Seeds of Distrust: Latin America and the US
Growing up on Roatan during the 1950s and 1960s, just about everyone I had ever come in contact with had a positive attitude toward the United States. When I left my Roatan sanctuary and arrived at a boarding academy in Peña Blanca, Cortes, I was shocked to find classmates who abhorred the US. What´s more, they came from every country in Central America. This was at the peak of the Vietnam War.
I could not understand why some of my peers had such negative feelings toward the US. A roommate – one of my best friends – continually engaged me in debating the pros and cons of the US, constantly using the phrase “Yankee Imperialism.” I accused him of being jealous of the success and freedom enjoyed by Americans, and I labeled him a “Pinko Communist.” He in turn called me an “ignorant pig-headed fool who couldn’t see the length of my nose.” Sometimes the exchanges got very heated.
Years later, when I was pursuing undergraduate studies in the US, I became acutely aware of why so many Latin Americans disliked and mistrusted the US. I traced the animosity back to 1846, when US President James Polk asked Congress to declare war on Mexico because, he said, “Mexico has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.” That was, to put it mildly, inaccurate.
For years Mexico and the US had been arguing over possession of Texas. Texas was historically part of Mexico, but it was populated by settlers from the US and declared its independence in 1836, after which it began petitioning the US Congress to join the Union. In 1844 Polk´s predecessor, John Tyler, concluded an annexation treaty with the Republic of Texas, which was ratified by Congress in 1845, making Texas the 28th US state. This infuriated the Mexican government, which had never relinquished its claim to Texas.
To add insult to injury, Polk, who assumed office in March 1845, asserted not only that Texas was part of the US but that its border with Mexico was the Rio Grande River, not the generally acknowledged Nueces River, 150 miles to the north. Polk’s claim was based on a treaty signed by former Mexican leader Lopez de Santa Ana while he as in a Texas prison, which the Mexican government repudiated.
Furthermore, Polk sent a military force under General Zachary Taylor (who was subsequently elected president himself) into the disputed territory between the two rivers, which was such a provocation that Mexico promptly attacked Taylor´s forces, spilling the “American blood” that Polk mentioned in his war declaration message. As historian Bruce G. Kauffmann put it, “American blood it may have been, but American soil it was not.”
Mexico’s attack gave Polk the pretext to declare war. To ensure that Congress went along, he attached his war declaration to a military appropriations bill, making it politically impossible for Congress to vote “no.” What Congressman would vote against arming and supplying US soldiers that had been attacked?
The US won the war, acquiring Texas to the Rio Grande and also gaining the New Mexico and California territories, completing its continental expansion to approximately its current borders.
Many US historians consider Polk among American´s great presidents, because he acquired the West, nearly doubling the national territory. But many also agree that acquisition came at a steep price – a reputation for “Yankee Imperialism” that embitters many Latin Americans and engenders distrust among Latin leaders to this day.