“This country needs a war,” proclaimed Theodore Roosevelt in 1895 as, against a background of unremitting depression, he and others among the New York elite began clamoring for imperial expansion. Though war was touted as a way to end unemployment, it was emphasized even more as a way to scour away the barnacles of corruption and money-grubbing that had corroded the American spirit. War would toughen the nineties’ generation as the Civil War had toughened its parents’—that bloodbath having taken on a nostalgic glow, especially to those who hadn’t fought it, after the passage of thirty years.
The notion that Empire would revive the sterner virtues of the Founding Fathers appealed to upper-class males who felt cooped up in enervating offices by day and confined in stifling parlors by night, who feared that, deprived of opportunities for manly heroism, they were growing effete, even effeminate—a dangerous development, surrounded as they were by anarchists, ruffians, immigrants, strikers, and criminals. Literary fashions reflected these fears, first the 1880s cult of the cowboy (of which TR had been an early disciple), then the 1890s fancy for medieval knights, the new rough riders on the plains of bourgeois fantasy. Bookstores and genteel magazines like Harper’s, Scribner’s, and Century were flooded with historical romances about Saxon warriors and chivalric aristocrats.
Armchair activism was complemented by a vogue of physical vigor, as TR counseled his enfeebled upper-class-mates to adopt a more strenuous life. Sports—the “modern chivalry”—would toughen up a “delicate, indoor genteel race” by providing a “saving touch of honest, old-fashioned barbarism.” Others urged youth to enlist in the proliferating Protestant boys’ groups, which drilled martial virtues into the next generation.
But the best antidote to civilization was imperialism. Jingoistic New Yorkers craved the psychic satisfactions of Empire, reveling in the potential glory of conquering exotic territories and ruling over dusky races with pomp and panoply. Imperialism would allow simultaneously for the exercise of a restorative barbarism and the refurbishment of republican virtue. America had moral responsibilities abroad, said Josiah Strong, secretary of the Congregational Home Missionary Society. The American Anglo-Saxon had an inherited genius for imperial exploits; he was “divinely commissioned to be, in a peculiar sense, his brother’s keeper”; it was the duty of the fittest “race” to bring civilization, Christianity, and the rule of law to backward peoples.
In prior generations, such values had been given expression in the course of exercising the country’s Manifest Destiny to govern the continent—a saga Roosevelt limned in his Winning of the West (1889)—but with the trans-Mississippi frontier closing down, the rejuvenating benefits of conquest could only be achieved overseas. Expansionists, accordingly, applauded each step in this direction, particularly the thrilling actions of President Cleveland in 1895, when he confronted Britain over Venezuela and put some muscle back in the Monroe Doctrine.
The Venezuelan crisis did, however, foreshadow serious divisions within New York’s upper classes over imperialism. Where Roosevelt was ecstatic and hoped the confrontation with Britain might lead farther—perhaps to the conquest of Canada—Joseph Pulitzer organized a “peace crusade” against “jingoes” (Roosevelt itched to put him in jail). Some Wall Streeters, too, deprecated war with Britain, leading the New York Times to snarl at such “patriots of the ticker.” “If they were heeded,” the Times said, “American civilization would degenerate to the level of the Digger Indians, who eat dirt all their lives and appear to like it.”
There were those on Wall Street who argued that a selfless pursuit of Anglo-Saxon duty could be combined with the restoration of sagging profit margins. Many believed “overproduction” responsible for the great slump. U.S. capitalism’s ability to supply goods seemed to have outraced the American market’s ability to consume them, leading some to look overseas for adequate outlets for their products. Several New York City companies had demonstrated a correlation between economic health and foreign sales: Standard Oil of New York supplied over 70 percent of the world’s kerosene, Duke’s Tobacco Trust rolled cigarettes for the global millions, and Singer sent sewing machines to factories and sweatshops the world over.
New Yorkers were also exporting money. In the 1880s bankers and industries had begun to make loans to foreign governments, invest in overseas ventures, and set up branches abroad. The 1890s depression, in diminishing domestic opportunities, spurred calls to accelerate the process, and Americans increased their investments abroad by almost $250 million during hard times. In the course of expanding their export of capital and commodities, however, New Yorkers kept running up against entrenched Europeans. In the Far East, a conglomerate of American oil, rail, sugar, steel, and banking interests (with participation by Harriman, Schiff, Carnegie, and Rockefeller) put together a million-dollar American China Development Corporation in 1895, but it lagged far behind the British and was threatened by expanding German interests.
In Latin America, New Yorkers were in a stronger position. The city had long imported substantial quantities of Caribbean and Central and South American goods, carried northward by generations of shippers from the Griswolds to Grace. By the end of the century, metropolitan families were consuming one pound of coffee per week, bananas had become a customary delicacy, and the city’s parlors and Palm Rooms were festooned with tropical products.
Dictator Porfirio Diaz had thrown Mexico open to New York capital; his agents hosted a dinner at Delmonico’s and successfully enlisted railroad investments from the likes of Collis P. Huntington, Grenville M. Dodge, Russell Sage, and Jay Gould. J. P. Morgan’s firm made loans to Peru and participated in Argentine development; William R. Grace engaged in banking and shipping operations in South America; William Rockefeller of Standard Oil had interests in Brazil.
A New York syndicate had bought up the Dominican Republic’s debt in 1892, taken control of its finances, and launched the San Domingo Improvement Company. In Cuba the great Yankee metropolis, long intimately involved in the island’s commercial affairs, had increased its presence after the last great upheaval against Spanish rule. The Ten Years War of 1868-78 had bankrupted many Cuban planters and opened the way to substantial investment by wealthy New Yorkers, including Henry Havemeyer’s Sugar Trust. By the mid-1890s, American investment in Cuba alone surpassed 50 million dollars, ten million more than Carnegie’s annual profit from steel. And by 1898 U.S. capitalists had sunk $350 million into the Caribbean and Central America.
Nevertheless, Europeans still dominated the hemisphere’s markets and supplied the bulk of its credit requirements, and in the depression years some New Yorkers cast hungry eyes southward. If “we could wrest the South American markets from Germany and England and permanently hold them,” wrote the Bankers’ Magazine in 1894, “this would be indeed a conquest worth perhaps a heavy sacrifice.”
Increasingly, Roosevelt and others demanded that the U.S. government play rough on behalf of its entrepreneurs. Europe had inaugurated a new age of imperialism—the word itself first became current in the 1890s—and in the last quarter of the nineteenth century had swallowed up a fifth of the earth’s surface, including most of Africa and much of the Far East. The United States must get into the great game and compete vigorously or risk being cut off from markets and raw materials in a world increasingly carved up into colonies or protectionist blocs. The global economy was a dog-eat-dog world, and America should concentrate on biting.
Fortunately the country had developed some teeth since the 1880s, when an antiquated navy left the country at the mercy of foreign fleets, and a Spanish or Chilean armada, Leslie’s Weekly noted, could have anchored off Coney Island and bombed Madison Square. In the late 1880s and early 1890s, two New Yorkers had helped oversee creation of a powerful American fleet. The initiatives of financier William Whitney, secretary of the navy in Cleveland’s first administration, had been carried on by his successor in Harrison’s Republican administration, Benjamin Franklin Tracy. A leading lawyer (and friend and ally of Tom Platt), Tracy believed the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific were the coming theaters of naval action, and he promoted construction of armored steel battleships as American interests there were “too important to be left longer unprotected.” When the first naval squadron departed for Europe from New York harbor in 1889, Tracy invited Whitney to attend in a show of bipartisan support.
By 1897, this apparatus was to some degree under the control of Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, and jingoists had high hopes that President McKinley would surpass his predecessors in boldness, perhaps by securing a base in the Philippines and making Manila an American Hong Kong. Hawaii was another leading candidate for imperial enterprise. The Tribune, under the editorial helmsmanship of Whitelaw Reid (who had been Republican vice-presidential nominee on the losing 1892 ticket), declared that “the necessity for new markets is now upon us” and urged attaining sovereignty over Hawaii for its sugar, rice, and usefulness as a naval base and coaling station.
All that was missing was a war.
The most likely venue for a military joust was Cuba—once again in rebellion against Spain. Not only was it a mere ninety miles from America’s shores, but the revolution itself, conveniently enough, was being run out of New York City.
After the upheavals of the 1870s, many Cuban rebels had fled to exile in Manhattan, where they joined Irish, German, and Russian immigrants in plotting the overthrow of their respective home-country governments. Since his arrival in 1880, the leader of the Cuban exile community had been poet and writer Jose Marti. Taking up quarters in a boardinghouse at 51 West 29th Street, Martí supported himself as a journalist—filing insightful copy on norteamericano culture and politics, especially New York City’s, to various Latin American newspapers.
Martí also built a revolutionary movement based on the growing Cuban cigarworker communities in U.S. cities, particularly New York, where the cigar trade was booming. By 1894 its three thousand factories (five hundred of them owned by Hispanics) provided jobs for the Cuban immigrants who settled into Yorkville and Chelsea boardinghouses. Many of these workers joined Marti’s Partido Revolucionario Cubano, bought its newspaper Patria, and flocked to Clarendon Hall to listen to the eloquent apostle and his colleagues.
Martí also drew support from New York’s small but growing Puerto Rican community. A tiny colonia had grown up in the city in the eighteenth century; by 1830 a Sociedad Benefica Cubana y Puertorriquena, composed of merchants from the islands, promoted trade exchanges. They did well. By 1897 roughly two-thirds of Puerto Rico’s sugar exports came to the United States and only about one-third went to Spain. With the sugar came the sons and daughters of the island’s mercantile and creole hacendado class—as students, exiles, and fomenters of separation from Spain.
Puerto Rico had also planned a rebellion in 1868. Directed from New York by Ramón Emeterio Betances and others, the rising was discovered and swiftly snuffed out. In the ensuing decades exile leaders like the fiery Eugenio María de Hostos established organizations and newspapers (including the evanescent La Voz de Puerto Rico) to carry on the struggle among immigrant cigarmakers, artisans, and laborers. Many joined the Puerto Rican branch of Marti’s party and organized their own political-cultural clubs. One such activist was Arthur Schomburg, newly arrived in the city in 1891 at age seventeen. Schomburg earned a living as an elevator operator, bellhop, porter, and printer, took night classes at Manhattan Central High, and helped organize Las Dos Antillas (the Two Islands), a club on Third Avenue that collected money, weapons, and medical supplies for an armed struggle.
In January 1895 Marti issued the order for an uprising, smuggling it down to Havana rolled inside a cigar. Although he was frail and ill, Marti himself headed south, ending his long New York exile, and was killed in action that May. Despite this and other setbacks, the rebellion soon established itself in Santiago Province. It launched an effective guerrilla campaign that torched mills, ranches, and plantations, some of them American owned. The Spanish empire struck back by herding farm families off the land into concentration camps and cities, where thousands died of disease and malnutrition.
Back in New York City, the insurgent government established a junta to generate U.S. support for the war effort. It was led by Tomas Estrada Palma, who worked out of the Wall Street-area office of a sympathetic and prominent New York lawyer. The junta organized mass meetings (including a week-long Cuban-American Fair at Madison Square Garden in May 1896). It cultivated contacts with investors, merchants, and politicians. And it issued news releases, many of which prettified the struggle for American readers or fabricated guerrilla triumphs out of thin air. To raise money for the war, the New York leadership also set up a Cuban League for local supporters. Militants like Teddy Roosevelt and Charles A. Dana of the Sun were members; so were conservative businessmen like J. Edward Simmons, former president of the New York Stock Exchange, railroad chief Chauncey M. Depew, and John Jacob Astor.
Americans were receptive to the junta’s message. Schoolbook accounts of inquisitors and conquistadors had convinced many of the inherent depravity of Spaniards. Others equated the Cuban struggle for freedom with the USA’s own War of Independence.
Particular interests had particular reasons for urging American involvement. The AFL, led by Gompers’s Cigarmakers Union, called for support short of war. Metropolitan sugar and shipping interests, appalled at the damage to their property and disruption of their business, sought to end the fighting, either by pressuring Spain into conceding autonomy or by annexing the island outright. Leading Wall Streeter Frederick R. Coudert admitted that “it makes the water come to my mouth when I think of the state of Cuba as one in our family.” Yet many metropolitan businessmen remained wary of being pulled into war.
“BLOOD, BLOOD, BLOOD!”
Those still on the fence about Cuba found it increasingly hard to stay there, given the blasts of prorebel publicity emanating from the New York City press. Joseph Pulitzer had counseled moderation during Cleveland’s saber-rattling over Venezuela in 1895, but he favored Cuban self-government and steered the World toward support of the rebellion. His relatively temperate campaign was soon outdone by one of typhoon proportions issuing from a competing New York newspaper under the control of William Randolph Hearst.
Hearst, born in San Francisco in the midst of the Civil War, had been fortunate in his parents. George Hearst had accumulated a fortune in silver and copper mining, as well as the proceeds from a million-acre ranch in Porfirio Diaz’s Mexico, and Phoebe Hearst provided a disciplined Episcopalian upbringing. After an aborted Harvard education he headed to New York City, beelined his way to the World Building, and spent a year there apprenticing in journalism. Then he returned home, turned the San Francis-co Examiner into a profitable reform sheet, and, in 1895, decided to run a newspaper in New York City. His mother, who had inherited her husband’s estate in 1891, sold off $7.5 million of her shares of Anaconda Copper and turned the proceeds over to William.
Hearst moved to Manhattan, took up quarters in Madison Square, and bought the Morning Journal, a paper operating out of the Tribune Building on Park Row. The Journal, once a scandal sheet known informally as the “chambermaids’ delight,” had now, under more proper but less profitable management, sunk to a circulation of seventyseven thousand (the World’s was 450,000). Hearst dropped the Jour nafs price to a penny, expanded its size, imitated the World’s format, and stole away its reporters by offering fabulous salaries and byline credits. Hearst adopted Pulitzer’s social and political stances and went them one better. When Pulitzer gave away free bread to the unemployed, the Journal set up a soup kitchen and passed out free sweaters. Pulitzer was a power in the Democratic Party; Hearst replaced him in 1896 by backing Bryan.
Pulitzer riled New York society, but Hearst appalled it, and backs turned when the blond, racily dressed six-footer strode into the Metropolitan Club. He didn’t care. Nor did his phenomenal expenses trouble him overly, his pockets being far deeper than his debts. Besides, the Journal’scirculation shot up to 430,000 within a year, leaping past the Herald, Sun, Tribune, and Times. The vigorous young Hearst, who worked in his office late into the evening, was clearly gaining on Pulitzer, now a half-blind nervous wreck, running his operations from his yacht while cruising the world in a search for quiet harbors.
Much of the Journal’s success stemmed from Hearst’s support for the Cuban rebellion—like Pulitzer’s, a mix of conviction and calculation—and his campaign slipped steadily away from conventional standards of truth in journalism. Hearst stirred fact with fiction and poured the resulting prose into a mold of pure melodrama, one that played explosively with the gender conventions of his culture. For the Journal, the heart of the matter was that villainous Spaniards were brutalizing noble Cubans, and the heart of the heart of the matter was that lustful Spanish brutes were ravishing pure Cuban women.
In February 1897 Richard Harding Davis, a romantic-fiction writer turned war correspondent, filed a dispatch reporting that Spanish police had boarded a U.S. vessel bound from Havana to Tampa and strip-searched three female Cuban passengers thought to be carrying messages to insurgent leaders in New York City. Next to this inflammatory text Hearst placed an incendiary image: a half-page drawing, done in distant Manhattan by Frederic Remington, showing one of the women, naked, surrounded by Spanish officers. A five-column screamer headline demanded: “Does Our Flag Protect Women?” The issue sold nearly a million copies. That the women had in fact been searched by matrons, as the World soon discovered and trumpeted, did nothing to still the uproar.
Next Hearst claimed that an imprisoned eighteen-year-old Cuban girl, Evangelina Cosio y Cisneros (known as Miss Cisneros in the States), had been jailed for trying to defend her honor against the advances of “a beast in uniform.” Hearst launched a campaign to free Evangelina from jail, where the molested maiden with her “white face, young, pure and beautiful,” languished “among the most depraved Negresses of Havana.” (Few Americans realized that in some areas four-fifths of the guerrilla forces were of African descent, and the yellow press did little to enlighten them.)
Hearst arranged a jailbreak, brought Cisneros to New York, met her in the harbor on his steam launch, introduced her to hundreds of dignitaries at a Delmonico’s reception, and presented her to the masses at Madison Square Garden, accompanied by searchlights, fireworks, and bands. The affair was so compellingly staged that the president, who had canceled his Journal subscription in disgust at its reportage, felt obliged to invite the Cuban Joan of Arc to the White House.
Faced with Hearst’s triumphs, Pulitzer abandoned restraint. World reporters began recounting ghastly horror stories—some true, many fraudulent. (“Blood on the roadsides, blood in the fields, blood on the doorsteps, blood, blood, blood!”) The two papers whipped themselves into a competitive frenzy—matching the fervor of the old railroad wars, with text, not trackage, the product—and the Associated Press carried the copy to the country. Increasingly both editors began to push for war.
War eluded them, in part because the president, unlike armchair warriors Hearst and Roosevelt, was old enough to remember the carnage of the Qvil War. When Spain made conciliatory gestures, McKinley responded positively (to the fury of Roosevelt, who declared the president had the backbone of a chocolate eclair). In addition, the official goal of the New York-based Cubans was not war but American recognition of the Cuban belligerency, a crucial step toward acknowledging independence. Some, like Estrada Palma, leaned toward American military intervention, believing it would keep more radical elements in the liberation army from taking power and “give confidence to American capitalists, who may lend us the money necessary for the reconstruction of the country.” But others feared war would lead to annexation, not independence.
Wall Street also still favored peace. Most businessmen feared war would interrupt trade, endanger currency stability, and torpedo a fledgling recovery. Their reluctance generated nationwide opprobrium. Roosevelt denounced the “craven fear and brutal selfishness of the mere money-makers.” Some Democrats joined in the baying, claiming that New York moneymen, by putting profits over people, were blocking a humanitarian crusade. The clamor reached such dimensions that Elihu Root advised McKinley not to “retard the enormous momentum of the people bent upon war” lest he bring the silverites to power.
McKinley and the metropolitan community held firm until the pressure of events overwhelmed them. An indiscreet letter from a Spanish diplomat was passed to Hearst, who ran it under banner headlines. A week later the battleship Maine (a product of the Brooklyn Navy Yard) was blown up in Havana’s harbor, and the papers screamed for war. When a Spanish cruiser paid New York a courtesy call, the World warned of treachery, claiming “her shells will explode on the Harlem River and in the suburbs of Brooklyn.” Circulations soared, the Journal passing the million mark.
The clamor and instability convinced many businessmen that peace was proving as debilitating as war. Leading figures like John Jacob Astor, William Rockefeller, Stuyvesant Fish, and Thomas Fortune Ryan adopted a more belligerent stance. In late March J. P. Morgan declared nothing further could be obtained from arbitration. Many others were converted, reported the Wall Street Journal, after the moderate Senator Proctor assured them that the terrible conditions in Cuba were not just the imaginings of the yellow press and that it was not inevitable that Cubans—the Spanish once removed—would be revolutionary. On March 25 a leading New York journalist and McKinley adviser sent him a telegram arguing that “big corporations here now believe we will have war. Believe all would welcome it as relief to suspense.” Two days later, the president presented an ultimatum to Spain; on April 11 he sent a message to Congress asking for “forcible intervention”; on April 25 the United States formally declared war.
As in the Civil War, the city immediately shed ambivalence and donned patriotic bunting. Regiments formed up and marched down Fifth Avenue, crowds cheering, flags flapping, bands playing Sousa marches. Harbor defenses were bolstered to ward off a feared invasion by the Spanish fleet. New York bankers organized popular loan drives to fund the war effort. New York newspapers, whose communication systems were superior to Washington’s, relayed information to the military: the secretary of the navy first learned of Commodore George Dewey’s victory at Manila Bay from the World.
Watching the Bulletin-Boards on Park Row at the Time of Dewey’s Great Battle of Manila Bay, from E. Idell Zeisloft, The New Metropolis (1899). (General Research. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations)
Volunteer troops so clogged the transport system that rival regiments had to elbow their way toward the front lines. Teddy embarked for Havana with his Rough Riders—a collection of cowboys and clubmen—with six spare sets of glasses sewn to his uniform and one inside his hat.
Each of the two yellow press contenders was now printing 1,250,000 issues a day. Hearst chartered a steamship, sailed a reportorial regiment into Cuban waters, and filed his own copy. The World sent a crack squadron of investigators, including Stephen Crane, but the novelist’s forthright realism got Pulitzer into trouble. When the author of The Red Badge of Courage filed a critique that mentioned the shaky conduct of some New York volunteers, the Journal charged slander (“Slurs on the Bravery of the Boys of the 71st”) and forced the World to back down.
Still, Cuba provided some with a chance for heroics. Roosevelt led his men up Kettle Hill, a small outcropping below the principal enemy fortifications on San Juan Ridge, and shot a Spanish officer with his pistol. Even Hearst—barred by McKinley from military status—managed to capture prisoners.
Within weeks the war was over, both Cuba and Puerto Rico taken. New Yorkers went wild over America’s emergence as an imperial power. The metropolis offered now Admiral Dewey, the war’s greatest hero, a homecoming on a scale not seen since its greeting to Lafayette. The artistic community collaborated in creating a mammoth triumphal arch (out of lath and plaster) at Madison Square, the city’s reigning civic center. When the North Atlantic Squadron steamed into New York harbor on September 29, 1899—its progress upriver marked by a Journal balloon that released showers of colorcoded confetti over Grant’s Tomb—it touched off two days of frenzied adulation. The spectacle hailed the emergence of America as a new Roman Empire, and underscored New York’s position as its de facto capital.
Sampson and Schley Leading the Fleet into New York Harbor, August 20, 1898, painting by Fred Pausing. On July 3, two days after Roosevelt and the Rough Riders captured San Juan Hill, the U.S. naval forces under Rear Admiral William T. Sampson and Commodore Winfield S. Schley destroyed the Spanish fleet off Santiago. Their triumphant return to New York—here they fire a salute while steaming up the Hudson past Grant’s Tomb—was only a dress rehearsal, however, for the adulation showered on Admiral Dewey himself a year later. (© Museum of the City of New York)
WINNERS AND LOSERS
Like all wars, the struggle with Spain had its winners and losers. The losers, apart from the 379 killed and sixteen hundred wounded in action, included the more than five thousand soldiers who had died from yellow fever, malaria, or typhoid and the enormous number still suffering from such diseases. Twenty thousand such casualties were ensconced in a great hospital camp at Montauk Point, where they were ministered to by New York matrons, young girls, and such nurses as could be spared from Bellevue, Roosevelt, Presbyterian, and other hospitals, themselves packed with casualties.
Some were victims of badly preserved beef. One such was Achille La Guardia who would later die of it, leaving his son Fiorello enraged at corporate malfeasance. Other casualties included Stephen Crane—his Cuban stint had broken his health, and he would die in 1900 from TB—and George Waring, who went to Cuba to deal with yellow fever, contracted it himself, and died shortly after returning to New York City.
Topping the winners’ list was Teddy Roosevelt. The Rough Rider wrote up his war memoirs (which Mr. Dooley—the fictional commentator created by Finley Peter Dunne—remarked should have been titled Alone in Cuba). In 1898 Roosevelt stumped for the governorship as a war hero, won, served two years, irritated state Republican boss Platt no end, and was accordingly bounced upstairs to serve as McKinley’s running mate in the successful 1900 campaign. When McKinley was assassinated the following year, TR assumed the office, completing a run-up from police commissioner of New York City to president of the United States in four and a half years flat.
Among the other big winners was a potpourri of New York City businessmen. With Cuba an unofficial American protectorate, the Sugar Trust expanded operations, aided by Elihu Root, longtime legal counsel to the Havemeyers; now, as newly appointed secretary of war, he oversaw the island’s military occupation and worked to lower U.S. tariffs on Cuban sugar. Low tariffs, coupled with America’s asserted right of military intervention, its possession of a naval base on the island, and its eagerness to improve Cuba’s roads and public health, unleashed a torrent of U.S. investment. The Sugar Trust and its competitors bought up vast tracts of the best land and erected million-dollar mills. In a decade the Havemeyer-dominated Cuban-American Sugar Company had created the largest sugar plantation in the world.
Other New York City companies also steamed down to the Caribbean. The Tobacco Trust built the world’s largest factory in Havana, and its affiliate, the American Cigar Company, soon dominated 90 percent of the export trade in Havana cigars. A group of New York capitalists took over manganese mining. The Cuba Company, a syndicate formed in 1900, had the Cuba Central Railroad up and running by 1902. Another Wall Street syndicate won control of the Havana Street Railway. And Manhattan’s North American Trust Company was appointed the occupying government’s fiscal agent; in time, it evolved into the Banco National de Cuba, which would dominate the island’s financial system. The Yankee invasion had a tremendous impact on Cuba’s society as well as its economy: the elite was cut in, the rural middle classes were wiped out, and the peasantry was reduced to seasonal wage-work. Protests were suppressed by the marines.
Puerto Rico was made an official American colony, and its residents were granted limited local participation in government. U.S.-dominated sugar and tobacco production supplanted the old coffee-based agronomy and pumped profits off-island, perpetuating or worsening poverty. Within a decade of the occupation, four U.S. corporations produced 50 percent of all sugar cultivated in Puerto Rico, and the island’s inclusion in the Coastwise Shipping Act had given the United States a monopoly over Puerto Rican commerce. When Samuel Gompers returned from a 1904 visit, he told a New York press conference: “In all my life I have never witnessed such misery, sickness, and suffering.” In 1917 Puerto Ricans would be made citizens—a step of great significance for the future of New York City, as, dislodged from the land, earning some of the lowest wages in the world in exchange for ten- to twelve-hour days, some of these new citizens would begin to migrate from the edge of America’s new empire to its center.
America’s war with Spain provided one final benefit: it helped boost the country out of depression. The initial upward shove had come in 1897 when simultaneous crop disasters in Europe, Asia, and South America drove the price of American wheat to a dollar a bushel. Ecstatic farmers paid off burdensome mortgages and started a round of heavy purchases. Agricultural traffic boosted railroad earnings and spurred the iron and steel industry. The next year brought not only wartime government spending but discoveries of gold in South Africa and the Yukon. The combination of stimuli jolted the economy into action. Factories started up, the stock market reached its highest level in years, the unemployed began trooping back to work, and the country clambered its way toward prosperity.