Looking back throughout history most wars are pretty dumb, but can a dumb war be morally Just?
There are five qualifications Just War Theorists use to evaluate wars, in this article I'll break down the Pastry War between France and Mexico in 1838.
In full disclosure, I chose the Pastry War because of its superficial absurdity. I wanted to find the dumbest full-fledged conflict that I could, put it through the grinders of Justice, and see what our war ethicist buddy O’Brien comes up with. Let me tell you, there’s plenty of dumb wars out there, but I needed something with more substance than, say, the folklore surrounding the War of the Bucket (Bologna and Modena, 1325). According to historians, the Pastry War has enough significance to be somewhat documented and made just about everyone’s list of dumb—and so began my investigation.
I — Just The Facts, Ma’am
Officially known as the First French Intervention in Mexico of 1838, and as the story goes, the conflict begins over a pastry chef seeking reparations from the newly independent Mexican government after his shop is destroyed during looting caused by civil unrest (Klein). The Mexican government refuses to pay him—along with many, many others—citing that they don’t even reimburse Mexican citizens for mishaps due to their incompetence, let alone foreign nationals (Baker). Riddled with French je nes se quoi, Remontel—the pastry chef—petitions his native country to force Mexico into paying 60,000 pesos for a shop that everyone agrees is only worth 1,000 pesos (Klein).
King Louis-Philippe of France likes the idea of money and pastry, but decides to make it worth his while and add an extra zero to the number—he demands that Mexico pay France 600,000 pesos (3 million francs) for unpaid debts incurred during the Texas Revolution and for damages caused to French nationals (Klein). Mexico says no *insert French accent* and a French blockade of the entire Atlantic side of Mexico ensues. On November 27, 1938, the French begin a bombardment of the Mexican fort San Juan de Ulua off of the city of Veracruz (Wikipedia). Immediately, Mexico declares war on France and tells all French nationals that they must vacate the country or be deported (Baker). Game on.
Well, not really… not a lot happens during the 3-month war. No one gets deported, the minor skirmishes are ill-prepared and seemingly pride-laden, and none of the attacks serve as a strategic value. The only notable bit of history is that Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna comes out of retirement and loses his leg to some grapeshot (Wikipedia). Naturally, the lost appendage receives a full honored military burial (Chicago Tribune). As the French stand around Veracruz scratching their heads, having no way to squeeze money out of empty Mexican coffers and with no intention of actually taking Mexican territory, Great Britain steps in and brokers a peace treaty.
On March 9, 1839, Mexico signs a deal agreeing to pay France 600,000 pesos to end the bloodshed. The 3-month war racked up 316 causalities; 32 dead and 60 wounded for the French, 95 dead and 129 wounded for the Mexican, and no reports of civilian casualties (Wikipedia). The French withdraw their forces, released the blockade, and Mexico never paid a cent. And with that—the Pastry War—according to historians, is one of the dumbest wars in history.
Yeah, but we don’t care about dumb—more importantly, was the war Just? On the surface, your gut tells you absolutely not. However, the French actually have a case. Let’s break it down.
II — Jus ad Bellum and Legitimate Authority: Conditions Permissible For War
The first condition of a Just war is that those waging the war must be of legal authority to do so. Had I known that Nancy Reagan had no legal authority and that the war on drugs was a complete sham, my high school might have turned out differently. I digress… Well, King Louis-Philippe of France is about as legal as it gets seeing as he makes the laws. According to Nancy Nichols Baker in her superb research paper on The French Colony in Mexico, 1821-61 (not being facetious, it’s truly good if you’re interested in such things), King Louis P also had the full support of his foreign ministers in Mexico, the French colonists of Mexico, and every accountant on his staff.
While the blockade of 1838 was a major inconvenience for all involved, it wasn’t until France physically attacked the fort off of Veracruz that Mexico officially declared war. This declaration came from President Anastasio Bustamante. While he served as the country’s legitimate authority, this authority had continually been challenged as several political factions struggled for control after the country’s independence from Spain in 1821 (Baker). To make matters more convoluted, Santa Anna took it upon himself to come out of retirement and lead forces against France without any official authority being granted by the Mexican government. The government allowed Santa Anna to conduct his business by any means necessary (Wikipedia), but later regretted the decision as his one-legged folk hero status elevated him to the title of “Uncrowned King of Mexico”, seizing control of the country as President eleven different times, regardless of his tremendous military failures and rampant corruption (Wikipedia, Chicago Tribune).
Officially, Mexico had legitimate authority, but those actually carrying out the war did not.
III — Jus ad Bellum and Just Cause: Conditions Permissible For War
Naturally, in order to have a Just war, one must have Just causes. These include the right to protect the innocent from unjust attack, to restore rights wrongfully denied, and to re-establish Just order. Obviously defensive wars are permissible, but so are offensive wars if they are to enforce justice for oneself.
This is where the so-called Pastry War becomes incredibly complex and decades of history and social context need to be taken into account. Since arriving in Mexico, French nationals faced substantial xenophobia from the Spanish and Mexicans alike after its independence (Baker). From the French perspective, its citizens had been continually harassed, forced into taking egregious loans from the Mexican government, were victims of countless raids and lootings during Mexican civil distress, unfairly tried or represented in Mexican court, and singled out and even slaughtered simply for being French (Baker).
While records are sparse, census data conducted by French diplomats indicate roughly 6,000 French citizens lived and worked in Mexico—France having the largest population in Mexico of all European countries combined (besides Spain). The Mexican government received the largest amount of complaints from French nationals, little to none of the concerns were ever addressed, leading to over 400 French tradesman and merchants petitioning the French government for armed intervention (Baker).
There was also a great deal of money on the line. France had loaned Mexico money during the Texas Revolution that was never repaid, Mexican officials scarcely acknowledging that the transactions took place. Trade was also suffering due to Mexican political corruption and instability, greatly affecting the key livelihood of French colonists. At the time of the war, French national assets were estimated to be 50 million francs ($10M dollars) with yearly French exports steadily growing from 12.6 million francs per year to 18.3 million francs in the course of a decade (Baker). These numbers add context to King Louis-Philippe’s asking price of 600,000 pesos, or 3 million francs as back payment of the revolution and all of the damages his citizens had incurred.
From all of the dismal correspondences sent by French foreign ministers, the petitions for armed intervention requested by colonists, the passionate case made by pastry chef Remontel, and the tremendous debt going unpaid through diplomatic resolution—King Louis-Philippe felt he owed it to his subjects to take some sort of action and restore Just order for his citizens in Mexico.
Of course, the Mexicans saw it differently. Mexican officials discredited the concerns of the French nationals, calling them “bankrupt businessmen, smugglers, adventurers, and ill-famed people who go out to make a fortune” (Baker). They viewed the French as profiteers refusing to assimilate into Mexican society, clanning up and only hiring compatriots in their businesses, and forming French militias that often skirmished with local police (Baker). All of French national grievances were in an effort to exploit and swindle the Mexican government, each looking for easy way to profit on unearned work.
However, these claims were not completely off base as Barker uncovers through official transcrips. “According to the highest levels of the Mexican government, all five of France’s foreign ministers [1800-1860] were thoroughly offensive, and due to their arrogance, they made negotiation impossible. These diplomats were brutally frank in their reports expressing their scorn for the Mexicans and often referred to them as an “inferior race without the slightest bit of probity”” (Baker). Another diplomat was cited as saying “The Mexicans are the most despicable people on the face of the Globe,” and literal street fights were had by French foreign ministers and local police, with several duels nearly commencing in public squares (Baker).
From the Mexican perspective, the French hardly acted as guests trying to conduct business within their sovereign land or were seeking eventual Mexican citizenship. At one point the Mexican government offered French nationals full citizenship that would relieve them of the high imposed tax on foreign merchants, the offer taken advantage of by very few (Baker). The Mexicans feared that the French were seeking control of the country, and with this insecurity grew that French may overthrow the Mexican government and claim the country as their own. Once the bombardment of Veracruz began, Mexico felt it was fully justified in defending itself.
IV— Jus ad Bellum: Proportionality and Right Intention
While both sides of the Pastry War can make an argument for Just cause, scrutinized under O’Brien’s theory of Proportionality and Right Intention, both seem problematic. The theory holds several components, but essentially the mantra must stand that the ends justify the means, and that ends warrant the extreme horrors of war. One must always have in mind that the object of war is Just and lasting peace, with goodwill and charity among enemies. Haha, right…
The French are poised in an awkward position. Their citizens are being exploited, harassed, and subjugated, but short of total war and control of Mexico, there are very few solutions of rectifying the situation. The French nationals are not being held against their will—they can return to France any time they want—and while violence is occurring, it’s not an ethnic genocide. France’s solution of monetary compensation seems like a rational attempt to justify frustration and create the appearance that consequences will be had if obligations are not met. While these are sympathetic concerns, the projected outcome does not follow from the horrors created by war.
The decades leading up to, and during the Pastry War, France had no intent of seizing control of Mexico and bringing to end all of its civil unrest. While they may have wished it; they were not prepared for, nor did they desire to be the ones bringing about stability within the region. The diplomatic problems and possible retaliation this would create with Spain and Great Britain was not worth the risk, along with logistical problems of Mexico’s geography. A full land invasion would have to occur in order to seize control of the country, and the resources this would expend would weaken France—if it were even feasible. A war of attrition through blockages and bombardment of the coast would only hurt French nationals; a pain they greatly felt during the blockade of the Pastry War. Without a full commitment to restructuring the Mexican government and managing the peace, none of the issues that lead them to war could be resolved.
The Pastry War was ultimately an expression of retribution on the part of France. French diplomats clearly stated several times over that “Mexico needed to be taught a lesson” (Baker), but this attitude harmed France more than it did Mexico. The economic cost of the blockade and subsequent war was more than the reparations France sought in payment. The military action only drove them further into debt and hurt the nationals they were representing. Because of this, France never possessed the proper proportionality or right intention when entering the war.
Mexico’s intention can also be called into question. The Mexican government often took loans and made agreements without ever having the intention of honoring them. Mexico also used propaganda against its own internal political rivals, claiming opponents were colluding, spying, and conspiring with the French when it was clear that King Louis-Philippe had no ambitions of conquering Mexico or interfering with its politics (Baker). This propaganda roused its citizens and was often the cause of French national persecution. It is also well documented that France, as arrogant as they may have been, continually over a 15 year period tried to create a treaty and well-defined trade agreement, similar to the ones it had with other nations suggesting that the terms weren’t skewed, and Mexico refused to sign all of them (Baker). While Mexico had no intent of going to war with France, it also didn’t operate with good faith or trust.
V— Jus in Bello: Regulating The Conduct Of War
Once King Louis-P sent the warships, command of the fleet was assumed by Charles Baudin. Accounts of the blockade applaud its success, strangling trade all along Mexico’s east coast. Financial records report unprecedented low earnings of merchants through 1838 (Baker), however this had a much greater impact on French nationals working in trade than it did on the Mexican government. The United States, allied with France, sent a schooner of its own to assist in the blockade and the Republic of Texas patrolled the Corpus Christi Bay in an effort to stop smuggling through its territory.
Even though the blockade was tight, it provided little encouragement for Mexico to meet France’s demands. Baudin, witnessing little progress and taking great concern over his sailor’s wellbeing—fearing them becoming riddled by disease (vomito negro) the following summer (Baker)—the commander accelerated the campaign by bombarding the Mexican fort off of the coast of Veracruz. By mid-December, French forces had captured the entire city with minor incident. There are no reports of attacks on non-combatants or targeting non-military targets.
Mexico responded appropriately by attempting to defend itself. The fort and city fell to the French, but there are no reports of Mexico’s military competence. Later, after Veracruz was fully under French control, Santa Anna arrived with a battalion and engaged in several small skirmishes to recapture the city. Causalities are relatively low, except for Santa Anna’s leg, and Mexico does not regain any ground.
At this point, both sides are unsure of how to proceed. Baudin had no intention of seizing more territory and Mexico didn’t possess the power to remove the French.
VI — Conclusion
With both sides seeing that the war had no where to go, Great Britain steps in and facilitates a peace treaty (Wikipedia). Mexico agrees to pay France 600,000 pesos to stop the fighting, of which they actually never pay any amount. While this officially ends the Pastry War, it resolves nothing and is simply a precursor to France’s Second Intervention in Mexico 20 years later, where a full land invasion was heavily considered (Baker). I think that Baker surmises the Pastry War nicely:
The results of the naval expedition of 1838-39 were a thorough demonstration of the utter futility of gunboat diplomacy in protecting French subjects or French commerce in Mexico… A British minister noted the irony, “The French were more injured than helped by the measures taken on their behalf.” Conditions essential to French prosperity, or French national’s life, were in no way improved by the war. Nancy Nichols Baker
While I do express the frustrations the French faced in this situation, ultimately I do believe the war was both dumb and unjust. However, I do believe that the way this war has been characterized by historians greatly discounts the decades of social and civil unrest that lead to it. There’s a lot more going on here than a pastry chef crying over spilled milk, as it is portrayed.
On the French side, there’s no way a fleet of ships could have brought an end to Mexican political unrest, civil disobedience, and xenophobia. A bunch of ships showing up wasn’t suddenly going to fill the Mexican treasury, or build the infrastructure of proper roads, bridges, and harbors needed for successful trade (Baker). Bombing Mexico created more internal turmoil and did nothing to expedite commercial growth or create goodwill for French nationals. Basically everything France wanted to accomplish for itself and its citizens was greatly hindered—and possibly irreversibly damning Mexico by bringing Santa Anna out of retirement and allowing him to regain popularity and eventual control over the country. Because of this, France fails to meet all of the most crucial concepts of waging a Just war.
I think Mexico deserved everything it got, which was basically nothing. They’re not the good guy or possess the moral high-ground—but their actions weren’t so egregiously bad that they lost the right to defend themselves. Both sides were unjust, France just happened to be extremely incompetent and misguided in regard to their projection of the probable good that the war could create—making them the most unjust. With France taking action, Mexico is granted the caveat of defending itself—though they had plenty of opportunities to facilitate a resolution prior to the bombardment. That’s why this war is classified as dumb—both sides had plenty of opportunities to make literally anything other than war happen, but it still did.
Klein, Christopher. “The Pastry War, 175 Years Ago”. History, http://www.history.com/news/the-pastry-war-175-years-ago. November 27, 2013.
Barker, Nancy Nichols. “The French Colony in Mexico, 1821-61: Generator of Intervention.” French Historical Studies, vol. 9, no. 4, 1976, pp. 596–618. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/286207.
Wikipedia. “Pastry War”. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pastry_War.
Chicago Tribune Editorial. “Santa Anna’s Leg? Come And Take It”. Chicago Tribune, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/editorials/ct-santa-anna-leg-dispute-illinois-texas-edit-20161111-story.html. November 11, 2016.
Wikipedia. “Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna”. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_López_de_Santa_Anna.