The Lessons of Mr. Polk's War

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An American
president, using politicized intelligence, launches a war on specious
pretexts. American forces occupy the enemy capital but cannot impose
a political settlement or extricate themselves from an increasingly
expensive and unpopular war. Meanwhile, on the home front, partisan
and sectional rancor increase. Even though the United States is
ultimately victorious, the war exacerbates already deep divisions,
laying the foundation for civil war.

This is not
some dystopian vision of the future course of the war in Iraq, but
the actual history of the 1846-1848 war between Mexico and the United
States. The president is not George W. Bush but James K. Polk. But
like President Bush, Polk’s deception about his reasons for going
to war and his facile assumptions about an easy U.S. victory contributed
to a massive public disillusion that precipitated a breakdown in
American politics in the 1850s. Disillusion with the Iraq war stems
from the same causes. While no one is yet predicting civil war,
Bush’s handling of the war is poisoning politics in this country
and undermining American democracy.

Despite its
victorious conclusion, the Mexican War was a fiasco that helped
set the stage for the Civil War. It started as a "war of choice,"
when Polk ignored evidence that American forces had crossed into
what was legally Mexican territory before being attacked by Mexican
troops. As with Bush’s claim that the United States invaded Iraq
to rid the country of non-existent weapons of mass destruction,
Polk’s obfuscation about the location of the ambushed American troops
laid the foundation for charges that the administration had lied
to the public and concealed the real reasons for going to war.

Polk sanctioned
war to annex California and the Southwest, believing American exceptionalism
would make this grab for territory morally different from European
imperialism, which he condemned. Bush and his associates similarly
bought into the notion of American exceptionalism, arguing that,
despite Iraq’s long history of foreign occupation, Iraqi civilians
would welcome U.S. troops as liberators. Most Iraqis, like most
Mexicans in 1846, thought otherwise, and popular resistance soon
coalesced against the invaders.

In both Iraq
and Mexico, U.S. forces generally defeated the opposing army, but
unexpected resistance forced them to occupy large parts of the country
and confront a bitter guerrilla insurgency. The insurgency and the
failure of U.S. forces to win a rapid victory intensified partisan
rancor at home. In the 1840s, the opposition Whigs mostly opposed
the war, as did a faction of Polk’s Democrats. Today, the war in
Iraq has deeply divided American opinion, providing, at last, an
issue capable of uniting the fractious Democratic Party behind a
demand to get US troops out.

The Mexican
War and its legacy of territorial expansion, which upset the delicate
balance between slave and free states, played a major role in fomenting
the splits between Whig and Democrat and North and South that triggered
America’s slide into civil war in the 1860s. The war in Iraq is
likewise hardening the divide between Republicans and Democrats
as well as Red states and Blue states. Supporters of the war accuse
their opponents of hating freedom, while critics charge the administration
with massacring Iraqis to fill the coffers of Halliburton. Civil
war may not be looming just yet in America – in contrast to Iraq
– but there can be little doubt that the war has coarsened political
rhetoric and injected an element of real hatred into politics on
the part of both the Left and the Right.

The real tragedy
is that much of this domestic bitterness could have been avoided
if Bush had not repeated so many of the mistakes made by Polk in
the 1840s. Misuse of intelligence deprived the public of the opportunity
to debate the war on its merits. Lack of planning for serious resistance
and guerrilla warfare allowed the war to drag on longer, and at
higher cost, than its initiators foresaw.

It was Polk’s
and his successors’ inattention to the domestic consequences of
war that precipitated the slide into the Civil War, and Bush has
proven no better. Healing the bitterness over the war requires an
openness and honesty – about the use of intelligence, the aims
of the war, and the administration’s lack of planning for the consequences
– that Polk never demonstrated and that, so far, neither has Bush.

In the last
part of his presidency, Bush should recognize the damage his deception
and lack of preparation have done to the American political system,
and seek to rebuild the consensus about fighting terrorism that
existed before the invasion of Iraq. Otherwise, "Mr. Bush’s
War" may prove nearly as damaging to American democracy as
"Mr. Polk’s War."

8, 2006

Mankoff is a writer for the History News Service and a doctoral
student in history and security studies at Yale. This article originally
appeared on History News Network.

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