Saturday, December 10, 2005


The Spanish-American War—that "splendid little war," as John Hay characterized it to Theodore Roosevelt—has undergone several changes of meaning as an event in American history. At the time, and for long thereafter, it was generally regarded as an unsullied instance of applied idealism: a precursor of the American crusades to make the world safe for democracy in World War I and to defeat fascism in World War II. Then in the disillusioned wake of the First World War, and again in the era of Vietnam, the war came to be seen as an ugly instance of imperialism: the overture to the expansion abroad of twentieth-century American capitalism and military power.

A more accurate perspective would avoid the exaggerations of both the idealist and the imperialist views. The war can most usefully be seen as the product of a particular historical moment, of a distinctive combination of external pulls and internal pushes.

The most immediate cause was the crisis in Spanish-American relations emerging from the Cuban rebellion against Spanish rule and Spain's brutal but ineffective response. The leaders of the Cuban revolt used the United States as their base of operations and received a good deal of their financial and material support from American sympathizers—much as many other nationalist revolutionaries did in decades to come.

Modern, too, was the scale and immediacy of the coverage by the surging American press, alert to the circulation-building potential of a popular insurrection so close to U.S. shores. American opinion was inflamed as well by the undeniably brutal consequences of the Spanish military's concentration of masses of Cuban civilians in areas under their control: about 100,000 of them died between 1896 and 1898.

Presidents Grover Cleveland and William McKinley sought both to give voice to the popular distaste for Spain's Cuban policy and to avoid war. Sending the battleship Maine on an ostensibly friendly visit to Cuba in January 1898 was part of this strategy. But the battleship blew up in Havana harbor at the cost of 266 lives, the consequence, it now seems clear, of spontaneous combustion in one of its magazines, not because of a Spanish or Cuban mine. The resulting domestic outcry probably made war inevitable, particularly so since the weak monarchy in Spain, feeling the force of an inflamed Spanish public opinion of its own, could not do the one thing that might have avoided war: grant Cuba its independence.

This, then, was the immediate cause of war. But the readiness of Americans to react as they did still needs to be explained. Most often noted by historians is the widespread influence of the ideology of imperialism: the sense of Anglo-Saxon superiority and the "white man's burden," the belief that a strong nation needed overseas markets, coaling stations, and colonies to play its proper role in the "great game" of international power politics.

Politicians Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, and geopolitical theorists Brooks Adams and Homer C. Lea were major exponents of this view.

But this limited (though influential) group would not have had its way without other elements of public opinion, those that saw in war with Spain not the road to empire but an expression of American idealism and national purpose. And in the 1890s various Americans wanted a spur to their sense of national identity.

Many southern ex-Confederates were ready to enact a final rite of reunion. Many western agrarians, battered by the bruising politics of populism, Bryanism, and free silver, had their own particular need for national reconciliation. And many new immigrants in the large cities welcomed an emotive way of expressing their identity with their adopted country—a need amply met by the pro-Cuban, anti-Spanish sensationalism of the Hearst and Pulitzer press.

Indeed, the one group decidedly reluctant to go to war was composed of big businessmen and financiers and their political spokesmen such as Senators Mark Hanna (initially against war -Bert), Nelson W. Aldrich, and Orville H. Platt. American banks held Spanish securities; as long as the Cuban revolt went on, investors in Cuban sugar would suffer. It is not surprising that hotbloods like Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge decried "the money power" and the cautious McKinley as the major obstacles to war.

The war itself lasted only four months, from mid-April to mid-August 1898. There were 379 American combat deaths, but more than 5,000 servicemen died of disease.

The navy scored smashing successes in two major actions, destroying the Spanish fleets in Manila Bay in the Philippines and outside Santiago harbor on Cuba's northern coast. It is hard to judge the level of American competence, given the decrepitude and inadequacy of the Spanish forces. But these almost costless victories satisfied the popular yearnings that did so much to bring about the war.

The army's experience in Cuba was more problematic. The Puerto Rican campaign was a cakewalk, but hard and costly fighting preceded the capture of Santiago. Unsettling tales spread of the incompetence of Secretary of War Russell Alger and Gen. William R. Shafter, who headed the expeditionary force in Cuba. But in compensation, Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Rider regiment of cowboys and Ivy Leaguers engaged in some authentic (and thoroughly reported) heroics at San Juan Hill outside Santiago.

What of the war's consequences? Most immediately it produced the nation's first overseas empire, a modest one by contemporary European standards, but sufficiently at odds with the national self-image to lead to bruising political controversy. The decision to take, and keep, the Philippines set off an ugly guerrilla war with the islands' nationalists, who had been fighting the Spaniards, and thus began an ongoing story of domination and involvement that has not yet ended.

The acquisition of Puerto Rico, the other major territorial gain, produced its own complex saga of cultural assimilation and conflict. And although the United States forswore the annexation of Cuba, its relations with that island have remained contentious and difficult. This rather tatterdemalion and halfhearted venture into empire aside, the war's chief legacy lay in the part it played in the emergence of a new popular nationalism around the turn of the century—the nationalism of an urban, mass-culture, industrial society.

Frank Freidel, Splendid Little War (1958); Gerald B. Linderman, Mirror of War: American Society and the Spanish-American War (1974).
Morton Keller
See also
Expansion, Continental and Overseas; Mahan, Alfred Thayer; McKinley, William; Philippines; Puerto Rico; Roosevelt, Theodore.


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