"I will build a great, great wall,” proclaimed Donald Trump, kicking off his presidential campaign on June 16, 2016, “on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall."
Almost two years later, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly spilled the beans: The president was “uninformed” on border issues during the campaign.
Sadly, so are most Americans. As the recent government shutdown demonstrates, our southern border is at the heart of our national politics.
In 1893, at a meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago, a young professor named Frederick Jackson Turner presented perhaps the most widely discussed thesis ever written by an American academic: “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” In essence, Turner’s “frontier thesis” argued that “the meeting point between savagery and civilization” was the defining element of the American character.
“The universal disposition of Americans to immigrate,” Turner wrote, “to the western wilderness, in order to enlarge their dominion over inanimate nature, is the actual result of an expansive power which is inherent in them.” Turner was discussing America’s western frontier. He overlooked our other frontier, our ever changing border with Mexico.
With the U.S. acquisition of California after our war with Mexico (1846-1848), the western frontier came to a close, but the old problems that caused that war, including the earlier Texas War for Independence (1835-1836), a conflict very much fueled by the U.S. over former Americans living in Mexico, the old problems which caused those wars and the new ones created by them are still with us.
The first three generations of Americans saw our southern border as amorphous, something to be shaped and expanded by the tide of Manifest Destiny, a term coined by an otherwise undistinguished newspaper editor named John O’Sullivan in the July-August 1845 issue of the Democratic Review, which called for the annexation of Texas.
A passage in Colson Whitehead’s 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, sums up the true meaning of the term: A slave catcher says, “We come up with all sorts of fancy talk to hide things. Like in the newspapers nowadays, all the smart men talking about Manifest Destiny. Like it’s a new idea … It means taking back what is yours, your property, whatever you deem it to be. And everyone else taking their assigned places to allow you to take it. Whether it’s red man or Africans giving up themselves, giving of themselves, so that we can have what’s rightfully ours. The French setting aside their territorial claims. The British and the Spanish slinking away.”
“Our destiny,” he sums up, “by divine prescription—the American imperative.”
The idea of Manifest Destiny had been on American minds from the time Englishmen landed on this continent (a continent where, lest we forget, Spanish was spoken before English). As Felipe Fernandez-Armesto put it in Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States (2014), they “were not, of course, pilgrims but migrants, like the wetbacks from across the Rio Grande who are their real successors today.”
The seeds for problems with our southern neighbor were planted as early as 1803 when Thomas Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase, and U.S. politicians began casting covetous eyes beyond Louisiana to Mexican territory. That Americans have never been averse to the idea of illegal immigration when it served their purposes was stated clearly by Jefferson, who wrote in a letter to a political ally that American immigrants to French and Spanish territory “could be the means of delivering to us peaceably what may otherwise cost us a war.” Jefferson was right about illegal immigrants as a means of delivering foreign territory, but wrong that it would not cost us a war.
The war that many American politicians wanted began October 2, 1835, when a few thousand American immigrants to Texas—Tejas—rebelled against the dictatorship of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Santa Anna flagrantly ignored treaties and denied human rights, but according to Fernandez-Armesto, “The chief cause of conflict between settlers and the Mexican government was black slavery, which the Mexicans abhorred despite their own predilection for impressing Indians into the army. Mexico freed its slaves in the liberal glow of independence [from Spain]. The laws of 1821 decreed that slaves automatically became free when they stepped on Mexican soil.” Many Texans of American origin “lived in constant fear that anti-slavery laws would be enforced.”
Americans, despite the protest of the Mexican government, brought slavery to Texas, eventually turning it into a Confederate state. This fact has been ignored in much of American history and all of Hollywood. John Wayne’s ponderous epic, The Alamo, includes a ludicrous scene in which a slave, after being freed, chooses to remain in the fort and dies protecting his former master, Richard Widmark’s Jim Bowie.
Wayne, nailed by Garry Wills as “manifest destiny on the hoof,” did a great deal of historical damage in creating the popular image by which we remember the Alamo and the Texas War for Independence. In The Alamo, Wayne’s Davy Crockett leads a band of Tennesseans to Texas to aid the Tejanos in their fight for freedom. His rationale for jumping into the fray: “A fella who gores someone else’s ox”—the fella being Santa Anna—“may just decide to come and gore your ox.” (The real Crockett went to Texas from Tennessee to revive his flagging political fortunes after losing his congressional seat.)
Wayne’s folksy ox-goring analogy is historical nonsense. Since Texas was part of Mexico, Santa Anna, who flagrantly ignored treaties and denied human rights, wasn’t goring anyone’s ox but his own people’s, and that was hardly the business of any American.
The Texas Revolution, remembered for the siege of the Alamo, ended with the battle of San Jacinto in 1836, but it was just a warmup for what may well have been the most important war in American history.
Less than a year after O’Sullivan declared America’s Manifest Destiny, President James K. Polk and a great many other Americans got their wish for the acquisition of Texas and a whole lot more. The Mexican government had never accepted Texas as an independent republic, and on April 12, 1846, just north of the Rio Grande, Mexican troops ambushed a company of American soldiers, killing and wounding 16.
Polk sent troops to protect Texas’s “sovereignty.” Of course, the president wanted to annex Texas as an American territory and insisted that the border with Mexico was the Rio Grande, though in fact the border was at the Neuces River, 130 miles farther north. The new border Polk wanted nearly doubled the size of Texas, soon to be part of the United States.
Mr. Polk’s War, as it came to be called, was settled by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and cost the U.S. a mere $15 million plus $3.5 million in Mexican debts owed to American citizens that were graciously assumed by the U.S. government. The government thought it a small price to pay for the 13,000-plus American soldiers killed in battle and by disease, making the U.S.-Mexican War the deadliest of all American wars in proportion to the numbers involved.
The conflict was, in the words of historian Ron Chernow in his recent biography of Ulysses S. Grant, “A huge bonanza for the United States. It expanded American territory by nearly a quarter, forcing Mexico to shed half its territory. The United States gained Texas with a crucial Rio Grande boundary as well as New Mexico and California—territories encompassing the current states of California, Nevada, and Utah, most of Arizona and New Mexico, and part of Colorado.”
“The Mexican war,” wrote Grant, one of its reluctant participants, “was a political war, and the administration conducting it desired to make party capital out of it.”
Grant was far from the only American who opposed the invasion of Mexico. Two others—one past, John Quincy Adams, and one future, Abraham Lincoln—spoke out against it, as did future Senator Charles Sumner, a decorated captain named Robert E. Lee, and many public intellectuals, including Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. There was nearly as much opposition to the Mexican War as there was to the war in Vietnam in the ’70s. If our history does not remember it that way, it’s because the U.S. won the Mexican War and by right of conquest, vast new territories.
With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the process of Manifest Destiny seemed complete. The windfall of new riches, though, couldn’t eradicate for many the stigma associated with the war. “I’m always ashamed of my country,” Grant would later write in his memoirs, “when I think of that invasion.” And the price paid for it would prove to be far greater than 13,000 men and $18.5 million dollars. Both Grant and Lincoln came to believe that the Civil War was the result of the factional fight between Northern and Southern states for the new territories carved out of Old Mexico. Chernow writes that Lincoln thought Polk was “deeply conscious of being in the wrong … He feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to heaven against him.”
Polk didn’t live to see the extent of the destruction he had helped bring on. He barely survived the war so many named for him, dying less than a year after the treaty with Mexico. But to many millions of Mexicans, the humiliation of American conquest survives, particularly those whose ancestors were born north of the border. “We didn’t cross the border,” an old saying goes, “the border crossed us.”
In America’s collective memory, our southern border is shrouded in a kind of haze. So far, no one can identify the line where Trump’s wall is supposed to be built—is the wall to be built on the American side of the border, shutting us off from the Rio Grande River, or on the Mexican side, shutting them off from the river, or down the middle of the river itself? Most Americans aren’t even sure which states lie along our Mexican border.
Many Americans probably assume that the border is something which Mexicans aren’t legally allowed to cross while some Americans—for instance, John Wayne—may cross the other way with impunity.
Near the beginning of what is regarded by many as the greatest of all westerns, Howard Hawks’ Red River, Wayne’s Tom Dunson is on a wagon train moving west. Looking to stake a claim, he breaks off to the south near the Red River in north Texas.
Dunson, his hand Groot (played by Walter Brennan), and a boy named Matt Garth, (who will grow up to be Montgomery Clift and fight in the Confederate Army) find a spot they want to settle and raise cattle. “Good grass, good water, and plenty of it,” as Dunson says. But a caballero rides up from the south and tells them that they cannot stay because they are trespassing on “Don Diego’s land.”
“All of this is Don Diego’s land?” Dunson asks.
“Si, senor,” the Mexican replies.
“That’s too much land for one man,” spouts the grizzled Groot (a bad attitude for a free market Republican, but let that pass). It comes down to a gun fight; Dunson kills Don Diego’s man, and, for some unspecified reason, this makes the land Dunson’s. The film never questions the right of Wayne’s character—the American—to kill a Mexican or to take the land. The land is Dunson’s by right of Manifest Destiny. The scene is both racially offensive and a historical abomination.
After Texas won its independence, most big Mexican land owners were either dead or left Texas for Mexico. In other words, there would have been no Don Diego to steal the land from: Tejas had already been stolen by illegal aliens.
For the better part of the next two centuries, it’s often been difficult to tell exactly who the illegal aliens have been. In the 1870s and 1880s, there was widespread smuggling and cattle theft by Mexicans and Americans across the borders from Texas to Arizona. But on the Arizona border, at least, the problem of cattle theft and the killing which invariably accompanied it involved American “cow boys” crossing into Mexico, if only because that’s where most of the cattle were. In the late 1870s the problem became so pervasive the Mexican government threatened war over what it called “Cowboy Depredations.” In Tombstone, U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp asked in vain for federal help to stem widespread theft and murder.
That scale of violence, though, paled in comparison with that of the so-called “Bandit Wars” which, between 1910 and 1920, cost the lives of hundreds of Mexican Americans. The ostensible cause for the ferocity were raids by Mexican rebels into Texas, which were intended by extremists to reclaim for Mexico land in two Texas counties whose inhabitants were almost exclusively of Mexican descent. But the root of the problem began earlier, around the turn of the century, when nearly 190,000 acres of land was taken from Tejanos by means legal and illegal and given to Anglos.
Some of the hostility was, as war loomed in Europe, the result of white Texans’ fear that Mexico would ally itself with Germany and invade the U.S., but most of it was the result of blatant racism. Entire populations of towns along the border fled into Mexico, and those who remained were often harassed and persecuted by Texas Rangers, law men, and even regular U.S. Army troops. Typical was the infamous 1918 murder of 15 Tejanos in the village of Porvenir in west Texas. The atrocity was supposedly to revenge a raid on a nearby Anglo ranch, but no evidence of the villagers’ complicity was ever discovered. If there is little memory of the incident, it is largely because the surviving villagers fled in terror to Mexico.
In a celebrated piece in The Guardian in October 2000, British journalist Duncan Campbell interviewed a man named Roger Barnett, who lived in Arizona just north of the U.S. side of the border with Mexico. In his spare time, Barnett organized white Arizonians into what he called “wetback hunting parties.” Barnett and his followers put up billboards which read “Stop The Invasion.”
“Where a native population,” Barnett told Campbell, “has been diluted by invaders it turns into a blood bath. We abhor violence, but we realize that people have the God-given right to defend their selves.”
Roger Barnett didn’t stop at the idea that white people should be able to shoot at brown people crossing the border; he actually suggested that the U.S. would be justified in invading Mexico: “There’s a lot of mines and great beaches there, there’s farming and resources, think of what the United States could do there—gee whiz, they wouldn’t have to come up here anymore.”
Yes, just think. Barnett and his followers seemed blissfully unaware that native populations had long ago been “diluted” by invaders and the invaders looked like him … and that this was the reason that he grew up in Arizona in the first place.
Make Mexico pay for the wall? Mexico has already paid for that wall many times over.