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Those who wanted American adventure abroad finally got their wish with the Spanish-American War. In this “splendid little war,” America was able to fight against an insignificant European power with little military clout. The steps leading to this war began in 1868, when Cuban colonists revolted against the Spanish who controlled the island. The Spanish made some efforts to control the efficiency of their operations in Cuba, but generally failed in their promises of allowing more self-government on the island. In 1895 an economic depression, caused by falling sugar and tobacco prices, hit the native population especially hard, and another revolt took place.

American investors, plantation owners, and government officials initially did not support the rebellion. The Spanish sent in a huge force of 150.000 troops and instituted a policy of reconcentration. which sent civilians, including women and children, who the Spanish thought might be potential allies of the rebels into heavily guarded camps. Conditions in these camps were appalling; it was estimated that in two years up to 225.000 people died in them.

The Cuban exile community in the United States pressured America to intervene on the side of the rebels, yet both President Cleveland and President McKinley resisted these efforts. Pressure on McKinley to intervene increased when Cuban rebels started to destroy American economic interests in Cuba, such as sugar mills.

American public opinion began to swerve toward intervention in Cuba. It is often pointed out that the American press was more responsible for this than were actual events in Cuba, Several American newspapers practiced the most lurid forms of yellow journalism when dealing with events in Cuba. Stories of the rape of Cuban girls by Spanish soldiers and brutal torture and execution of innocent Cuban citizens were standard fare in the New York World (published by Joseph Pulitzer) and the New York Morning Journal (owned by William Randolph Hearst), both of which were competing for circulation in New York. Both papers sent numerous reporters and illustrators to Cuba, and editors in New York demanded sensationalized stories. Newspapers across the country reprinted the accounts published in these papers. As a result of these stories, jingoism developed in America; this combined an intense America nationalism with a desire for adventure abroad.

It became harder for McKinley to resist the calls for intervention in Cuba, especially after the sinking of the USS Maine on February 15, 1898. The Maine had been sent to Havana harbor to protect American interests after violent riots broke out in Cuba in January. During the same month a letter stolen from the Spanish ambassador to Washington, in which he called President McKinley “weak,” was published in newspapers across the country, further inflaming public opinion. The sinking of the Maine was undoubtedly caused by an explosion on board, yet both New York newspapers in banner headlines called for Americans to “Remember the Maine!” An American commission sent to study the sinking of the Maine was never able to conclusively determine why or how the ship was sunk.

The Outbreak of War

Theodore Roosevelt was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy at the time, and a vigorous supporter of an increased American role abroad. On February 25 (without the approval of his boss) he cabled all of the commanders in the Pacific to be ready for immediate combat against the Spanish. When the existence of these cables was discovered, President McKinley ordered the content of all of them to be rescinded, except the one to Admiral George Dewey; McKinley reaffirmed that if war broke out in Cuba, Dewey should attack the Spanish fleet quartered in the Philippines.

The pressure on McKinley to go to war was enormous. It should be noted that at this point both American expansionists and those with humanitarian motives supported American intervention in Cuba. McKinley sent the Spanish a list of demands that had to be met to avoid war. The Spanish agreed to the vast majority of them, yet McKinley finally gave in to pressures at home. On April 11, 1898, he finally sent a message to the Congress stating that he favored American intervention in Cuba. The next day Congress authorized the use of force in Spain.

It is still debated whether American disorganization or Spanish disorganization was more pronounced in the Spanish-American War. American efforts to organize an army to go to Cuba were woefully inefficient. Theodore Roosevelt resigned his position in the Naval Department to lead the “Rough Riders” up San Juan Hill in the most famous event of the war; his actual role in this battle has been debated. Americans lost 2500 men in this war, the vast majority from malaria or food poisoning. Only 400 died in battle.

It was the American navy earlier championed by Captain (now Admiral) Mahan that proved decisive in the American victory over the Spanish. In seven hours Admiral Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet in the Pacific; every ship of the Spanish Atlantic force was also destroyed by the American navy. In the Treaty of Paris ending the war, Spain recognized the independence of Cuba and for a payment of $20 million gave the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam over to the United States.

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