Magazine article Humanities

Crossroads of Conflict

Magazine article Humanities

Crossroads of Conflict

Article excerpt

EXPLORING THE LEGACY OF THE U.S.MEXICAN WAR

CENTURY AND A HALF AGO, THE UNITED STATES AND MEXICO WERE TWO YOUNG

A nations just learning how to administer the vast territories wrestled from their former masters. The bloody but largely forgotten war they fought over much of that territory shaped the borders, populations, and political identities that each has carried into modern times.

From the war of borders that began in April 1846, the two countries emerged two years later with starkly different prospects. North Texas public television station KERA reexamines the story of this conflict through the eyes of both sides. Its four-hour documentary, The U.S.-Mexican War, offers perspectives on a war that has almost disappeared from our collective memory.

Debuting nationally on September 13 and 14, The U. S.-Mexican War builds a sweeping narrative around a simple dispute: the U.S. demanded its neighbor's land, and Mexico refused. Both sides were unrealistic-the U.S. in expecting Mexico to part willingly with nearly half of its vast territory, and Mexico in expecting to hold back the marchers from the north. Though Mexico could not outduel the more experienced U.S. military, the young nations matched each other in resolve, cutting an erratic and bloody path. The negotiating game between Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and U.S. President James Polk has occupied countless scholars, just as the battles at Buena Vista and Cerro Gordo loom as classic encounters to study.

The war's relevance echoes today. A ravaged Mexico would descend into political chaos-suffering an invasion from France and a series of brutal military dictatorships-and would not rekindle democracy until 1910, leaving the nation underdeveloped technologically and economically. The U.S. would make strides toward its status as a world power with the addition of a half-million square miles of new territory-land that is now the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and parts of three others-and all the natural resources, valuable property, and scenic treasures they contain.

Those conflicting legacies make for complicated storytelling, an obstacle KERA strived to overcome by embracing historians and resources from both countries.

"The binational nature of the project was our biggest challenge-it always, in a way, had two heads," says Rob Tranchin, the program's coproducer and writer. "We were trying to account for both the U.S. and Mexican perspectives without having each cancel out the other point of view."

Tranchin says The US.-Mexican War was born in the mind of KERA producer Sylvia Komatsu in 1991 after seeing an exhibition of daguerreotypes with images from the battlefields. She soon won the aid of experts and historians steeped in U.S.-Mexican history.

The shadowy territorial dispute offered the film's producers a wealth of poignant storytelling opportunities. The Mexican nation was struggling to manage the huge territory it had won from Spain in 1822 after its war for independence, lurching from one strong-handed ruler to the next in the search for political stability and unity. A robust United States was eager to expand to the shores of the Pacific on the call of "Manifest Destiny," but torn by the bitter confrontation over slaveryany new territory placed pressure on the balance between slave and free states.

"I never really had thought of the United States as a young country," says Tranchin. "It was exciting to imagine our leaders arguing in terms of 'what kind of country we want to be."' Tranchin notes that the U.S.-Mexican War helped ignite the passions of the Civil War-though the war with Mexico has long been eclipsed in our popular memory by the Civil War, which followed only a dozen years later.

The war was the first war in which the U.S. raised and trained a large army, transported troops by rail and sea, and made a major amphibious landing. …

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