The issue:Should the United States go to war against Spain in an effort to help Cuba end oppressive Spanish rule? Or are there no compelling reasons for the United States to go to war?
Arguments for going to war: Cuba is suffering under harsh Spanish rule, and the United States is morally obligated to help Cuba shake off its oppressor. Also, the territories that the United States would gain in defeating Spain would benefit the nation, bringing investment opportunities for U.S. business interests, new markets for U.S. goods, and access to valuable resources.
Arguments against going to war: There is no good reason for the United States to become involved in war with Spain over Cuba. The motivations behind the war are expansionist—to acquire Spanish colonial territories once Spain is defeated. Such expansionism violates U.S. neutrality and core democratic principles.
"This country needs a war," future president Theodore Roosevelt (R, 1901-09) wrote to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (Massachusetts) in 1895, prophetically, as it turned out. Although the United States had not been at war since the Civil War ended in 1865, its next war was just three years away. In 1898 a grassroots rebellion in Cubathreatened to end Spanish colonial rule, and the United States, acutely aware of its own stake in the destiny of that island, the largest in the Caribbean, saw no other choice but to intervene with force. The ensuing conflict, called the Spanish-American War, marked a significant turning point in U.S. history. Emerging victorious and stronger than ever, the United States was no longer the neutral, isolated nation it had been since its early days. It was now a top-tier global power.
Fought during the spring and summer of 1898, and on two fronts—the Caribbean and the Pacific—the Spanish-American War was one of the shortest in U.S. history. Some battles, like the decisive naval Battle of Manila Bay, in which the U.S. Navy's Asiatic Squadron decimated Spain's Pacific fleet in the Philippines, were decided in a matter of hours. Moreover, from an American perspective the war was one of the least bloody in history. A total of 385 American servicemen were killed in action (some 2,000 more died from disease). By comparison, the Civil War (1861-65) claimed more than 600,000 American lives.
Yet it was not just for those reasons that President William McKinley's secretary of state, John Hay, dubbed it "a splendid little war." Perhaps most "splendid" of all—at least to some Americans—was the fact that at war's end the United States had gained either partial or complete control over four territories: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.
Though relatively small in area, these territories were strategically valuable. With resource-rich Cuba and Puerto Rico in its possession, the United States now controlled the entire Caribbean Sea. And with Guam and the Philippines, the United States now possessed a string of islands, including Hawaii, that stretched across the vast Pacific, providing a convenient chain of supply stations for naval ships and mercantile vessels traveling to and from east Asia.
Those policy achievements, however, did not please every American. Many people, hailing from organized labor, the literary communit, and religious groups, voiced opposition to the annexation of territory that had resulted from the war. They argued that expansionist policies, tending toward militarism and the unjust subjugation of foreign peoples against their will, violated neutrality and core democratic principles, and endangered the welfare of the nation. Additionally, opponents of expansion argued, those policies led to costly, protracted conflicts abroad which sacrificed vital resources that could be better used in the service of people on the home front. [SeeManifest Destiny]
Leo Barritt/Library of Congress
Opponents also argued that the dangers posed by annexed territories outweighed the benefits. Fearing a potential compromise of what they believed to be their cultural and racial purity, many wondered: What was to stop a territory like the Philippines from becoming a U.S. state? What was to stop native Filipinos or people of other races in far-off lands from becoming U.S. citizens? And what was to stop them from using the privilege of citizenship to swarm the homeland in massive waves of immigration?
Supporters of the war, on the other hand, denied that the United States had entered the war for imperialist conquest. According to them, it was the desire to alleviate the suffering of the Cuban people under oppressive Spanish rule that drew the nation into military conflict. Supporters asserted that Americans were morally bound to spread the ideals of freedom and democracy to the less fortunate, even if that meant going to war.
In addition to humanitarian motives for expanding U.S. territory through war, proponents cited numerous economic benefits. New territories, they argued, meant fresh investment opportunities for U.S. business interests, new markets for U.S. goods, and prized access to valuable material resources not available at home. That in turn, proponents asserted, ensured prosperity and stability on the home front, and constituted a recipe for economic dominance abroad.
An American Empire is Born
On February 24, 1895, Cuban rebels led by the writer and philosopher José Martídeclared war against Spain, which had ruled Cuba for centuries. Previous movements for autonomy had been crushed throughout the 1800s, but by the end of the century the Spanish empire was in steep decline, its ability to control colonial holdings greatly diminished. The rebels' tenacious guerrilla-style tactics seemed to be destined to end with Cuba achieving independence.
Pressure to neutralize the insurgency, General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, the Spanish governor of Cuba, instituted a policy of "Reconcentration," in 1896. Under that policy, thousands of Cuban civilians were herded into camps, cutting off a major source of sympathy and support for the rebels. But, when press reports describing harsh treatment and large-scale suffering in the reconcentration camps were printed in American newspapers, sympathy for the Cuban rebels intensified among the American people.
President William McKinley
Library of Congress
William McKinley, who became president in 1897, was conscious of public sentiment with regard to Cuba, and he was also cognizant of the strategic value of Spain's Caribbean holdings. But rather than press for war—McKinley was a veteran of the Civil War and had seen his share of bloodletting—he entered into negotiations with the newly elected Liberal government of Spain. [See President McKinley's First Inaugural Address (Excerpt) (primary document)]
On the surface, McKinley's diplomacy seemed to pay dividends. Weyler, nicknamed the "Butcher" by the American press, was recalled to Spain in fall 1897, and in January 1898 the Spanish government instituted limited political autonomy in Cuba. Yet despite the apparent easing of harsh policies, the rebels pressed on with their violent revolution, and tensions between the United States and Spain remained high. The following month, two incidents would effectively eliminate the possibility that war could be avoided.
The first incident took place on February 9, when the New York Journal newspaper published the contents of a private letter written by Spanish Ambassador to the U.S. Enrique Dupuy de Lôme. The letter, intended for a friend of de Lôme's in Cuba but seized by rebels and forwarded to members of the U.S. government and press, described McKinley as "weak and catering to the rabble, and, besides, a low politician." Upon publication of the letter, McKinley demanded an apology from Spain. He received one from the chastened Spanish, and de Lôme was recalled from his post. [See De Lôme Letter (primary document)]
The wreckage of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor after an explosion ripped the ship apart.
Library of Congress
The second incident, occurring just six days after the publication of the de Lôme letter, was perhaps the deciding factor that drew the United States into war. On the night of February 15, the U.S. Navy battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor, where it had been sent to protect American life and property. The explosion killed some 260 American servicemen (and six more would die later from injuries sustained in the explosion). Although a Naval Court of Inquiry investigation conducted over the next month could not come up with a cause for the blast, many believed Spain was to blame—if not for the explosion itself, then for failing to prevent it. [See Destruction of the Battleship Maine (sidebar), Battleship Maine Explosion]
The Battle of Manila Bay fought on May 1, 1898.
Library of Congress
Ensuing events quickly led toward war. In late March, the United States demanded that Spain immediately grant Cuba full independence. Spain, hoping that diplomatic intervention by European nations or by Pope Leo XIII would help avert U.S. military intervention, rejected the demand. On April 11, President McKinley asked Congress for the authority to go to war. Congress, in its resolution granting McKinley's request, included the so-called Teller Amendment, which stated that the United States would not annex Cuba. Congress formally declared war on Spain on April 25.
The first battle of the war took place a few days later in the Philippines. On the morning of May 1, Commodore George Dewey and his six-ship Asiatic Squadron entered the waters of Manila Bay, attacking the Spanish naval force stationed there with overwhelming force. The Spanish fleet was decimated in a matter of hours. The United States did not suffer a single fatality in battle.
In the Caribbean, events unfolded more slowly than they had in the Philippines. Although the U.S. Navy had been blockading Cuba since the start of the war, American war planners believed a land invasion, employing perhaps up to 50,000 soldiers, would be necessary to wrest the island from Spanish control. However, mustering such a force was difficult given the state of disarray of non-naval military manpower at the time.
Ultimately it was a force of approximately 17,000 soldiers, not the hoped-for 50,000, that made landfall in Cuba at Daiquirí and Siboney on June 22. Included among that force was the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, better known as the Rough Riders. Its lieutenant colonel, Theodore Roosevelt, had resigned his post as assistant secretary of the Navy to fight in the war.
This painting depicts the bombardment of San Juan on May 12, 1898.
Library of Congress
On July 1, one week after a small skirmish with Spanish units at Las Guásimas, U.S. forces attacked Spanish defensive outposts at El Caney and the San Juan Heights. Although U.S. troops succeeded in capturing the Spanish positions, they suffered numerous casualties, raising the fear that victory would be short-lived unless reinforcements arrived. However, the Spanish will to stand and fight was not strong; on July 3, the Spanish naval fleet attempted to escape Cuba. It was intercepted and completely destroyed by the U.S. Navy in the Battle of Santiago.[See Theodore Roosevelt's Account of the Battles of Kettle and San Juan Hills (Excerpt) (primary document)]
In the days that followed, the United States and Spain participated in talks aimed at the cessation of hostilities. On July 17, those discussions culminated with full Spanish surrender of Cuba. Following the end of the Cuban campaign, priorities shifted to Spain's remaining Caribbean holding, Puerto Rico. The United States invaded the island on July 25, encountering little resistance as enemy forces largely deserted.
On August 12, the United States and Spain signed a peace protocol. Among the terms of the agreement, Spain ceded Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam to the United States. The fate of the Philippines, it was agreed, would be determined at a peace conference in the fall.
President William McKinley (standing, head of table) and others observe French ambassador Pierre Paul Cambon signing the Peace Protocol between the United States and Spain.
Library of Congress
The United States did not forget about the Philippines after the peace protocol was signed. In fact, a day after it was signed, U.S. ground forces took control of Manila, the capital of the Philippines. Though the Filipinos put up little resistance to the arriving Americans, tensions between occupiers and local citizens ran high. Like Cuba, the Philippines (since 1896) had been fighting for independence from Spanish rule. But the Filipino independence movement differed from Cuba's in one important respect: It did not have the explicit endorsement of the United States. In fall 1898, after months of internal deliberation, the United States annexed the Philippines. [See Philippines Annexation]
On December 10, the Treaty of Paris officially ended the Spanish-American War. However, that did not mean an end to conflict in the Spanish colonies now under U.S. control; there was more war to come. [See Treaty of Paris 1898 (primary document)]
The War's Uneasy Legacy
In late 1898, the United States and the Philippines stood at an impasse. The former was determined to exercise sovereignty, while the latter was intent on becoming an independent nation. On February 4, 1899, fighting erupted in Manila between U.S. and Filipino forces, marking the beginning of the Philippine-American War (also referred to by Americans as the Philippine Insurrection).
Compared with the Spanish-American War, this conflict was long, expensive, and bloody. It lasted more than three years (with sporadic fighting continuing until 1906), cost about $600 million, and claimed the lives of 4,300 American soldiers. Additionally, between 15,000 and 20,000 Filipino soldiers were killed, with civilian deaths estimated at between 250,000 and as many as one million. For the next four decades, the Philippines remained under varying degrees of U.S. control. Full independence was achieved in 1946.
Cuba in the aftermath of the Treaty of Paris was decidedly calmer than the Philippines. In 1901, however, many Cubans were angered when Congress passed the Platt Amendment. Inserted into the Cuban constitution in 1902, its provisions limited Cuba's ability to make treaties with other nations and granted the United States authority to "intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty."
Cubans perceived the Platt Amendment as an attempt to dilute their independence. Although the amendment did not lead to armed revolt against the Americans, it was arguably a significant factor in shaping the volatile relationship between the United States and Cuba in the 20th century.
The Case for Going to War
Supporters of the Spanish-American War contended that Spain's gross misrule over Cuba morally compelled the United States to use military force to liberate the Cuban people from Spanish rule. In his congressional request for a declaration of war, President McKinley described the tactics used by Spain to crush the rebels—such as General Weyler's reconcentration camps—as "the exercise of cruel, barbarous and uncivilized practices or warfare" that "shocked the sensibilities and offended humane sympathies" of the American people and aroused them to intervene on the Cubans' behalf.
War advocates who believed humanitarianism was a prime motive for war cited the Teller Amendment as proof that the government had only benevolent intentions for Cuba. Inserted into the congressional authorization for war in April 1898, it stated with respect to Cuba that the United States "hereby disclaims any disposition of intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over said island except for pacification thereof, and asserts its determination, when that is accomplished, to leave the government and control of the island to its people." Supporters of the war claimed that the amendment was essentially a codified promise to the Cubans: Once Cuba had become free and stable, the United States would cease intervening in its affairs.
For some war supporters, the obligation to free the Cuban people from their Spanish colonial administrators was derived from something more than humanitarian concern. American civilization, they argued, with its free institutions and noble democratic ideals, was the most advanced form of civilization, and it was a sort of divine mission of Americans to spread their form of civilization to the rest of the world.
In academic, religious, and philosophical circles, that belief in the supremacy of American civilization took numerous forms, one of the most popular of which was a theory called Social Darwinism. Applying the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin to human social relations, Social Darwinists saw humans engaging in a ferocious contest for survival. Societies like Cuba and the Philippines, Social Darwinists believed, were less advanced than the United States and not as fit for survival. The United States, therefore, had an obligation to intervene on their behalf, they asserted, to help protect their interests and lift their civilization to a higher level.
Many other war supporters justified intervention on economic and strategic grounds. These war advocates were called expansionists or imperialists, and believed that the success of the nation depended on its ability to exert influence beyond its own borders. "Small states are of the past and have no future," Senator Henry Cabot Lodge wrote in 1895. "The great nations are rapidly absorbing for their future expansion and their present defense all the waste places of the earth. It is a movement which makes for civilization and the advancement of the race. As one of the great nations of the world, the U.S. must not fall out of the line of march."
Expansionists were greatly influenced by the naval historian Alfred Mahan, whose book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, published in 1890, argued that a nation with a strong navy and a policy of outward territorial expansion would be a prosperous global power. Applying Mahan's views to circumstances in the Caribbean in 1895, expansionists asserted that a war with Spain would advance U.S. economic interests in the region. The United States had about $50 million in commercial investments in Cuba, they noted, much of it in the island's lucrative sugar industry; trade between Cuba and the United States totaled about $100 million. If the Spanish were removed from the picture, expansionists reasoned, no doubt those numbers would increase, bringing prosperity to Cuba and increasing it in the United States.
In his "War Message" asking Congress to declare war in April 1898, McKinley noted the economic impact. "The right to intervene may be justified by the very serious injury to the commerce, trade, and business of our people, and by the wanton destruction of property and devastation of the island," he stated. Expansionists added that if the United States did not intervene to reap those economic benefits, some other nation, perhaps Great Britain or France, would step in and do so, potentially compromising American security. [See President McKinley's 1898 War Message (Excerpts) (primary document)]
Expansionists also claimed that ridding the Caribbean region of Spanish control would facilitate U.S. plans to build a canal across Central America connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The canal would provide dramatically quicker oceanic passage for U.S. mercantile ships and naval vessels, they asserted, speeding up trade and broadening the reach of the military. This, they concluded, would be a tremendous strategic advantage for U.S. interests.
Looking toward the Pacific Ocean, Mahan-inspired expansionists reasoned that war would allow the United States to acquire a string of island territories stretching across the ocean that could function as supply stations for mercantile vessels and as naval bases for the U.S. military. Such territorial acquisitions would make it easier for the United States to penetrate Asian trade markets, they contended, increasing the flow of goods to and from the United States, and would also make it easier for the U.S. military to respond rapidly to emerging conflicts.
Lastly, expansionists argued that going to war and reaping its territorial and economic benefits abroad would result in increased stability on the home front. Since the end of the Civil War in 1865, economic instability had been a recurring problem. Industrial labor strife, currency issues, and a stagnant economy reached crisis proportions in the 1890s, when the United States fell into an economic depression.
Expansionists reasoned that new foreign markets for American goods, combined with the increased industrial production required to build a military force capable of carrying out expansionist policy, would increase prosperity at home and quell disorder among the general population. "War with Spain, " Senator John Thurston (R, Nebraska) stated, "would increase the business and earnings of every American railroad, it would increase the output of every American factory, it would stimulate every branch of industry and domestic commerce."
The Case Against Going to War
In the days leading up to the Spanish-American War, opposition to the seemingly inevitable military showdown was framed in basic moral terms. While professing sympathy for Cuban suffering under Spanish rule, war opponents believed that armed conflict would only worsen the situation. Following the sinking of the Maine in February 1898, Bolton Hall, treasurer of the American Longshore Union, wrote a "A Peace Appeal to Labor," in which he warned that war would "at once add sufferings to those already incurred" and would "fill Spain and also America with mourning." The problem was not Spain, antiwar activists argued, but rather war itself. As influential author and Harvard Professor Charles Eliot Norton declared in a speech he delivered a few weeks after the conflict began, war "is evil in itself, it is evil in its never-ending train of consequences."
Besides arguing against war on moral grounds, some antiwar activists objected to military intervention on the grounds that it violated America's neutrality, a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy since its early days. Opponents of war reasoned that a policy shift away from neutrality would be harmful to commerce and to the security of the nation. They recited the famous words of President George Washington (Federalist, 1789-97), who in his "Farewell Address" of 1796 cautioned against "interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe" for it would "entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, humor or caprice."
Opponents of war also believed that diplomacy offered the best solution to the problems facing the Cuban people under Spanish rule. They argued that the United States had not exhausted every available diplomatic means to stem the crisis. As an example of a missed diplomatic opportunity, they cited the U.S. refusal to allow an independent party to conduct an investigation into the sinking of the Maine. The naval Court of Inquiry's theory that a submarine mine sank the ship may have been valid, war opponents conceded, but it did not matter because the world perceived the inquiry as inherently biased. Had an impartial third party conducted an investigation, tensions between the United States and Spain would have been better controlled, they contended, and war would have been far less likely.
When armed hostilities between the United States and Spain finally commenced in spring 1898, the war debate did not cease. In fact it intensified. Many Americans, including some who had supported the war initially, grew uncomfortable with the prospect of the United States annexing new territories and becoming a sort of empire. Those anti-imperialists, as they came to be known, believed that expansionism was inconsistent with American democratic ideals because it tended toward militarism, wasted resources, and the subjugation of people in foreign lands.
One of those who initially supported the war but later changed his position was the writer Mark Twain. In 1900, he wrote an article explaining why he had come to be anti-imperialistic. "I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines," he wrote. "We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land." [See Mark Twain Opposes Imperialism (primary document)]
For anti-imperialists, there was perhaps no more dramatic illustration of the dangers of expansionism than the Philippine-American War. In deciding to annex the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, anti-imperialists argued, the United States grossly underestimated the desire of Filipinos to be completely free from any foreign interference. While many Filipinos perhaps welcomed U.S. intervention to end Spanish rule, they did not wish to be governed by the Americans.
The result of that policy miscalculation was the Philippine-American War, a long, brutal and expensive conflict that claimed the lives of thousands of Americas and hundreds of thousands of Filipinos. Anti-imperialists recalled the remark by President Abraham Lincoln (R, 1861-65) warning against imperialism: "No man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent. When the white man governs himself, that is self-government, but when he governs himself and also governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism."
With regard to Cuba, although the United States did not formally annex it after the war ended, anti-imperialists nevertheless criticized what they felt was the United States's unjust expansionist policy on the island. As evidence that the United States was actively undermining Cuban independence, anti-imperialists cited the Platt Amendment of 1901, which restricted Cuba's treaty-making and debt-assumption powers and reserved the right of U.S. intervention to maintain stability. Amounting to a retraction of the 1848 Teller Amendment's promise not to annex Cuba, anti-imperialists contended, the Platt Amendment exposed the hypocrisy of those who cited humanitarianism as a reason for war.
Turning to the home front, anti-imperialists disputed the contention of war supporters that expansionism increased domestic prosperity. In fact, they feared that war with Spain would significantly harm the economy. "If war comes, it will open a veritable Pandora's box of ills," warned Senator George Wellington (R, Maryland). "Our foreign commerce will be paralysed, our trade crippled, industries come to a standstill, the arm of labour will be lamed, taxes will increase, values become unsettled, the currency deranged, and the public debt augmented."
Anti-imperialists further argued that only a small minority of powerful policy-makers and their allies in the business community reaped the benefits of expansion. Meanwhile, they contended, the general population shouldered the heavy tax and manpower burden required to carry out expansionist policies. Former (and future) Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan summed up the domestic consequences of expansionism in an 1899 speech:
While the American people are endeavoring to extend an unsolicited sovereignty over remote peoples, foreign financiers will be able to complete the conquest of our own country. Labor's protest against the black-list and government by injunction, and its plea for arbitration, shorter hours and a fair share of the wealth which it creates, will be drowned in noisy disputes over new boundary lines and in the clash of conflicting authority.
Lastly, anti-imperialists asserted that foreign territories annexed by the United States would ultimately become states in the union, and their inhabitants U.S. citizens, sparking an influx of immigration that would taint the racial and cultural purity of the nation. Never before in the nation's history, anti-imperialists noted, had the United States annexed a territory that did not eventually become a state. Why would Cuba or the Philippines be any different, they asked.
Although that view may sound xenophobic and racist to modern ears, it was not uncommon to hear it expressed by prominent figures of the era. For example, president of the American Federation of Labor Samuel Gompers remarked in an 1898 speech:
If the Philippines are annexed what is to prevent the Chinese, the Negritos and the Malays coming to our country? How can we prevent the Chinese coolies from going to the Philippines and from there swarm into the U.S. and engulf our people and our civilization? If those new islands are to become ours, it will be either under the form of Territories or States. Can we hope to close the flood-gates of immigration from the hordes of Chinese and the semi-savage races coming from what will then be part of our own country?
The Spanish-American War and the Path to Global Supremacy
With its relatively easy victory in the Spanish-American War of 1898, the United States emerged from its isolationist shell and forged ahead into the 20th century possessing the ambition—and the means—to become a decisive force in international affairs for the next hundred years and beyond.
Primary credit for that transformation of national purpose is attributed to the expansionists and their notions of U.S. moral superiority combined with concrete policy initiatives designed to expand the nation's economic and strategic influence across the globe. The expansionists' ideas and policy initiatives paved the way for U.S. entry into the Spanish-American War and a number of other high-profile foreign interventions thereafter. It is hardly an exaggeration to state that the impact of expansionism is still felt today, particularly in contemporary debates regarding the legitimacy of high military spending and the right to wage war on humanitarian grounds.
However, for all of its alleged successes, expansionism was not without its vocal critics. The anti-imperialist movement was a potent political force starting in 1898 thanks in no small part to its passionate opposition to U.S. involvement in the Philippines and Cuba after the Spanish-American War. Although the movement largely disintegrated in the early 20th century, its legacy arguably lives on, albeit in changed form, in contemporary peace and justice organizations.
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