In the 1890’s the United States became more aggressive and expansionistic than it had been for the past few decades. There was apparently a hunger for foreign conquest. The conflict with Spain derived mainly from the American desire to help the beleaguered Cubans with their independence from Spain. Americans wanted the war, which could well have been avoided, but they had little understanding of what the reults of the war would be. I believe American entry into the Spanish-American war was not justified.
In September, 1895, came the event which changed the course of the Cuban rebellion against Spain. William Randolph Hearst, a young man of 32 who had been operating the San Fransisco Examiner, purchased the New York Morning Journal, and immediately locked with Joseph Pulitzer and the World in a circulation war that was to make newspaper history. Hearst capitalized on the fact that the American people had only the most romantic notions of the nature of the Cuban conflict. American newsmen were filing reports describing the war in terms of nonexistent pitched battles between the liberty-loving Cubans and the cruel Spaniards. The war was presented as a conflict between the forces of freedom and the forces of tyranny, and the American people ate it up.
The newspapers had influence but they represented no more than a minority of the press of the country. In the South and the Middle West, where the anti-Spanish feeling became most intense, the representative newspaper was much more conservative. The yellow press played a tremendous part in stirring up sentiment for intervention in Cuba, but these feelings could not be carried into action unless American political leaders of both parties were willing to assume the responsibility of war.
The threat to peace came from the South and West, the strongholds of Democracy and free silver. Bryanite leaders were convinced that such a strain on the currency system would be created by a war that it would cause the opposition to free silver to collapse. Since the opposition to war was strongest in Wall Street, they found it easy to believe that Administration policy was the product of a conspiracy of bankers who would deny silver to the American people. Bryan, spokesman for rural Protestantism was speaking in terms of a righteous war against Spain to free the Cubans from bondage. These forces were too powerful for McKinley to ignore. He desired peace but he was a Republican partisan and had no intention of handing the Democrats in 1900 the campaign cry of Free Cuba and Free Silver.
In July, McKinley formulated a policy which he set down in a letter of instructions to our new American minister to Spain, General Stewart L. Woodford. The letter emphasized the need to bring the Cuban war to an end and said that it could be done to the mutual advantage of both Spain and Cuba by granting some kind of autonomy to Cuba. The United States threatened to intervene if Spain did not make an offer to the rebels.
On January 12, 1898 an incident occurred which made war seem virtually inevitable. A riot broke out in Havana, and Spanish officers attacked newspaper offices. If the United States sent a naval vessel it might be buying trouble with Spain, but if they didn’t and a riot broke out and Americans were killed, the Administration would be stoned for not having a ship there to protect them. After several days McKinley sent the Maine to Havana on a courtesy visit to show that American ships could visit the island without danger to citizens.
At 9:40 pm of February 15, 1898 the Maine was blown up by an explosion of unknown origin. 260 out of the 350 officers and men were killed. Theodore Roosevelt commented that, ” The Maine was sunk by an act of dirty treachery on the part of the Spaniards,” and,”[he] would give anything if President McKinley would order the fleet to Havana tomorrow.” Even though there was no one to enlist them, volunteers lined up for war service. The Journal reported: “The Whole Country Thrills With War Fever.”
The cause of the explosion has never been finally established. It is inconcievable that Spain deliberately decided to blow up the Maine, but it is possible that it might have been the work of unauthorized Spanish extremists.
On March 9 Congress unanimously voted $50,000,000 for war preparations. Yet as the days went by there was no war. People were skeptical of Hearst’s stories of conditions on the island. Senator Redfield Proctor decided to do his own investigation. After visiting Cuba he declared that he had gone there skeptical of reports of suffering there but had come back convinced.
The question of peace or war now lay with McKinley. Following Proctor’s speech,crying out for war McKinley was still holding out. Roosevelt said that McKinley “[had] no more backbone then a chocolate eclair.”
On March 28, McKinley released the opinion of the naval court of inquiry on the Maine disaster which was that it had been destroyed by the explosion of a submarine mine. The conclusion was that if Spain had not intentionally done it they failed to provide proper protection to the friendly vessel in its waters.
Afraid of the consequences that war would bring, McKinley embarked on a policy of attempting to regain the fruits of war without fighting. Woodford demanded that Spain agree to an immediate armistice, revoke the reconcentrationorder, and co-operate with the United States to provide relief. Spain was given 48 hours to reply. Spain replied that they would yield everythin we demanded, except that it would not concede defeat. The appeal for a truce would have to come from the rebels. Since the rebels were confident of American intervention they would not make such an appeal.
On April 9, Madrid surrendered. The Spanish foreign minister informed Woodford that the government had decided to grant an armistice in Cuba immediately. When Woodford cabled McKinley, it was too late. The President had decided on war. Spain had waited too long to concede everything. Spanish officials feared that if they yielded to American demands in Cuba, it might mean the overturn of the dynasty. They preferred a disastrous war to that.
McKinley declared on April 11 that “the forcible intervention of the United States as a neutral to stop the war, according to the large dictates of humanity and following many historical precedents” was “justifiable on rational grounds.”Buried in two paragraphs of a long plea for war was the fact that Spain had met everything we had asked for.
The United States recognized the independence of Cuba and asserted that we would not acquire it for ourselves. We issued Spain an ultimatum to withdraw within three days. On April 20 President McKinley signed the resolution, but it wasn’t until four days later that Congress declared war.
The needless war could be blamed on Hearst but no newspaper can arouse people that are not willing to be aroused. At root lay the American gullibility about foreign affairs. Equally important were the contempt of the American people for Spain as a cruel but weak Latin nation and the desire for war and expension which permeated the decade. The American people were not led into war, they got the war they wanted. Senator J.C. Spooner observed that “possibly the President could have worked out the business without the war..”
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