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The Thankless Task Of Nicholas Trist
You are conducting secret peace talks with the enemy in the midst of an unpopular and interminable foreign war. The American field commander is throwing every obstacle in your path. Then, just as the talks are getting somewhere, the President orders you home. What do you do now?
August 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 5
Such a background was not one to make Scott warm to Trist, and what was to have been a co-operative mission between the two was immediately thrown into jeopardy. Still in the dark about the contents of the proposed treaty, Scott wrote an outraged answer to Trist’s first letter. It began: “I see that the secretary of War proposes to degrade me, requiring that I, as commander-inchiefof this army, shall defer to you, the chief clerk in the Dep’t of State, the question of continuing or discontinuing hostilities.” After getting that out of his system, he indicated that since there was no real Mexican government, he could not forward the dispatch anyway.
Here Nicholas Trist, had he had his wits about him, would have recognized his initial error and attempted to patch things up with the General. But no, he sent off one of his endless communications—an eighteen-page letter that Scott termed “sarcastic, burning, and impolite.” By now Folk’s peace mission was completely off the rails. Scott, assuming Trist to be an ally of Polk and Buchanan (both of whom he mistrusted because they had opposed his appointment as commanding general), now believed that the government in Washington was deliberately trying to prevent him from having a voice in a truce with the Mexicans. Trist, no less suspicious, wrote his wife that Scott was “decidedly the greatest imbecile that I have ever had anything to do with” and soon was exchanging further angry letters with him. By May 29—more than three weeks after Trist arrived to negotiate a peace with the Mexican government—he had still not even met the U.S. Commander in Chief, who wrote him a curt note referring to one of Trist’s thirty-page onslaughts as a “farrago of impudence, conceit, and arrogance.”
Fortunately for posterity, both men were now being taken to task by their chiefs: Buchanan wrote Trist telling him that this was no time for a personal vendetta— the government, he said, could not indulge its representatives in a quarrel; Marcy told off Scott in similar fashion. Despite their differences and their abraded nerve ends, both men were good Americans, and they soon realized how detrimental to the nation’s interests their conduct was. Nicholas Trist took the initial step to heal the rift: on June 25 he sent Scott a note that was for the first time free of rancor, and Scott replied at once, saying that he would be quite willing to forget the recent unpleasantness. Just then Trist fell ill, causing Scott to feel more compassionate toward him; on July 6 a box of guava marmalade was delivered to the diplomat’s sickbed from the Commander in Chief, and with this peace offering the feud ended as suddenly as it had begun. A few days later the two met for the first time and established an immediate entente cordiale ; soon contrite letters were on their way to Washington from both of them to their respective departments, requesting that the earlier, angry letters of complaint be removed from the files.
But by this time, naturally enough, the President of the United States was thoroughly disgusted with both his representatives. In addition to what he knew from other sources of the Trist-Scott feud, he had been receiving confidential dispatches from Scott’s second-incommand, General Gideon J. Pillow, Polk’s former law partner in Tennessee, who lost no opportunity to put Scott (and, after the rapprochement , Trist) in the worst possible light. Pillow was no fool; he wanted the top job himself, and thanks in part to his machinations, Polk gave renewed consideration to removing Scott from command.
Because of the horrendous delays in getting word from the battlefield to Washington—it often took three or four weeks for a message to reach the capital—there was an Alice-in-Wonderland aspect to the whole affair by this time, so that while Polk fumed at the White House over the lack of progress, events in Mexico were actually pushing matters toward a settlement. In August, Trist met for the first time with the Mexican peace commissioners, who balked at parting with Texas south of the Nueces River and a portion of Upper California. Since the Rio Grande boundary was a sine qua non of Trist’s instructions, he broke off the talks; but he agreed to submit the Mexican proposal to Washington. Meanwhile the course of the war made peace inevitable: on September 14 the Americans captured Mexico City, Santa Anna and the government fled, and Trist observed that “total dissolution” of the country was at hand. In this state of chaos Mexico would neither negotiate nor fight.