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The Spanish-American War

By the close of the nineteenth century, the United States stretched across the continent, and the Nation began to expand its power abroad. The United States first found itself with the chance to dominate faraway lands. That prospect thrilled some Americans. It horrified others. The country’s best-known political and intellectual leaders took sides. Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and William Randolph Hearst pushed for imperial expansion; Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, and Andrew Carnegie preached restraint. Only once before?in the period when the United States was founded?have so many brilliant Americans so eloquently debated a question so fraught with meaning for all humanity.

Beginning in the 1880s, the United States had begun to assert its naval power by building a fleet of battleships intended to control the world's shipping lanes and hold other nations at bay. Under the prodding of naval officers, such as Alfred Thayer Mahan, and civilians such as Teddy Roosevelt, America began to build a modern steel navy and establish naval stations both at home and around the world. At this time, Spain's possessions included Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Atlantic Ocean, and the Philippines and Guam in the Pacific Ocean.

Spain was fighting a losing battle against independence movements in Cuba and the Phillipines, and by the last years of the 19th Century was on the verge of losing grip of its overseas empire. Absent American seizure of these possesions, there was every chance that Japan could have picked up the Phillipines, while Germany was eager for new possessions in the New World, having lost the Scramble for Africa.

There was considerable anti-American venom to the comments which Continental journals published with regard to Spanish-American affairs. The Paris Temps predicted that a war would have "grave international consequences" to the United States and might even "produce a revolution and lead to the development of Cesarism, an evil which gnaws the vitals of every democracy." The Journal des Debats spoke of American intervention in Cuba as "an act of international piracy, without a shadow of justice about it." The Libre Parole in a vituperative article made clear the fact that Great Britain's attitude was thoroughly well understood upon the Continent. It said : "Great Britain is the hypocritical partner of the United States. Their alliance against Spain is a disgrace; but it is just as well to have them work together now, since together they will have to render an account to international justice. The time is coming when Europe will no longer tolerate such miscreants and assassins as John Bull and Brother Jonathan." In Austria the comments of the press were equally unfavourable. The Fremdenblatt of Vienna declared that a war with Spain would be "criminal," and asserted that only an infinitesimal minority of the Cubans favoured annexation to the United States.

But it was in Germany that anti-Americanism took on its most offensive form. Thus the Berlin Echo remarked : "A great deal of noise is made about the $50.000,000 voted for warlike preparations; but this means very little, since the armament of the United States was at zero. Moreover, one cannot tell how much of this money will stick in dirty hands. In short, European opinion generally supports the view that the American people yell loudest for war and are least prepared, while the Spaniards are more anxious for peace, but are better armed." Prince Bismarck's organ, the Hamburger Nachrichten, compared the behaviour of the Americans to that of an incendiary "who pretends to help extinguish the flames in order to hide his own guilt." "This notoriously disreputable Republic has the assurance to pose as a censor of the morals of European monarchies." Die Nation of Berlin said that if war came, it would be due to "the low politicians of democracy." General Bronsart von Schellendorf, formerly Prussian Minister of War, was quoted as saying that in German military circles the fighting capacity of the American army was not rated highly, and that the American navy was not sufficiently powerful to destroy the Spanish fleet.

A widely read Dutch paper, the Nieuu's van den Dag of Amsterdam, which got its inspiration from Paris and Berlin, was particularly bitter. Spain, it said, has proved itself a nation of men capable of any sacrifice in behalf of their national honor. "The corruption of the Spanish officials will have to become a great deal worse before it can rival in rottenness the administration of Tammany-ridden New York or of Porkopolis.... The meanest thing of all is that the Americans try to avoid the responsibility of declaring war, and seek to insult Spain so grossly that the proud Spaniard loses patience. But there is danger for the rich pork-butchers of Chicago and the corrupt debauchees of New York, who speculate à la baisse in war."

The Continental press teemed with the grossest caricatures, in which Americans were drawn as swine. It was declared again and again that the navy of the United States was utterly devoid of discipline and training and that the army would he put to flight by the Spanish regulars.

In England both press and people were heartily in sympathy with the United States. One conspicuous exception was found, and this was in the Saturday Review of London, which maintained to the full its old traditions of hostility to everything American. It described the United States as "socially sordid to the last degree," and as having "contributed nothing to the self-respect of humanity. On the contrary, it has shown all the world to what a depth of public depravity civilisation is capable of descending. ... America is not ready for war ; the authorities at Washington know how much all this pot-valiant bragging is worth." Then it proceeded to forecast the result of a war between the United States and Spain. It described the American seamen as "the sweeping of the quays of New York and New Orleans - men who deserted their own ships, attracted by the high pay and easy life of the American marine, to whom in most cases fighting is the last thing thought of. ... The Spaniards, on the other hand, are still capable of sublime heroism and daring on the high seas... "

"The splendid little war," was how American ambassador to Great Britain John Milton Hay described the 1898 conflict in the Caribbean. The 113-day Spanish-American War was certainly little by most measures of that era, when wars dragged on because conventional weapons could not quickly cripple an army or a country. But it was hardly splendid. Typhoid, malaria and yellow fever brought down 10 times as many American soldiers as did enemy bullets in Cuba. The food was rotten or poorly cooked, the wool uniforms were too hot for the tropics, the weapons were second rate, and the supply and transport systems were a joke. It was even less splendid for America's Eighth Army Corps that, after the peace treaty was signed Dec. 10, 1898, slugged it out with tropical diseases and machete-armed insurgents for another two and a half years in the Philippine jungles.

The Treaty of Paris was signed on December 10, 1898. Among its conditions was the cession of the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the United States (Cuba was granted its independence); in return, the United States would pay Spain the sum of US$20 million. The nature of this payment is rather difficult to define; it was paid neither to purchase Spanish territories nor as a war indemnity. In the words of historian Leon Wolff, "it was . . . a gift. Spain accepted it. Quite irrelevantly she handed us the Philippines. No question of honor or conquest was involved. The Filipino people had nothing to say about it, although their rebellion was thrown in (so to speak) free of charge."

After the truce was signed, many regiments remained in Cuba and Puerto Rico to preserve the peace. As each regiment completed its tour of duty, the soldiers were transported back to the United States, quarantined and inspected to prevent the spread of tropical diseases.

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Page last modified: 20-03-2017 16:02:29 ZULU