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From Colony to Superpower: Don’t Mess with Texas

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Erik introduces chapter five of From Colony to Superpower (for older posts click on the tag), which covers the period between 1837 and 1861. The customary random observations:

Herring discusses the impact that Texas independence had on US-Mexico relations, and especially the degree to which the decision to admit Texas to the Union precipitated the Mexican-American War. I’m not an expert on Texas history, but the widespread expectation that Texas would enter the United States, rather than remain an independent Republic, strikes me as curious. Herring noted in an earlier chapter that Thomas Jefferson expected American “civilization” to spread across the North American continent, but that this spread need not take place in the form of a single political unit. An independent Texas would have fulfilled this expectation. Of course, changes in communication and transportation technology made a continental empire more possible in 1840 than it had been in 1800, but this doesn’t quite explain why Texas pursued union rather than independence. From the beginning of its existence, Texas was dependent upon the United States, but of course such a state isn’t necessarily indicative of a particular policy; Texas might have made effort to reduce that dependence, rather than to formalize it. Ethnic and ideological affinity for the United States seems to have been the primary motivation within Texas for union, but it’s nevertheless fun to muse about the long term implications of an independent Texas.

This last week in National Security Policy the topic was Strategic Communication. We dealt at some length with the Munich Analogy as a strategic communication/propaganda strategy, concentrating in particular on how effectively it creates roles for participants (enemy=Hitler, dove=Chamberlain, hawk=Churchill). When dealing with the Analogy in the past, I’ve asked students to think about it in terms of the United States during the Polk period. Polk began by making a series of threats against British holdings in the Northwest, asserting American sovereignty over territory on which the US had virtually no legal claim. In response, the British could have fought; there were risks, but the Royal Navy could have made the Americans pay a substantial price for their aggression. Instead, the British chose a more conciliatory route, making clear that they did have clear lines beyond which they would not go (no US sovereignty north of the 49th parallel), but appeasing the US claim to the jointly administered Oregon Territory.

On the one hand, you could argue that the British conducted successful appeasement, and consequently that the strategy of appeasement works in many situations. The United States did not, after all, invade Canada or attack any other British possessions. This is fairly common sense; appeasement fails in the face of incorrigible aggressors, but very few aggressors actually are incorrigible. On the other hand, a proponent of the applicability of the Munich Analogy could draw a direct connection between the Oregon settlement and the theft of half of Mexico; if the British had given the US a bloody nose in 1845, and taken steps to guarantee Mexico’s territorial integrity, then the neighborhood bully would have backed down. I’m actually inclined to think that British resistance on the Oregon question would resulted in the theft of more of Mexico by a frustrated US, but there’s at least a nugget of an argument to suggest a parallel with 1938. US territorial expansion slowed down considerably after 1848, but that has as much to do with US domestic politics as anything else.

On that subject, in comments several people has questioned my suggestion that the 1790s, the 1950s, and the 2000s are the only times in which foreign policy came to dominate domestic political debate. In particular, some people have argued that the 1840s, which included the debate over the Mexican War and the expansion of slavery more generally, represents a fourth period of foreign policy dominance. My response would be that this is an issue of cause and effect; whereas the debates in the 1790s, 1950s, and 2000s came about because of changes in the international environment, the foreign policy debate in the 1840s was the product of disagreement over domestic affairs. Support for and opposition to the Mexican War can’t be entirely reduced to the question of slavery, but it’s pretty close. What we have, then, is not so much a debate about foreign policy, but rather a debate about slavery that had implications for foreign policy.

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