May 22, 2013
Fighting Manifest Destiny
Posted on Dec 11, 2012
By Jonathan Yardley
Greenberg, whose academic credentials include degrees from Berkeley and Harvard as well as several awards for teaching and scholarship, comes to this subject with interests—perhaps biases is the better word—shaped by her own times and experience. Her focus on women’s history clearly has affected her evaluation of Polk’s wife, Sarah, a woman of “strong opinions and political acumen” whose influence on her husband seems to have been enormous. Similarly, having been born in the late 1960s and done her undergraduate studies during the 1980s, she came to maturity in an environment deeply sympathetic to the anti-war and peace movements.
Thus it can come as no surprise that “A Wicked War” is a study of “the rise of America’s first national anti-war movement.” In outlining her book’s purposes she writes: “Looking closely at the writings of politicians, soldiers, embedded journalists, and average Americans watching events in Mexico from a distance, it contends that the war was actively contested from its beginning and that vibrant and widespread anti-war activism ultimately defused the movement to annex all of Mexico to the United States at the close of the war. ... ‘A Wicked War’ reveals how frequently volunteer and regular soldiers, as well as their officers, expressed their own ambivalence toward the conflict.” More than anything, though, it was Clay, then 70 years old, who, speaking in November 1847 in his home state of Kentucky “where pro-war fervor still ran high,” gave the most eloquent expression to the wrongs his beloved country had committed in the name of self-interest:
A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico
By Amy S. Greenberg
Knopf, 368 pages
The war, Greenberg writes, “raised fundamental questions,” about the moral cost of “dismantling a neighboring republic for the sole purpose of aggrandizement,” about the trustworthiness of a president’s word, about the ease with which the American public was manipulated into supporting “a war as contrary to American principles as this one.” There is more than a little oversimplification here and a strong whiff of presentism, but as recent history makes all too plain, those questions have yet to be satisfactorily answered.
Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
©2012, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group
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