expansion then as I see with the Democrats and Republicans in regards to [insert your favorite cause here: the "War on Terror," immigration policy, health care reform, drilling for oil, etc.].

"The Whig party was presumably against the war in Mexico, but it was not against expansion. The Whigs wanted California, but preferred to do it without war. As Schroeder puts it, 'theirs was a commercially oriented expansionism designed to secure frontage on the Pacific without recourse to war.' Also, they 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 that 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. The opposition was a small group of strongly antislavery Whigs, or 'a little knot of ultraists,' as one Massachusetts Congressman who voted for the war measure put it"

I'd like to think of myself as one of the ultraists, though I certainly profit (in the very short run) from cheap oil and low taxes.

Perhaps I'm taking it too far, but the way Zinn paints Lincoln at the time reminds me a bit of Obama during the Bush years as well: "Abraham Lincoln of Illinois was not yet in Congress when the war began, but after his election in 1846 he had occasion to vote and speak on the war. His 'spot resolutions' became famous-he challenged Polk to specify the exact spot where American blood was shed 'on the American soil.' But he would not try to end the war by stopping funds for men and supplies."

Newspapers across the country and even Walt Whitman praised westward expansion, in the name of increasing commerce and growth, of gaining beautiful lands of opportunity, in the name of racism, of ethnical and moral superiority. I quote again:

"The American Review talked of Mexicans yielding to 'a superior population, insensibly oozing into her territories, changing her customs, and out-living, out-trading, exterminating her weaker blood. . . .' The New York Herald was saying, by 1847: 'The universal Yankee nation can regenerate and disenthrall the people of Mexico in a few years; and we believe it is a part of our destiny to civilize that beautiful country.'"

Some people disagreed, loudly, with the war, including Henry David Thoreau. So did many Quakers and a few Baptist ministers. They did so for wide and various reasons, including, sometimes, stopping the spread of slavery. The Unitarians were against the war, but one of their most prominent ministers at the time, Theodore Parker, was at the same time for both westward expansion and denigrating those "wretched people," the Mexicans.

There were "purer" opposers to the war, too. I must share this Frederick Douglass quote: "'the present disgraceful, cruel, and iniquitous war with our sister republic. Mexico seems a doomed victim to Anglo Saxon cupidity and love of dominion.'"

Most of the accounts of public opinion about the war, Zinn notes, are from the newspapers of the time. Zinn writes briefly about the (timeless) question of whether the media records public opinion or shapes and creates it.

Zinn then talks at length about the horrors of war. The poor are conscripted and subjected to awful conditions, not to mention death and dismemberment. I read Zinn's words but didn't think much of them, until I was reminded what we should not forget - what all of you know - that war is fought on the backs of the poor and the working class for the profits, coffers, and creature comforts of the rich and politically empowered (same thing).

As "we" fought to claim and tame Mexico, we also expanded west to California, where one naval officer spoke to the Native Americans there: "[Y]ou have nothing to fear from us, if you do what is right. . . . if you are faithful to your new rulers. .. . We come to prepare this magnificent region for the use of other men, for the population of the world demands more room, and here is room enough for many millions, who will hereafter occupy and rill the soil. But, in admitting others, we shall not displace you, if you act properly.. .. You can easily learn, but you are indolent. I hope you will alter your habits, and be industrious and frugal, and give up all the low vices which you practice; but if you are lazy and dissipated, you must, before many years, become extinct. We shall watch over you, and give you true liberty; but beware of sedition, lawlessness, and all other crimes, for the army which shields can assuredly punish, and it will reach you in your most retired hiding places"

Meanwhile, U.S. troops in Mexico kept moving further south. Accounts became more gruesome, with rape and indiscriminate killing of civilians becoming the norm. Body parts of men, horses, and mules piled up in pools of blood and foam. Morale was dwindling. One soldier said of General Scott, the man in charge of the campaign, "He had originated it [the war] in error and caused it to be fought, with inadequate forces, for an object that had no existence."

Finally, the war ended. Americans and Mexicans were dead, mangled, and/or impoverished. The U.S. border had been expanded.

Well, the war hasn't ended. The U.S. continues to "defend" borders that were "won" by bloodshed and other atrocities, crimes against humanity. Anyone who thinks we're too soft on immigration should read this chapter and really reflect on how we got this land.

1 comment:

John L. Clark said...

Good summary, Emily! Yeah, that headline really resonates, even over a century and a half later. I cheer at the interaction between Thoreau and Emerson. Ever since reading this chapter I've wanted to explore more Thoreau.

Zinn notes that "[t]here were calls among Americans to take all of Mexico." This included James Buchanan, then the Secretary of State for President Polk, as well as a number of Democrats in Congress. "The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed February 1848, just took half."

I recently started reading another work by Jensen, and an early takeaway line is:

"If your community is founded on an injustice, that injustice cannot be questioned."

This was in response to a quote from U.S. Supreme Court chief justice John Marshall in 1823 in his unanimous majority opinion statement for the "Johnson v. M'Intosh" case:

"Conquest gives a title which the Courts of the conqueror cannot deny, whatever the private and speculative opinions of individuals may be."