US. Secretary of State John Hay called the Spanish-American War of 1898 a "splendid little war." Superficially, the description seemed apt. After the battleship Maine mysteriously exploded in Havana Harbor--an incident then blamed on Spain--America went to war, our citizens urged to free Cuba from Spanish rule as well as avenge the Maine. Largely a naval war, an American squadron under Commodore George Dewey destroyed the Spanish squadron at Manila; likewise, the U.S. Navy crushed Spain's Caribbean squadron off Cuba's port of Santiago. In each engagement, the United States suffered only one fatality. Things went tougher for American troops in Cuba, where malaria and yellow fever proved as daunting as Spanish bullets. But American schoolchildren would thereafter thrill to tales of Teddy Roosevelt and his "Rough Riders," and of the famed charge up San Juan Hill. Defeated on land and sea, Spain sued for peace. The war lasted less than four months; our fighting forces distinguished themselves with valor; and the United States, acquiring territory from Puerto Rico to the Philippines, emerged as a "world power."
However, behind victory's fervor lay deceptions, and principles of the Founding Fathers were discarded, portending future misery for Americans.
Cuba: Background to a Battleground
In the late 19th century, citizens were increasingly alarmed that monopolistic New York banking interests--represented by such names as Morgan, Rockefeller, Harriman, Carnegie, and Rothschild--were gaining a stranglehold on our economy. This helped inspire the 1891 establishment of the Populist Party, a grassroots movement of dissatisfied voters who perceived increasingly fewer differences between the Democratic and Republican parties, many of whose bosses were beholden to the bankers.
The Wall Street cabal realized that to thwart populism, it would be expedient to remove attention from themselves by inflaming Americans with hatred of another enemy. The enemy chosen was Spain, over the issue of Cuba. The reasons for this choice were as complex as they were sinister.
Spain was Europe's leading colonial power in the 16th and 17th centuries, occupying much of North and South America. Through treaties and local revolutions, Spain lost much of this territory by the 19th century, but still retained a few possessions--notably Cuba, the world's wealthiest colony and largest sugar producer by the 1820s.
Also in the late 19th century, a violent revolutionary movement hobbled Cuba's prosperity. Most Americans considered this an internal Spanish affair. They had always viewed the purpose of our military as self-defense; furthermore, intervening in Cuba would have violated our neutrality laws. Transforming these attitudes required manipulation of public opinion.
Thomas Jefferson said in 1807:
Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day.
Regrettably, Jefferson's sentiments were little heeded in the 1890s. And a new media rogue had arrived--William Randolph Hearst, whose name became synonymous with "Yellow (dishonest) Journalism." In 1895, the wealthy Hearst purchased the New York Journal and battled Joseph Pulitzer's New York World to achieve the nation's highest circulation. Hearst won, learning that in journalism, lies can become "truths" for the right price. But he and Pulitzer shared a common goal: war with Spain over Cuba.
Americans were told Cuba's rebels were like our Revolutionary War soldiers--men yearning for self-government. While genuine patriots were among the ST Cuban insurgents, their leader, Maximo Gomez, was a Dominican-born revolutionary who could be compared to Fidel Castro, not George Washington.
Gomez avoided confronting Spanish troops, whom he could not hope to defeat. Instead he launched terrorism. Attempting to expel the Spanish economically, he set ablaze millions of sugar cane acres, making the island a virtual torch. Cubans who refused to support him were hanged from trees or hacked to death with machetes as "traitors." Gomez's men descended at night, setting small towns on fire after looting them. They stole all available cattle and horses, and at harvest seized farmers' crops--much like the bandits in the films The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven. Gomez also seized the farmers' sons, forcing them into his ranks. Within his army, he was feared as ruthless and dictatorial, meting out the death penalty by machete to soldiers without due process.
As a result, rural Cubans fled to fortified towns. But there was little work for them, and with Gomez torching all crops he couldn't steal, famine began in Cuba. Hearst's Journal and Pulitzer's World …