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The Spanish-American War Essay

Tp what extent was the Spanish-American War a turning point in the development of American foreign policy?

The Spanish-American War of 1898 could be seen as the pivotal point in foreign policy as it marks America’s first engagement with a foreign enemy in the dawning age of modern warfare however, one could also argue that the idea had always existed in American politics.

Until the end of the nineteenth century, American foreign policy essentially followed the guidelines laid down by George Washington, in his Farewell Address to the American people: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is—in extending our commercial relations—to have with them as little political connection as possible.” By avoiding entanglements with foreign powers, America aimed to minimize the possibility of being dragged into war hence, war was to be undertaken only in defense of the nation against attack.

However, the Spanish-American war saw Americans fighting to gain colonies elsewhere, with no relation to self defence. Though going to war with the Spanish was defended as non-imperialistic, shown by the promises of independence for Cuba and the Philippines, the American victory resulted in territorial gains and a inflated sense of power. A much more active and aggressive foreign policy was evident after the Spanish-American War, it had transformed from being focused primarily on isolated nationalism to expansionistic imperialism.

The Spanish-American war resulted in numerous territorial gains, the Paris Treaty handed over Caribbean areas such as Puerto Rico and Guam to America which led to a series of land acquisitions as it expanded in what seemed like direct colonization. The war had begun with paternal feelings of supporting a fellow nation trying to win its freedom, however, the pro-Cuban hysteria masked America’s real intention which was to take over the island. Although Cuba was recognized as independent, American troops remained on the island for another four years and an American “governor” was put in charge. This showed America extending it’s political influence like never before and this was further emphasized through the Platt Amendment 1901 which gave the US right to intervene to maintain the independence and stability of Cuba. What impaired their independence was ultimately up to America and this gave the power to control Cuban affairs.

Another victory through the Treaty of Paris was the possession of the Philippines. Though the Filipino independence leader Emilio Aguinaldo had aided in the defeat of Spain in 1898, USA refused independence to the Islands and a vicious three year war ensued. A civil government was created after the capture of Aguinaldo under William Taft and this showed a drastic change in American foreign policy.

They could no longer justify interference with the excuse of the islands being within its sphere of influence but McKinley argued that America had the role to “uplift and civilize and christianize [Filipinos] as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.” McKinley was either unaware or simply chose not to inform the people that, except for some Muslim tribesmen in the south, the Filipinos were Roman Catholics, and, therefore, already Christians. In reality, the annexation of the Philippines was the centerpiece of the “large policy” pushed by the imperialist cabal to enlist the United States in the ranks of the great powers.

The Spanish-American war gave the push that the American government needed to make a final decision over Hawaii. The Hawaiin Islands were known as the “crossroads of the Pacific”, tracing routes from USA to Japan, Australia and Philippines. The treaties of 1857 and 1887 allowed cheap duty-free sugar into the USA but in return, Hawaii was requited to accept both American economic domination and political protection. In 1890, when a rebellion began under Queen Liliuokalani, the marines were sent to force a surrender.

This perhaps can be seen as an early display of America’s expansionist foreign policy, however, the annexation of Hawaii was opposed by many in government who feared that America would become an imperial power like the Europeans. It can be argued that the war with Spain in Cuba strengthened the arguments for annexation as America gained an inflated sense of confidence from victory and officially took up their role as a “global power”. Hawaii was annexed in July 1898, after the Spanish-American war had ended.

The result of the Spanish-American War was that USA became a Carribean power with it’s temporary acquisition of Cuba and this brought about long discussed plans for a canal through the Isthmus of Panama. The USA gained a 10 mile wide strip of the canal and was granted full control. With increasing territorial gains such as Cuba and Panama, USA’s interest in Latin American affairs was evident. Roosevelt felt that US had the right to intervene in order to maintain stability in the area and this was evident through the Roosevelt Corollary where he stated that the US had the right to intervene in the affairs of other countries on the continent in cases of “chronic wrongdoing or impotence”. Americans decided what was deemed a “wrongdoing” and it was used to justify their taking over finances of Dominican Reupublic in 1905 when it defaulted its debt and the intervention in Nicaragua in 1915.

America was now moving even further away from an isonlationist power, delclaring to the world that the Western Hemisphere was its sphere of influence. However, its growth in influence differs to simple European empire building. It is undeniable that the US was interfering in internal affairs of sovereign nations for its own ends, however, Roosevelt felt it was a necessary evil as the European powers would seize the chance themselves to expand if some level of instability occurred in Latin America. Although US marines remained in territories such as Nicaragua and Dominican Republic for decades, the American government chose to withdraw them; unlike the European powers, they did not need to fight a bloody war to grant their territories independence. Roosevelt had perhaps preserved Latin American independence from Europe and ultimately, American involvement improved stability for the future.

America began to meddle in world affairs or in the words of an imperialist, assume its “global responsibilities” in ways the founding fathers had previously avoided. Troops were dispatched to China to join those of the other powers in putting down the Boxer Rebellion of Chinese patriots; the Great White fleet was sailed around the world to declare America’s power and presence to the world; and the government became a promoter of overseas investment with external investment increasing seven-fold. More and more, the American wealth machine had changed it’s attitudes to the outside world.

The Spanish-American War launched the United States on the path of a modern non-aristocratic empire founded on state power but oriented towards commercial and economical gain. By expanding the horizons of U.S. foreign policy in the pursuit of export markets through formal empire (Philippines) and informal empire (Latin America, Cuba, China), the Spanish-American War was a turning point. Sumner remarked in 1900 that “the political history of the United States for the next 50 years will date from the Spanish war of 1898’ and this can be seen through America’s successive entangling foreign commitments eventually leading to the involvement in the First World War.


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