Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Threat from Havana: Southern Public Health, Yellow Fever, and the U.S. Intervention in the Cuban Struggle for Independence, 1878-1898

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

The Threat from Havana: Southern Public Health, Yellow Fever, and the U.S. Intervention in the Cuban Struggle for Independence, 1878-1898

Article excerpt

IN SEPTEMBER AND OCTOBER 1897 THE SOUTHERN UNITED STATES WAS gripped by a terror that shuttered businesses, paralyzed trade, and caused tens of thousands of people to abandon their homes and flee for their lives: the dreaded yellow fever had returned. Southerners had good reason to be afraid. It began with a high fever that lasted three or four days, with throbbing headaches and body aches, nausea, and chills. In most cases the fever would then subside, and the victim would slowly recover over the next few weeks. Many times, however, the break in the fever was, like the eye of a hurricane, a deceptive calm. The fever soon returned, and the body began to break down. The disease attacked vital internal organs, and, as the liver failed, the patient's skin and eyes turned yellow. The eyes, nose, mouth, and stomach started to bleed. The helpless victim then began to vomit repeatedly, the liquid black with digested blood. This last terrifying symptom signaled that death was near. The disease struck the young and strong as well as the old and infirm, afflicted rich and poor, visited well-kept households along with filthy ones, attacked blacks and whites, and, once present in a city, often spread from one neighborhood to the next in ways that defied prediction. Even a rumor of "yellow jack" inspired panic.

Decades of experience had taught southern health officials the source of this dreaded disease. The 1897 yellow fever epidemic, like many outbreaks before it, was of Cuban origin. Unlike previous episodes of infection, however, by the end of 1897 the U.S. government was determined to end the ongoing threat that yellow fever in Cuba posed to the health and economy of the southern states. The island would be invaded and the disease stamped out at its source.

This article traces the ongoing concerns in the United States with yellow fever in Cuba. The impact of the periodic epidemics of yellow fever that plagued the U.S. South during the latter half of the nineteenth century has been the subject of considerable scholarly attention. Some historians have extensively described the devastation caused by yellow fever epidemics. (1) The disease has also been found to be the central concern of public health officials in the South and the principal motivation for creating a nationalized board of health. (2) Additionally, scholars have explored the effects of yellow fever on interclass relationships and on the reconciliation of Civil War animosities. (3) However, historians have failed to note the influence of yellow fever in the South on U.S. international relations.

The historiography on the motivations for the entry of the United States into the war against Spain in Cuba is even more extensive than that on yellow fever. Most early works viewed the war as a humanitarian crusade to liberate Cubans from the chains of Spanish tyranny. (4) Cubans had been fighting the Spanish in various ways for decades. Stories about the despair of Cubans held in Spanish concentration camps moved ordinary Americans, but by the time of U.S. intervention the Spanish had ceased the forced movement of the population and had recalled to Spain the vilified General Valeriano Weyler, the architect of the reconcentration policy. The destruction of the oft-remembered Maine in Havana's harbor was once frequently cited as the event that led to the U.S. entry into the war between Spain and Cuba, but recent scholarship has debunked the importance of the ship in the turn of events. (5) As will be explained in more detail below, months before the explosion of the Maine, the U.S. minister to Spain had already met with European leaders to discuss the United States' intention to declare war against Spain. Other recent historians have pointed to the extensive and growing economic ties between the United States and Cuba and the long-standing fascination of many U.S. government officials with the idea of annexing the island, and there is convincing evidence that the negative effects of the ongoing Cuban struggle for independence on U. …

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