"A Splendid Little War," in the words of John Hay, The Spanish-American War was a brief conflict between the United States and the Spain from April to August of 1898 that resulted in the US acquisition of Guam, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and hegemony over Cuba, and marked one of the final blows to the once mighty and world-spanning Spanish Empire.

Sugar, the Almighty Dollar, and the "Ever Faithful Isle"

The conflict had its roots in a Cuban insurrection that began in 1895. At first, the Spanish had responded by sending over Arsenio Martinez Campos, the aging general who had successfully defeated an earlier Cuban rebellion from 1868-1878, known as the Ten Years War. Campos's plan to cordon off and trap the rebels in the Eastern half of Cuba and then force them into a decisive battle failed utterly, because the rebels used hit and run and scorched earth guerilla tactics, refusing to engage in pitched battles. Moreover, Campos had to spread his troops too thinly to maintain the cordon, leaving them vulnerable to surprise attacks by small bands of rebels.

With Campos's failures mounting, the Spanish government replaced him with the more assertive General Valeriano Weyler in 1896. In an attempt to separate the rebels from their rural supporters who kept them fed, clothed, and supplied, Weyler began a strategy known as "reconcentration," rounding up farmers and peasants and interning them in camps in the cities, where unsanitary conditions and food shortages led to the death of thousands. Still, the rebels fought on.

As the conflict dragged on, Americans increasingly came to view it as a major threat to their national interests. Over the preceeding 25 years, the United States had developed major economic interests in Cuba. For example, by the 1890s, the US had become largely dependent on Cuba for its supply of sugar. Domestic production from sugar beets was not economically efficient, and European sugar prices were too high, while Hawaii's sugar industry was still in its early stages. Moreover, since the end of the Ten Years War in 1873, American investors had sunk $50 million into developing the Cuban sugar industry--investments that were now severely imperiled. The scorched earth tactics of the rebels and Weyler's reconcentration policy threatened both America's sugar supply and American investments.

Meanwhile, a small but vocal group of Cuban partisans was feeding the "yellow" journals' sensationalist and even invented accounts of Spanish atrocities, arousing humanitarian sympathies for the plight of the Cubans in the hearts of many decent Americans. Americans were also not pleased by the Spaniards' imprisonment of a few American nationals who had been aiding the Rebels. The more the rebellion dragged on, the more Americans came to believe that it had to end, one way or another.

The Spanish, meanwhile, had immense national pride at stake in the Cuban conflict. Over the course of the 19th century, Spain had gradually lost most of her once vast empire, but Cuba they had retained, and they had come to view it as the "Ever Faithful Isle," practically as much a part of Spain as Catalonia or Andalucia. As the conflict wore on, Spain became increasingly willing to grant almost any concessions to the rebels to secure a peaceful settlement, with two major exceptions: they would not accept foreign mediation, and they would not relinquish titular Spanish sovereignty over Cuba. These two positions became unshakeable points of national pride and honor, and Spain proved willing to risk any eventuality rather than back down from these stances. The Spanish even consented to an American plan for Cuban autonomy, which they put into action on January 1, 1898.

Remembering the Maine: The Camel's Back Breaks

If the Spanish postion does not seem unreasonable, it is because it wasn't. Many Americans however had come to the view that Cuba and even Spain herself would be much better off if Cuba were separated from Spanish rule. Many Americans favored Cuban independence and self-determination, while some imperialists favored a US protectorate or direct annexation. President McKinley was deeply against American military intervention. His personal preference was an accomodation through American mediation, but the Spanish were unwilling to submit to this humiliation, which they felt would be an admission that they could not handle their internal affairs without outside aid. McKinley also explored other options such as purchasing Cuba, but was rebuffed. Rather than violate the cherished principles of American neutrality, McKinley was willing to stall for a long time to allow Spain time to attempt to solve the problem on their own, although he kept up a high degree of diplomatic pressure on the Spainiards to end the war as soon as practicable.

McKinley's hand was forced, however, by two unfortunate and unforeseen incidents in the winter of 1898 that inflamed American passions and hardened McKinley's attitudes toward Spanish intentions. In early February, a private letter written to a Spanish friend in Cuba by the Spanish Minister to United States, Enrique de Lome, was stolen by a Cuban partisan and turned over to the American press and first published by the New York Journal on February 9. The letter characterized McKinley as "weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd," as well as a "would-be politician." The de Lome letter provoked a national furor, was characterized as "the greatest insult to America in its history," and was deemed a sign of Spanish treachery and bad faith diplomacy.

The final straw was of course the explosion and sinking of the US battleship Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, that resulted in the deaths of 260 members of her crew. One of the Navy's newest and most advanced ships, the Maine had been sent to Havana in January as a show of force to ensure the proper treatment of American nationals following an anti-American riot in Havana by Spanish partisans on January 12. Modern studies have shown that the explosion was internal, likely the spontaneous combustion of the ship's fuel supply of bituminous coal, which was stored in a poorly designed, unsatisfactorily ventilated storage chamber located unfortunately close to the ship's gunpowder stores. But the report of the investigatory panel, presented to Congress on March 28, declared it an external explosion, "most likely caused by a submarine mine," although it conceded that responsibility for the apparent attack could not be determined.

Most Americans actually did not hold the Spanish government directly responsible for the Maine's distruction. The shock of Spanish leaders, such as the governor of Cuba who wept at the news, and the immediate, heartfelt, and sincere apologies of the Spanish government were too convincing, and the popular theory ran that Spanish sympathizers among the Cubans, or insubordinate Spanish soldiers acting alone without authorization, must have placed the mine under the ship's hull. Americans were vitually unanimous, however, in holding Spain indirectly responsible on the logic that it was a nation's duty to protect the lives of friendly visitors to her harbors, and if she could not, to make appropriate reparations. At the very least, Americans expected and demanded some sort of dramatic softening of Spanish policy in Cuba in a direction favorable to American interests; apologies and even indemnity for the Maine's distruction would not be enough.

McKinley now decided that Spain must show signs of moving more quickly to end the war in Cuba. He issued an ultimatum to Spain at the end of March demanding that Spain accept American mediation. When Spain did not immediately respond, he asked Congress for the power to make war on April 11, and Congress declared war on April 25.

The "Splendid Little War" and the Road to Empire

The actual war was an anti-climax after the years of buildup and simmering tension, in that it was so one-sided and American victory so inevitable in retrospect. On May 1 the US Asiatic Squadron under Commodore George Dewey crushed the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. Meanwhile, hastily mustered troops were dispatched to Cuba, and fought their way to Santiago by July 1. On July 3, the US North Atlantic Squadron defeated the Spanish fleet off Santiago, and with control of the seas, US victory was assured. An armistice was already being negotiated in early August when US troops, unaware that the war was ending, followed previous orders and captured Puerto Rico and Manila. The armistice took effect on August 12. The war had lasted less than 16 weeks.

At the negotiations of the Treaty of Paris, which officially ended the war that fall, McKinley directed his emissaries to ask for Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Even though McKinley had been against imperialism prior to the war and had previously disclaimed any intention of acquiring the Philippines, he would later confess that once "the Philippines had dropped into our laps" he could not just "give them back to Spain - that would be cowardly and dishonorable," and besides, the Filipinos were surely "unfit for self-government." Ultimately, with American troops already on Philippine soil, the temptations of imperialism proved too much for McKinley, despite his better principles. Power corrupts, etc. etc. (Although if McKinley could have foreseen that nearly 5000 American troops would die supressing the bloody Philippine Revolution of 1900-1902, he undoubtedly would have thought twice). Cuba, meanwhile, was granted independence, but the Platt Amendment insured that the US could intervene in Cuba whenever it deemed necessary to protect its "national interest." American national interest would call for American intervention in Cuba a surprising number of times over the next 35 years, beginning only a few years later, in 1906.

The war transformed America from an introverted, inward-looking backwater of a nation into a world power. Whereas previously America had been content to confine its growing might to the policing of its own people and the conquest of its troublesome natives, it now had been aroused from its self-preoccupation and began to turn its attentions outward toward the larger world. Where America had once left both the toils and spoils of imperialism to other powers, it now enthusiastically joined the "great game." The ensuing two decades would witness American troops intervening in China's Boxer Rebellion, suppressing a revolution in the Philippine jungles, playing Kingmaker on the blasted fields of Belgium during World War I, and fighting in Siberia against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. Next would come economic expansion, cultural imperialism, atomic bombs, world domination, et al; it was the Spanish-American War that set the course for America's dramatic rise from sleepy nation of immigrant idealists to world superpower, and shaped the contours of American foreign policy for the 20th century and beyond.


Too many to count or list, but especially see Lewis Gould, The Presidency of William McKinley (Kansas, 1980), Margaret Leech, In the Days of McKinley (New York, 1959), William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York, 1972), Kristen Hoganson, Fighting for American Manhood (New Haven, 1998), Julius Pratt, The Expansionists of 1898 (Chicago, 1936), David Trask, The War with Spain in 1898 (New York, 1981), William McKinley, Speeches and Addresses of William McKinley, from March 1, 1897 to May 30, 1900 (New York, 1900), and of course, the US State Department's Foreign Relations of the United States series for 1898.

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