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Spanish-American War

Spanish-American War Recruiting Poster

In April 1898, the American Century suddenly began. “Suddenly” because what happened then—the declaration of war against Spain—led to a rapid crystallization of a passionate nationalism. The American longing for national aggrandizement existed before 1898—indeed it was gathering momentum—but as the great French writer Stendhal wrote in his essay “On Love,” passion has a way of “crystallizing” suddenly, as a reaction to external stimuli.

Such a stimulus, in the history of the United States, was the Spanish-American War in 1898. When it was over, in a famous (or infamous) phrase John Hay would call it “a splendid little war.” Well, as far as wars go (and many of them tend to go unexpectedly far), it was “a splendid little war.” But its consequences were not little at all. They were enormous, and one hundred years later we live with them still.

The island of Cuba was one of the last (and the largest remaining) Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere. Its political class wanted independence from Spain. It could not achieve this by itself. There was nothing very new about that. Trouble in Cuba had flared up often during the nineteenth century. But in 1895 there arose conditions resembling a civil war (or, more precisely, a guerrilla war). At first the Spanish military reacted energetically. Soon it became evident that the problem was triangular, involving not only Spain and the Cuban rebels but also the United States. For one thing, the rebels depended more and more on American support, and particularly on their abettors in Florida. (What else is new?)

Perhaps more important was a surge of American public and popular opinion, which was dishonestly inflated by the novel element of the “yellow press,” the national chains of Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers, proclaiming the Cuban situation to be intolerable. “Intolerable” is, of course, what people think must not be tolerated, and that was the continued presence of Spain in Cuba. In late 1897 the Spanish government showed a very considerable willingness to compromise, whereby all sensible reasons for an American intervention in Cuba could be eliminated.

But passion is not governed by reason, and there were many groups of people with reasons of their own. On February 15, 1898, the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in Havana Harbor. There was a large loss of American lives and an immediate clamor for war. “Remember the Maine!” One hundred years later we do not know what caused the explosion. Possibly it was the work of Cubans, hoping to incite Americans thereby for the sake of their “liberation” from Spain.

After the catastrophe, the Spanish government was willing to settle almost everything to the satisfaction of the United States, but it was too late—too late because of the inflamed state of American public opinion. President McKinley did not have the will to oppose anything like that. On April 11, 1898, he sent a message to Congress; the formal declaration of war came two weeks afterward.

One week later Commodore (soon to become Admiral) George Dewey destroyed a Spanish squadron on the other side of the world, in Manila Bay. Some of his warships now raced across the southern Pacific and around the Horn to help blast another Spanish squadron out of the warm waters of Santiago Bay. Meanwhile, American troops had landed, unopposed, in Cuba and then won battles (in reality, successful skirmishes) at El Caney and San Juan Hill. Later in July Americans, again unopposed, invaded Puerto Rico. The war was over. Spain asked for peace. An armistice was signed on August 12, and the final terms were nailed down in Paris in December. American losses were minimal: a few hundred men. The United States insisted on, and got, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam.

The fact that “isolationism” as a category came into usage only after World War I, the expansionists of 1898 were American unilateralists, not internationalists, while their opponents were not isolationists either. What clashed were two different visions of American destiny. These were already visible well before 1898. More germane to the national debate of 1898 were the differing tendencies of political parties, national regions, and portions of society. With few exceptions Republicans were expansionists; Democrats were not. These divisions were not absolute; there were a few anti-imperialist Republicans. Yet it ought to be observed that the Republicans were the more nationalist party of the two, something that, by and large, remained true for most of the following century and is discernible even now.

It is significant to note that many of the opponents of the expansionists were Southern Democrats, including such unreconstructed populists as “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman—which is interesting, since forty years earlier it was the South that had proposed the acquisition of Cuba. Many, certainly the most vocal, expansionists were Protestant churchmen; the hierarchy of American Catholics was, for the most part, not. The leaders of American finance and business (Andrew Carnegie, James J. Hill, J. P. Morgan, and most of Wall Street) opposed the war—at least for some time.

But much of this was soon swept away. Immediately after the declaration of war the businessmen’s and financiers’ opposition crumbled. In the hot skillet of nationalist emotions, the opposition of most Catholics melted away fast. Two former Confederate generals, Joe Wheeler and Fitzhugh Lee, were now major-generals of the United States Army. Fifteen Democrats and Populists voted for the ratification of the peace treaty with Spain; only two Republicans voted against it. The vote was 57 to 27 in the Senate, one above the needed two-thirds majority. William Jennings Bryan, once an anti-expansionist, urged a speedy ratification. It did not do much for him; in 1900 McKinley beat him by a landslide. Less than a year later McKinley was dead, the President was now Theodore Roosevelt, and the American Century was on.

In 1898 the Spanish-American War was the culmination of a great wave of national sentiment that had begun to rise many years before. There was a change, less in the temperature of patriotism than in the national vision of the destiny of the United States, after the end of the first century of its existence. In sum, the time had come for the United States to expand not only its light and its example but its power and its institutions all around the globe.

When the Chicago world’s fair opened in 1893, Chauncey M. Depew gave the speech of dedication. “This day,” he said, “belongs not to America but the world. . . . We celebrate the emancipation of man.” No one had spoken in such tones at the Centennial in 1876 in Philadelphia. But now in March 1893 the Philadelphia Press proclaimed, “Our nation stands on the threshold of a new policy as surely as it did in 1803, when Jefferson annexed Louisiana and the United States realized it must govern it.”

It is wrong to think that this rise of a national sentiment was nothing but emotional, fueled by war fever and declamatory rhetoric. What had begun to change the course of the mighty American ship of state was a change of mentality, including a powerful intellectual impulse. Its proponents included some of the most intelligent, and learned, Americans of a generation. The usage of the noun intellectual (adopted from the Russian, designating a certain kind of person) had hardly begun to appear in the American language in the 1890s, but the adjective was properly applicable to the capacities of such men as Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, Alfred Thayer Mahan, John Hay, Whitelaw Reid, and Albert J. Beveridge. Far from being provincial, they looked around the world and saw how the European powers had embarked on their imperialist expansion. For the United States to opt out from a course of spreading its influence beyond its continental boundaries would be a sickening symptom of a materialist small-mindedness.

And what were the ingredients of this philosophy—for a kind of philosophy it was. It amounted to more than a mere emulation of the other Great Powers of the present. One principal ingredient was the belief in sea power. That was the key to modern history, as Alfred Mahan wrote in his famous book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History in 1890, and it was more than coincidental that a Republican President and Congress embarked on a Big Navy program in the same year, the first substantial American military expenditure since the Civil War. Besides the Roosevelt-Lodge-Mahan-Hay-Reid coterie of progressive imperialists, there were prestigious professors in the leading American universities whose eulogies of the Teutonic-Germanic races were influential as well as popular: John W. Burgess, for example, whose Political Science later acquired a foreword by Nicholas Murray Butler, the much-respected president of Columbia University. Very similar were the advocacies of John Fiske of Harvard. The Congregationalist minister Josiah Strong wrote as early as 1885 about the American Anglo-Saxon destined to be his brother’s keeper: “If I read not amiss, this powerful race will move . . . down upon Central and South America, or upon the islands of the sea . . . and beyond. And can any one doubt that the result of this competition of races will be ‘the survival of the fittest’?”

Not many people know that Rudyard Kipling’s “Take Up the White Man’s Burden” was written for Americans; even fewer are aware that in The Descent of Man Charles Darwin wrote about America: “the heir of all ages, in the foremost files of time.” Such a concordance of Darwinism and of racism and of Protestant Christianity sounds strange now. In the 1890s it was not. In 1894 Mahan wrote: “Comparative religion teaches that creeds which reject missionary enterprise are foredoomed to decay. May it not be so with nations?” Many of the shrill proposals for American imperialism in the name of Protestant Christianity were reconstructed later by historians, foremost among them Julius W. Pratt. Thus the editorial of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in April 1898: “God is stronger than either the Romish Church or the Catholic powers of Europe. We should pray not only that Cuba be free, but that these fair Eastern isles shall become scenes of gospel triumphs and the salvation of countless souls. . . .” And The Christian Standard: The time has arrived “to crack the Monroe Doctrine like a shell, and to introduce the nation to an enlarged mission. . . . The Lord has not raised up this mighty people to dwell in selfish contentment, indifferent to the wrongs and oppressions of other lands. . . . The magnificent fleets of Spain have gone down as marvellously, as miraculously, as the walls of Jericho went down.”

Such were many of the voices current in 1898. They were not necessarily what the majority of Americans thought. But such influences cannot be precisely defined. Hard and determined minorities may acquire an impact on a majority beyond numerical calculations. Still, in any event, they cannot be very influential when they represent something quite different from broader popular inclinations. The politicians knew that. So did the progressive intellects. When Captain (later Admiral) Mahan wrote that the Navy must have bases abroad, he added: “At present the positions of the Caribbean are occupied by foreign powers, nor may we, however disposed to acquisition, obtain them by means other than righteous; but a distinct advance will have been made when public opinion is convinced.” In 1890 a Republican Congress voted on seven battleships and eventually authorized the building of three first-class battleships, even though the Secretary of the Navy had asked only for two.

The former Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine wrote to President Harrison in 1891 that the United States should annex Cuba and Puerto Rico and perhaps all of the West Indian islands. In June 1896 the Washington Post editorialized: “A new consciousness seems to have come upon us—the consciousness of strength—and with it a new appetite, the yearning to show our strength. . . . Ambition, interest, land hunger, pride, the mere joy of fighting, whatever it may be, we are animated by a new sensation. We are face to face with a strange destiny. The taste of Empire is in the mouth of the people even as the taste of blood in the jungle. It means an Imperial policy, the Republic, renascent, taking her place with the armed nations.”

John Lukacs. The Meaning Of ’98. American Heritage. May/June 1998; Volume 49, Issue 3.


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