As America debates whether to send tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan, in the ninth year of a war for ends we cannot discern, a riveting new history recalls times when Americans fought for vital national interests.
"A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent" is Robert Merry's brilliant biography and history of that time. Merry goes far toward righting the injustice done by historians who have denied this great man his place in the pantheon of presidents, because they believe "Jimmy Polk's War" to have been a war of aggression against a Third World people.
As Merry relates, the problem is not with "Young Hickory," the protege of Andrew Jackson, but with historians who ever allow political correctness to blind them to true greatness.
The Mexican War was as just a war as we have ever fought.
In 1836 at San Jacinto, Sam Houston had won the independence of Texas with his defeat of Santa Anna, butcher of the Alamo and Goliad. In eight years, Mexico had not tried to recapture Texas. For eight years, Houston and Texas had sought admission to the Union.
In 1844, Polk, twice defeated for governor of Tennessee, was seeking the Democratic vice presidential nomination on a ticket with ex-President Martin Van Buren, Jackson's vice president.
But when the issue of annexation of Texas caught fire in the country, Van Buren opposed it, losing his patron Jackson. Polk rode the Texas issue to victory in Baltimore as the "dark horse" in the most dramatic convention in history. His opponent that November, the Whig Henry Clay, running a third time, was also fatally wrong on Texas.
Lame-duck president John Tyler, however, stole a march on Polk by annexing Texas by joint resolution of Congress.
But where was the southern border of Texas?
Santa Anna had signed Texas away to the Rio Grande. Mexico said the border was the Nueces River, far to the north. In dispute were thousands of square miles. To enforce America's claim, Polk sent Gen. Zachary Taylor to the Rio Grande.
A Mexican army arrived on the south bank, and an American patrol, north of the Rio Grande, was ambushed and cut to pieces by Mexican troops. When word reached Washington, Polk sent Congress a message: "The cup of forbearance" has "been exhausted."
Congress voted a near-unanimous declaration of war.
And as ever in wartime, bold men rise to immortality.