William McKinley's Values and the Origins of the Spanish-American War: A Reinterpretation

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The Spanish-American War deeply divided the American people. Although its resounding success from a military standpoint and the astonishingly high ratio of heroes produced to casualties suffered led John Hay to deem it "a splendid little war," many Americans at the time and in the years since considered it an unnecessary, unwanted, and unwarranted conflict. In combination with the messy entanglements in the Philippines that directly followed, the Spanish-American War called cherished American ideals into question, spawned leagues of anti-imperialists, and fostered resilient strains of pacifism that would endure in American cultural and political life at least until World War II.

Even though the heated contests surrounding the Spanish and Philippine conflicts gradually ebbed out of American politics as most Americans came to accept them as part of the past, these debates have remained alive to historians, who, after all, are in the business of keeping the past in mind. In what was a short and otherwise well- documented conflict, no aspect of the Spanish-American War has produced more debate among historians than the question of why it started in the first place. At the center of these debates stands President William McKinley. That a president who, in his own words and by all accounts, was profoundly in favor of a peaceful resolution to the Cuban crisis took the final steps that made war unavoidable presents a basic problem of interpretation to any historian writing on the war or the origins of American imperialism.

The historical interpretations of McKinley's decision to make war on Spain in the spring of 1898 are exceedingly numerous. While the vast array of accounts vary greatly in nuance and subtle assessment of precise causes, certain trends and continuities can be observed. Early accounts of the war's origins reflected the ebullient mood of the nation in the wake of America's triumphant victory by praising McKinley as a strong figure who, in a wise and measured course, exhausted every avenue to peace before deciding decisively in favor of war. This glowing appraisal was taken to even further extremes in the hagiographical "Memorial Lives" of "our third martyred president" that appeared following McKinley's assassination in the fall of 1901. This interpretation of McKinley's decision making as virtually beyond reproach culminated in Charles S. Olcott's two-volume 1916 account, The Life of William McKinley (which remains to this day the fullest biography of the twenty-fifth president). Olcott writes that, despite the threats to his political career and the temptations of wartime popularity,

   McKinley was ... heedless of personal considerations .... No
   thought of self ever marred his devotion to duty. While congressmen
   stormed and threatened without knowing the real progress of
   affairs, McKinley quietly but aggressively pushed his preparations
   for war and at the same time held back the ever-increasing pressure
   while he exhausted the last chance to obtain a peaceful solution.
   (1916, 2:27)

Among McKinley's political enemies, meanwhile, the prowar Democrats harshly criticized McKinley for unnecessarily delaying an unavoidable conflict while the anti-imperialists argued that McKinley did not wait long enough, excoriating him as a devious expansionist who deliberately and willfully precipitated an unnecessary war following only cursory and halfhearted attempts at peace. In the final analyses, none of these early interpretations proves particularly reliable, as the authors were writing so soon after the events, and in the highly politically charged atmosphere of McKinley's recent assassination and the ongoing acrimony over the Philippines. Even Olcott, who had some perspective after the passage of 15 years and whose work was the most scholarly in composition, was impaired in his objectivity because of his status as the virtual official biographer who had the approval of McKinley's personal secretary and close friend George B. …