For All Nails #59: Not-So-White Trash Nation

by Noel Maurer

From the introduction to
Russell M. Walters,
The British Roots of Mexican Bellicosity,
Shays University Press, 1974.

Note to all readers: Walters's interpretations may be as wrong as any others.(NM)

For the official critique of this book by USM historian Frank Dana, see Academic Discourse. (DAMB)

Mexico. Expansionism. Militarism. War. The words run together in the popular mind. FN1 In the nineteenth century, Mexico launched wars of expansion against Guatemala (twice), North America, New Granada, Russia, and the Kingdom of Hawaii. The exploits of General Santa Anna against the Cruzob and Yaquis -- not to mention in the Soconusco and Rocky Mountain Wars -- earned him a place in the country's mythology rivaled only by Benito Hermión, himself a soldier. In the Hundred Day War, Mexico was attacked by France, but the war did not end until the French were swept completely from the Western Hemisphere, their possessions annexed, their citizens expelled, and there is little doubt among historians that the Mexicans would have crossed the Atlantic and pressed on to Paris had they possessed the logistical capacity to do so.

In the Global War, a dispute over a Japanese blockade against Mexico's trade with the Jeffersonista-controlled areas of China escalated into a war aimed at the unconditional surrender of not only Japan but also Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Several times the Mexicans could have ended the war in victory, had they only been able to limit their goals. Public opinion made that impossible. In fact, the 1950 presidential election was fought not over whether to end the war, or what the definition of victory should be, but rather how to achieve the unconditional surrender of their enemies. During the 1940s, more than five million Japanese civilians died as a direct result of Mexican bombing, half as high again as the total number of Mexican combat deaths, and more than sixty times the number of Mexican civilian casualties suffered in the raids on Hawaii, San Francisco, and the Kinkaid Canal Zone.

Civilian casualties in other enemy nations were lower than in Japan, but only because Mexico was unable to mount a sustained campaign against Australia, Taiwan, or the Philippines. Nevertheless, civilian deaths from Mexican bombing in all three countries were significantly higher than the casualties suffered by Mexico, despite the fact that their combined population was lower than Mexico's. No prominent politician or academic in Mexico, during or since the war, has ever expressed the slightest remorse over these deaths. (Compare this to the orgy of guilt in North America over the Confederation's putative "responsibility" for the Global War.) Finally, Mexico's constitutional order has twice been disrupted by military officers seeking power. If this record is not sufficient to link the words "Mexico" and "militarism," then nothing could possibly be.

Academic and popular opinion outside Mexico is united in ascribing the country's bellicosity to its Hispanic roots. Robert Sobel writes of Mexico in the 1940s: "No people so honored military men and prized militarism as the Hispanos and Mexicanos." Other historians and political analysts concur. Meanwhile, in the North American popular press the linkage between Mexican militarism and the country's Spanish heritage is ubiquitous, unremarked upon, and unanalyzed. After all, have not all Spanish American countries (save New Granada and Chile, but those major exceptions go unnoticed) suffered coups? Have they all not fought wars among each other? The connection is obvious. FN2 In fact, some elements of popular opinion take the "logic" further, into territory that should be (but sadly isn't) considered racialist, ascribing Mexico's bellicosity to some quasi-genetic root in the country's Mexicano population. FN3

This book does not take issue with the popular characterization of Mexico's attitudes towards the role of the military or its perennially-strained relationship with the outside world. The historical record speaks for itself. Rather, this book argues that the roots of Mexico's bellicosity lie with neither the Spanish nor the Mexica, but with Great Britain. More specifically, it lies with the Scotch-Irish settlers from the border regions between England and Scotland and the Protestant colonies in Ireland.

It is true that the core of the initial settlers who made the Wilderness Walk were drawn from the cavaliers of Virginia or the old "Yankee" populations of New England. What goes unrecognized, however, is how rapidly those settlers were swamped by migrants from the frontier regions of Transylvania, the Carolinas, and Georgia. FN4 Their way of life disrupted by rebellion, immigration, and industrialization, FN5 North Americans moved west in massive numbers to the new and open frontiers of Jefferson, California, Arizona, and Durango. FN6 CNA historians notice this western migration of displaced backcountry settlers as little as Mexican historians note the eastern migration of escaped slaves.

These settlers were a bitter and warlike people, with values formed from centuries of conflict in Britain and Ireland. Their ancestors had came from colonies surrounded by hostile populations of Scottish warriors and Irish Catholics. From there, they migrated to the North American backcountry, where they were surrounded by hostile Indian tribes and encroached upon by upper-class slaveowning cavaliers. In Mexico, perhaps, they could finally breathe free, but by then their cultural attitudes had hardened -- and in Mexico their culture found fertile roots among the Mexicano populations of México Central and Chiapas. Scotch-Irish culture proved the perfect anodyne to hierarchical Spanish conceptions that sought to keep the "Indio" in his or her place. Mexicano tribes, clans, and extended families fit perfectly into Scotch-Irish notions of family, tribal loyalty and honor, wedded to the egalitarian ideologies brought by the country's Jeffersonian conquerors. This culture slowly and unstoppably spread through the new country's southern regions, as did Protestantism.

Robert Sobel notes that only Jefferson maintained a Protestant majority in 1971. What he neglects to mention is that Protestants, particularly evangelical Protestants, make up 45 percent of the population of Chiapas and 32 percent of the population of México Central. Sobel also fails to note another significant characteristic of Mexican Catholicism, which is that it is, in practice, Scotch-Irish Protestantism. Surveys continually show that large majorities of Mexican Catholics deny that the Holy Church or its representatives have any special divine authority, and strongly affirm a "personal relationship with God." The form may be Catholic, but the practice is not -- and following the form in order to honor one's ancestors and carry on tradition while altering the substance to suit one's individual ambition is a deeply Scotch-Irish notion. The revolt against established denominations, Protestant and Catholic alike, continues throughout Mexico today. FN7

What are these values inherited from the British borderlands, and how do they influence modern Mexico's politics and foreign affairs? In the rest of this introduction I do not wish the reader to assume that the cultural attributes I describe emerged full-blown in 1820. The historical roots and slow development of each of these attitudes will be carefully traced in the chapters that follow. Here I only wish to trace an outline of what evolved from the country's British base when planted in Mexican soil, and show how they influence the nation's bellicose foreign policy.

We must begin with the notion of honor, which does not quite mean the same thing in Mexico as it does in North America. Honorable people in Mexico are self-reliant. Receiving aid from family and friends is honorable, but one must repay that aid, and that means holding down a job or running a business or otherwise putting oneself in a position to repay favors or extend them to new people accepted into the folk community.

Self-reliant folk, who follow through on their community obligations, of course deserve to be treated with respect. North Americans often find it difficult to adapt to what they perceive as an almost aggressive informality that permeates most of Mexico, save a few dwindling traditionalist Hispano enclaves in Guadalajara and Yucatán. FN8 This informality to all but the aged shows not disrespect, but respect. One is treating the other individual as an equal. Of course, one must defend oneself against disrespect, or be prepared to, if one is to expect respect. Dueling, therefore, persisted in Mexico long after the aristocrats of Europe had abandoned the practice. In fact, informal "dueling" persists to this day: many a jury in Jefferson or Chiapas has let off a murderer on credible testimony that the violent confrontation was pre-planned and agreed-upon by both participants.

The potential need to defend one's honor explains Mexicans' near-reverence for firearms, which has no parallel in North America. Owning and caring for firearms is an essential part of life. The constitution protects the right to bear arms, and universal military service means that most Mexicans know how to use them. North American visitors to México del Norte or Durango are often surprised to see how commonly people openly carry firearms: what they fail to realize is that California, Chiapas and México Central only appear less armed because concealed weapons are legal in those states.

Pistols are commonly referred to as "equalizers" in Mexican speech, and the term shows the importance of equality in Mexican culture. All Mexicans must have an equal start, even if they do not necessarily have to end up in the same place. Mercator may have expanded the country's universal education system to include university and graduate education, but it should be noticed that Jefferson's extensive public schools were established back in the eighteenth century, and the federal government made an extensive push to make education universal in the first half of the nineteenth. That is not to say that Mexicans are radical Neiderhofferians at heart. They are not. When they think that the rules of the game are fair, they believe that the winners deserve respect. That is why Bernard Kramer is still a folk hero in the United States, while the company he founded, Kramer Associates, is vilified. That is why President Moctezuma lauds Mercator's Estate Law, while receiving popular accolades by attempting to streamline the tax laws to allow the wealthy to retain more of their own income. It also explains why Mexicans, unlike North Americans, will proudly trumpet their own accomplishments to all who will listen, while playing down the social position or achievements of their ancestors. Andrew Jackson has many descendants, as does Alexander Hamilton, and many are active in politics, but none make an issue of their ancestry. Only in Yucatán, where Hispano culture survives more strongly than elsewhere, do people routinely make reference to their ancestors' social position.

In 1877, Mrs. Agatha Sandstrom was forced to leave Britain due to her husband's debts and live in Mexico for two years. She went to Mexico City at first, which was still recognizably Hispano, and her diary records generally pleasant experiences. From there, she moved to the mining town of Pachuca, México Central, which while Spanish-speaking (even today Spanish still predominates there) was beginning to be infected by the Scotch-Irish culture brought by Anglo miners and permeated among the Mexicanos of the region. She wrote:

"The theory of equality may be very daintily discussed by Hispano gentlemen in a Mexico City dining room, when the servant, having placed a fresh bottle of cool wine on the table, respectfully shuts the door and leaves them to their walnuts and their wisdom, but it will be found far less palatable when it presents itself in the shape of a hard greasy paw and is claimed in accents that breathe less of freedom than tequila and tortillas. The Mexican hidalgo is more and more a stranger in his own land, and would be more at home in a London drawing room than here a few kilometers from his home. A warning to all who might choose to travel here from my fair island: strong indeed must be the love of liberty in an English breast if it can survive a tour through the United States." FN9

Respect in Mexico belongs to those who can demonstrate a basis for it in their own accomplishments, or the elderly. That Mexicans believe that the elderly deserve respect may surprise North Americans unfamiliar with the country, who see only the popular culture that the country is exporting to the world. The misperception comes about because foreigners, particularly North Americans, see that Mexican mass culture is increasingly popular among their own youth, and is quite "wild" according to North American or European norms. They fail to realize that neither statement is true in the United States. Youth is expected to sow its wild oats, and most Mexicans have done so. Older people identify with younger people's wildness, and mothers and daughters alike listen to the music of Juan Bailleres or Tania Monroy. FN10

Grown-ups have to take on responsibilities, gain more responsibility as they age, and deserve respect for it. Andrew Jackson was 53 when he became president, and remained in office until we was 71. Vincent Mercator may not be popular as a political leader, but he is respected, and his television variety show has only gained in viewers as Mercator has gained in years. Benito Hermión's programs to provide a dignified old age for Mexicans were put in place by a nation that had an even younger age-structure than today's. Mexicans may not always obey the elderly, but they find it very important to care for them.

The result of this strange (to North Americans) mix of attitudes -- individualism and self-reliance wedded to a strong sense of reciprocal responsibility and a love of equality -- means that Mexicans draw a strong line between those who are members of the gente and those who are not. Within the gente, among those bound by the code of honor, there is equality and respect. Outside it, there is coldness and chaos. Unlike anywhere else in the Western world, Mexico widely accepts the routine use of deadly force to prevent crimes against property and has no hesitancy about using the death penalty -- neither of which are accepted in any other "Hispanic" country. FN11

This folk culture derived from the British borderlands -- which has next-to-no connection with Spain and only the most tenuous connection with the nation's pre-Hispanic traditions -- has profound implication for the foreign policy of the United States. The primary goal of the Mexican gente is not commercial or industrial development (although that is a good thing), the support and diffusion of moral values (although that is also a good thing), or even the expansion of liberty (which is, yet again, a good thing). Rather, the popular attitude in Mexico -- an attitude which was encapsulated by Andrew Jackson, not Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson or Agustín Iturbide -- is that government exists to promote the welfare and security of the Mexican people. Any means are permissible in the service of this end as long as they don't violate the moral principles or essential freedom of the gente.

The folk culture derived from the Scotch-Irish tradition holds that the political and moral instincts of the Mexican people are sound. If the gente want something, and feel that it doesn't violate their principles or remove their freedoms, then they must be right. Constitutional safeguards that infringe the will of the majority, therefore, are secondary. For a political minority to use the Constitution to subvert the will of the majority is an abuse of process. If the people want prayer in the schools, or the death penalty, or an end to parole hearings, or whatever, then the opposition has no business using administrative, legislative, or judicial "subterfuges" to stop them. This cavalier attitude towards checks and balances is what permitted Mexico's interregnums of extra-constitutional rule in 1881-1901 and 1950-65. The populist attitudes which enabled both episodes, however, were born in the political culture of a certain part of the British isles and were nurtured in the frontier areas of the Southern Confederation. They derive from neither Andalucía nor Tenochtitlán.

The Mexican people simply assume that government will suffer from corruption and inefficiency. It is the inevitable cost of having a government. Career politicians are particularly suspect. In the words of Alfonzo Macleod, "If it keeps buzzing around the outhouse, then it's probably a fly." Of course, the citizens of other nations will say that Mexicans have the luxury of this relaxed attitude towards corruption because they have never really experienced an absolute dictatorship. During Benito Hermión's rule as "Chief of State," for example, Congressional elections were held regularly, and even under Mercator both the federal judiciary and state governments continued to operate as before. To these arguments the Mexican-in-the-street would shrug and reply, "That's the point."

Under both Hermión and Mercator, the "dictator" knew that there were certain limits beyond which he could not step -- because doing so would violate the moral principles or essential freedoms of the Mexican gente and lead to his inevitable downfall, as Hermión himself discovered. Some of Mercator's measures (such as the Income Laws) came very very close ... but close is still no cigar. The properties that he nationalized were paid for at fair market values and financed by selling government bonds on the open market, and no Mexican government has ever defaulted on its debts, foreign or domestic, since to do so would be dishonorable under the folk honor code. FN12

The result is a deep-seated belief that government should be simple and straightforward. If government is simple, then government is controllable, with no need for Byzantine constitutional maneuvers to keep it in check. (Which does not prevent Mexicans from worshipping their much-violated Constitution as a document second only to the Bible in sanctity.) "Complicated" is a highly negative term. Mercator could no longer resist the pressure to restore the Constitution in 1965 because his policies had become "complicated." Ending the civil disorders and eliminating Kramer's influence was simple. Creating a "progressive" utopia was complicated. Once that happened, the "simple soldier" had to restore the Constitution or face a violent revolt. FN13

The above set of political attitudes deeply colors the nation's foreign policy. Mexicans draw a sharp distinction between the members of their community and others. The nation is an extension of the clan, which is an extension of the family. There is one set of rules for those within the community, who enjoy rights and respect responsibilities, and another for those outside of it. Since the outside world is viewed as anarchic and dangerous, Mexican policy must therefore be forceful and unscrupulous. The Mexican people are far more likely to censure a leader who fails to employ vigorous measures against outsiders than one who fails to act in order to satisfy a some sort of universal morality.

Mexicans believe that there is an honor code among nations, just as there was an honor code in the clan warfare in the English borderlands, and nations which violate that code deserve no more consideration than vermin. For example, the Japanese sank a Mexican-flagged ship. Therefore, the subsequent slaughter of millions of Japanese civilians was fully justified. Japanese apologies counted for little. Mexicans may be tolerant of breaking formal rules, but once one informal rule is broken, then they all can be broken. That was the spirit that animated the North American Rebellion (the British parliament had broken the unwritten rules of government, however small), and that same spirit drove the ferocity of the Global War.

A corollary is a deep sense of national honor. Honor is a vital national interest. You can deal with a bully only by punching him back, as hard as you can. In fact, the best way to deal with a bully is to punch him first, before he's tried to steal your lunch money. Appeasement is dishonorable and futile. Wars must be won. Preventative wars are regrettable, but justifiable. It is bad to fight an unnecessary war, but unconscionable to lose one. Reputation is everything -- if we are seen to be strong and aggressive and ready to fight to the death over the slightest provocation, then no one will provoke us. The idea of a limited war, therefore, is an oxymoron. You hit the enemy as hard as possible as quickly as possible with as much as possible. This was Oliver Cromwell's strategy in Ireland, and it was Alvin Silva's strategy in the Pacific. Violence has no rheostat. The War Without War is a unique period in Mexican history, and not one that fits the nation's character particularly well. President Moctezuma's peace initiatives, therefore, are probably genuine. Mexicans are not warlike by nature, but they do not adapt well to a situation which is neither total war nor absolute peace. This attitude is not at all Hispanic, but very Scotch-Irish. FN14

Once war occurs, therefore, the only legitimate objective is to impose the will of the gente on the enemy with the minimum of Mexican casualties. War is not sport, and it is not a gentleman's game. The Mexican way of war, then, is fundamentally unlike either the Spanish or Aztec approach. FN15 It is also, for that matter, fundamentally unlike the North American way of war, which derives from an entirely different English tradition. Mexico would never assault Porto Rico, fail, and give up. If the goal were important enough to risk any Mexican lives at all, then it would be important enough to gain at any cost. Mexico would have attacked again and again, blockaded the island, called in strategic bombing, and done whatever was necessary, the fear of retaliation be damned. FN16

That is not to say that Mexico has never fought a war for limited goals, simply that it does not fight wars with limited means. The goal of the Rocky Mountain War was not to conquer the CNA. Nor was the goal of the often-forgotten Soconusco War to conquer Guatemala. (Although it should not be forgotten that Mexico would do just that over a half-century later.) FN17 The goal was, however, to fix Mexico's claim over Belize, the Petén, and Soconusco, and the campaign succeeded easily. Had Santa Anna needed to occupy Guatemala City, however, there is little doubt that he would have done so with Andrew Jackson's blessing. Had he needed to press on to the New Granada border, there is little doubt that he would have done so, again with Andrew Jackson's blessing. And it is quite likely that had such drastic measures been necessary to obtain the war's limited aim, and had Andrew Jackson decided that the disputed provinces were not worth the cost after the war had begun, then it would have been the Anglo population which would have denounced him and removed him from office.

The Rocky Mountain War dragged on and on inconclusively, and the loss colored Mexican attitudes towards North America far more than did the aftermath of the Rebellion of 1775. Had the Mexicans won the Rocky Mountain War, which was by no means impossible, it is quite possible that the two nations would have become fast friends thereafter. FN18 Once the Yaqui were defeated on the battlefield, the USM accorded them all sorts of special privileges in both Durango and México del Norte. The Russians were an evil threat until they were defeated in the Great Northern War, after which they became almost idealized. France was decisively thrown back in 1914, and Mexico's hatred soon faded. (North Americans forget that one of the biggest issues against Silva in the 1950 election was the charge that he had sold out France and Russia to Germany -- his brutal sneak attacks against Japan were universally admired. Silva's defense was that neither France nor Russia ever formally surrendered to Mexico, and selling them out to Germany was a necessary tactic to win the war. It is hard to imagine such frankly amoral statements being openly trumpeted in a North American political campaign, even by the redoubtable Lennart Skinner.)

In conclusion, Mexico is a bellicose nation, but its unwritten constitution is stronger than many North Americans realize, and that unwritten constitution derives from the same British roots as its bellicosity. Our neighbor to the west is dangerous and strong because it taps into a long-suppressed part of our own cultural tradition.

Chapter One turns to the origins of that cultural tradition in the English-Scottish borderlands ... FN19

Forward to FAN #60: The Spaced Service.

Forward to 1974: Mobile Locos.

Forward to Academic Discourse.

Return to For All Nails.