The War of 1812, the Mexican American War, and the Spanish War of 1898 represent conflicts that could have been avoided but were driven by expansionist motives and goals.
In the 19th century, Americans fought three unnecessary wars, each motivated by expansionist interests yet initiated through dubious and exaggerated claims. The War of 1812 resulted from the efforts of Congressional “War Hawks” like Henry Clay to “take Canada.” In 1846 President Polk, an ardent expansionist with an eye for the vast territories controlled by Mexico, fabricated reasons for a war resolution. Finally, in 1898, James McKinley took the nation to war against Spain on the basis of false reports.
The War of 1812
Although James Madison’s 1812 message to Congress highlights “injuries and indignities” at the hands of Great Britain, key Congressional leaders known collectively as “War Hawks” saw an opportunity to expand America by taking Canada and possibly Florida. President Madison’s formal reasons included British naval interference with American trade as well as British support of Native Americans, like the Shawnee, in attacking frontier settlements.
The war dragged on until late 1814 and resulted in no gains. The Treaty of Ghent ending the conflict proposed a status quo ante bellum. Canada was still British; Florida was still Spanish. Washington City, the national capital, was a smoldering ruin. And the nation was almost bankrupt from the high cost of the war. “Mr. Madison’s War” was unpopular and deemed unnecessary, an observation made by Congressman Samuel Taggart in 1812 during the debate on the war resolution.
The Mexican American War
President James Polk assured the Congress on May 11th, 1846 that, “war…exists by the act of Mexico herself.” Congressional Democrats imposed a “gag rule” that prohibited the Whig Party from debating the war resolution. Weeks after war was declared, Congressional leaders like Senator John C. Calhoun lamented that had the Senate known the true events in Texas that precipitated Polk’s message, the resolution might not have passed. Polk had ordered Brigadier General Zach Taylor into disputed territory where Taylor confronted Mexican troops and several American dragoons were killed in the skirmish. The war seemed a provocation on the part of Polk.
The nation was divided over a war sought by Polk whose vision included not only the annexation of territories known as the Mexican Cession in 1848, but of Mexico herself. Congress eventually balked at taking Mexico, but it was evident that God was leading the Americans in a conquest known as Manifest Destiny.
The Spanish American War
In 1898 William McKinley led the United States into the Spanish American War. The destruction of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor and sensational press reports of Spanish atrocities in Cuba helped to fuel war fever. Although no evidence existed of Spanish complicity in the Maine’s sinking and most printed stories of atrocities were the product of “yellow journalism,” vocal imperialists like Teddy Roosevelt, Captain A.T. Mahan, and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. saw an opportunity for global expansion on par with European imperialist powers.
Our shortest yet most popular war resulted in an American empire that included the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. The Spanish American War debuted the United States as a global player for world markets. What John Hay called the “splendid little war” ended with high casualty rates due to disease and food poisoning. It was a popular but unnecessary war.
Diplomacy Rather Than War Declarations
Each of these wars might have been prevented through keen diplomacy. Although James Polk attempted a diplomatic solution prior to war, the negotiations were one-sided and Mexico was intimidated. In 1812 the United States had no permanent ambassador in London to represent the President. The Spanish American War was simply the product of imperialist goals set into motion at the highest levels of government. Wars can be prevented if Congress and the American people are fully informed as to the causes.
- Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).
- Frederick Merk, History of the Westward Movement (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978)
- G.J.A. O’Toole, The Spanish War: An American Epic 1898(New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 1984).