My book club met last night to discuss Robert Merry’s A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent. As the subtitle says, the book is about the way in which Polk, during his one term presidency, enabled America to stretch from sea to shining sea. He promised he would only stay one term in office, a promise he kept, and he promised that he would bring into America the Texas territories, the Oregon territories and the California territories, another promise he kept. It’s quite an amazing story, although Merry’s obsessive attention to less-than-interesting details made it a very difficult read.
One of the things we talked about at the book group was whether Polk needed to pursue all these territories quite as aggressively as he did. His disputes were with Mexico and Britain, and he pushed both so hard that, with the former, we ended up in war, and with the latter (which held an interest in Oregon) we almost ended in war. The fact was that Americans were flooding these territories in such numbers that they were becoming American by default. Mexico was finding it impossible given its own dysfunctional infrastructure to hold the territories, and Britain, which was adept at managing far-off lands, could not stem the American tide. The general feeling at our group was that war with Mexico was inevitable, and Polk just did it on his terms; but that there was no need to push the British crisis as he did. He would have achieved the same ends more slowly, but with less belligerence.
This line of discussion opened an interesting question: When are wars necessary? Jimmy Carter, for example, long ago opined that the Revolutionary War was unnecessary because, given enough time, Britain would have lost her hold over the American colonies. Many people say the Civil War was unnecessary because, over the long haul (as both Washington and Jefferson understood), it was economically unsustainable, not to mention the fact that increased mechanization took over a lot of the slave’s tasks. Gandhi thought people, especially Jews, should have done nothing to stop the Nazi onslaught, which would have eventually burned itself out — leaving the dead with the moral high ground of having shown themselves to be peaceful people in the face of Nazi aggression. I’ve commented here that the Islamists were foolish to get aggressive because, demographically, if they’d just sat quietly, they would have controlled Europe in a few decades. It was their impatience that sounded the tocsin that, finally, seems to be waking Europe up to the threat within its borders.
All good — and bad — things come to an end. Ancient Egypt took roughly 3000 years, ancient Israel roughly 1000 years, and the Huns had a heyday lasting a little more than 100 years. Given that inevitability, when is it worth starting a war to speed a declining or evil system’s end? That, of course, is a loaded question, because there is a huge difference between a declining and an evil system. Slavery was evil. It was morally wrong in the first place. And it would have been morally wrong to condemn several more generations to servitude in the optimistic belief that it would have to die out some time. Same for naziism, same for communism.
But what about Mexican control over California? That would have ended much sooner than later regardless of American action. In the meantime, though, while Mexico’s control over the territory waned, the state’s revenues would to Mexico City, not Washington, D.C., and the American population as a whole chafed at seeing their brothers and sisters subordinate to Mexican rule (never mind that these same brothers and sisters had voluntary headed to that nation’s territory). Further, Americans believed (rightly) that this was a war they could win, so it wasn’t much of a gamble to hurry history along. As it turned out, it was a smart gamble because, not only did the US gain the California territories, they got the enormous bounty of the California Gold Rush — both in terms of gold, and in terms of California’s settlement.
I’m not reaching any conclusions here. I’m just ruminating. I’d love to hear what you all think about the question of rushing history.