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Spanish-American War

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Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders.
It never changes
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A view to kill
We can no longer afford to disregard international rivalries now that we ourselves have become a competitor in the world-wide struggle for trade.
—U.S. State Department memorandum, 1898[1]
The Spanish–American War was fomented on outright lies and trumped up accusations against the intended enemy ... War fever in the general population never reached a critical temperature until the accidental sinking of the USS Maine was deliberately, and falsely, attributed to Spanish villainy.
—Prof. Paul Atwood, University of Massachusetts.[2]

The Spanish-American War was a war between, get this, the United States and Spain. It lasted for a little over three months in 1898, but it had an outsized impact on world history. The war is often considered the first "media war",[3] with the American press using false and sensationalized stories (or "yellow journalism") to help agitate the public against Spain's attempts to suppress revolts in Cuba.[4] After an American warship, the USS Maine, exploded in the waters near Havana, an outraged US public reaction convinced President William McKinley to threaten Spain with war unless they released Cuba.[5] Spain refused.

American naval power proved decisive, and Spain quickly sued for peace. The resulting agreement was the end of the Spanish Empire and the beginning of the American; the US seized control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.[6] The US spent the next years committing atrocities in the Philippines while attempting to crush Filipino nationalists who were opposed to American colonial rule.[7] In Spain, meanwhile, their humiliating loss in the war was deemed a "disaster" which led to a national age of pessimism and crisis.[8][9] It was one of the various 19th-century calamities which put Spain on the path to the Spanish Civil War.

Path to war[edit]

Cuban War of Independence[edit]

The Cuban War of Independence, which began in 1895, was the last of three wars Cuba fought against Spain.[10] Cubans sought independence from their colonial overlords for similar reasons as their northern US neighbors: high taxes and lack of representation.[11] In 1894, Spain imposed yet more taxes and restricted trade between Cuba and the United States, prompting the third independence war.[11] The revolution in Cuba quickly expanded to become a broader social justice movement which represented blacks and poor white peasants against the interests of wealthy landowners and the Spanish colonists.[12] Cuba's growing sugar trade had concentrated wealth in the hands of the plantation owners, while the profitability of the colony made Spain determined to keep it under control.[13] The rebels thus went on to burn the island's sugar fields to hurt the landowners' finances and deprive Madrid of their profits.[12]

The rebellion quickly took control of Cuba's countryside, but Spain maintained its hold over Cuba's cities. This led to a policy where Spain's military leaders ordered civilians out of the countryside and into the cities, dramatically increasing population density and having a devastating impact on the island's economy.[14] By 1896, this expanded into a "Reconcentration Policy", in which about a third of Cuba's population was forced into concentration camps, killing 400,000 people through disease and famine.[15]

American economic interests[edit]

Editorial cartoon from 1897 depicting Columbia—representing the American people—reaching out to Cuba

By the late 19th century, American businesses were deeply involved in Cuba. Cuba's economy was slowly dominated by its northern neighbor over the course of the post-American Civil War age. Cuba's lucrative sugar industry was steadily sold off into the hands of U.S. businesses, and Cuba became dependent on the United States for trade to the point where 90% of its exports went to America, and 38% of its imports came from America.[16]

The independence war destroyed Cuba's economy, which naturally had a detrimental effect on U.S. economic interests. Shipping firms had become dependent on the trade with Cuba, and they suffered from the breakdown in trade relations.[17] The United States had invested $50 million in Cuba, and the sugar trade was worth twice that.[18]

Yellow journalism[edit]

American public opinion was with the Cuban revolutionaries in no small part due to the similarities between their movement and the American Revolution.[19] In President McKinley's first address to Congress, he took the opportunity to denounce Spain's "concentration" policy as "extermination".[20]

Public opinion was also shaped by so-called "yellow journalism" of the era, in which newspapers would publish sensationalized, exaggerated, or outright manufactured stories in order to increase their own national prominence and sell more papers.[21] The term was invented to describe the competition between Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal to see who could publish the most sensational stories.[3] In their competition for market share, Pulitzer and Hearst focused more and more on the revolution in Cuba, publishing stories which lionized the Cubans and highlighted the brutality of the Spanish and often making up stories outright.[4]

It is, however, far from true that the papers manufactured American public opinion out of thin air, or dragged a reluctant nation along into war.[22] Public war fever had little impact on McKinley's decision-making until the people who really mattered, America's business community, eventually decided due to economic concerns that war was a necessary evil.[23]

De Lôme letter scandal[edit]

Another factor which hardened McKinley's stance towards Spain was a letter written by the Spanish ambassador to the United States. The official in question, Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, was long frustrated by the international tensions over Cuba and had recently been angered further by McKinley's speech to Congress suggesting that the US might intervene with force against Spain.[24] The ambassador wrote a letter to his close friend in Cuba saying, "McKinley is weak and catering to the rabble and, besides, a low politician who desires to leave a door open to himself and to stand well with the jingos of his party."[25] The letter was intercepted by the Cuban rebels and leaked to the US; William Randolph Hearst also got a copy and published a translation under the headline, "The Worst Insult to the United States in Its History."[26] It was, effectively, a 20th-century WikiLeaks fuckup.

Public outrage was instantaneous, as regardless of what Americans might have thought of their own politics, they would not stand to see another country insult their leaders. McKinley demanded an apology from the Spanish government, but their response came two days after the explosion of the USS Maine.[26]

USS Maine[edit]

Wreckage of USS Maine in 1898

Early in 1898, President McKinley dispatched the USS Maine, an American armored cruiser, to Cuba on a mission of "friendly courtesy" and to protect American business interests in the region.[27] On February 15, the Maine exploded, killing 260 Americans.[28]

Pulitzer and Hearst both immediately decided that the Spanish were responsible, publishing headlines like "Spanish Treachery!" or "Destruction of the War Ship Maine Was the Work of an Enemy!" and even going so far as to offer monetary rewards for "detection of the Perpetrator of the Maine Outrage."[29] The American naval officer on site did not believe that Spain was guilty, as they had treated his crew hospitably and reacted with horror and compassion to the explosion and their deaths.[30]

The U.S. Navy launched an investigation, and, due to their own bias and lack of expertise, botched the process and announced that the Maine had been sunk by a mine.[30] This, of course, only served to fan the flames of American war fever.

Modern investigations, most significantly the 1974 study by Admiral Hyman Rickover, found that the source of the explosion came from inside the ship and was most likely caused by a fire in its coal bunkers.[31] There had also been serious coal fires on ships before the Maine, such as USS New York and USS Cincinnati.[32]

The last straw[edit]

McKinley and most of the American business community still favored a peaceful resolution to the Cuban crisis, fearing that war would hamper America's economic recovery from the Long DepressionWikipedia.[33] This changed completely due to a speech before Congress from Republican Senator Redfield Proctor in March in which he discussed personally witnessing Spain's atrocities in Cuba and claimed to have gotten his information "entirely outside of sensational sources."[34] Proctor's report was, however, based on flawed information from a previous Congressional report and claimed that the Spanish had killed 300,000 Cubans, a number now known to be false.[35] Regardless, the Republican senator was respected by the business community and by his party, so his conclusion that war was inevitable became the final push the US needed to fully back a war declaration.

The "splendid little war"[edit]


Contemporary illustration of the Battle of Manila Bay.

On April 11, President McKinley asked Congress for permission to intervene against Spain.[36] Congress sought to enforce its humanitarian ideals. To this end, Congress attached the Teller Amendment to the Cuban resolution, disavowing any imperialist intentions towards Cuba and promising to withdraw from the island once its independence was secured.[37] The Senate passed the amendment, 42 to 35, on April 19, 1898, and the House concurred the same day, 311 to 6. The resolution itself was an ultimatum to Spain: get out of Cuba or the US throws you out.[38] Spain responded by severing diplomatic relations with the US; McKinley got his war declaration from Congress shortly thereafter.[39]

Pacific theater[edit]

At the outset of the war, the US feared a Spanish attack on its relatively undefended Pacific coast. Luckily, for the US, Theodore Roosevelt, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, had previously instructed Commodore George Dewey of the small US Asiatic Fleet based out of Hong Kong to prepare for a potential attack on the Philippines.[40]

The US had little reason to fear a powerful Spanish Pacific Fleet. Spain's golden era on the seas was long past, and her Pacific Fleet was struggling against a lack of supplies, obsolete weapons, and untrained seamen.[41] Admiral Patricio Montojo planned for a defense far away from Manila but abandoned the idea upon finding out that one of his cruisers was leaking.[42] Spain's golden era was long past.

Admiral Montojo prioritized safety for the city of Manila and placed his ships near the city but beyond the range of its coastal artillery, effectively neutralizing one of his only advantages before the battle had even begun.[43]

USS Charleston in Guam, 1898. Note the lack of enemy ships.

Teddy's efforts as Assistant Navy Secretary paid off during the Battle of Manila Bay, as Admiral Dewey's quick strike at Spain's Pacific Fleet showed that the American ships had better armor and guns. The one-sided curb stomp began at dawn and ended at noon, with Dewey's squadron sinking every Spanish ship while losing none of his own.[44]

With the battle on the bay won, Dewey set about capturing Manila itself. He did this by blockading the city, threatening the garrison into surrender, and capturing another Spanish ship that hadn't even been told that the countries were at war.[45] Dewey met with Filipino nationalist leader Emilio Aguinaldo, hoping to use the previously-suppressed Filipino nationalist movement as a weapon against the Spanish.[46] This would backfire somewhat; while Dewey won the loyalty of the Filipinos, he also unintentionally created the impression that the US would support the Philippines' independence in the same manner as they were supporting Cuba. The US had no such intentions. This would have very bad consequences in the future.

In the aftermath of Dewey's victory, the US decided to capture the Spanish port in Guam. USS Charleston under Captain Henry Glass approached the Spanish fort on Guam and fired 13 warning shots without receiving a response.[47] To his surprise, Glass saw a Spanish boat approaching his ship carrying the garrison's commander, who informed him that Guam had not been alerted to the state of war and that he had approached the Charleston to return what he thought was a friendly greeting.[47] The capture of Guam, was, needless to say, bloodless.

Caribbean theater[edit]

Segregated US divisions attack the Spanish during the Battle of San Juan Hill.

Spain dispatched six vessels of its Atlantic fleet under Admiral Pascual Cervera to defend Cuba. Cervera knew full well how unprepared his ships were in relation to the American fleet, and he asked his superiors to allow him to engage the Americans in Spain's home turf near the Canary islands.[48] He landed his ships at the port of Santiago in Cuba but was quickly blockaded in the port by the American fleet.[49] With the Spanish fleet trapped in Santiago, American and Cuban forces were free to capture their own port on the island. They chose Guantanamo Bay, successfully capturing it and using the area as a base of operations for the invasion of Puerto Rico.[50]

Admiral Cervera attempted to breach the blockade, but he was intercepted by the American fleet. The resulting Battle of Santiago de Cuba resulted in all six ships of the Spanish fleet destroyed while the US only lost one man.[48] This battle effectively ended the naval component of the war, as Spain was unwilling to risk yet more ships against the US. As a result, the Spanish garrison in Cuba was cut off from aid and was effectively doomed.

The final phase of the war saw the United States land troops in Cuba to attack the Spanish garrison. The most significant battle of this phase of the war was the Battle of San Juan Hill,[51] in which Theodore Roosevelt, newly resigned from the Navy Department,[52] famously led the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry to capture the enemy position. (They captured the enemy position on Kettle Hill not San Juan Hill, but that's all right.)

Incompetence and disease[edit]

US military hospital in the Philippines, 1899.

During the war, American forces were plagued (literally) by malaria and yellow fever. Of the 3,000 American troops who perished during the war, less than 400 died in combat.[53] The rest were lost to disease, the far deadlier foe. The Spanish suffered just as badly; of the 230,000 troops they mustered, only 55,000 were healthy enough to fight.[53] The US military took measures to stop the disease, but no amount of sanitation or quarantine worked. Soldiers who had recently won the victories in Cuba asked to be sent home out of fear of an epidemic.[54] Luckily, this story has something of a happy ending. The scourges of malaria and yellow fever led the US military to experiment on volunteers and finally discover that the diseases were spread by mosquitoes.[54] This knowledge has since expanded into a fight against mosquito-spread diseases in both the United States and the developing world.[55][56]

Much of the disease problem was caused by the US's decision to invade Cuba during peak yellow fever season.[53] This exposes a deeper problem with the US's war effort: incompetence. The War Department was hopelessly inefficient, with one instance seeing them deliver heavy wool uniforms to troops fighting in Cuba in the height of summer.[57] Secretary of War Russell Alger resigned his position a year after the war amid accusations that he had bungled it.[58]

Yet another scandal involved the US military providing the troops with tainted meat, which further sickened and killed many soldiers already infected with tropical diseases. Upton Sinclair later discovered and revealed much of the reason why: that the completely unregulated US meatpacking industry was using horrifically unsafe standards and practices to butcher, store, and prepare meat.[59] This helped create the impetus which convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to sign the Pure Food & Drug Act in 1906, which led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration in the same year.

Resolution and aftermath[edit]

The Treaty of Paris[edit]

Signing the Treaty of Paris.
This Treaty will make us a vulgar, commonplace empire, controlling subject races and vassal states, in which one class must forever rule and other classes must forever obey.
—Senator George Frisbie Hoar.[60]

The war lasted for only ten weeks. The US ambassador to England and future Secretary of State, John Hay, called it a "splendid little war".[61] With Spain's armed forces effectively neutralized in the Pacific and the Caribbean, the two nations signed a protocol of peace in August and began negotiations.[62]

Months of difficult negotiations resulted in the Treaty of Paris. Under it, Spain handed its colonies the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam to the United States while Cuba became a US protectorate.[63] Cubans and Filipinos did not participate in the negotiations.

Bipartisan anti-imperialists in the Senate vigorously opposed the treaty due to its imperialist nature, and it was only ratified by one vote.[64]

From anti-imperialism to imperialism[edit]

Providence has given the United States the duty of extending Christian civilization. We come as ministering angels, not despots.
—Senator Knute Nelson.[60]

The territories were not "liberated". For them, one colonial master had replaced the other. The war had created a fundamental shift in the US psyche in terms of how the US should conduct itself in regards to world affairs. Cuba, ostensibly a free nation, was placed under US military rule.[65] Meanwhile, the election of 1900 became a referendum on imperialism. Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan ran on a platform primarily focused on opposing the gold standard and opposing the ongoing US occupations.[66][67]

McKinley handily won the election, securing the northern states and California, while Bryan won the south.[68]

The McKinley administration treated Cuba with a heavy hand. In 1900, the Cubans drafted for themselves a democratic constitution, but the US conditioned its approval of this on Cuba's adoption of amendments which would preserve its status as a US dependency.[69] This became known as the Platt Amendment. The provisions restricted Cuba from making treaties with any other country, allowed the US to intervene unilaterally in Cuban affairs, and established an indefinite lease of Guantanamo Bay.[70]

These policies were acceptable to the Americans because the victory against Spain had effectively redefined US national identity. The war solidified the American idea that they were a righteous people with a righteous obligation to make the world a better and more democratic place.[71] This theme would play out repeatedly, for better or worse, most notably in World War One, World War Two, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and various ongoing interventions.

Philippine-American War[edit]

Moro men hanged by the US military, 1911.
One night late it came to me … that we could not leave them to themselves — they were unfit for self-government — and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain's was; and … that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.
—President McKinley.[72]

The Spanish-American War gave way to a long and bloody counterinsurgency fought by the United States against Filipino nationalists. Two days before ratification of the Treaty of Paris, US forces occupying the Philippines came into conflict with forces loyal to Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo.[73] The war was brought about by the US's decision to annex the Philippines, which was itself brought about by American commercial interests in Asia and a general disbelief in the native Filipinos' ability to self-rule.[73] The Americans were somehow surprised that supporting the Filipino nationalists against the Spanish gave them the idea that the US supported Filipino nationalism.

Conventional battles were over by 1899, but Aguinaldo withdrew into the islands' mountainous interior to fight a prolonged guerrilla war. For all the talk of doing good by the Filipinos, the American commanders and soldiers conducted a brutal and indiscriminately ferocious campaign. American soldiers burned villages, confined civilians to concentration camps, and murdered prisoners.[74] General J.M. Bell, wrote in December 1901 that, "I take so large a command for the purpose of thoroughly searching each ravine, valley and mountain peak for insurgents and for food, expecting to destroy everything I find outside of towns. All able bodied men will be killed or captured. … These people need a thrashing to teach them some good common sense; and they should have it for the good of all concerned."[75] Other atrocities included torture and deliberately starving civilians by burning cropland and destroying farms.[76]

The Filipinos suffered from numerous disadvantages, not even counting the US's military superiority. They struggled against a lack of weapons and supplies, rough terrain, and a complete lack of international support.[73] Aguinaldo's decision to fight a conventional campaign at the outset of the war was likely a fatal mistake, as he lost men and supplies which would have been more effectively utilized had he fought guerrilla-style from the beginning. At the end, Aguinaldo was captured in 1902, and organized Filipino resistance ended in 1906.[77] Moro Muslims fought on and off against the US until about 1913.[78]

When factoring those who died due to the American policy of deliberate starvation, the civilian death toll of the war could be as high as one million.[79]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Spanish-American War quotes
  2. Atwood, Paul (2010). War and Empire. New York: Pluto Press. pp. 98–102. ISBN 978 0 7453 2764 8.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Yellow Journalism PBS
  4. 4.0 4.1 U.S. Diplomacy and Yellow Journalism, 1895–1898 State Department Office of the Historian
  5. Spanish-American War
  6. See the Wikipedia article on Treaty of Paris (1898).
  7. The Philippine-American War, 1899–1902 US State Department Office of the Historian
  8. Historical Dictionary of the Spanish American War By Donald H. Dyal, Brian B. Carpenter, Mark A. Thomas
  9. The Generation of '98 overview Classic Spanish Books
  10. See the Wikipedia article on Cuban War of Independence.
  11. 11.0 11.1 Cuban Independence Movement Britannica
  12. 12.0 12.1 Cuba, War Of Independence
  13. The Bitter Memory of Cuban Sugar History of Cuba
  14. Independence War (1895-1898) Cuba History
  15. February, 1896: Reconcentration Policy PBS
  16. Cuba in 1898 José M. Hernandez. Library of Congress.
  17. Offner, John L. (2004), "McKinley and the Spanish–American War", Presidential Studies Quarterly, 34 (1): 50–61, doi:10.1111/j.1741-5705.2004.00034.x, ISSN 0360-4918
  18. The World of 1898: The Spanish-American War Library of Congress
  19. Louis A. Pérez Jr. (2000). The War of 1898: The United States and Cuba in History and Historiography. p. 24. ISBN 9780807866979.
  20. First Annual Message William McKinley.
  21. Yellow journalism Britannica
  22. Yellow Journalism Michigan State University.
  23. Commercial Interest in the Region Michigan State University.
  24. TWE Remembers: Enrique Dupuy de Lôme James M. Lindsay. Council on Foreign Relations
  25. February 9, 1898: Dupuy de Lôme Letter Scandal PBS
  26. 26.0 26.1 Enrique Dupuy de Lôme "The World of 1898". Library of Congress.
  27. Remember The Maine Smithsonian Magazine
  28. Destruction of the Maine Britannica
  29. February 16 1898: Battleship U.S.S. Maine Explodes PBS
  30. 30.0 30.1 The Spanish-American War: The USS Maine Explosion ThoughtCo
  31. Destruction of the Maine (1898) Louis Fisher. Law Library of Congress.
  32. Fires in the Coal Bunkers the Most Common Cause—Precautions of Other Governments to Prevent Such Disasters Naval History and Heritage Command. Source Note Print: The New York Times, February 18, 1898.
  33. Pratt, Julius W. (May 1934). "American Business and the Spanish–American War". The Hispanic American Historical Review. Duke University Press. 14 (2): 163–201. doi:10.2307/2506353. JSTOR 2506353. p. 163–201
  34. March 17, 1898: Senator Proctor Exposes Spain's Brutality in Cuba PBS
  35. War and Genocide in Cuba, 1895-1898 By John Lawrence Tone.
  36. April 25, 1898: Congress Declares War PBS
  37. See the Wikipedia article on Teller Amendment.
  38. The War of 1898, and U.S. Interventions, 1898-1934: An Encyclopedia By Benjamin R. Beede
  39. Declaration of War with Spain, 1898 (H.R. 10086) United States Senate.
  40. "A Splendid Little War" Harvard Magazine
  41. Koenig, William (1975). Epic Sea Battles. Page 102–119: Peerage Books. ISBN 0-907408-43-5.
  42. Nofi, A.A., 1996, The Spanish–American War, 1898, Pennsylvania: Combined Books, ISBN 0938289578.
  43. Koenig, William (1975). Epic Sea Battles. Page 102–119: Peerage Books. ISBN 0-907408-43-5.
  44. Battle of Manila Bay Britannica
  45. Admiral Dewey and the Battle of Manila Bay, 1898 History Net
  46. Battle of Manila Bay, 1 May 1898 Naval History and Heritage Command
  47. 47.0 47.1 1898: Spanish at Guam Thought the Attacking USS Charleston Fired Salute Shots & Asked For Gunpowder To Return the Gesture War History Online
  48. 48.0 48.1 Spanish-American War: Battle of Santiago de Cuba ThoughtCo
  49. Battle of Santiago de Cuba Britannica
  50. See the Wikipedia article on Puerto Rico Campaign.
  51. July 1, 1898: Victory in San Juan Heights PBS.
  52. May 15, 1898: Theodore Roosevelt resigns as Ass. Sec. of the Navy PBS
  53. 53.0 53.1 53.2 Yellow Fever: Warfare’s Ancient Enemy Decoded Past
  54. 54.0 54.1 The Spanish-American War: Conquering Yellow Fever American Heritage.
  55. Countries scale up mosquito control efforts for Mosquito Awareness Week. Pan American Health Organization.
  56. Innovations To Stop Mosquitoes From Killing 830,000 Humans Every Year. Medium.
  57. Spanish-American War: Death, Taxes, and Incompetence Fee
  58. Russell Alger Miller Center.
  59. Unexpected Consequences – How The Spanish-American War Improved American Food War History Online
  60. 60.0 60.1 Polster, Joshua (October 16, 2015). Stages of Engagement: U.S. Theatre and Performance 1898-1949. Routledge. p. 25. ISBN 9781317358732.
  61. Splendid Little War: Also Known as the Newspaper War
  62. Protocol of Peace Embodying the Terms of a Basis for the Establishment of Peace Between the Two Countries. Archived.
  63. Treaty of Peace Between the United States and Spain; December 10, 1898. Avalon Project. Archived.
  64. Treaty of Paris Britannica
  65. See the Wikipedia article on United States Military Government in Cuba.
  66. Election of 1900: McKinley wins again with Teddy Roosevelt as VP.
  67. Paolo E. Coletta, "Bryan, McKinley, and the Treaty of Paris." Pacific Historical Review (1957): 131-146. in JSTOR.
  68. See the Wikipedia article on 1900 United States presidential election.
  69. United States Occupation and the Platt Amendment Excerpt from Cuba: A Country Study.
  70. See the Wikipedia article on Platt Amendment.
  71. Cuba in the American Imagination: Metaphor and the Imperial Ethos By Louis A. Pérez Jr.
  72. Manifest Destiny, Continued: McKinley Defends U.S. Expansionism.
  73. 73.0 73.1 73.2 The Philippine-American War, 1899–1902 US State Department.
  74. US War Crimes in the Philippines. World Future Fund.
  75. 13) Lichauco and Storey, The Conquest of the Philippines by the United States, 1898-1925, p. 120.
  76. A Primer on America's Forgotten "Nasty Little War": An Interview with Gregg Jones. History News Network
  77. Philippine-American War. Britannica.
  78. See the Wikipedia article on Moro Rebellion.
  79. The Encyclopedia of the Spanish-American and Philippine-American ..., Volume 1. edited by Spencer Tucker.