From Liberation to Conquest: The Visual and Popular Cultures of the Spanish-American War of 1898

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From Liberation to Conquest: The Visual and Popular Cultures of the Spanish-American War of 1898. Bonnie M. Miller. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011.

In 1898, popular American war fever focused on two narrow objectives: avenging the sinking of the Maine, and liberating the Cuban people from Spanish tyranny. However, victory resulted in a prolonged U.S. military occupation of Cuba and a colonial war of conquest in the far-off Philippines. The nominally anticolonial United States had become an imperial world power. In recent years, it has become common for scholars to identify cultural narratives of race and masculinity as the source of this turn to empire.

In From Liberation to Conquest, Bonnie Miller treads this familiar path, but points out new sights along the way. She seeks to explain the role of "media spectacle as a mechanism for manufacturing popular consent to war and imperialism" (2). In the first chapter, she details how the media shoehorned Spanish "outrages" against Cubans into a romantic narrative of captive maidens and valiant saviors. Following Kristin Hoganson Fighting for American Manhood, 1998), Miller argues that this chivalric melodrama helped Americans see war as a humanitarian venture. In Chapter 3, Miller contends that treating the battles of Manila, San Juan Hill, and Santiago Bay as backdrops for heroic acts by American men like George Dewey and Theodore Roosevelt distracted the public's attention from the Cubans' struggle for independence and obscured the economic and strategic context of imperial expansion. In Chapters 4 and 6, Miller illustrates how racist depictions of Cubans and Filipinos in political cartoons (both pro- and anticolonial) made it more difficult to imagine the islands as independent republics. In contending that "racial thinking was central to justifying the changing purpose of the war" (228), Miller echoes a common historiographical theme.

However, Miller cautions readers not to draw simplistic lessons about the relationship between culture and politics. She repeatedly debunks the "yellow press" thesis: the claim that the sensationalistic Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers forced the country's leaders into war. Relying heavily on Robert C. Hilderbrand's Power and the People (1981), Miller paints President William McKinley as an independent actor who chose war and empire for his own strategic reasons, not in response to public pressure.

Where the book advances beyond existing scholarship is in its detailed and nuanced account of the production and reception of visual and popular culture. Although limited primarily to "media that white Americans produced for broad consumption" (3), Miller brings to the task extensive research in over forty periodicals as well as newsreels, plays, fairs, and other popular amusements and commodities. …