Peter Guardino is Professor of History at Indiana University–Bloomington. This interview is based on his new book, The Dead March: A History of the Mexican-American War (Harvard University Press, 2017).
JF: What led you to write The Dead March?
PG: I wrote The Dead March because I was deeply dissatisfied with many of the things that both the general public and academic historians in the United States and Mexico believed about this crucial war. Most writing about the war still contained ideas about both countries that had first become embedded in conventional wisdom during the nineteenth century as an increasingly racist United States rose to become a world power. More recent and professional research has debunked or called into question many of these ideas. It was time to reexamine the war in the light of what we know now, and with new primary research. I also felt that a social history of this war would tell us much about both Mexico and the United States during the period.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Dead March?
PG: When we look at the Mexican-American War through the experiences of common people in both countries, it becomes clear that Mexico lost this war not because Mexicans were less committed to their nation but because Mexico’s economy was not as strong as the U.S. economy. Both national governments were still in the process of building national institutions and convincing people that loyalty to the nation should be more important than other forms of identity.
JF: Why do we need to read The Dead March?
PG: This war shaped the continent in dramatic ways, and it is best understood through the motivations and stories of the regular people who experienced the violent battles, the diseases that stalked American military camps, the atrocities inflicted on Mexican civilians, and the hunger that shaped the lives of Mexican soldiers and civilians. The political, strategic and tactical choices made by politicians and officers were important, but the social and economic realities of the two countries always shaped those choices. Researching and writing this book helped me learn an enormous amount about both the United States and Mexico, and I hope reading it will inform and entertain others.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
PG: My path toward researching US history has been anything but direct. I have been fascinated by history for as long as I can remember, but in college I became interested in the history of Mexico. I focused my research almost completely on Mexican history through two books, many articles, and decades of teaching. Still, I was always dissatisfied with the ways in which our visions of Latin American history are often implicitly comparative: Latin American history is largely constructed as a story of the region’s relative lack of political stability, democracy, and economic development. Because that comparison is implicit it is usually intellectually weak, with people comparing idealized versions of the history of the United States or Western Europe to exaggerated versions of Latin American failures. It was the desire for better comparison that led me to write a book about an event that the US and Mexico shared, and that led me to serious research about American history in both secondary and primary sources. Oddly, I didn’t become a historian of the United States until I had been a Mexicanist for decades.
JF: What is your next project?
PG: Well, I am trying to figure that out now. I remain interested in the early nineteenth century in both the United States and Mexico. I have begun some very preliminary research for a new project focused on the 1820s and 1830s. Both countries dramatically expanded suffrage and experienced the development of mass political parties in this period, but in other ways they were quite different. Jacksonian Democracy was about expanding the participation of white males in formal politics while limiting the rights of racial others. Race also shaped social hierarchies in Mexico, but it had no formal political or legal role: Mexico abolished slavery, and all males, regardless of race, could vote. In fact, officials no longer even recorded racial identities in official documents. The contrast is fascinating, and I am hoping to write a book about this.
JF: Thanks, Peter!