The Plot to Hijack the Alamo Flag

In February 1998, two Texas officials arrived in Mexico City on a confidential mission, carrying the qualified blessings of Governor George W. Bush. They were met in the Mexican capital by the chief of the narcotics affairs section of the U.S. Embassy, although their visit had nothing to do with interdiction or money-laundering, sniffing dogs or electrified fences.

The Texans, one of whom was the state librarian, had specific instructions from the U.S. Embassy about how to behave in Mexico City. They had been advised to demonstrate a sensitivity to the less-than-rosy view which Mexicans have of their historical relations with the United States, and especially with Texas. Included on their two-day itinerary, as outlined by the embassy liaison (parentheses included), was “the National Museum of History (a.k.a. Chapultepec Castle) where there is a small display on the ‘Texas Insurrection’ and the Mexican-American War, the Niños Héroes Monument (dedicated to six cadets who died defending Chapultepec Castle from the U.S. Army in 1847) and the Museum of Foreign Interventions,” the last of which is devoted to invasions of Mexico by French, British, Austrian, Spanish and, of course, American troops.

“Visiting [the exhibits] shows that we are aware of Mexico’s enduring pain from this period of its history,” the Texans were advised by their embassy guide. “President Clinton, incidentally, laid a wreath at the Niños Héroes Monument when he was here last May. Through all of this, we should hope to establish the necessary rapport to get a green light for….”

The Texans’ effort to “understand” the tortured Mexican historical consciousness must have seemed particularly surprising to their hosts. Texans have spent most of the last two centuries not caring much what Mexicans think about anything. The reason for the new-found sensitivity was that the Mexicans had something the Texans wanted – wanted very badly.

In the fall of 1835, two companies of volunteer riflemen crossed Louisiana’s western border into what was then still, officially, Mexico. Called the New Orleans Greys because of their distinctive uniforms, the volunteers had come to fight for the rebellious Republic of Texas.

The arrival of reinforcements was so welcomed that the colonists of East Texas gave the Louisianans a special gift: a flag, made of blue silk, about the size of a bath towel, bordered by white fringe. The silk featured the likeness of an eagle, wings spread, and below the eagle the words, “First Company of Texan Volunteers from New Orleans.” The riflemen carried the flag to San Antonio and the Alamo mission where rebels were preparing to defend their position against the Mexican Army. The flag remained at the Alamo, and was captured and sent south as booty of war.

For almost a century – until 1934, when the flag was discovered by a Texas official in a drawer of the Mexican national archives – the Greys’ banner remained forgotten. But in the more than sixty years since the Texas Centennial (when Texans first officially became obsessed with their own history) the piece of faded silk has been the subject of pleadings and requests – and at least one private bounty, of $36,000, for its return by any means. A kind of ritual has developed for representatives of the Lone Star State, from Governor John Connally in the mid-Sixties onward, to ask the Mexican government for its return. During the Texas Sesquicentennial, for example, U.S. Senator Phil Gramm flew to Mexico City on a one-man mission, promising to return with the banner. The Mexican president refused to see him. An attempt was later made to attach a clause to the North American Free Trade Agreement, requiring Mexico to give back the flag as a condition of ratification. The Mexicans resisted. Over recent years, the Greys’ banner has seemed to grow again in importance to Mexico, in direct proportion to which its return is demanded by Texans.

The State of Texas’ most recent strategy for repatriating the banner dates to a proposal made by a former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, actor John Gavin. Tired of being asked to intercede with the government of Mexico to request its return, in 1982 Gavin suggested instead that Texas officials find something that the Mexicans wanted and trade. With Ambassador Gavin’s prompting, authorities in Austin searched the state’s archives. Among the “vast amount of property taken” which General Sam Houston reported capturing at the battle San Jacinto (when the Mexican Army was defeated and President Santa Anna captured) were three battle flags, belonging to the battalions of Toluca, Matamoros, and Guerrero. (The three flags are being restored by the state of Texas; see illustrations of two of the flags on page 10.) Although none of the banners individually had the importance of the Alamo silk, together they became the foundation of the attempt for the Texans to get what they wanted.

The wheels of state government turn slowly. The effort to trade the three Mexican battalion flags for the Greys’ banner began in earnest almost a decade after Ambassador Gavin’s suggestion, with the quixotic intervention of Carlos Truan, state senator from Corpus Christi. “It all originated with a conversation I had with the consul of Mexico,” Truan later explained to selected colleagues in the Legislature. “We had worked on a couple of projects that resulted in a [good] relationship with Mexico and then in our discussion we just stumbled into the flags and he thought it was a good idea if we could have a display of the flags, not necessarily an exchange of flags, and unfortunately one thing led to another and people assumed, particularly in Mexico, that we wanted to take their flag back and bring it over here.” When the project was publicized, the reaction in Mexico was outrage. In the earliest grades Mexican schoolchildren are taught that their country’s destiny would have been far different if not for the intervention of Americans, starting with U.S. assistance to the treacherous Texans. The idea of returning the flag was, therefore, repugnant south of the Rio Grande.

But after Senator Truan’s misinterpreted suggestion, stateside support (including radio call-ins, and mass mailings to the Mexican government) began to grow in Texas for a swap. It was in this context – Texans trying to promote an exchange, and Mexicans feeling the pressure – that George W. Bush was inaugurated as Governor in 1995.

Caught up in the pomp and circumstance of his upset victory over a media-friendly incumbent, at first Governor Bush seemed bemused when reporters insisted on asking about the issue. “I think it is important,” the Governor-elect said doubtfully. “[But] it is going to require Texas and Mexican officials to have a cordial relationship before any flag swap or swap of artifacts takes place.” Just after his inauguration the new, Spanish-speaking Governor amplified his goodwill theme. “I believe that the best way to retrieve the Alamo flag is to have a cordial relationship,” he told the Dallas Morning News. “I believe that the best way to accommodate matters is to have a respectful relationship so that when and if the flag is returned … that it is done out of friendship as a gesture of goodwill.”

“Whatever we have of Mexico’s – I understand that there are paintings or other flags – we’d be willing to make a swap,” Bush promised, suggesting an ignorance of the exact details.

George Bush’s conciliatory approach was circumvented by direct legislative action. During the new Governor’s first legislative session, state lawmakers granted authority to the state’s chief librarian (whose office includes responsibility for Texas’ archives) to negotiate with the Mexicans for the flag’s return. At the same time the U.S. Congress was also passing a resolution asking the Mexicans simply to give back the Greys’ banner. All this legislative activity seemed to irk the Governor, who favored personal diplomacy: “The truth of the matter is, if I could go and convince the right Mexican official to work a loan agreement for the flag, I suspect that would be a more efficient way to do so.” Still, in a private letter to State Librarian Robert S. Martin in October 1995, Governor Bush seemed to acquiesce to the Legislature’s plan. “There would be nothing more pleasing,” he wrote, “than for all of us to affect an exchange of things of history, whether it be on loan or forever.” In public Bush was going farther: “I hope I’m the Governor that is able to hold up the flag.”

Both tracks, diplomacy and arm-twisting, were rendered ineffective a few months later when the Mexicans announced that they had “lost” the artifact in question. Sylvia Moreno, a reporter for the Morning News, attempting by telephone to track down the flag’s exact whereabouts, was told at each Mexico City museum she called that no one had the Alamo silk. Mexican archivists indicated that the flag had been mislaid – or taken – by unknown hands. In Texas, this news was greeted not for what it was, a face-saving excuse, but as fact, and was widely ridiculed: the Mexicans had mislaid or allowed to be stolen, Texans believed, what Mexico had been refusing on principle to return for sixty years.

Progress came the following year, on two fronts. An Austin attorney, attending a “high-level” dinner party in Mexico City, reported back that Mexican officials were no longer claiming to have lost the Alamo flag and, in fact, that the Mexicans suddenly seemed receptive to the idea of a trade. About the same time an isolated Congressional inquiry arrived at the U.S. Embassy asking about progress in the search for the banner. “Such inquiries are normally assigned to the Embassy’s political section for action. I had no professional interest [in] the issue,” wrote Alan Smiley in a recent letter about the controversy. At the time, Smiley was the Embassy’s narcotics control officer, responsible for coordinating U.S. policy regarding drug interdiction efforts in Mexico. But Smiley happened to see the cable and took responsibility for the inquiry nonetheless. Smiley’s interest was actually quite personal. His great-great-great-great uncle, a Tennessee lawyer named Daniel Cloud, had died defending the southeastern palisade, near the chapel of the Alamo, in 1836.

After consultations with Texas officials, including the librarian Robert Martin, and after learning all he could about the Alamo flag itself, Smiley developed a three-part plan to get the flag back by, well, less than direct means. “Phase One was to suggest [to the Mexicans] the formation of a bi-national team of textile restoration experts to restore not only the Alamo flag but [the] three Mexican Army battalion flags as well,” he said later, explaining his efforts on Texas’ behalf. “Phase Two, only to be presented to the GOM [Government of Mexico] after Phase One had been approved and restoration was well underway, was to have been a traveling exhibit of the four newly restored flags – first in Mexico, then in Texas. Phase Three was to have been the indefinite extension of the Texas exhibition of the flags, so the Alamo flag, in effect, remained in Texas forever. Both Phase Two and Three were tightly held secrets, not to be discussed with either our GOM counterparts or our Mexican operatives. We didn’t want the GOM to think there was anything more to this than scholarly interest in preserving all four flags before they all turned to dust.”

The effort to dupe the Mexicans began with limited success. As an embassy officer Alan Smiley had contacts throughout the Mexican bureaucracy and he was eventually able to locate the flag itself. It was being housed in the basement of the National Institute of Archaeology and History (INAH, as it is known by its Spanish acronym). One of Smiley’s “operatives” was even able to get in to see the flag and to assess its condition, which was not good. At the same time a plan of sorts was being developed about how best to approach the Mexican bureaucracy. Early on the decision was made to cut a wide detour around the foreign ministry, on the theory that the Mexican diplomatic service would not be helpful at the best of times: the foreign ministry was apparently under a new, American-bashing management. “Rosario Green, the new Secretary of Foreign Relations,” Smiley wrote to librarian Martin in early 1998, “is very nationalistic and at least a little ‘anti-gringo’ (although she has been very well-behaved so far). I may be proven wrong, but I see this project coming to a dead standstill when it hits SRE [the Secretariat of Foreign Relations] unless it already has a lot of forward momentum behind it.”

The decision was made, then, to restrict Texas’ approaches to officials of the Mexican national archives. Smiley found, however, that the response even at this level was not warm. A series of letters was written, composed at the Capitol in Austin and reviewed for Spanish grammar and Latin sensibilities by Smiley at the Embassy in Mexico City. The result was nada. The lack of response was particularly troubling, because Alan Smiley’s tour of duty in Mexico was coming to an end, and he would no longer be able to assist in regaining the flag that his famed ancestor had died for. As Smiley’s time in Mexico approached an end, the Embassy official wrote to Martin in Austin: “I will draft another letter to INAH for your review. We may want to say that you are perplexed for not having received a response to your offer, especially since you had understood that there was a definite interest in preserving these artifacts of the past. I would then suggest that we give INAH only about two more weeks to respond. If no answer is forthcoming at that time, I propose that I (or we) meet with the INAH director personally to find out how HE would like to see this issue advance. There is a tremendous risk in this latter approach. A visit from an Embassy official is very likely to get an all-or-nothing response; the door could close and stay closed for years to come.

“On the other hand, as it now appears that I’ll be concluding my tour in Mexico as early as the end of April, now may be the time to push the issue. Since we are no longer receiving Congressional inquiries on this issue and since you are unlikely to find another Embassy officer with as great a personal interest in these artifacts, support from the Embassy will probably dwindle significantly after my departure. For this reason, I think we should consider ‘going for broke’ if there is no response to your next letter.”

There was no response, and the Texans began to pressure their Mexican counterparts for a face-to-face meeting. “Most of the appointments that I was able to set up,” according to Smiley, “were cancelled at the last moment due to any number of excuses.” But eventually the Mexicans were tied down to an exact date, in February 1998, and Martin, together with Carolyn Palmer, a prominent San Antonio Republican and a former museum administrator, who serves as chairwoman of the State of Texas’ board of historical archives, flew south. “We have pursued the matter very quietly, working with the Secretary of State’s office. We [had] conferred with the governor’s office, who encouraged us to pursue [the effort],” Martin said in later, unpublicized testimony before a committee of the Texas Senate. “We went down for two days in Mexico City. We met with the national archivists. We met with the deputy director of the Instituto Nacional [of Anthropology and History]. They were very gracious and very polite but the net bottom result was that I came away with the distinct message that they are completely uninterested in even discussing any trade or sale or repatriation or anything else.” Ms. Palmer was of the same opinion. “We got the idea,” she testified, “that they felt like they were taking quite good enough care of the flag and they intended to keep it.” Alan Smiley, more experienced in Mexican affairs and customs than either Martin or Ms. Palmer, described the Texans’ reception by Mexican officials as “rude by Latino standards

“Latin Americans in general, I have learned,” Smiley (who before joining the State Department was an Army intelligence officer serving south of the border) said later of his failed mission to highjack the flag, “are suspicious of conspiracies. Mexicans in particular are gravely suspicious of anything and everything the United States says or does, no matter how slight the perceived impact on the interests of Mexico.”

Smiley and his compatriots seemed unable to acknowledge that they were, indeed, “conspiring” to trick the Mexicans into surrendering the Alamo flag. Martin, for his part, offered a unique view to the Texas Senate of the reasons for his failure – and at the same time demonstrated that face-saving was as important north of the Rio Grande as south: “In the entire history of the army of the Republic of Mexico,” the state librarian explained, “they have won four battles – the Alamo and Goliad were two of them – and [the flag] was a powerful symbol to them that on occasion they have beat the yanquis, and they’re not interested in giving it up.”

Despite their unwillingness to trade, the Mexicans did, however, make a proposal of their own to the visiting Texas officials. Instead of a traveling exhibit of the flags, the Mexicans suggested a presentation in the United States of the Latin viewpoint of the historical relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. Following his visit to Mexico City, Martin wrote to Luciana Cedillo Alvarez, a high-ranking cultural affairs officer in Mexico City, “I am preparing my report to officials here in Texas, and remain very hopeful that we may be able to proceed along the lines we discussed, with an exhibition presenting the Mexican viewpoint of the history of relations between our countries. It is extremely important that citizens of the United States, and of Texas in particular, become better informed on this important subject.”

Martin’s letter was, of course, a last grasp at the flag itself. Not long after reporting to Senate leaders, from whom he took a beating on an unrelated matter, Martin retired from state service and returned to academia. Eventually Alan Smiley took his new posting, this time to Honduras. The Alamo flag remained, and remains still, in Mexico City.

Recent historical evidence has not been kind to Alamo-era Texans, or Mexicans. Researchers have begun to accept as authentic the diary of José Enrique de la Peña, a Mexican army staff officer who fought at the Alamo and who was later imprisoned for opposing the dictatorship of Santa Anna. De la Peña’s mention of the seizure of the flag is brief but colorful: “Before the Sapper Battalion, advancing through a shower of bullets and volley of shrapnel, had a chance to reach the foot of the walls,” the Mexican soldier wrote, “half their officers had been wounded. Another one of these officers, young Torres, died within the fort at the very moment of taking a flag. He died at one blow without uttering a word….” De la Peña’s diary confirms accounts of Mexican brutality, and also explodes the “to the last man” legend of the Alamo defenders – which is, even more than the flag, the great treasure of Texas’s heritage. Nonetheless the state is building an $80 million museum in downtown Austin (featuring two films glorifying Texas history) for which the Alamo flag, “tainted” by surrender or not, would be a major attraction.

There are several theories circulating in Austin about the exact circumstances under which the Mexicans might actually return the flag. The first, of course, features the “Bush factor.” If George Bush is elected president, according to one hypothesis, the Mexicans might decide to give back the Alamo flag in order to ingratiate themselves with Washington. The problem with this hypothesis is that it’s not entirely clear how much the Mexicans want to please the powers-that-be in the United States. Another theory may be more probable. This scenario likens Texans’ attempts to recoup the flag to a seduction, in which a woman agrees to sleep with a man not because she desires him, but because she is exhausted from the pursuit. In a weak moment the Mexicans may simply get tired of saying no. This seems to be the theory that Texans are working under, and it might be successful given enough time.

The clock is ticking, however, on this particular approach. The colonists of East Texas did not sew a flag that was intended to last for centuries. The last report obtained by the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City describes the Alamo silk as being in a “very deteriorated” state (which in part explains Smiley et al.’s haste in trying to acquire it): “virtually all the fringe on the edges is gone, there is a large hole that has obliterated one of the eagle’s wings, and the flag has faded almost completely to white.” When the two Texas officials visited Mexico City they were shown records documenting scrupulous care but they were never allowed to see the flag itself, and its condition may be worsening with each year. (The care of the Mexican banners in Texas hands has been a little better. One, which until recently was on display at the San Jacinto Battleground Museum near Houston, is currently undergoing restoration. The two others were restored, including the removal of 160-year-old blood stains, after the visit of the Texas officials to Mexico.)

Probably one day the remains of the Alamo flag will make the long trip back across the Rio Grande. But before an exchange can take place two changes in consciousness will have to take place: the Mexicans will have to come to terms with what they did, and failed to do, during their time as sovereigns north of the river. (They will, in short, have to get over the loss of their northern territories.) For their part the Texans may have to admit that the “Texas myth” is just that – a myth, designed to entertain the tourists, and to encourage school children. Of these two mental changes the Mexicans probably have the easier adjustment to make.

Contributing writer Lucius Lomax roams the Capitol for the Observer.

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Published at 12:00 am CST