America’s Long Journey: The Spanish American War

Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)

The Spanish American War

The 19th wasn’t Spain’s century, as we shall see, and the disaster of the Spanish–American War capped it. The war cost Spain Cuba, Puerto Rico and all of its remaining Pacific possessions. So traumatic was the loss, in three and a half disheartening and even humiliating months, that it gave rise to what is called “the generation of ’98,” a movement of intellectuals and politicians forced by events to give serious thought, finally, to Spain’s place in the modern world.

The results for the United States were happier, but equally profound. Arguably that war, and the Roosevelt Presidency which indirectly resulted from it, set the United States firmly on the path that many patriots had hoped it would never tread. No telling, of course. If it hadn’t been this, it might have been something else. But certainly it is true enough that U.S. possession of the Philippine Islands put this country squarely in the way of Japanese expansion and led to Pearl Harbor and all that followed, including, not least, the atomic bomb.

Not everybody who remembers the slogan “Remember the Maine” remembers what it references. The USS Maine was an American warship which blew up and sank while anchored in Havana Harbor. (It had been sent there to ensure the safety of American citizens and interests.) Jingoes in the States immediately insisted that the Spanish government had sunk it, though our modern experience of false-flag operations suggests that it is more likely the work of Cuban insurgents hoping to bring the U.S. to declare on war with Spain, hopefully leading – finally – to Cuban independence. Or perhaps it was an accident. Doesn’t matter. The direct cause of the war was American intervention in the Cuban War of Independence, following years of horrific reports of Spanish atrocities against the rebellious Cuban people. Spanish-American relations were so raw after years of American criticism of Spanish barbarity in fighting the insurgency that only a spark was needed. It doesn’t much matter who struck the spark, even if responsibility could be determined at this late date.

President McKinley, a better man than he is remembered, didn’t want war. (He had been a young officer in the Civil War, and he knew that war isn’t glorious.) Between the yellow journalism of the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers and the general pugnaciousness and disgust of the American people, the pressure became overwhelming. The U.S. government sent an ultimatum to Spain demanding it surrender control of Cuba. And then, in an example of the old saying that “whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad,” the Spanish government declared war on the United States, despite the unanimous advice of the other European powers that it back down.

At this distance, knowing that the Spanish were suffering from delusions of competence, we find it hard to believe that the Dons thought they had a chance. However, many Europeans thought, and some hoped, that the upstart American republic would meet a fast come-uppance in a war with a European power. Irish poet William Butler Yeats, then in his early thirties, avidly followed news of the war, apparently thinking it was going to be a contest.

Some details are interesting at this distance. On April 19, while Congress was considering joint resolutions supporting Cuban independence, Republican Senator Henry M. Teller of Colorado proposed the Teller Amendment to ensure that the U.S. would not establish permanent control over Cuba after the war. The amendment, disclaiming any intention to annex Cuba, passed the Senate 42 to 35; the House concurred the same day, 311 to 6. The amended resolution demanded Spanish withdrawal and authorized the President to use as much military force as he thought necessary to help Cuba gain independence from Spain. President McKinley signed the joint resolution on April 20, 1898, and the ultimatum was sent to Spain. In response, Spain severed diplomatic relations with the United States on April 21. On the same day, the U.S. Navy began a blockade of Cuba. Spain declared war on April 23. On April 25, Congress declared that a state of war between the U.S. and Spain had existed since April 21, the day the blockade of Cuba had begun.

(The Regular U.S. Army in the spring of 1898 numbered just 28,000 men. The Army wanted 50,000 new men but received over 220,000, through volunteers and the mobilization of state National Guard units.)

The result of the war was fundamental and astounding. In January, 1898, America was a regional power, supreme in its hemisphere mainly because of the width of the Atlantic separating it from the real world powers. By December, no one could doubt that the United States was a world power in its own right, a new factor in international relations. The full impact would not sink in for another few years – President Roosevelt would make it plain enough – but even that year, anyone with brains could see that America had come of age.

American naval power sunk Spanish squadrons in Santiago de Cuba and in Manila Bay, in the Philippines. A combinations of Cuban and American forces defeated the Spanish infantry in Cuba, and Philippine and American forces captured Manila. At San Juan Hill, the (dismounted) charge of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders carried the position and in a few months made him governor.

Madrid sued for peace, and got it in the Treaty of Paris. Spain was forced to abandon Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. The United States gained the beginnings of an empire – and a fierce domestic political argument over the morality and wisdom of expansionism.

Distance in time obscures situations. We may be tempted to say that once we defeated the Spanish, we should have left the Philippines independent. Quite likely, but it might not have worked out that way, as this paraphrased excerpt from Wikipedia makes clear.

Following Dewey’s victory, Manila Bay was filled with the warships of Britain, Germany, France and Japan. The German fleet of eight ships, ostensibly in Philippine waters to protect German interests, acted provocatively – cutting in front of American ships, refusing to salute the United States flag (according to customs of naval courtesy), taking soundings of the harbor, and landing supplies for the besieged Spanish. The Germans, with interests of their own, were eager to take advantage of whatever opportunities the conflict in the islands might afford. The Germans expected the confrontation in the Philippines to end in an American defeat, with the revolutionaries capturing Manila and leaving the Philippines ripe for German picking. However, Commodore Dewey transported Emilio Aguinaldo, a Filipino leader who had led rebellion against Spanish rule in the Philippines in 1896, to the Philippines from exile in Hong Kong to rally more Filipinos against the Spanish colonial government. By June, U.S. and Filipino forces had taken control of most of the islands, except for the walled city of Intramuros. On June 12, Aguinaldo proclaimed the independence of the Philippines.

On August 13, with American commanders unaware that a cease-fire had been signed between Spain and the U.S. on the previous day, American forces captured the city of Manila from the Spanish in the Battle of Manila. This battle marked the end of Filipino-American collaboration, as the American action of preventing Filipino forces from entering the captured city of Manila was deeply resented by the Filipinos. This later led to the Philippine–American War, which would prove to be more deadly and costly than the Spanish–American War.

The U.S. had sent a force of some 11,000 ground troops to the Philippines. Armed conflict broke out between U.S. forces and the Filipinos when U.S. troops began to take the place of the Spanish in control of the country after the end of the war, resulting in the Philippine–American War. On August 14, 1899, the Schurman Commission recommended that the U.S. retain control of the Philippines, possibly granting independence in the future.

Lots of consequences, most of them unforeseen. Lots of chickens waiting to come home to roost.

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