Was the Mexican War an Exercise in American Imperialism?

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It is strong debated, even today, who to blame for the Mexican War. Was it something bound by fate to occur due to rising tensions between the U.S. and Mexico? Was it a ploy by James K. Polk to gain territory in a pursuit of manifest destiny? The two authors’ points of view argue two pretty different sides of it.

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Walter Nugent argues yes, the Mexican War was, in fact, a ploy of Polk’s to gain more territory, while Norman Graeber says that is was only through tensions and circumstance that we ever entered a war. I believe that the imperialistic nature of the U.S. during the time period strongly correlates with our reasons of going to war.

The first argument by Walter Nugent supports the claim that Polk’s imperialistic desires lead the country into a war which was mainly intended to gain New Mexico and California. From the beginning, Nugent states that because of the size of the territory the U.S. wished to acquire, violence would be necessary in obtaining it, and unlike Graebner’s argument, he suggests that from the beginning it was mostly about the territory. He describes Polk’s character as strong willed and stubborn, willing to do anything to achieve his “big idea”. He say about Polk’s mission “he would do this by diplomacy and cash, not to mention bribery, if possible; or by military force, if necessary.” While he argues military force was not his first choice, much like Graebner’s argument, it was definitely an option from the start. He also said that Polk saw this war as an opportunity, not something that had to be avoided. The land that Mexico held that Polk desired was seen by him as our right, something worth fighting for if necessary. Mexico owed us and since they could not afford to pay us back with money, the territory they possessed served as a natural replacement. He also argues that Polk was manipulative in gaining the Congress’ and the people’s support in this war, which suggests that this war was not quite as inevitable as he believed it to be. By placing troops in the southern most disputed border, it was obvious that Polk was asking for trouble and Nugent believes it was purposeful to start the war that Polk needed to gain territory. In the end he achieved the result that he so strongly pursued, only after putting the country through a war in which his motives behind it weren’t fully disclosed.

On the other side of the argument, Graebner didn’t necessarily argue that the biggest reason for going to war was because of the possible territorial gain. He starts by saying that war was avoidable because Mexico was never really a threat to the U.S. to begin with. Once Mexico began to become a threat by crossing over what the U.S. believed to be the border and spilling “American blood on American soil”, that was when Polk began to see the possibility of a war. Nowhere in the beginning of his argument does he even mention that Polk possessed a desire for California and New Mexico. Graebner argues that placing troops in the southernmost border was in fact an act of defense, not aggression toward Mexico, and even after the drama with Slidell, the Graebner persists on saying Polk still proceeded on with attempts to avoid war. Unsuccessful further negotiations with Mexico are what sparked the war, in opposed to Nugent’s argument of a land grabbing president, though both authors agree that Polk was stubborn to bring this tension to an end no matter what means.

The acquisition of New Mexico and California weren’t an original reason for going to war, it was only something that came with winning the war and the acquisition of these territories is what clouds the argument over whether Polk’s decision to go to war was imperialistic. Without the gain of these territories, Graebner argues that his decision was based upon circumstance.

After reading both arguments, I’d like to believe Graebner’s but I lean more towards Nugent’s theory. I believe that Polk had ulterior motives behind going to war with Mexico and the placement of troops in the border that was sure to provoke Mexico was purposeful and an act of aggression on our part, no matter what excuses Polk gave. In Nugent’s paper he described Polk as a hedgehog with one big idea as opposed to a fox with many smaller ideas. Because he only had one big idea, I’m certain that he would go to any lengths to see it through in his presidency.

Both authors also agreed on Polk’s stubbornness, and I believe his desire to gain more land and expand the U.S. was so strong that war didn’t even faze him. He may have viewed war as a last result, but gaining that territory would happen during his presidency no matter what. He knew what he was doing by placing those troops where he did and it was obvious that doing so was basically a declaration of war on Mexico. Gaining California and New Mexico also had to be an idea from the start, not just an added bonus” like Graebner believed.

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Was the Mexican War an Exercise in American Imperialism?. (2022, Sep 29). Retrieved November 30, 2022 , from

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