In the late 19th century the United States began to dramatically reshape their foreign policies, and they soon found themselves in a bloody war that would shape the future of the country for years to come. When the United States was first created George Washington recommended limited foreign involvement, this all changed in 1823 with the Monroe Doctrine. This document set out the entire western hemisphere as the United States sphere of influence. However, at the time the Unites States did not have the power or the navy to back up this demand, until the late 1880’s when support for imperialism began to take off.
People began to support imperialism because all other great powers had empires, strategic objectives became important, expanding the foreign market would support the economy, and social Darwinism was applied to nations, which meant that only the countries with the greatest wealth and largest empires would survive. As the 19th century came to a close, the United States saw an opportunity to put the Monroe Doctrine and a new sense of imperialism into action. At the time, Cuba was under going serious change, and was in the middle of a civil war with Spain.
In 1895 a war escalated in Cuba to the point that 500, 000 Cubans were put into camps because of the reconcentracion policy.1 This policy had disastrous consequences causing nearly 200, 000 people in the camps to die because of the lack of proper food, sanitary conditions, and medical care.2 The policy generated severe anti-Spanish sentiment in the United States. As anger continued to rise among the American people, short-tempers eventually shattered into a gruesome war. The United States’ own President McKinley said that he “had no desire to go to war with Spain”, thus one must ask what were the overwhelming factors that pushed the American nation into another war?3
Historians have suggested numerous reasons for the United States to enter into war. Many authors, such as Ivan Musicant4 and Frank Friedel5, believe the Yellow Press and their extraordinary stories pushed the American public to their limits, forcing the McKinley administration to finally intervene in Cuba. However, writers such as Wayne Morgan suggested that the United States pursued a peaceful policy toward Cuba, attempting to force Spain to reform the island, but the Spanish failure to do so provoked American intervention.6
The overwhelming causes of the Spanish-American War can be attributed to a combination of five factors listed in order of importance. The Yellow Press, American economic interests, McKinley’s political agenda, and the sinking of the Maine. With these four factors in mind, the American motives for war will be accurately examined.
When the American people saw an opportunity to make money by investing in Cuba’s sugar plantations, they immediately took advantage of the opportunity. However, once they saw their economic interests were endangered by the civil war in Cuba, American people wanted to protect their valuable investments. One of the main reasons Cuban Nationalists revolted against Spain was because they thought the U.S. would likely come to their aid. They had good reason to think this because at the time the United States was investing increasing amounts of money into Cuban sugar production, $50 million by 1895 and conducted trade with Cuba worth $100 million annually. The United States also had a strangle hold on the Cuban economy with 87% of all Cuban exports going to the United States in 1890.7 This newly found American-Cuban relationship also had its negative sides; it brought with it an increasing concentration on sugar production.
As the Cuban revolution continued, more and more sugar plantations were being destroyed, disrupting trade, and seriously hurting the American investments. Not only would Americans be able to protect these investments if they went to war, but they would be able to acquire other Spanish colonies, for example the Philippines, and expand their foreign market. As Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge said, “Free Cuba would mean a great market for the United States; it would mean an opportunity for American capital; it would mean an opportunity for development of that splendid island.”8 Freeing the rebellious nation would not only protect the withstanding American investments, but would also allow Americans to spread their influence around the Caribbean nations and capture the foreign market. America’s future as an industrial power depended on foreign markets for American products.
One of the major causes of the Spanish-American War was the American public opinion, which was extremely negative towards the Spaniards. The articles written by the Yellow Press drastically swayed this public opinion. The Yellow Press was a newspaper war in New York City between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. These writers sensationalized the news and often exaggerated the truth and provoked a demand for intervention in Cuba. The American public used these newspapers as their information center for all events that were occurring in Cuba. Hearst and Pulitzer were able to greatly benefit from influencing Americans, increasing their readership from
400, 000 in 1897, to over 1 million readers during the Spanish-American War in 1898.9 Whatever Hearst or Pulitzer had to say was accepted by Americans without thought to the information’s validity. A good example of the Hearst’s Journal exaggerating the truth is an article on the Spanish General Weyler, “There is nothing to prevent his carnal animal brain from running riot with itself in inventing tortures and infamies of blood debauchery”.10 Biased information like this would be handed to the American public day after day, forcing the people to believe that the situation in Cuba required intervention. On February 8, 1898, Hearst once again added fuel to the fire with the publishing of the de Lï¿½me letter.
The Spanish Ambassador wrote the letter, which was published in the Journal, to a friend, in which the diplomat called U.S. President William McKinley “… a weak man and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd…besides being a common politician…”.11 The letter enraged the American and drove them “to a new level of hysteria”.12 Although the letter did not have major economical or political impact, besides on McKinley’s ego, the social implications were enormous.
Hearst and Pulitzer were not the only people who wrote about the conditions in Cuba, there was also E.L. Godkin who was the editor of the weekly Nation. Godkin frequently spoke out against Hearst and Pulitzer accusing them of gross misrepresentation, deliberate invention and unnecessary recklessness. He said “They were firebrands, tossed into the American crowd in an attempt to ignite a war.”13 No matter how much Godkin spoke out against Hearst and Pulitzer, they continued to dominate the American public with their embellished stories and pro war slants. The American public’s humanitarian concerns came into play after reading these articles. They soon believed how terrible the Cuban conditions were and began to plead the government to take aggressive steps towards Cuban independence.
When the U.S. naval ship, the Maine, exploded in Havana Harbor, the American people, and their government were confused about what had happened and who had done it. Many fingers began to point at Spain, but even if Spain had not committed the crime, the suspicion alone by the American people was enough to push the war envelope a bit further. One of the final peaceful solutions to the problems in Cuba, presented by McKinley, was autonomy. This granted the country the right of self-government, however, a large portion of the Cuban population opposed autonomy and soon riots broke out. The battleship Maine simply arrived in Havana for a “friendly visit” on January 25, 1898 in response to pro-Spanish mobs.14 Suddenly, on the evening of February 15, 1898, at 9:45 PM, the Maine blew up, killing 268 of the crew.15 The explosion was an enormous blow not only to the American people, but to the Spanish and Cuban people as well. Immediately Madrid authorities as well as McKinley wanted to know what had happened and began thorough investigations.
On March 21 the U.S. court determined there were two explosions: the first was of a mine under the keel of the Maine, and the second touched off by the initial blast.16 The court however did not fix responsibility for planting the mine. The Spanish board of inquiry, however, had a contrary conclusion, which said that the blast had been sparked by spontaneous combustion of coal.17 The American people were not told about the contrary deductions, but instead were heavily influenced by the Yellow Press who placed the fault of the incident solely on the Spaniards. The public was up in flames and was in agreement that the U.S. would get their revenge on Spain for taking American lives. The Maine explosion, combined with the anti-autonomy riots in Havana effectively changed the American public’s demands from Cuban autonomy to complete independence, which could only be achieved through war.
When McKinley was inaugurated as president in 1896 his main political goals were to improve the United States economy and avoid war at all costs. However, McKinley found himself in a tough situation weighing peace against winning the upcoming 1900 election and the strategic benefits of acquiring Cuba. As McKinley was well aware of, the Yellow Press had misconstrued the situation in Cuba, causing the majority of the American population to become eager for war. If McKinley expected to win the upcoming election, he would have to give in to the people’s demands. McKinley also saw the beneficial strategic implications if the U.S. were to acquire Cuba and the Philippines through war. The United States would gain massive sea power by setting up naval bases, and Cuba would be the key to the future security of a U.S. canal in the Caribbean. With this political agenda in McKinley’s mind, he came up with two peaceful courses of action before he would have to declare war.
McKinley’s first course of action was a proposal to buy Cuba for $30 million, but Spain quickly rejected this offer.18 Next, on March 29, 1898, Ambassador Stewart Woodford presented the final United States proposal on Cuba, requiring Spain to abandon the reconcentracion policy, proclaim an immediate armistice, and finally accede to Cuba’s independence.19 The Spanish government offered to withdraw the reconcentracion policy and to grant a cease-fire at the insurgents’ request, but refused to grant Cuba its independence.20 The American people were furious with the news, but McKinley, following through with his ultimatum asking Congress, on April 11, 1898, for permission to intervene directly in Cuba. The request was passed once the Teller Amendment, an agreement made disclaiming any intention of annexing Cuba, was adopted.21 The United States had finally entered a war that McKinley had feared, while the American people had been pushing for it all along.
There were many factors that created the atmosphere necessary for the Spanish-American War to occur. No one event in itself was enough. But rather, it was the culmination of a sequence of events that created an atmosphere leading to war. The contributing factors that led to the Spanish-American War were economic interests, McKinley’s political agenda, and the sinking of the Maine. The major factor that eventually pushed the United States into war was the Yellow Press and its influence on the American people. The Yellow Press conveyed the facts to the American people in a negative manner, prompting the American people to plead for Cuban intervention through any means necessary. However, historian Wayne Morgan suggests, “war would have come without the Yellow Press”.
22 Once the nine-month war had ended, with only three months of fighting, the war concluded with the Treaty of Paris, 1898. This treaty gave the United States the colonies of Guam and Puerto Rico, along with the Philippines in return for $20 million.23 Although the Cubans did receive independence from Spain, in 1902 the U.S. created the Platt Amendment, which put Cuban foreign policy under U.S. control and all Cuban economic decisions under subject to U.S. approval.24 Life for Cubans was better, but they still did not have complete independence.
Because the United States received the new colonies from Spain, they began to accomplish their imperialistic goals, and increase their national status to compete with the other world powers. President McKinley had tried his best to avoid a war, but the American public left him no choice, nevertheless McKinley succeeded in winning the 1900 elections.25 The Spanish-American War provided the United States with both opportunities and challenges. In 1899, when the United States occupied its new empire, Assistant Secretary of State John Basset Moore observed that the nation had become “a world power…Where formerly we had only commercial interests, we now have territorial and political interests as well.” 26
1 Michael Golay, America At War: The Spanish-American War. (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1995), 5.
2 The Spanish American War, 1898, <http://dhsaphistory.tripod.com /SpanishAmericanWar.html>
[May 2, 2007].
3 Golay, America At War, 13.
4 Ivan Musicant, Empire By Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century.
(New York: Henry and Company, Inc., 1998), 81-83.
5 Frank Burt Freidel, The Splendid Little War. (Toronto: Little, Brown and Company Limited, 1958), 5-8.
6 Wayne Morgan, America’s Road To Empire: The War With Spain and Overseas Expansion. (New York:
John Wiley and Sons, 1968), ix-x.
7 The Spanish American War, [May 2, 2007].
8 Golay, America At War, 14.
9 The Spanish American War, [May 2, 2007].
10 Golay, America At War, 7.
11 Irving Werstein, 1898: The Spanish-American War. (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1966) 10.
12 Musicant, Empire By Default, 152.
13 Golay, America At War, 12.
14 Freidel, The Splendid Little War, 8.
15 Albert Nofi, The Spanish-American War, 1898. (Conshohocken: Combined Books, Inc. 1996), 42
16 Nofi, The Spanish-American War, 43.
17 Causes of the Spanish American War.
<http://www.publicbookshelf.com/public_html/The_Great_Republic_By_the_Master_Historians_Vol_IV/causesof_c.html> [May 2, 2007].
18 Causes of the Spanish American War, [May 2, 2007].
19 Nofi, The Spanish-American War, 44.
20 The Spanish American War, [May 2, 2007].
21 David Goldfield et al, The American Journey: A History of The United States. (Toronto: Prentice-Hall
Canada Inc., 2002), 427.
22 Morgan, America’s Road To Empire, 14.
23 The Spanish American War, [May 2, 2007].
24 Goldfield, The American Journey, 430.
25 Goldfield, The American Journey, Appendix A-15
26 Goldfield, The American Journey, 427.