McKinley and the Spanish-American War

By Offner, John L. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2004 | Go to article overview
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McKinley and the Spanish-American War


Offner, John L., Presidential Studies Quarterly


This article describes and analyzes President William McKinley's foreign and domestic policies that led to the Spanish-American War of 1898. On the domestic side it includes congressional partisan politics, economic and business concerns, religious and moral views, cultural biases, and unexpected events that inflamed American patriotism. In foreign affairs it covers U.S. interests in Cuba, McKinley's diplomatic efforts to get Spain to withdraw peacefully from Cuba, and the president's relations with Europe's Great Powers and the pope. The article concludes with an analysis of McKinley's successes and failures.

In April 1898 the United States went to war with Spain. President William McKinley asked Congress for authority to use force against both the Spanish and Cubans in order to end the strife on the island and to establish a stable Cuban government that would maintain order and observe international obligations. The president's determination to intervene in the Spanish-Cuban war came after three years of fighting on the island and a sporadic domestic debate as to what the United States should do. In making that decision McKinley considered many variables: at home it was congressional partisan politics, economic and business concerns, religious and moral views, deeply rooted cultural biases, and unexpected events that inflamed American patriotism; abroad it was U.S. interests in Cuba, failed diplomatic efforts to get Spain to withdraw from Cuba, and relations with Europe's Great Powers. This article will examine the major issues that McKinley considered as he led the nation into war. (1) The essential ingredient was the deplorable condition of Cuba. Cuban nationalists began a war for independence in 1868 that lasted for ten years. In 1878 Cuban nationalist insurgents were exhausted and Spain promised colonial reforms, most of which were never realized. Early in 1895 a larger and better-led rebellion began. The 1895-1898 war for Cuban independence devastated the island. Cuban rebels broke out of the mountainous eastern part of the island and carried the war to the rich agricultural central and western provinces. Poorly armed Cuban insurgents, rarely more than 25,000 and operating in small groups, attacked the island's economy rather than attempting pitched battles against larger formations of better-equipped Spanish soldiers. Insurgents burned sugar cane fields and mills and destroyed railroads, telegraph lines, and other property. They sought to turn Cuba into an economic desert, thereby making the island unprofitable and convincing Spain to leave. (2)

Spain fought back by sending over 200,000 troops to Cuba and enlisting and arming thousands of local volunteers. The Spanish initially attempted to hunt down the scattered bands of rebels and to destroy them in battle. Unable to win a quick victory, the Spanish adopted a long-term concentration strategy of separating the rebels from the general peasant population that was providing food, information, and new recruits. Spain forced hundreds of thousands of Cuban peasants (reconcentrados) to leave their village homes and go to cities and towns controlled by Spanish military garrisons. As the villagers abandoned their homes, Spanish forces burned the villages, razed the crops, and killed the cattle in an effort to cut off the rebel food supply. In effect, both the Cubans and Spanish engaged in economic warfare that devastated the island. Agricultural production and foreign trade plummeted. (3)

When the rural reconcentrados arrived in garrison towns, the Spanish had made few provisions for them. There was little housing, work, food, and medicine. Soon, many malnourished Cuban refugees began to sicken and die, and their plight increased with each passing month. After a year the results were horrific. In early 1895 Cuba had a population of about 1,600,000. During the war approximately 240,000 Cubans died from disease and starvation. By early 1897, the United States was becoming increasingly aware of the human disaster unfolding in Cuba.

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