Segment from Mission Accomplished

Bounding Manifest Destiny

Historian Amy Greenberg tells Peter about the rogue diplomat that ended the Mexican-American War – just as President Polk was trying to recall him.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. We’re marking the 10th anniversary of President Bush’s infamous Mission Accomplished Speech, with a look back at the messy and often very prolonged ways that other American wars have ended.

BRIAN: The Iraq War was an example of how events on the ground can easily overtake the rosy scenarios of war planners. But they’re also have been times when events on the ground played out just as expected, only for war planners to get greedy and move the finish line.

ED: Such was the case 170 years ago in the Mexican-American War. Or as it was known at the time, Polk’s War. As in James K. Polk, the Tennessean elected to the White House in 1844 on what was essentially a single issue platform, Manifest Destiny.

AMY GREENBERG: James K. Polk believed God had put him on the Earth to bring territory under American control. That this was his mission. He worked 16 hour days every day to win this war.

PETER: This is historian Jamie Greenberg, author of a new book called A Wicked War. In it, she recounts how in the spring of 1846, Polk basically picked a fight with Mexico with the goal of taking California, southern Texas, and what is now the American Southwest from its Southern neighbor.

ED: It was supposed to be a quick war. And for a while, it looked like it would be. Americans won every single battle they fought. And by the end of the summer, they had taken control of Santa Fe, Southern Texas, all the major ports in California, and the northern Mexican city of Monterrey. Polk had essentially gotten what he was after. But the war did not end.

AMY GREENBERG: The reason why is because you can capture whatever territory you want, but unless the other side agrees that the war is over, it’s not. And Mexico’s in no mood to come to terms at this point, because they’re angry. If anything, they’re more angry now than they were at the start of the war.

PETER: Why? Because over the course of those three months, the American army, composed mainly of inexperienced volunteers, had committed widespread atrocities wherever they went. These included assaults on citizens, rape, murder in broad daylight.

ED: And so the war ground on. The American army moved farther south into Mexico. But at the same time, public opinion began to turn against the war. Enormous numbers of soldiers were dying from disease, and many Northerners started seeing the war as little more than a land grab by Southern Democrats, who were interested in expanding slavery.

PETER: Finally, in September of 1847, 15 months after the war had started, the Americans take Mexico City. And it’s here that our end game begins, an end game that stars a diplomat named Nicholas Trist. Polk had sent a few weeks earlier to negotiate for those original war aims. California would be American territory, and the Rio Grande would be the American border. Here is Amy Greenberg again.

AMY GREENBERG: Nicholas Trist is sort of the epitome of the kind of person that seems like he would never betray the Democratic Party. This is a guy who served as Thomas Jefferson’s private secretary, married Thomas Jefferson’s granddaughter, is now the father of Thomas Jefferson’s great grandchildren. He was a man that Thomas Jefferson trusted so much that he made Trist an executor of his will.

After Jefferson died, Andrew Jackson, the father of the Democratic Party, took up Trist, made Trist his personal secretary. He seems like the perfect Democrat, and completely in line with the things the Polk believes in. So Polk thinks this guy’s going to be a great diplomat.

PETER: Well clearly, the moment had now come in which we should have the end of the war.

AMY GREENBERG: Absolutely.

PETER: And so what about Polk back in Washington? He’s beginning to rethink his war objectives, isn’t he? That is, Polk is thinking that maybe we could do better than the Rio Grande.

AMY GREENBERG: I mean, once you’ve captured the capital of a neighboring country, what’s to stop you from taking all of that country? Right? Isn’t that what spoils of war is? And a lot of people in the United States, especially Expansionists in New York City and in parts of the South, say, this is our moment to take all of Mexico. We’re never going to get another moment like this.

Polk doesn’t want to take all of Mexico. But he thinks actually taking maybe another third of the country would work out fine. So a lot of the people, the soldiers, the officers, the reporters, and the diplomats who go down to Mexico go down thinking this is the next stop on Manifest Destiny. But once they get to Mexico, they decide they don’t want it.

They decide that the people of Mexico will make bad citizens. That they’re not the kind of people that we want to integrate into the US. A lot of them think the land of Mexico is worthless. That it will be no value to the United States at all. And a lot of soldiers begin to question the whole point of this war. I mean, after all, this is a war that’s not started out of any principal at all. It simply started out of the desire for more land. And yet, when the soldiers get down there, they don’t like the land, and they don’t like the people. Now Trist happens to be surrounded by a group of people who are opposed to the war on moral reasons, or are coming to this conclusion that US control over the region will never work.

PETER: And Polk gets wind of this, and naturally wants to get rid of Trist and get somebody more amenable to his policy in Mexico.

AMY GREENBERG: Well, so Polk sends this message and says, look, you’re fired. You’re done. And I want you to come home right away. But when Trist gets Polk’s recall message, he does something really astounding, which is he refuses to go home. And it’s really at this point that movement towards a treaty happens, because the Mexicans have been dragging their feet, and Trist is able to go to Mexican diplomats and say, look, I’ve been recalled. If you want to make a treaty at all, you’ve got to make it with me right now. Because I guarantee you whoever comes after me is going to demand a lot more land.

PETER: So Trist’s credibility is enhanced by the very fact that Polk is recalling him.

AMY GREENBERG: Right. So Trist meets with Mexican negotiators in Guadalupe Hidalgo, a town which has a lot of sacred meaning to the people in Mexico. Finally, they sign a treaty in January of 1848. And this treaty that Trist negotiates, he knows is much less than Polk wants. But it’s basically the treaty that he was given when he was first sent down to Vera Cruz.

PETER: But Polk certainly could’ve repudiated the treaty, couldn’t he have?

AMY GREENBERG: Well, that’s a great question. So when Polk got this treaty, he was furious at Nicholas Trist. Furious at Trist. And he did not think the treaty was anywhere near what the United States deserved for this war. But he wrote in his diary that if he didn’t accept this treaty, that Congress would never continue to support the war anymore, and that he might very well lose New Mexico and California. So he found himself stuck in a situation where he had to accept the treaty.

PETER: Let me read to you from your book the letter that Trist wrote. “Trist says, Could those Mexicans at Guadelupe Hidalgo have seen into my heart at that moment, they would have known that my feeling of shame as an American was far stronger than theirs could be as Mexicans.” Why was Trist ashamed?

AMY GREENBERG: He was ashamed because he thought the US had behaved in a terrible manner. I mean, the United States is a country which set itself up as this exemplar to all other nations. And yet, the United States had persecuted this war against Mexico just for land.

And so when the Mexican diplomat said to Trist, this must be a very proud moment for you as an American, it’s a moment a shame to us, this was all that Trist could think, was that he actually is the one who felt shame. And that’s what he wrote back to his family.

PETER: We know about the anti-war sentiment in the North, and Henry David Thoreau, and all the principled objections to the war. But what’s most interesting about your book is the extent to which there was anti-war sentiment from the people who were fighting that war.

AMY GREENBERG: Absolutely. The soldiers.

PETER: Yeah. And that’s really the key condition, or circumstance, for Trist, is being surrounded or immersed in that world of these Americans in Mexico, wondering what they were doing there.

AMY GREENBERG: Absolutely. And the initial volunteers for the war, they signed up for a 12 month term. Because nobody thought the war would last more than 12 months. And they come home in the summer of 1847 after having served for 12 months. And you see this huge spike in anti-war letters and editorials that run in America’s newspapers. And I’m convinced that it’s from veterans coming back to the US and saying, this war is terrible. We don’t want Mexico. Everybody got ill and died. And there’s nothing glorious about this war. And the war should come to an end.

PETER: Amy, you’ve told us a moving story about how a man of conscience violated his orders, and turned against his president, and negotiated a treaty, and knew that this would wreck his political career. So what did happen to Nicholas Trist?

AMY GREENBERG: Well, Polk coal the quote, “impudent and unqualified scoundrel” and withheld his pay from the time that he spent in Mexico. And then Polk made sure that Trist didn’t work in Washington again. So Trist came back. He had no job. He was sort of unqualified, I think he said, by taste and intellect, from taking a normal job that a normal person would have. A job for pay.

And basically, the Trists spent about 10 years in poverty. I mean, utter poverty as a result of this. And it wasn’t until Ulysses S. Grant became president that Trist finally was awarded that back pay with interest that he had accrued during the Mexican War. And he was given the post-mastership of Alexandria, Virginia. And then he died soon after that. So really, the last decades of his life were spent in poverty, financial distress, and with no acknowledgement, no acknowledgement, of what he did.

PETER: Amy Greenberg is a history professor at Penn State and the author of A Wicked War– Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 US Invasion of Mexico. Thanks for joining us, Amy.