Modern history

The War with Spain

The United States went to war with Spain in 1898 not to defend itself from attack but because American policymakers decided that Cuban independence from Spain was in America’s national interest. American leaders had long coveted Cuba for its economic resources and strategic location in the Caribbean. When the Cubans revolted against Spain in the mid-1890s, the United States seized its chance. Victory over Spain, however, brought America much more than control over Cuba. In the peace negotiations following the war, the United States acquired a significant portion of Spain’s overseas empire, turning the United States into a major imperial power.

Cuba Libre

The Cuban War for Independence began in 1895 around the concept of Cubanidad— pride of nation. José Marti envisioned that this war of national liberation from Spain would provide land to impoverished peasants and offer genuine racial equality for the large Afro-Cuban population that had been liberated from slavery less than a decade earlier, in 1886. Black Cubans, such as Antonio Maceo, flocked to the revolutionary cause and constituted a significant portion of the senior ranks in the rebel army.

The insurgents fought a brilliant guerrilla war. Facing some 200,000 Spanish troops, 50,000 rebels ground them down in a war of attrition. The Cuban insurgents burned crops, laid siege to land, and cut railroad lines to keep the Spaniards from using these vital resources. Within eighteen months, the rebellion had spread across the island and garnered the support of all segments of the Cuban population. The Spanish government’s brutal attempts to crack down on the rebels only stiffened their resistance. By the end of 1897, the Spanish government recognized that the war was going poorly and offered the rebels a series of reforms that would give the island home rule within the empire but not independence. Sensing victory, the insurgents held out for total separation to realize their vision of Cuba Libre, an independent Cuba with greater social and racial equality.

The revolutionaries had every reason to feel confident as they wore down Spanish troops. First, they had help from the climate. One-quarter of Spanish soldiers had contracted yellow fever, malaria, and other tropical illnesses and remained confined to hospitals. The chief military commander of the rebel forces, General Maximo Gomez, bragged that his three best generals were “Junio, Julio, and Agosto,” referring to the months of June, July, and August, which ushered in the rainy season and increased the spread of disease. Second, mounting a successful counterinsurgency would have required far more troops than Spain could spare. Its forces were spread too thin around the globe to keep the empire intact. In addition to Cuba, Spain stationed some 200,000 troops in Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Africa. Finally, antiwar sentiment was mounting in Spain, and on January 12, 1898, Spanish troops mutinied in Havana. Speaking for many, a former president of Spain asserted: “Spain is exhausted. She must withdraw her troops and recognize Cuban independence before it is too late.” U.S. Secretary of State John Sherman concurred: “Spain will lose Cuba. . . . She cannot continue the struggle.”

The War of 1898

With the Cuban insurgents on the verge of victory, American policymakers, including President William McKinley, came to favor military intervention as a way to increase American control of postwar Cuba. By intervening before the Cubans won on their own, the United States staked its claim for determining the postwar relationship between the two countries and protecting its vital interests in the Caribbean, including the private property rights of American landowners in Cuba.

The American press, however, helped build support for American intervention not by focusing on economic interests and geopolitics but by framing the war as a matter of American honor. Most Americans followed the war through newspaper accounts. William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal competed with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World to see which could provide the most lurid coverage of Spanish atrocities. The two newspapers sent correspondents to Cuba to cover every grisly story they could find—and to make up stories, if necessary. Known disparagingly as yellow journalism, these sensationalist newspaper accounts aroused jingoistic outrage against Spain.

On February 9, 1898, the Journal printed a letter that had come into Hearst’s possession. Under the headline “Worst Insult to the United States in History,” the newspaper quoted a private letter from Enrique Depuy de Lome, the Spanish minister in Washington, scorning President McKinley as a “weak” politician who pandered to “the crowd” to win public favor. Nearly a week later, on February 15, the battleship Maine, anchored in Havana harbor, exploded, killing 266 American sailors. American newspapers blamed Spain. The World shouted the rallying cry “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!” Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt seconded this sentiment by denouncing the explosion as a Spanish “act of treachery.” Why the Spaniards would choose to blow up the Maine and provoke war with the United States while already losing to Cuba remained unanswered, but the incident was enough to turn American opinion toward war.

On April 11, 1898, McKinley asked Congress to declare war against Spain. The declaration included an amendment proposed by Senator Henry M. Teller of Colorado declaring that Cuba “ought to be free and independent.” Yet the document left enough room for American maneuvering to satisfy the imperial ambitions of the McKinley administration. In endorsing independence, the war proclamation asserted the right of the United States to remain involved in Cuban affairs until it had achieved “pacification.” On April 21, the United States officially went to war with Spain.

In going to war, McKinley embarked on an imperialistic course that had been building since the early 1890s. The president signaled the broader expansionist concerns behind the war when, shortly after it began, he successfully steered a Hawaiian annexation treaty through Congress. Businessmen joined imperialists in seizing the moment to create a commercial empire that would catch up to their European rivals.

It was fortunate for the United States that the Cuban insurgents had seriously weakened Spanish forces before the Americans arrived. The U.S. army, consisting of fewer than 30,000 men, lacked sufficient strength to conquer Cuba on its own, and McKinley had to mobilize some 200,000 National Guard troops and assorted volunteers. Theodore Roosevelt resigned from his post as assistant secretary of the navy and organized his own regiment, called “Rough Riders.” American forces faced several problems: They lacked battle experience; supplies were inadequate; their uniforms were not suited for the hot, humid climate of a Cuban summer; and the soldiers did not have immunity from tropical diseases.

African American soldiers, who made up about one-quarter of the troops, encountered additional difficulties. As more and more black troops arrived in southern ports for deployment to Cuba, they faced increasingly hostile crowds, angered at the presence of armed African American men in uniform. In Tampa, Florida, where troops gathered from all over the country to be transported to Cuba, racial tensions exploded on the afternoon of June 8. Intoxicated white soldiers from Ohio grabbed a two-year-old black boy from his mother and used him for target practice, shooting a bullet through his shirtsleeve. In retaliation, African American soldiers stormed into the streets and exchanged gunfire with whites, leaving three whites and twenty-seven black soldiers wounded. Reporting the story of this “riot,” the Atlanta Constitution denounced the “wild and demonic conduct of the [N]egro regulars,” completely ignoring the behavior of the white troops that had prompted the fracas. Undaunted, black troops went on to distinguish themselves on Cuban battlefields.

Despite military inexperience, logistical problems, and racial tensions, the United States quickly defeated the weakened Spanish military, and the war was over four months after it began. During the war, 460 Americans died in combat, far fewer than the more than 5,000 who lost their lives to disease. It was not surprising, then, that Secretary of State John Hay referred to the hostilities as “a splendid little war.” The subsequent peace treaty ended Spanish rule in Cuba, ceded Puerto Rico and the Pacific island of Guam to the United States, and recognized American occupation of the Philippines until the two countries could arrange a final settlement. As a result of the territorial gains in the war, American foreign-policy strategists could now begin to construct the empire that Mahan had envisioned.

A Not-So-Free Cuba

Although Congress had adopted the Teller Amendment in 1898 pledging Cuba’s independence from Spain, President McKinley and his supporters insisted that Cuban self-rule would come only after pacification. Racial prejudice and cultural chauvinism blinded Americans to the contributions Cubans had made to defeat Spain. When white commanding officers arrived in Cuba, they expressed shock at the large number of blacks in the Cuban military, many of whom held leadership positions. One U.S. officer reported to the New York Times: “The typical Cuban I encountered was a treacherous, lying, cowardly, thieving, worthless half-breed mongrel, born of a mongrel spawn of [Spain], crossed upon the fetches of darkest Africa and aboriginal America.” José Marti may have been fighting for racial equality, but the U.S. government certainly was not.

Because U.S. officials presumed that Cuba was unfit for immediate freedom, the island remained under U.S. military occupation until 1902. The highlight of Cuba’s transition to self-rule came with the adoption of a governing document based on the U.S. Constitution. However, the Cuban constitution came with strings attached. In March 1901, Congress passed the Platt Amendment, introduced by Senator Orville Platt of Connecticut, which limited Cuban sovereignty. The amendment prohibited the Cuban government from signing treaties with other nations without U.S. consent, permitted the United States to intervene in Cuba to preserve independence and remove threats to economic stability, and leased Guantanamo Bay to the United States as a naval base, an arrangement that continues to this day. American officials pressured Cuban leaders to incorporate the Platt Amendment into their constitution. When U.S. occupation ended in 1902, Cuba was not fully independent. Instead, the United States established Cuba as a protectorate, paving the way for economic exploitation of the island and the return of American troops to safeguard investments.

The Philippine War

Even before invading Cuba, the United States had won a significant battle against Spain on the other side of the world. At the outset of the war, the U.S. Pacific Fleet, under the command of Commodore George Dewey, attacked Spanish forces in their colony of the Philippines. Dewey defeated the Spanish flotilla in Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, killing nearly four hundred Spanish sailors, while eight Americans suffered only minor injuries. Two and a half months later, American troops followed up with an invasion of Manila, and Spanish forces promptly surrendered (Map 20.1).

MAP 20.1

The War of 1898 The United States and Spain fought the War of 1898 on two fronts—the Philippines and Cuba. Naval forces led by Admiral George Dewey made the difference in the U.S. victory by first defeating the Spaniards in Manila Bay and then off the coast of Cuba. In Cuba, rebels had seriously weakened the Spanish military before U.S. ground troops secured victory.

While pacifying Cuba, the U.S. government had to decide what to do with the Philippines. Imperialists viewed American control of the islands as an important step forward in the quest for entry into the China market. The Philippines could serve as a naval station for the merchant marine and the navy to safeguard potential trade with the Asian mainland. Moreover, President McKinley believed that if the United States did not act, another European power would take Spain’s place, something he thought would be “bad business and deplorable.”

With this in mind, McKinley decided to annex the Philippines. As with Cuba, McKinley and many other Americans believed that nonwhite Filipinos were not yet capable of self-government. Indiana senator Albert Beveridge commented: “We must never forget that in dealing with the Filipinos we deal with children.” McKinley agreed and set out “to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and Christianize them.” As was often the case with imperialism, assumptions of racial and cultural superiority provided a handy justification for the pursuit of economic and strategic advantage.

The president’s plans, however, ran into vigorous opposition. Anti-imperialist lawmakers took a strong stand against annexing the Philippines. Despite the jingoist fervor surrounding the War of 1898, opponents of imperialism constituted a vocal group. Their cause drew support from such prominent Americans as industrialist Andrew Carnegie, social reformer Jane Addams, writer Mark Twain, and labor organizer Samuel Gompers, all of whom joined the Anti-imperialist League, founded in November 1898. Some argued that the United States would violate its anticolonialist heritage by acquiring the islands. Union leaders feared that annexation would prompt the migration of cheap laborers into the country and undercut wages. Others worried about the financial costs of supporting military forces across the Pacific. Most anti-imperialists had racial reasons for rejecting the treaty. Like imperialists, they considered Asians to be inferior to Europeans. In fact, many anti-imperialists held an even dimmer view of the capabilities of people of color than did their opponents, rejecting the notion that Filipinos could be “civilized” under American tutelage.

Despite this opposition, the imperialists won out. Approval of the treaty annexing the Philippines in 1898 marked the beginning of problems for the United States. As in Cuba, rebellion had preceded American occupation. At first, the rebels welcomed the Americans as liberators, but once it became clear that American rule would simply replace Spanish rule, the mood changed. Led by Emilio Aguinaldo, insurgent forces fought back against the 70,000 troops sent by this latest colonial power. “Either independence or death!” became the battle cry of Aguinaldo’s rebel army. The rebels adopted guerrilla tactics and resorted to terrorist assaults against the U.S. army.

U.S. forces responded in kind, adopting harsh methods to suppress the uprising. General Jacob H. Smithy ordered his troops to “kill and burn, and the more you kill and burn, the better you will please me.” Racist sentiments inflamed passions against the dark-skinned Filipino insurgents. One American soldier wrote home saying that “he wanted to blow every nigger into nigger heaven.” American counterinsurgency efforts, which indiscriminately targeted combatants and civilians alike, alienated the native population. An estimated 200,000 Filipino civilians died between 1899 and 1902.

The Americans’ taste for war and sacrifice quickly waned. Nearly 5,000 Americans died in the Philippine war, far more combat deaths than in Cuba. With casualties mounting and reports growing of combat-related atrocities, antiwar sentiment spread in the United States. Dissenters turned imperialist arguments of manly American honor upside down. Reports of battlefield horrors inflicted on Filipino civilians prompted Senator George L. Wellington of Maryland to complain that the army had “step by step departed from the broad highway of honorable warfare . . . and [had] adopted methods of barbarism and savagery such as the wild natives of the unconquered Philippine Islands could not approach.” For many Americans, the “splendid little war” had turned into a sordid affair. Anti-imperialists claimed that the war had done nothing to affirm American manhood; rather, they charged, the United States acted as a bully, taking the position of “a strong man” fighting against “a weak and puny child.”

Despite growing casualties on the battlefield and antiwar sentiment at home, the conflict ended with an American military victory. In March 1901, U.S. forces captured Aguinaldo and broke the back of the rebellion. Exhausted, the Filipino leader asked his comrades to lay down their arms. In July 1901, President McKinley appointed Judge William Howard Taft of Ohio as the first civilian governor to oversee the government of the Philippines. For the next forty-five years, except for a brief period of Japanese rule during World War II, the United States remained in control of the islands.


• Why did the United States go to war with Spain in 1898?

• In what ways did the War of 1898 mark a turning point in the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world?

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