Just War Theory in the Mexican – American War

Published 22 Dec 2016

War is never a matter of unanimous choice, neither is it evitable. For as long as wars continue to loom in our horizons the very least we can do is to set norms on how we should conduct wars with justice and engage in combat with honor.

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The Just War Theory was espoused by Cicero, a Roman Thinker in 2000 BC. He cited three elements of a just war: just cause, formal declaration of war by the king or emperor, and that the war must be conducted justly. Ambrose borrowed Cicero’s ideas in his teachings. Augustine was a student of Ambrose. Augustine added to the three elements of Cicero. He said that a just war must respect conscientious objectors. Aquinas followed the teachings of Augustine and added his own. According to Aquinas a Just War must meet three conditions, such as, that the declaration of war must come from a legitimate authority, there must be a just cause for it, and the war must have the right intention. Gratian introduced the concept of Just War to modern international law based on the ideas of Augustine and the Roman Laws.

There are two doctrines in the Just War Theory, Jus Ad Bellum or the rules of a just war and the Jus in Bello or the rules of fair combat. Common among these thinkers are the following elements of a Just War:

▫ must be declared by legitimate authority ▫ must have just cause ▫ must be a last resort ▫ must have a reasonable chance of success ▫ must have right intent

The Mexican-American conflict over the annexation of Texas came to a full-blown war. We look at the events that led to it to the Mexican-American War of 1846 to check whether the Just War Theory was observed by America who declared the war against Mexico.

According to Thomas Aquinas a just war must have a just cause. By that he meant that the cause must be good. In April 25, 1846, the Mexicans attacked American troops on the southern border of Mexico, between the Rio Grande and the Nueces Rivers. The Mexicans found the Americans to have no business guarding a border that was not theirs. Texas was not a territory of the United States then. But President Polk used the incident to ask for a declaration of war from Congress on May 11 and which was granted to him on May 13. Whether or not he provoked the attack, the outbreak of hostilities placed America in a defensive position, a just cause for the war.

For Cicero the element of a formal declaration of war must be present in a Just War. It was suppose to give the adversary time to prepare for their defense. President Polk asked Congress for the declaration first before sending his troops in combat. If President Polk had not beaten him to it, Mexican leader Mariano Paredes would have waged the war, with or without a formal declaration.

For Thomas Aquinas a just war must be undertaken by legitimate authority. He believed that the leader must use his power to protect the interests of his people and not his own. President Polk was the President of the United States, while, Mariano Paredes was the Mexican leader during the war. Each of them was after the interests of their respective countries.

Another element of a just war for Thomas Aquinas was that it must have the right intention. A leader must be prudent in taking a decision to go into war. America did not seem to have the right intention from the very start. It had been written in history books that President Polk provoked the Mexicans into war. He had wanted to expand westward by annexing Texas.

Relative to Thomas Aquinas’ right intention, it must also be the last option for it to be a just war. Herrera was ready to resume diplomatic talks with America. President Polk was open to the initiatives of Mexico by sending Slidell as envoy. Paredes took over from Herrera. Paredes kicked Slidell out of Mexico. That was the signal for President Polk to send his troops to defend the borders from Mexican invasion. War oppositionists together with the abolitionists in America believed that Mexico could have responded differently had Polk not been so keen to wage war against Mexico. No other means to avoid war was explored and therefore the last option element in the Just War Theory was only partly satisfied.

A Just War must have a reasonable chance of success and an end proportional to its cost. President Polk was optimistic that they would win the war in a short period of time. It took them a year and nine months at a cost of $100,000 million. Thirteen thousand lost of lives in exchange for 1.2 million square miles of land which was one-third of what it possessed then. Winning the war with Mexico made a great power of America alongside Russia, France and Britain. There is no way to judge reasonableness of success in a war, when the stakes are lives for a piece of land, no matter how large the land and how few the casualties of war. Ambrose believed that there must be no unnecessary destruction in a just war when he held Theodosius responsible for 7,000 civilian deaths. Augustine on the other hand said that a just war must be for the public good and must avoid unnecessary destruction.

Works Cited

  • Kelsay, John. “Just War Tradition, Ahkam al-jihad, and Political Decision-Making.” 8 Feb 2006. Delivered at the Omani Training Institute for Diplomas 10 May 2008
  • “Prelude to War.” 14 Mar 2006. US-Mexican War 1846-1848. 10 May 2008 http://www.pbs.org/kera/usmexicanwar/prelude/jp_jp_and_the_mexican_war.html
  • “What is Just War Theory.” 2003-2007. Beyond Intractability. University of Colorado 10 May 2008 http://www.beyondintractability.org
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