Spanish-American War

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Spanish-American War

Spanish-American War, 1898, brief conflict between Spain and the United States arising out of Spanish policies in Cuba. It was, to a large degree, brought about by the efforts of U.S. expansionists.

Causes of the War

Demands by Cuban patriots for independence from Spanish rule made U.S. intervention in Cuba a paramount issue in the relations between the United States and Spain from the 1870s to 1898. Sympathy for the Cuban insurgents ran high in America, especially after the savage Ten Years War (1868–78) and the unsuccessful revolt of 1895. After efforts to quell guerrilla activity had failed, the Spanish military commander, Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, instituted the reconcentrado, or concentration camp, system in 1896; Cuba's rural population was forcibly confined to centrally located garrison towns, where thousands died from disease, starvation, and exposure.

Weyler's actions brought the rebels many new American sympathizers. These prorebel feelings were inflamed by the U.S. "yellow press," especially W. R. Hearst's New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, which distorted and slanted the news from Cuba. The U.S. government was also moved by the heavy losses of American investment in Cuba caused by the guerrilla warfare, an appreciation of the strategic importance of the island to Central America and a projected isthmian canal there, and a growing sense of U.S. power in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere. There was an unspoken threat of intervention. This grew sharper after the insurgents, refusing a Spanish offer of partial autonomy, determined to fight for full freedom.

Although the majority of Americans, including President McKinley, wished to avert war and hoped to settle the Cuban question by peaceful means, a series of incidents early in 1898 intensified U.S. feelings against Spain. The first of these was the publication by Hearst of a stolen letter (the de Lôme letter) that had been written by the Spanish minister at Washington, in which that incautious diplomat expressed contempt for McKinley. This was followed by the sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana harbor on Feb. 15, 1898, with a loss of 260 men. Although Spanish complicity was not proved, U.S. public opinion was aroused and war sentiment rose. The cause of the advocates of war was given further impetus as a result of eyewitness reports by members of the U.S. Congress on the effect of the reconcentrado policy in Cuba.

A Short and One-sided War

In late March, McKinley proposed to Spain an armistice in Cuba, but under pressure from expansionists both in and out of Congress, he was won to the war cause. Although on Apr. 10, 1898, McKinley was informed that the queen of Spain had ordered hostilities suspended, he barely referred to that fact when he addressed Congress on Apr. 11. He asked for authority to intervene in Cuba. Congress responded by passing resolutions to demand Spanish withdrawal from Cuba and set terms for U.S. intervention; these included the Teller Amendment, which pledged that the United States would withdraw from the island when independence was assured. On Apr. 22, Congress authorized the enlistment of volunteer troops, and a U.S. blockade of Spanish ports was instituted. On Apr. 24, Spain declared war on the United States. The next day Congress retorted by declaring war on Spain, retroactive to Apr. 21.

The warfare that commenced was short and very one-sided. The first dramatic incident occurred on the other side of the world from Cuba. On May 1 a U.S. squadron under George Dewey sailed into the harbor of Manila, Philippine Islands, and in a few hours thoroughly defeated the Spanish fleet there. Dewey's name was greeted across the United States with almost hysterical praise. On May 19, Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete took the Spanish fleet into the harbor of Santiago de Cuba. Commodore W. S. Schley established (May 28) a blockade of the harbor, in which Rear Admiral W. I. Sampson joined, taking command of the blockading fleet on June 1. When the Spanish fleet attempted to escape on July 3, it was destroyed.

Meanwhile 17,000 more or less trained, poorly equipped but enthusiastic U.S. troops under W. R. Shafter landed and undertook a campaign to capture Santiago. The Spanish forces were weak, but there was some heavy fighting (July 1) at El Caney and San Juan Hill, where the Rough Riders, under Leonard Wood and Theodore Roosevelt, won their popular reputation. On July 17, Santiago surrendered. The war was, in effect, over. Troops sent under Nelson A. Miles to Puerto Rico were occupying that island when they received word that an armistice had been signed on Aug. 12. Dewey and Wesley Merritt led a successful land and sea assault and occupation of Manila on Aug. 13, after the armistice had been signed.

Results

Peace was arranged by the Treaty of Paris signed Dec. 10, 1898 (ratified by the U.S. Senate, Feb. 6, 1899). The Spanish Empire was practically dissolved. Cuba was freed, but under U.S. tutelage by terms of the Platt Amendment (see under Platt, Orville), with Spain assuming the Cuban debt. Puerto Rico and Guam were ceded to the United States as indemnity, and the Philippines were surrendered to the United States for a payment of $20 million. The United States emerged from the war with new international power. In both Latin America and East Asia it had established an imperial foothold. The war tied the United States more closely to the course of events in those areas.

Bibliography

See A. T. Mahan, Lessons of the War with Spain (1900, repr. 1970); F. E. Chadwick, Relations of the United States and Spain: Diplomacy (1909, repr. 1968) and Relations of the United States and Spain: The Spanish-American War (1911, repr. 1968); W. Millis, The Martial Spirit (1931); J. W. Pratt, Expansionists of 1898 (1936, repr. 1959); F. B. Freidel, The Splendid Little War (1958); H. W. Morgan, America's Road to Empire (1965); I. Musicant, Empire by Default (1998); W. Zimmermann, First Great Triumph (2002).

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