The Battle of Cerro Gordo during the Mexican War. Source: Descendants of Mexican War website at https://tinyurl.com/y7qzfa9a.
Section Two is designed to have students more closely examine the specific historical circumstances that led to two formal- declared U.S. wars.
Editor’s introduction: Because most students are likely to know little to nothing about events surrounding the Mexican War—and the fact that once basic knowledge is obtained, students can better understand the impact of this often-neglected war on the U.S. and North America—more comprehensive information is included in this segment of the module than is the case with the events that led to the December 8, 1941, Declaration of War against Japan.
U.S. Declaration of War, Mexican War (1846)
Students can access an accurate History Channel digital article that incorporates multimedia for a comprehensive homework introductory overview of the war at
Instructors can also use the following key points to provide students with contextual information concerning the events that precipitated the war.
The Mexican War (1846–1848) was the first war fought primarily outside the U.S.
U.S.–Mexican relations had been strained ever since 1821, when Mexico won independence from Spain. Mexico was a republic in name only, and dictators, frequent revolutions, and unstable government were the norm. The U.S., France, and Great Britain frequently lodged claims against the Mexican government for damages to their nationals and property.
One of the issues of the U.S. 1844 presidential election was the American annexation of Texas—or “reannexation,” as President James K. Polk called it. Parts of what is now in the state of Texas were included in the original 1803 French sale of a vast amount of territory to the U.S. in the Louisiana Purchase that almost doubled the size of the U.S. but Spain, not France, owned most of what is now Texas.
After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, the new nation welcomed American settlers into sparsely populated Texas.
Thousands of Americans flooded into Texas, and it became a republic in 1836, but the intent of most American settlers was for Texas to become an American state. Mexico never recognized Texas’s independence and made plans to recapture it when Congress annexed Texas March 3, 1845, the day before Polk became president.
Mexico recalled its minister and ended diplomatic relations with the U.S.; Polk sent American troops under the command of General Zachary Taylor into disputed areas of Texas to protect American lives and property. Mexico sent an army to the south bank of the Rio Grande, the alleged boundary of Texas that Americans had claimed since the early part of the 1800s.
American diplomatic efforts in Mexico City to negotiate a settlement of the Texas dispute and buy California and New Mexico failed. The pro-negotiation Mexican president was overthrown and replaced by an officer who promised to retake Texas and make diplomatic overtures to European powers to succeed.
Following the admission of Texas in December 1845 as a state, Polk ordered Taylor to move troops to the Rio Grande River. The Mexican Army received orders to cross the river and attack American forces, and two battles—Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma, in the disputed territory north of the Rio Grande River—occurred in early May 1846.
On May 11, Polk, citing Mexico’s refusal to negotiate and accounts of American losses along the Rio Grande, asked Congress to declare war on Mexico. On May 13, the resolution passed with only token opposition.
The hard-fought war took place in-then Mexican territory but now American: New Mexico and California, as well as an American campaign further into Mexcio that resulted in the victorious occupation of the capital, Mexico City, on September 14, 1848. Almost 13,000 American military lost their lives in the war.
The treaty that ended the war was signed in early February 1848. Mexico ceded New Mexico and California to the U.S. and recognized the loss of Texas. The U.S. assumed the claims of Americans against Mexico and paid Mexico $15 million to help the nation achieve much-needed fiscal stability.
The war, as Democrat Senator John C. Calhoun presciently predicted, increased sectional tensions because of the question of slavery in Texas. Some Whigs, including Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln, who considered the war immoral, unconstitutional, and pro-slavery, were opponents, as were the few abolitionists in Congress. However, most Americans supported the war because they believed it confirmed the superiority of democratic republics and the need to promote democracy far outside the boundaries of the U.S.
Supporters of the latter ideal included poet Walt Whitman and novelist James Fenimore Cooper.
Sources: Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, eds., The Reader’s Companion to American History, and http://www.history.com/topics/mexican-american-war.
Questions for student discussion:
Magazine editor, John L. O’Sullivan first used the term “Manifest Destiny” defined as the U.S. in an article on the U.S. annexation of Texas published in the summer of 1845: http://www.history.com/topics/manifest-destiny.
Believers in Manifest Destiny asserted that the U.S. should and was destined to stretch from coast to coast. Who do you think “destined” this national outcome? What does the term “manifest” mean? Students can learn more about the concept at the cited website.
After gaining independence from Spain, the Mexican government was often unstable and unable to protect Americans and Europeans who lived in Mexico or their property. The Mexican government promised to pay the U.S. government $2 million as compensation for damages but did not honor their commitment. Were these actions by the Mexican government reasonable grounds for U.S. military action? Why or why not?
Throughout U.S. history, a sentiment that surfaces and resurfaces strongly (and has substantial opposition as well) is the idea that freedom and democracy are the right of every human and it is the role of the U.S. to promote these values globally. Defend and/or critique these two assertions, using historical evidence in supporting or critiquing either position (estimated time, thirty to forty minutes).
The Mexican War proved to be a training ground for some of the most prominent officers on both sides during the American Civil War. Students might wish to learn more about this topic by accessing the following link:
U.S. Declaration of War, World War II
After the 1868 internal revolution that ended the rule of shoguns in Japan, the U.S. and an industrializing and increasingly powerful Imperial Japan enjoyed generally cordial relations—until the early 1930s, when military officers displaced civilian politicians and assumed de facto and, at times, de jure control of the national government. The Japanese Empire, already controlling Taiwan and Korea, established a puppet government in Manchuria, started a 1937 war with China for control of that nation, and became a formal ally of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. In July 1941, tensions between Japan and the U.S. (as well as several Western European nations) escalated. The U.S., the Netherlands, and the U.K. economically punished Japan because of the empire’s expansionist policies that by 1940 included an incursion into French Indochina (now Vietnam). Japan was not allowed to purchase oil, steel, or military equipment, and Japanese assets in the U.S. were frozen. Japan continued diplomatic relations with the U.S. but secretly determined by fall 1941 that in order to acquire much-needed natural resources, Southeast Asia would be the next target, and this meant defeating Western powers, notably the U.S. and the U.K., in Asia. A surprise attack on American naval forces in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii with coordinated attacks in a few days on American and British forces in Asia was planned, and executed.
On December 8, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed Congress and requested and received a declaration of war against Imperial Japan. Distribute copies or have students access the full text of the declaration request, which is available here: http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/fdr-infamy.htm The particular advantage of this link is that instructors have the option of having students read and listen to a radio broadcast of the speech that is easily utilized at The History Place site.
Instructors might also want to have students view a video clip of the speech to Congress, available on YouTube: http://youtu.be/YhtuMrMVJDk.
Reading or viewing the speech takes approximately seven to eight minutes, although teachers should encourage a more careful read.
Both houses of Congress approved the declaration the same day, and only one Congresswoman, pacifist Representative Jeannette Rankin, voted against the war with Japan. Germany and Italy, honoring their treaty obligations to Japan, both declared war against the U.S. on December 11, and the U.S. Congress reciprocated by declarations of war against Japan’s two Axis allies.
Questions for student discussion:
Given what you know about the events that led to Pearl Harbor, did the U.S. have any other options regarding war with Japan? Please include a rationale for your position based on logic or evidence,
Now that you’ve reviewed two historical case studies where the U.S. has declared war utilizing constitutional procedures, can you think of any meaningful advantages of pursuing this course of action?
Reactions of students will vary when this topic is discussed, but many will most probably see no advantages. Instructors should encourage students to reconsider the question by accessing the following succinct argument for formal war declaration by historian David Kenneth, available at http://classroom.synonym.com/advantages-congress-declaring-war-7107.html (estimated time, thirty minutes).
Editor’s introduction: Often, students only learn about Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima in studying the Pacific Theater in World War II. The following short resources essay appeared in the fall 2015 issue (20, no. 2) of Education About Asia. Interested instructors and students can gain a much more comprehensive understanding of World War II in the Pacific through reading and accessing some or all sources in the essay.
Teaching About World War II in the Pacific: Recommended Resources
It is important for history students to learn about World War II in the Pacific. Haruko and Theodore Cook’s Japan at War: An Oral History (The New Press, 1992; reprint 2008) contains the accounts of sixty-eight men and women about their experiences in World War II. The book, which was published four years before the inaugural issue of Education About Asia, offers a balanced examination of highly readable stories about the war by Japanese (and Korean subjects of Imperial Japan), which will appeal to students.
A number of articles and essays about World War II in the Pacific have appeared in Education About Asia throughout the years. Michael A. Schneider’s “Pearl Harbor and Pan-Asianism: Teaching Ideology as History” assists students to understand the interplay between ideology and military action. Daniel A. Metraux’s “Teaching Pearl Harbor: A New Japanese Perspective” makes key insights of Japanese scholar Takeo Iguchi (“Demystifying Pearl Harbor: A New Japanese Perspective”) accessible to instructors and students. Military historian Eric Bergerud in “Japan, the US, and the Asian-Pacific War” provides an accurate description of the objectives of Japanese Imperial forces in World War II and dispels widespread but erroneous stereotypes about the Asia-Pacific Theater. Bergerud also includes a short but compelling description of the war in China, which is often overlooked in history classes. Yasuko Sato in “Pacific Heart of Darkness: Remembering World War II Combat Experiences” utilizes American and Japanese memoirs and film, all of which can be used in class to portray vivid and accurate impressions for students of what life was like for both sides. All four of these articles appeared in the winter 2012 issue (17, no. 3). Richard Rice’s “Thank God for the Atom Bomb?” and George P. Brown’s “Learning from Truman’s Decision: The Atomic Bomb and Japan’s Surrender” offer perspectives on the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings that differ on crucial points but accurately describe scholarly arguments for and against the American decision to use atomic weapons. The two articles appeared in the spring 2006 issue (11, no. 1). The EAA articles described here, as well as many more World War II-related articles and essays, including interviews with Pulitzer Prize-winning historians Herbert Bix and John Dower, are available in the online EAA archives at https://www.asianstudies.org/publications/eaa/archives/
Section Three: Key Cold War Policies—The Truman Doctrine, National Security Act of 1947, and NSC-68
Editor’s introduction: Instructors and students who need a broader context for understanding the Cold War should access Lucien Ellington’s “Teaching the Cold War: Economics, Ideology, and Morality” from The Foreign Policy Research Institute (October 2016).
U.S. foreign policy developed to counter Soviet expansion early in the Cold War. The Truman Doctrine became the foundation of American Cold War policy and led to the 1949 formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), still an active military alliance.
The Truman Doctrine
President Harry S. Truman announced the plan to Congress early in 1947. A key statement in the Truman congressional message: “I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures. I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way. I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid, which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes.”
Though not overtly stated, the Truman Doctrine implied that the U.S. would support nations threatened by Soviet Communism. Instructors or students interested in accessing the Truman speech can use this link: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/trudoc.asp.
Historian Eric Foner (2008) contends the Truman Doctrine “set a precedent for American assistance to anticommunist regimes throughout the world, no matter how undemocratic, and for the creation of a set of global military alliances directed against the Soviet Union” (892).
In what specific ways did the Truman Doctrine expand U.S. international economic, diplomatic, and military power? (estimated time, ten minutes)
The National Security Act of 1947
The National Security Act of 1947 contained several changes to U.S. policy. One of the key components of the act was the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The CIA primarily focused on gathering foreign intelligence. This in turn increased the possibility of covert, including covert hostile, foreign actions.
For further information about the creation of the CIA, visit http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/truman-signs-the-national-security-act.
Possible additional discussion topics on several additional elements of the National Security Act of 1947 are included in Appendix 1. (estimated time, ten minutes)
National Security Council Report 68 (NSC-68)
The document was a top secret-policy paper the National Security Council presented to Truman on April 14, 1950: National Security Council Report 68.
By 1950, the Soviet Union had unsuccessfully tried to block Western powers from access to Berlin, the USSR had successfully detonated a nuclear bomb, Korea had been split into two nations—one supported by the U.S. and the other by the USSR—and the largest nation in the world, China, had become a Communist nation.
Use the following quote to introduce NSC-68: “The issues that face us are momentous, involving the fulfillment or destruction not only of this Republic but of civilization itself” (NSC-68, para. 6).
As a class, read page 4 of the PDF linked above, titled "Background of the Present World Crisis." (Note the first page 4 in the primary source link was voided—students should proceed to the next page.)
Have students summarize the section "Background of the Present World Crisis" and discuss how the post-World War II international climate affected the development of NSC-68. Focus on the significant changes in world order/power and the threat of nuclear war in this section of NSC-68.
Instructors can reference the following excerpts from NSC-68 in assisting students to understand the perspectives and policy recommendations of the authors of the report.
With the destruction of German and Japanese power and decline of Britain and France, dominant world power was now bipolar—between the U.S. and USSR.
The USSR’s top priority was establishing absolute power over the homeland and Eastern Europe.
Communism was a “new fanatic faith” that “seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world” (NSC-68, para. 4).
Conflict between the two superpowers was probable, and due to the growing number of nuclear weapons, everyone faced the threat of annihilation.
Since Soviets relied on military power to advance their priorities, they could therefore be checked by U.S. military power.
If this military power worked, then there was hope, because Soviets’ weak link was relations with the Soviet people who, once the U.S. showed it could contain and drive back Soviets, would foster internal seeds of destruction.
Suggested Questions and Discussion topics for students based upon key NSC-68 contentions.
How did containment work in a Cold War when both sides possessed atomic weapons?
How does it work in a post-Cold War world when nations with atomic weapons have opposing global interests?
Discuss the consequences of NSC-68. Based on assumptions in NSC-68, Secretary of State Dean Acheson favored:
A rapid, massive military buildup capable of defending the Western Hemisphere and essential Allied areas
Strengthening nascent alliances—NATO (April 1949)
Creation of large-standing military to lessen reliance on nuclear weapons
Providing and protecting mobilization bases
Conducting offensive operations to destroy vital elements of the Soviet war-making capacity
Defending and maintaining the lines of communication and bases areas necessary to the execution of the above tasks
The Cold War ended in 1991 with the internal collapse of the Communist government in Russia.
Culminating student discussion question:
Has this collapse resulted in contraction of the extensive U.S. diplomatic and military presence globally? Have students provide rationales for their answers
(estimated time, twenty minutes).
Section Four: Korean Conflict, an Undeclared War, 1950–1953