Dorothy Thompson – Story of a dictator (5-5-41)

Reading Eagle (May 5, 1941)


Story of a dictator

When I was out in Texas recently, friends took me to the historic San Jacinto battlefield to see the famous monument memorializing what Texans call “one of the 16 decisive battles of the world.”

The monument, a towering needle of stone 570 feet high, and thus, I was informed, the tallest memorial on earth, is also a museum, where in picture, exhibits and maps is recorded the history of the building of an empire – the vast American Empire of the Southwest.

From the top of the monument, one can look miles and miles away over that fabulous land of cotton, fruit, cattle and oil; toward Houston, whose channel port is now one of the two or three busiest in America. There lies a British ship – from here go vast loads of oil and guns to the Allies. And from here have gone also, and to our shame, the sinews of war to help the Japanese to conquer China, to help the Japanese wrest from us our interests on the Pacific. When high octane gas was embargoed, the octane rating, fixed by the regulation, was merely reduced by one-half of 1%, and the gasoline kept on going to Japan. Probably it is still going. The men and women who stand with me on top of the monument do not like this. They are indignant about it.

Texans loathe tyranny. For Texas became first a republic and then a member of the United States as the result of a war on a dictator. The story of that war is graven in stone, on the sides of the great monument. Descending to the earth, we walk around it, reading the towering letters that tell the story of the rise and fall of the mighty Santa Anna, self-styled “Napoleon of the West.”

Once Texas colonists were happy and satisfied members of the great state of Mexico, the stone letters tell me:

The early policies of Mexico toward her Texas colonists had been extremely liberal. Large grants of land were made to them, and no taxes or duties imposed. The relationship between the Anglo-Americans and Mexicans was cordial. But, following a series of revolutions begun in 1829, unscrupulous rulers successively seized power in Mexico. Their unjust acts and despotic decrees led to the revolution in Texas.

We move to another facade, eager to read the history of triumph. But the cold stone letters record nothing but failure, nothing but defeat, nothing but death and despair.

The first shot of the Revolution of 1835-36 was fired by the Texans at Gonzales, October 2, 1835, in resistance to a demand by Mexican soldiers for a small cannon held by the colonists. The Mexican garrison at Goliad fell October 9; the Battle of Concepcion was won by the Texans, October 28. San Antonio was captured December 10, 1835 after five days of fighting in which the indomitable Benjamin R. Milam died a hero, and the Mexican Army evacuated Texas.

Texas declared her independence at Washington-on-the-Brazos March 2. For nearly two months her armies met disaster and defeat: Dr. James Grant’s men were killed on the Aguadulce March 2; William Barret Travis and his men sacrificed their lives at the Alamo, March 6; William Ward was defeated at Refugio, March 14; Amos B. King’s men were executed near Refugio, March 16; and James Walker Fannin and his army were put to death near Goliad March 27, 1836.

There stands the proud record of defeat. I recall the words of Walt Whitman, who lived in the same heroic times:

Revolt! and the bullet for tyrants!
Did we think victory great?
So it is – But now it seems to me, when it cannot be help’d, that defeat is great,
And that death and dismay are great.

And my eyes read, instead of Alamo-Refugio-Goliad: Norway-Holland-France-Greece.

We move to another facade. This is a story as deliberate as stone.

On this field on April 21, 1836, the Army of Texas commanded by General Sam Houston, and accompanied by the Secretary of War, Thomas J. Rusk, attacked the larger invading army of Mexicans under General Santa Anna. The battle line from left to right was formed by Sidney Sherman’s regiment, Edward Burleson’s regiment, the artillery commanded by George W. Hockley, Henry Millard’s infantry and the cavalry under Mirabeau B. Lamar. Sam Houston led the infantry charge.

With the battle cry, “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!” the Texans charged. The enemy, taken by surprise, rallied for a few minutes then fled in disorder. The Texans had asked no quarter and gave none. The slaughter was appalling, victory complete, and Texas free! On the following day General Antonio Lopez De Santa Anna, self-styled “Napoleon of the West,” received from a generous foe the mercy he had denied Travis at the Alamo and Fannin at Goliad.

Who fought for the freedom of the Texas colonists?

The next inscription tells us:

Citizens of Texas and immigrant soldiers in the Army of Texas at San Jacinto were natives of Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia…

My companion, a grandson of Sam Houston, said:

They trekked in from all parts of the states. My grandfather used to tell about the Tennessee boy whom he met, ragged and footsore. He had come all the way on foot. “What are you fighting for?” he asked him. The boy replied: “For my rights.”

In those days, men seemed to think that their rights were at stake wherever other men were fighting for freedom.

Sure enough, the inscription goes on:

…Austria, Canada, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Mexico – oh yes, from Mexico too, Mexicans who hated tyranny – Poland, Portugal and Scotland.

Texans still feel that way. A British vice-consul told me later in the same day:

Hundreds of Texas boys have beat their way to Canada, hitchhiking many of them, to enlist in the RAF. They are among the finest flyers in the forces.

The last inscription is brief:

Measured by its results, San Jacinto was one of the decisive battles of the world. The freedom of Texas from Mexico won here led to annexation and to the Mexican–American War, resulting in the acquisition by the United States of the states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma. Almost one-third of the present area of the American Nation, nearly a million square miles of territory, changed sovereignty.

More words of Walt Whitman come back to me:

Not a grave of the murder’d for freedom, but grows seed for freedom, in its turn to bear seed,
Which the winds carry afar and re-sow, and the rains and the snows nourish.

Not a disembodied spirit can the weapons of tyrants let loose,
But it stalks invisibly over the earth, whispering, counseling, cautioning.

Liberty! let others despair of you! I never despair of you.

The spring wind ruffles the long pool, reflecting the monument which marks the grave of the Napoleon of the West.

Out of the Battle of San Jacinto came a New Order of civilization.

But not the New Order of the Conqueror, Santa Anna.


This is a reference to Sir Edward Shepherd Creasy’s 1851 book The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: from Marathon to Waterloo.

Santa Anna tried to escape the battlefield dressed as a Private, but was captured & then outed by the other prisoners who all addressed him as El Presidente.