The border between the United States and Mexico is North America’s version of the dividing line between Israel and Gaza: a recurring source of irritation where expansionism and ethnic pride clash, and periodically that leads to bloodshed.
The current Rio Grande argument arose when then–presidential candidate Donald Trump promised he would build a wall between the US and Mexico, and he would make the Mexican government pay for it. Now, as president, he is asking for billions of American tax dollars to construct the wall, and Americans have divided into two camps: “We must have a wall at any price to protect the US” and “The wall is unnecessary, will be ineffective, and is too costly.”
Background to a Border War
The United States and Mexico first started squabbling over their border in 1846, but the source of the problem started long before that. In 1836, Texans successful rebelled against Mexican dictator Santa Anna and captured him following the Battle of San Jacinto. He signed two agreements in exchange for his freedom, one public and one secret. Among other things, the public treaty ended hostilities, guaranteed Santa Anna would never again take military action against Texas, and the current Mexican forces there would withdraw beyond the Rio Grande. The secret treaty, which was to enacted after the terms of the public treaty had been met, guaranteed Santa Anna’s immediate liberation in exchange for his promise not to take up arms against Texas and to secure the Mexican government’s acknowledgement of Texas as an independent republic.
As things turned out the Texas army refused to let Santa Anna return to Mexico, and the Mexican government deposed him as president and voided all of his acts while he was a captive. Even without these setbacks, the agreements didn’t establish a clear boundary between Mexico and the new Republic of Texas.
In 1841, Santa Anna again became leader of Mexico following a 12-day coup. He then made “his worst mistake as president,” in the words of John S.D. Eisenhower, by continuing the Texas border war (So Far From God: The U.S. War with Mexico 1846–1848; Anchor Books, 1989). An undeclared war had been going on for years, with raids and atrocities committed by both sides.
Texas Annexation Leads to War
After 10 years as an independent republic, struggling with massive debt and hoping for protection from both Mexican and Indian raids, Texas applied for annexation by the United States. Enter, James K. Polk of Tennessee, newly elected president of the United States and an avowed expansionist. Reportedly, among the goals he’d set for himself was the acquisition of the Mexican state of California. In the middle of this, the Texas president, Anson Jones, sent a message to the Mexican president: Texas would not allow itself to be annexed to any nation if Mexico would recognize its former province’s independence. His proposal was accepted in Mexico City, but the Texas Congress unanimously voted to accept annexation by the United States. Mexico had long said it would regard annexation as a declaration of war.
Now, Let Me See … Where’d We Put That Border?
Polk’s war department had already ordered Col. Zachary Taylor (breveted brigadier general) to prepare a force in Louisiana for the protection of Texas if annexation was accepted. When Taylor arrived in Texas, he encamped at Corpus Christi, on the southwest bank of the mouth of the Nueces River. On Jan. 13, 1846, President Polk ordered him to take up position “on or near the east bank of the Rio del Norte” (Rio Grande). Further, Polk’s orders instructed that, regarding Mexico, Taylor should not “treat her as an enemy, but should she assume that character a declaration of war, or any open act of hostility toward us, you will not act merely on the defensive.” Essentially, the president had instructed a field commander to decide whether or not the country was at war.
Taylor’s relocation to the Rio Grande was seen by many Americans and virtually all Mexicans as deliberate provocation. The “Nueces Strip” between the Nueces and the Rio Grande was largely unpopulated. When Mexico recognized Texas at all, it believed the border between them was the Nueces. Some maps of the time show the Texas-Mexico border as the Rio Grande, some as the Nueces; Taylor’s new position lay opposite the Mexican town of Matamoros, well over 100 miles beyond the Nueces, and Mexicans saw the threat of a bigger land grab. President, Mariano Paredes y Arrillaga ordered the Americans’ advance to be met with resistance. Some sources say he was hoping for a limited war and European intervention on Mexico’s behalf.
Out, Out Damned Spot
Before long, a popular American officer, Col. Truman Cross, disappeared while out riding. A patrol of 10 men and their officer went searching for him and got into a scrap with a Mexican force (American accounts say the searchers were ambushed).
“American blood has been shed on American soil!” a headline in the Washington Union declared on the evening of April 26, 1846. Polk prepared a message to Congress that said Mexico had invaded American territory, had shed American blood; a state of war now existed and he laid the blame entirely on Mexico. John S.D. Eisenhower wrote, “This viewpoint was a masterpiece of rationalization. The kindest thing that can be said about Polk’s message is he probably believed it himself.”
Up to that moment newspapers in Nashville, Tennessee, the closest city to Polk’s home in Columbia, had carried letters from readers debating the pros and cons, realities and falsehoods, of the president sending troops to the Rio Grande. As soon as word was received that war had been declared such open discussion was chopped off like the head of a chicken invited to Sunday dinner: anyone who questioned the president was a traitor.
Some people still did, especially Whigs (Polk was a Democrat). Famously—or infamously—Abraham Lincoln, the freshman Congressman from Sangamon County, Illinois, rose from seat number 191 of the Whig section of the House and demanded to know if the spot where American blood had been shed was within Mexican territory that was formerly the territory of Spain, within a settlement that existed long before the Texas Revolution and from which the inhabitants had fled their homes and crops upon the advance of the U.S. Army. Most of his points had appeared earlier in a Whig newspaper, but Lincoln earned the name of “Spotty Lincoln” and for a time his political career went into eclipse.
A Border Established, Sort Of
The United States won its war with Mexico, which was forced to recognize Texas and cede to the US all of present-day New Mexico and California and part of Arizona in exchange for $15 million. The Rio Grande became the established border, but the troubles did not cease.
In 1855 a group of Texas Rangers and American mercenaries under Capt. James H, Callahan used the “hot pursuit” doctrine to cross into Mexico chasing runaway slaves. In a fight with Mexican soldiers and their Indian allies 18 men were killed. Before crossing back into Texas, Callahan’s men sacked the town of Piedras Negras and burned it to the ground.
During the 1880s American military forces sometimes crossed the Mexican border in pursuit of Apaches.
Pancho Villa, Germany, and Draft Evaders
On March 16, 1916, invasion came the other way. Troops of Pancho Villa crossed the border and committed rape, pillage and murder in Columbus, New Mexico. An American punitive expedition under John “Blackjack” Pershing went into Mexico in search of the Mexican bandit-cum-revolutionary but without success. (On a side note, I have my first name because two of my uncles were on that expedition with the West Virginia National Guard. When they got home Grandma was pregnant, and they asked her if it was a boy to name it for a friend they had in the service. She did, and I was in turn named for that uncle.)
Not long after Pershing’s return, German foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann telegraphed the German minister to Mexico asking him to try to get Mexico to join the German cause—to make war together and make peace together—if the US did not remain neutral after Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare. The carrot was a guarantee to return Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to their former country. Informed of the details, the US Congress voted to go to war against Germany. America adopted universal male conscription, and as many as 30,000 Americans who resisted the war fled to Mexico (an ironic reversal of the current south-to-north flow of refugees), according to Encyclopedia 1914–1918 Online. For various reasons, the US tightened immigration restrictions across its southern border.
Today, many Americans want to decrease illegal immigration by building a border war (although polls consistently show more Americans don’t want the wall than do want it). The battle lines are drawn, like those of the Texans and Mexicans at San Jacinto; we’ll see how it plays out.
Trust Me, I Just Need a Little More Time … and $10,000
Oh, remember Donald Trump’s promise that Mexico would pay for the wall? Santa Anna actually got the Polk Administration to pay him to fight against the US! A superb con man who betrayed every group he ever affiliated himself with, he convinced Polk and the War Department to help him slip back into Mexico—he had been banished to Havana—and he would negotiate a peace favorable to the US. Mexico needed to be invaded, he argued, to make its government willing to negotiate. Back in his home country, although he led armies against the Americans he still managed to convince Polk he was anxious to arrange a peace, but he needed $10,000 immediately. He got it. (A History of Mexico, Third Edition, by Henry Bamford Parkes; Houghton Mifflin 1938, 1950, 1960)