Propaganda on the Prairie

Propaganda on the Prairie

Propaganda, or the deliberate spread of rumors, embellishments, and outright lies for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution or cause is not a new concept. In fact, it seems to have been a staple of human society since the advent of spoken language. However, when we think of the word propaganda, most of us tend to associate the term with war and politics, and with good reason. As far back as ancient China, tactics utilizing the effectiveness of propaganda were recognized as one of the most effective weapons of war. Correctly wielded misinformation can sway the morale of entire countries, either rallying the citizenry to support war efforts or creating doubt and disdain in the communities of your adversary. The Mexican American War was no exception.

During the opening of the war, Generals Zachary Taylor and Mariano Arista squared off in two battles over 48 hours that covered a 6-mile gap from present-day Brownsville, Texas to the banks of the Rio Grande. The two forces collided just outside the settlement of Palo Alto on May 8, 1846 and again the following day at Resaca de la Palma (called Resaca de Guerrero by the Mexican Government). Though many of the particulars of these battles vary greatly depending on the source, the outcome was undeniable: General Taylor, and his men, were victorious in both engagements. The American forces pushed Arista and his soldiers back into a retreat of more than five and a half miles from Palo Alto, and again the next day south across the Rio Grande.

However, the citizens of the territory of Chiapas, Mexico were given a very different account of the events concerning these two battles. A broadside statement which resides in the archives of the Bryan Museum was penned, and widely dispersed, by Commandant General/Governor Geronimo Cardona. In this document, Cardona proclaimed the bravery of General Arista and his men. According to Cardona’s official statement, General Arista successfully forced the retreat of General Taylor’s men as he “retreated to his reserve, abandoning the field to the worthy Soldiers of the homeland.”

Further, although Cardona admits that the Mexican Army was not victorious on the second day at Resaca de la Palma, he diminishes the severity of their defeat by offering that “it must be considered that the setback was mutual for both vengeful forces, and because of the damage inflicted, greater on the enemy, for having had a greater number of dead and wounded. So General Taylor and his nation cannot boast of having humiliated the legions of ours.”

It is only fair to point out that this type of embellishment was not present solely south of the Rio Grande. In his official report to the United States Congress, Taylor misrepresents the number of Mexican troops at approximately 6,000, adding that the battle of Palo Alto ended with driving the enemy “with immense loss from the field.” In all fairness, the retreat of General Arista could be seen as a strategic withdrawal from a force with superior artillery. Furthermore, archeological digs carried out at the site of Palo Alto confirm that, while a mass grave of Mexican soldiers was discovered, the body count found there could not be construed as a significant loss to a fighting force of 3,000, let alone a figure double that size as Taylor asserted.

These exaggerations on each side of the river beg the question of why both men felt the need to embellish their victories and/or defeats. Could it have been for the sake of morale? Renewed hostilities with Mexico were not received well by most American citizens at that time. Perhaps creating the sense of a landslide victory might serve to reinforce the principal of Manifest Destiny and calm the cynics protesting in Congress. Morale in Mexico was also low stemming back to the 1830s. Although Mexico had won its independence from Spain, the President’s office in Mexico was a literal revolving door, seeing more than 40 different leaders in power from 1821-1846. Could Cardona have simply been trying to rally the support of the northern Mexican territories?

Although an attempt to raise morale could explain the exaggerations, a compelling argument can also be made that both Geronimo Cardona and Zachary Taylor used these embellishments to fuel their respective political ambitions. Zachary Taylor went on to become the 12th President of the United States in 1848. Almost all his campaign posters and souvenir coins touted him as “the hero of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma.” And although Cardona could not serve as President of Mexico due to his Cuban descent, he did go on to serve as Governor of two other Mexican territories under the presidency of Mariano Arista (the commanding general of the Mexican forces which fought Taylor) and was later distinguished as a Knight of the Order of Guadalupe during the dictatorial regime of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

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