A page out of the empire’s playbook?

March 5, 2019

Jacob F. Lee, author of Master of the Middle Waters: Indian Nations and Colonial Ambitions Along the Mississippi, looks at how the U.S. government justified war nearly two centuries ago — and asks whether the pattern is repeating today.

IN APRIL 1846, U.S. Army Colonel Seth Thornton led 80 dragoons toward the Rio Grande. Just above the river, they encountered 1,600 Mexican cavalrymen heading north from Matamoros. The Mexican cavalry quickly overpowered the much smaller U.S. force. Eleven Americans were killed, and 49 others were captured.

When President James K. Polk received news of the skirmish, he declared, “Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.” On May 13, the U.S. Congress declared war on Mexico.

Such a pattern — the U.S. provoking a conflict with a foreign country in order to justify imperialist intervention — has been one repeated throughout the history of U.S. wars, and the opening stage may be on display yet again in Venezuela today.


IN THE case of Thornton’s skirmish with Mexican forces, the entire chain of events was a setup.

U.S. troops during the Mexican-American War
U.S. troops during the Mexican-American War (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1845, the U.S. annexed the Republic of Texas, which had declared its independence from Mexico nearly a decade earlier. However, Mexico asserted that Texas remained part of its sovereign territory. Moreover, Mexico asserted that the Nueces River, not the Rio Grande, was the boundary between the province of Texas and its neighbors.

Even if the U.S. had a right to annex Texas, the international boundary would be located far to the north of where Thornton’s dragoons were defeated. Polk had ordered the invasion of Mexican territory and then presented it to the U.S. public as a Mexican invasion of the U.S.

More than simply sending troops into the disputed territory between the Nueces and Rio Grande, Polk laid the groundwork for a U.S. invasion of Mexico for more than a year. In 1845, he sent Louisiana politician John Slidell to Mexico City to settle the dispute over Texas and to purchase the territories of California and New Mexico. The mission was designed to fail. A known U.S. spy accompanied Slidell, and Mexican officials refused to meet with him.

When Slidell reported his failure to the Polk administration, U.S. Secretary of State James Buchanan informed him that he should remain in Mexico longer “to satisfy the American people that all had been done which ought to have been done to avoid the necessity of resorting to hostilities.”

In short, Slidell should perpetuate a charade that would give the Polk administration the necessary cover to launch a war. Indeed, that’s what happened. Congress passed the declaration of war, and at least initially, the U.S. public embraced Polk’s narrative. At the end of the war, the U.S. forced Mexico to cede over half a million square miles of territory, including New Mexico and California.

Polk orchestrated his war with Mexico using well-established strategies. In his writing on U.S. imperial wars against American Indian nations, scholar Philip J. Deloria described the logic of “defensive conquest” at the heart of U.S. imperialism.

According to the U.S., it uses violence only in response to the violence of others. Its aggression is actually self-defense. These arguments are disingenuous, but they have been deployed to justify wars against Indigenous nations, Mexico, Spain, Vietnam, Iraq and countless others.


IN RECENT months, the U.S. has used similar strategies against Venezuela. The Trump administration is determined to depose Venezuela’s elected President Nicolás Maduro and replace him with opposition leader Juan Guaidó.

At the end of January, Trump appointed Elliott Abrams as special representative to Venezuela. Abrams is a veteran diplomat best known for his support of right-wing dictatorships in Central and South America during the 1980s, his role in the Iran-Contra scandal and his subsequent conviction for lying to Congress.

Soon after, Abrams’ appointment, the U.S. placed sanctions on Venezuela’s oil exports, which provide 90 percent of the nation’s revenue, while also insisting that Maduro allow it to deliver humanitarian aid to the country. The U.S. is simultaneously exacerbating a crisis and asserting that it can solve it.

In early March, Abrams traveled to Colombia, and soon, a U.S.-backed “aid convoy” attempted to cross the Venezuela-Colombia border.

Given Abrams’ past of helping smuggle weapons to right-wing militias, Venezuela — along with the United Nations, the Red Cross and other relief organizations — is rightfully suspicious of the “humanitarian aid” Abrams offers. While accepting aid from Russia, China and other nations, Venezuela blocked the U.S. convoy. Conflicting reports alternately suggest that pro-Maduro or pro-Guaidó forces set it on fire.

Immediately, pro-coup Americans called the violence a violation of Colombian sovereignty, another pretense for overthrowing Maduro. Speaking in Colombia, Vice President Mike Pence referenced the violence and warned that “any who would threaten [Colombia’s] sovereignty or security would do well not to test our commitment to our ally.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, a vocal cheerleader of a U.S.-backed coup in Venezuela, promised, “The United States will help Colombia confront any aggression against them.” Military intervention has been the goal of the Trump administration all along, and recent events are intended to provide justification for it.


IN VENEZUELA, we are watching a replay of the events leading up to the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846. Pro-coup politicians like Trump, Pence and Abrams are using against Venezuela the tactics that Polk, Buchanan and Slidell employed to frame the war against Mexico as a “defensive conquest.”

Supporters of U.S. imperialism have explicitly argued that alleged pro-Maduro violence must be met with U.S. military intervention.

Even the most left-leaning politicians in Washington have echoed this rhetoric. Despite his track record of opposition to U.S. imperialism and support for left-wing governments around the world, Sen. Bernie Sanders insisted that Maduro must “allow humanitarian aid into the country.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren made a similar statement, declaring that “Maduro is a dictator and does not have our support,” and that the U.S. must “provide humanitarian aid.”

Even as they stated that they opposed military intervention, Sanders, Warren and other left-leaning politicians lent credibility to the pro-coup narrative that Maduro has isolated Venezuela from all sources of aid and must be forced to allow supplies into the country.

Self-determination is the only solution to the crisis in Venezuela, and demanding that the U.S. be involved, as Sanders and Warren have done, only furthers the goals of the Trump administration.

In the 1840s, the U.S. public only slowly recognized that Polk had initiated the war against Mexico. In 1848, after antiwar politicians gained control of the House of Representatives, they narrowly passed a resolution censuring the president for “unnecessarily and unconstitutionally” beginning the conflict. But, by that point, it was too late to stop the conflict or to prevent the cession of the northern provinces of Mexico.

Today, however, offers a new opportunity to prevent a U.S. coup in Venezuela. We can watch events unfold in real time, and with the perspective provided by the history of U.S. imperialism, we can recognize the “defensive conquest” rhetoric adopted by the Trump administration.

From this vantage point, we can avoid the narratives that have supported U.S. imperialism for centuries — and instead argue for democracy and socialism in explicitly anti-imperialist terms.

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