The Wars of Mexico

The History Mexican Conflicts From the Aztecs to the 20th Century

Mexico has been caught up numerous wars in its long history, from the conquest of the Aztecs to the country's involvement in World War Two. Here's a look at the conflicts—both internal and external—that Mexico has faced over the centuries.

01
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The Rise of the Aztecs

art illustrating Aztec warriors fighting against the Spanish

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The Aztecs were one of several peoples inhabiting Central Mexico when they embarked on a series of conquests and subjugations that put them at the center of their own Empire. By the time the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century, the Aztec Empire was the mightiest New World culture, boasting thousands of warriors based in the magnificent city of Tenochtitlán. Their rise was a bloody one, however, marked by the famous "Flower Wars" which were staged spectacles designed to procure victims for human sacrifice.

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The Conquest (1519—1522)

Hernan Cortes

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In 1519, Hernán Cortés and 600 ruthless conquistadors marched on Mexico City, picking up native allies along the way who were willing to fight the much-loathed Aztecs. Cortés cleverly played the native groups off against one another and soon had Emperor Montezuma in his custody. The Spanish slaughtered thousands and millions more perished from disease. Once Cortés was in possession of the ruins of the Aztec Empire, he sent his lieutenant Pedro De Alvarado south to crush the remnants of the once-mighty Maya.

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Independence from Spain (1810—1821)

Miguel Hidalgo monument
Miguel Hidalgo monument.

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On September 16, 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo addressed his flock in the town of Dolores, telling them that the time had come to kick out the Spanish usurpers. Within hours, he had an undisciplined army of thousands of angry Indians and peasants following him. Along with military officer Ignacio Allende, Hidalgo marched on Mexico City and nearly captured it. Although both Hidalgo and Allende would be executed by the Spanish within a year, others such as Jose Maria Morelos and Guadalupe Victoria took up the fight. After 10 bloody years, independence was gained when General Agustín de Iturbide defected to the rebel cause with his army in 1821.

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The Loss of Texas (1835—1836)

Battle of the Alamo artwork
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Toward the end of the colonial period, Spain began allowing English-speaking settlers from the United States into Texas. Early Mexican governments continued to allow the settlements and before long, English-speaking Americans greatly outnumbered Spanish-speaking Mexicans in the territory. A conflict was inevitable, and the first shots were fired in the town of Gonzales on October 2, 1835.

Mexican forces, led by General Antonio López de Santa Anna, invaded the disputed region and crushed the defenders at the Battle of the Alamo in March of 1836. Santa Anna was soundly defeated by General Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto in April of 1836, however, and Texas won its independence.

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The Pastry War (1838—1839)

Antonio López de Santa Anna

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After independence, Mexico experienced severe growing pains as a nation. By 1838, Mexico owed significant debts to several countries, including France. The situation in Mexico was still chaotic and it looked as if France might never see its money back. Using a claim by a Frenchman that his bakery had been looted (hence "the Pastry War") as a pretext, France invaded Mexico in 1838. The French captured the port city of Veracruz and forced Mexico to pay its debts. The war was a minor episode in Mexican history, however, it did mark the return to political prominence of Antonio López de Santa Anna, who had been in disgrace since the loss of Texas.

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The Mexican-American War (1846—1848)

Battle of Buena Vista artwork

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By 1846, the United States was looking west, covetously eyeing Mexico's vast, sparsely populated territories—and both countries were eager for a fight. The U.S. wanted to take over the resource-rich territories while Mexico sought to avenge the loss of Texas. A series of border skirmishes escalated into the Mexican-American War. The Mexicans outnumbered the invaders, however, the Americans had better weapons and far superior military strategy. In 1848 the Americans captured Mexico City and forced Mexico to surrender. The terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war, required Mexico to hand over all of California, Nevada, and Utah and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Colorado to the United States.

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The Reform War (1857—1860)

Benito Juarez
Benito Juarez. Bettmann/Getty Images

The Reform War was a civil war which pitted liberals against conservatives. After the humiliating loss to the United States in 1848, liberal and conservative Mexicans had different views on how to get their nation back on the right path. The biggest bone of contention was the relationship between church and state. Between 1855 and 1857, liberals passed a series of laws and adopted a new constitution severely limiting church influence, causing the conservatives to take up arms. For three years, Mexico was torn apart by bitter civil strife. There were even two governments—each with a president—that refused to recognize one another. The liberals eventually won, just in time to defend the nation from another French invasion.

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The French Intervention (1861—1867)

execution of Maximilian

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The Reform War left Mexico a shambles—and once again, greatly in debt. A coalition of several nations including France, Spain, and Great Britain captured Veracruz. France took it one step further. Hoping to capitalize on the chaos in Mexico, they were looking to install a European nobleman as Emperor of Mexico. The French invaded, soon capturing Mexico City (along the way the French lost the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, an event celebrated in Mexico annually as Cinco de Mayo). Maximilian of Austria was installed as Emperor of Mexico. Maximilian may have meant well but he was incapable of governing the turbulent nation. In 1867, he was captured and executed by forces loyal to Benito Juarez, effectively ending France's imperial experiment.

09
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The Mexican Revolution (1910—1920)

Mexican Revolution

 Dominio público/Wikimedia Commons

Mexico achieved a level of peace and stability under the iron fist of dictator Porfirio Diaz, who ruled from 1876 to 1911. While the economy boomed, the poorest Mexicans did not benefit. This caused a simmering resentment that eventually exploded into the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Initially, the new president, Francisco Madero, was able to maintain order, but after he was ousted from power and executed in 1913, the country descended into utter chaos as ruthless warlords like Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Alvaro Obregon fought amongst themselves for control. After Obregon eventually "won" the conflict, stability was restored—but by then, millions were dead or displaced, the economy was in ruins, and Mexico's development had been set back 40 years.

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The Cristero War (1926—1929)

Alvaro Obregon
Alvaro Obregon. Bettmann/Getty Images

In 1926, Mexicans (who had apparently forgotten about the disastrous Reform War of 1857) once again went to war over religion. During the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution, a new constitution had been adopted in 1917. It allowed for freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and secular education. Ardent Catholics had bided their time, but by 1926, it had become evident that these provisions were not likely to be rescinded and fighting began breaking out. The rebels called themselves “Cristeros” because they were fighting for Christ. In 1929, an agreement was reached with the help of foreign diplomats. While the laws stayed on the books, certain provisions would go unenforced.

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World War Two (1939—1945)

Mexican Defence Forces, 1940

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Mexico tried to remain neutral at the onset of World War Two, but soon faced pressure from both sides. Eventually, deciding to join the allied forces, Mexico closed its ports to German ships. Mexico traded with the U.S. during the war— especially in oil—which the country desperately needed for the war effort. An elite squadron of Mexican fliers, the Aztec Eagles, flew numerous missions in aid of the U.S. Air Force during the 1945 liberation of the Philippines.

Of far greater consequence than the battlefield contributions by Mexican forces were the actions of Mexicans living in the United States who worked in the fields and factories, as well as the hundreds of thousands who joined the American armed forces. These men fought bravely and were given U.S. citizenship after the war.