The Diplomacy of Annexation. Texas, Oregon, and the Mexican War. By David M. Pletcher. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1973. Bibliography. Index. Maps. Notes. 656 pages. $20.00.
In this massive and masterful study, historian David Pletcher makes a major contribution to our understanding of United States expansion to the Pacific. Combining a lucid narrative with sharp analysis, Pletcher weaves together the complex story of British, Mexican, and United States diplomacy in the years before the compromise over Oregon and the war with Mexico. Pletcher bases his work on an extraordinary range of primary sources-British, Mexican and United States diplomatic correspondence, newspapers and private correspondence-as well as published and unpublished secondary literature.
Pletcher’s view of the Mexican War is squarely in the mainstream of contemporary United States historiography. He suggests that President James K. Polk provoked the war with Mexico. But, instead of abandoning himself to the pleasures of righteous indignation, Pletcher assesses the gains and losses that resulted from the war. The gains he enumerates as the addition of territory (with’ gold in California thrown in as a bonus), and the tipping of the balance of power in North America in favor of the United States over Great Britain. At the same time, the war took a heavy cost in lives and material wealth. It heightened American arrogance toward Latin Americans, and intensified yanquiphobia in Latin America. It also increased sectional tensions within the United States.
Without denying the considerable advantages that the United States gained from war with Mexico, Pletcher argues that the conflict was probably unnecessary. He views Polk as stumbling into a war which he did not plan in advance, and argues that war probably could have been avoided and Mexican territory acquired through the use of more skillful diplomacy. “Polk achieved his goals,” Pletcher concludes, “but . . . he served his country ill by paying an unnecessarily high price in money, in lives, and in national disunity” (pp. 610-11). Pletcher’s conclusion is certain to be a controversial one; some historians will wonder if too much hindsight has not distorted his view of “Mr. Polk’s War.” DJW