David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
The Mexican War: 1846-1848 By K. Jack Bauer. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., lnc., 1974. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 454 pages. $14.95.
Reviewed by Dennis E. Berge, Professor of History, San Diego State University, author of “A Mexican Dilemma: The Mexico City Ayuntamiento and the Question of Loyalty, 1846-1848,” Hispanic American Historical Review (May, 1970), and editor-translator of Considerations on the Political and Social Situation of The Mexican Republic, 1847 (1975)
The publishers of this book state that it is “the first large-scale study in fifty years” of the Mexican War, and in one sense their claim is too modest. It is now fifty-six years since Justin Smith’s War with Mexico appeared, and although several histories of the war have been published since none has done much more than synthesize previously published works—including Smith’s—with little to offer of their own except a point of view. Bauer’s work is an important break in this pattern, for it is based upon extensive research among both primary and secondary sources, and while its weight of scholarship does not rival that of Smith’s history it is easily the most serious study of the Mexican War we have had in recent times.
The greatest portion of Bauer’s narrative is devoted to military operations, but his approach to the Mexican War is broader than this suggests. He views the war itself as the outcome of an inevitable conflict between Mexico and the United States for possession of the lands that now make up the American Southwest, in which expansionist sentiments within American society determined the general direction of events. With a deliberate eye on Vietnam, Bauer condemns James K. Polk’s application of graduated force in his policies toward Mexico. He argues that as Polk and his advisors gradually escalated United States military actions they merely prompted and allowed Mexico to respond in kind, so that in the end the conflict was much more bitter and protracted than it should have been. “The Americans did not understand mid-nineteenth century Mexico,” Bauer concludes, “and failed to realize that the Mexicans would not countenance the loss of territory unless it was forced on them by the destruction of their capacity to resist.” (pp. xix-xx). It is a presentist argument, and from comments that punctuate Bauer’s narrative it is clear that his major objective is to establish a parallel between the Mexican War and the recent American experience in Southeast Asia, except that in its conflict with Mexico the United States ultimately prevailed.
Bauer’s thesis may be arresting to many contemporary readers, and may also contain an element of truth. A clear problem in its acceptance, however, is that Bauer’s own knowledge of mid-nineteenth century Mexico is as suspect as the American public of which he wrote, for the area in which his research is the weakest is in the Mexican side of the War. He explains this weakness by saying “in part this was a philosophical decision and in part it was one forced by the limits of time, distance, and volume,” (p. xx) but his discussions of Mexican internal affairs nevertheless remain sketchy and superficial. The Mexican army also serves frequently as little more than a foil for the Americans, who are treated in more intimate detail. Especially in view of the general thrust of Bauer’s thesis, it is regrettable that he did not expend the additional time and effort to examine the Mexican side of the conflict as thoroughly as he did that of the United States. Had he done so, I believe he could not have emerged with as simplistic nor narrow a thesis development as the one he has presented.
In spite of these criticisms most students of the Mexican War will welcome Bauer’s study. He has given more attention to the northern campaigns, including the conquest of California, than most writers, and his long familiarity with naval operations in this theater has made this one of the most authoritative parts of his study. In addition, Bauer is a competent battlefield historian, and while he lacks the flair of a Catton or a Freeman his re-creation of the military campaigns of the war is handled with admirable clarity and decisiveness.