Spanish-American War


Spanish-American War
(1898)
   A conflict marking the beginning of American imperialism. As Secretary of State John Hay put it, the conflict was indeed, in many respects, a “splendid little war,” in that it was popular, short, and relatively cheap; it brought easy victories at a low human cost; it was fought for the sake of a noble cause; and it eventually made the United States a world power.
   American economic policy was indirectly responsible for the Cuban war. The tariff of 1894, which put high duties on Cuban sugar, worsened economic conditions on the island and triggered a new revolt against Madrid’s autocratic rule in February 1895. The Spaniards vainly tied to put down the rebellion, and the con-flict was a constant source of irritation to the United States. There were frequent naval incidents and destruction of American property. Approximately 50 million dollars were invested in Cuban plantations, sugar refineries, and factories. Moreover, there existed the risk of a European intervention in support of Spain, as Great Powers on the whole sympathized with Madrid, although none committed itself openly.
   The part then played by the anti-Spanish “yellow press” and the response of public opinion were crucial elements in the outbreak of hostilities. The Cuban Junta in New York City had other powerful allies in organized labor, notably the American Federation of Labor, Protestant clergymen who disliked “Pope-ridden” Spain, Republican expansionists, and even Democrats who thought that “a little ‘Jingo’” could do no harm in the coming presidential election of 1896.
   By contrast, the attitudes of the last two presidents of the nineteenth century, Grover Cleveland and William McKinley, were strikingly similar: neither wanted to precipitate American involvement in the conflict. By March 1898, the country was nonetheless in a frenzied state owing to a number of occurrences, notably the explosion of the battleship U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor - accidental, as it later turned out - on February 15, which brought public indignation and anti-Spanish sentiment to the highest pitch. The role of Congress was essential in that it somewhat prodded a cautious chief executive into declaring war. Recent scholarship tends to describe the president’s diplomacy as patient, firm, and courageous. In his war message of April 11, 1898, McKinley asked Congress for authority to use the military and naval forces to terminate hostilities in Cuba and ensure peace. The Congress responded with a joint resolution that amounted to a declaration of war, inasmuch as it proclaimed Cuba to be free, demanded the withdrawal of Spain, and empowered the president to use the armed forces for these purposes. The Teller Amendment speci-fied that the United States did not intend to annex the island of Cuba. President McKinley signed the resolution and, by an act of Congress, war was retroactively declared on April 21, 1898.
   According to most accounts the U.S. expeditionary corps was ill-equipped and ill-trained, and the Cuban campaign a bungle. But the Spaniards fared no better, and the United States easily got the better of declining Spain. The most famous victory was probably Commodore George Dewey’s destruction of the Spanish fleet on May 1, 1898, at Manila Bay in the Philippines, a long way from Cuba. The most popular feat of the Santiago campaign was undoubtedly Rough Rider Colonel Theodore Roosevelt ’s charge up San Juan Hill. Hostilities ended on August 12, 1898. The peace negotiations opened in Paris on October 1, and a treaty was signed on December 10, 1898.
   The outcome of the Spanish-American War was the creation of a new colonial power at the expense of Spain, which lost Puerto Rico, occupied by American troops toward the end of the war, Guam in the Marianas, and the Philippines, whose main seaport, Manila, came under American control. The benefits of the Cuban venture for the United States were threefold. First, the Caribbean - and more generally the Americas - had been freed from European influence in accordance with the principles enunciated in the Monroe Doctrine, and the United States could keep closer watch over the future isthmian canal in Central America. Second, the United States had made her strength known to the world and acceded to the status of a Great Power, which would imply increasing and unavoidable world commitments in the near future. Third, the United States had acquired colonial possessions that were deemed by some to be vital strategically and economically.
   The future as a world power now had to be faced. Before the government made momentous choices and decisions, a debate went on throughout the country, in the press and in Congress - perhaps the most important since the founding of the Republic. The arguments of the imperialists were based on Manifest Destiny and the civilizing mission of the United States. Furthermore, the strategic importance of both Cuba and the Philippines impressed itself on the advocates of American naval power. In addition, economic motives were far from negligible as the Open Door was threatened in China. Unlike Cuba or Puerto Rico, where U.S. trade and investments were a reality, however, the Philippines interested part of the business community for their commercial potential, and not everyone in that community was convinced that its promise would be realized. Puerto Rico’s case was different. Annexation was simply inevitable from an imperial point of view because of the island’s vital strategic situation in the Caribbean near the Isthmus of Panama, as well as the growth of American trade and investments there.
   The anti-imperialist opposition was a motley crowd: Democrats from the East and the Plains states, old-generation Republicans, intellectuals, scholars and writers, union leaders who anticipated a steady flow of cheap imported Filipino labor, top business people who were indifferent or hostile to the siren song of overseas expansion and feared competition from Philippine products. The anti-imperialists on the whole reasoned primarily in terms of moral principles and tradition. They referred to Washington and Jefferson’s warning against foreign entanglements; they invoked the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as well as Abraham Lincoln ’s teachings, and insisted that governments derived their powers from the consent of the governed; they doubted the wisdom of transplanting American institutions into alien lands whose peoples differed so from the Americans in culture, race, and speech - and of doing so against their will. Could there be such a thing as an imperial republic with democracy at home - possibly threatened by the attendant militarism - and despotism in the colonies? The issue of unconstitutionality was raised. For the first time the United States was to acquire territories that it had no intention of Americanizing and developing into states. Still, the Supreme Court in the so-called Insular Cases of 1901 agreed with the imperialists that the Constitution did not follow the flag. Many anti-imperialists also rejected expansion on economic grounds and warned the country against the predictable increase in defense expenditures for the sake of a business minority whose profitable investments overseas were to be safeguarded with public money.
   McKinley, who groped for the most satisfactory solution, eventually instructed the American Peace Commissioners in Paris to negotiate the cession and ultimately the purchase of the whole Philippine archipelago for $20 million. In addition an executive order on December 21, 1898, extended American military rule over all of the islands. The peace treaty, signed on December 10, 1898, was ratified by a narrow margin of two votes on February 6, 1899, after a heated debate. Rejection of the treaty, many senators felt, would have been tantamount to a repudiation of the president and to national humiliation.
   Just as the debate over ratification had confused the issues by reducing approval of the treaty to a choice between support or disavowal of the president’s policies, the election of 1900 confused them by mixing imperialism with free silver and prosperity. Whereas the Democrats at first did their best to make imperialism “the paramount issue” of the campaign in their muddled Philippine plank, the Republicans tried to defuse that issue by focusing on William Jennings Bryan’s advocacy of free silver, by stressing the prosperity enjoyed during McKinley’s first term, by posturing as the only true patriots. Many Republicans later interpreted McKinley’s sweeping victory as a mandate for imperialism. Obviously, things had not been as simple and straightforward as that. Many anti-imperialists were probably reluctant to vote for Bryan because of his financial theories, which they feared might endanger the economic recovery. All in all, domestic problems certainly influenced the electorate more decisively than foreign policy, which possibly won a consensus by inertia.
   FURTHER READING:
    Gould, Lewis L. The Presidency of William McKinley. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1983;
    Linderman, Gerald F. The Mirror of War: American Society and the Spanish-American War. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1974;
    May, Ernest R. Imperial Democracy: The Emergence of America as a Great Power. Chicago: Imprint Publications, 1991;
    O’Toole, George J. A. The Spanish War: An American Epic - 1898. New York: Norton, 1986;
    Smith, Joseph. The Spanish-American War: Conflict in the Caribbean and the Pacific. New York, 1994;
    Tompkins, E. Berkeley. Anti-Imperialism in the United States: The Great Debate, 1890–1920. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press Paperbacks, 1972;
    Trask, David F. The War with Spain in 1898. New York: Macmillan, 1981.
   SERGE RICARD

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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