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In the mid-19th century, America began to aspire towards acquiring territorial possessions in the region today known as Latin America. The Mexican-American War was fought from 1846 to 1848 and ended with Mexico being forced to sell all its territory north of the Rio Grande to the United States under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. During the 1850s, Americans began to covet the territorial holdings of what remained of the Spanish Empire in the Caribbean Sea. The first official articulation of a policy in favor of the acquisition of Cuba was the Ostend Manifesto of 1854.
The Ostend Manifesto was a reaction by Southern slave power to the growing abolitionist movement and called for the US to purchase Cuba if possible or to secure it by force if necessary.
The 1850s was also the peak of the American filibuster’s misadventures in Central America. The word filibuster comes to English from the Spanish filibustero which itself derives from the Dutch word vrjbuiter meaning privateer.
The most successful of the filibusters was William Walker who intervened in a civil war in Nicaragua with a small force of mercenaries and managed to seize power in 1856. Walker proclaimed the Republic of Nicaragua with himself as president which lasted until 1857 when he was deposed and deported to New York City. Walker attempted a follow up campaign in 1860 which ended when he was arrested by the Honduran military and executed by firing squad. American efforts at territorial expansion into the Caribbean was interrupted by the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1860 and would remain dormant for the next 30 years.
US interests in securing territorial possession in the Caribbean was rekindled by the 1890 publication of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History in which Mahan urged the United States to aggressively expand its naval capacity using the British Royal Navy as a model. Mahan noted that the defense of the proposed canal across the Isthmus of Panama would require the United States to secure permanent naval installations in the Caribbean. Specifically, Mahan proposed the annexation of the Dominican Republic and the purchase of Cuba from Spain for $160 million. However, the US Senate declined to ratify the annexation of the Dominican Republic and Spain again rebuffed US efforts to negotiate the sale of Cuba. This would prove to be America’s last attempt to peacefully secure territory in the Caribbean.
On the 15th of February 1898, there was an explosion aboard the USS Maine and it sunk while at anchor in Havana Harbor, Cuba. The cause of the explosion was never definitively established and remains uncertain even today. However, it was almost certainly the result of an accidental fire in the ships ammunition bays which were carrying over five tons of powdered charges. The incident was sensationalized by Joseph Pulitzer publisher of the New York World, and his rival William Randolph Hearst publisher of the New York Journal using tactics that came to be known as Yellow Journalism. Despite a total lack of evidence, both newspapers asserted that the Maine had been deliberately sunk by means of a harbor mine. The public outrage inspired by the overwrought press coverage led to the US declaring war with Spain on April 21, 1898. The Spanish-American War lasted until August 13, 1898 and ended with the Spanish ceding Cuba and Puerto Rico to the United States under the terms of the Treaty of Paris.
Puerto Rico had been under Spanish colonial rule for more than four centuries, but a fledgling nationalist movement had begun to take root in the later half of the 19th century. Spain had attempted to mollify the nationalist forces in Puerto Rico by granting them limited autonomy in 1898, shortly before the outbreak of hostilities with the United States. The nationalist factions were initially hopeful that the American victory would result in Puerto Rico being granted increased autonomy if not outright independence. These dreams were quickly dashed as the first American civilian governor Charles Herbert Allen led an aggressive campaign of Americanization and outright corruption that resulted in massive unemployment and indignities such as the abolition of Spanish language instruction without intensive English language classes at a time when 85% of the school age population spoke only Spanish. As hope faded and despair took hold, the nationalist movement in Puerto Rico turned increasingly violent, culminating in the attempted assassination of President Truman and a shooting in the US House of Representatives that left 4 Congressmen wounded.
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