To the Halls of the Montezumas
October 1, 1986
To the Halls of the Montezumas: The Mexican War in American Imagination.
By Robert W. Johannsen. New York: The Oxford University Press. 1985. Notes. Illustrations. Index. 363 Pages. $25.00.
Reviewed by Dennis E. Berge, Chairman of the Department of History at San Diego State University.
There have been any number of military histories of the Mexican War over the years, as well as biographies and monographs that have shed light on various aspects of the conflict. This is one war, however, that has never been well understood as a national experience. Robert Johannsen has tried to correct that situation in this imaginative and well-researched study, in which he suggests “some of the ways in which Americans perceived the war and how these perceptions revealed some of the characteristics of mid-19th century thought and culture” (p. vii). In pursuing this goal he has researched a wide range of contemporary newspapers, periodicals, journals, and books — published materials, primarily, but materials that may be taken to represent popular attitudes toward the war. He has attempted, moreover, to push his findings beyond the questions of public opinion itself, and to measure the importance of the war as a national experience.
It was the influence of the printed word, Johannsen argues, that made the Mexican War so special. Technological advancements in printing presses resulted in an explosive increase in the number and kind of newspapers available in this country as well as a phenomenal growth in the book publishing industry and the emergence of the penny press, which put cheaply printed novelettes and other works in the hands of the reading public at unbelievably low cost. Because of the unusually high literacy rate in the United States this meant that the war reached practically everyone, so this was “the first American war to rest on a truly national base, the first that grasped the interest of the population, and the first [that] people were exposed to on an almost daily basis” (p. 16).
Media approval of the war bolstered and reflected the attitude of the public at large, for this was a popular war from the start. “Nothing could dim the enthusiasm of that spring of 1846, ” Johannsen contends, and it was an enthusiasm that never waned. The issues of the war, curiously enough, are not a concern for Johannsen: what concerns him is simply the fact that the war took place when it did, and, perhaps, against the particular protagonist at hand. It was, more importantly, a war of regeneration, one in which the American people were able to reassert the sense of mission that had been part of the now departed revolutionary generation to create a new era of heroes and heroism. Mexico was perceived as an exotic, romantic land, and the experiences of the American armies doing battle there took on an air of mystery and adventure reminiscent of a thirteenth century crusade. But in this instance, what was the crusade all about? Johannsen says it was to prove that republican societies could fight heroic wars and, in so doing, to right wrongs; the idea that the Mexican people could be 11 rescued” from their oppressive rulers somehow got wrapped up in that notion. It was a short and satisfying war, one that ended “in a reaffirmation of the nation’s mission and gave encouragement to those who saw the national role in terms of world-wide reform” (p. 309).
This is a powerful thesis, and it is presented with a single-minded sense of purpose. Johannsen’s avoidance of issues relating to Texas and the public controversy over the policies of James K. Polk, for example, is consistent with his promise to avoid political utterances of the time “because of a suspicion that politics can and often do obscure popular attitudes” (p. viii). Unfortunately, such omissions actually obscure the extent to which the American public was divided over the war. Johanssen also minimizes the importance of anti-slavery critics of the war, for he says that “the public remained largely indifferent to their efforts” (p. 275), and he ignores the Whig press in general. He dismisses the importance of other war critics as well, arguing that they represented “a minority judgment” or that they “had little impact on popular perceptions of the war” (pp. 47, 272). It seems evident, however, that the American public was not as unified in support of this war as Johannsen would have us believe. In failing to give serious consideration to the substantial opposition he has therefore created serious reservations over the value of his study, particularly in regard to his argument that this was a “war of regeneration.”