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A Forgotten War: The U.S. & Spain, 1898

Updated on September 23, 2011

American Civil War or World War II history is well-known and celebrated throughout the U.S. We are also familiar with the current conflicts and recent engagements of the 20th Century. Lesser known are the other wars of the 19th Century. These three wars, in Mexico, Cuba and the Philippines, are important not just for what happened - but what could have.

Cuba, in red, was the largest of the Spanish Caribbean holdings.
Cuba, in red, was the largest of the Spanish Caribbean holdings. | Source

Tensions in Cuba

In 1898 Spain was facing the death of it's western empire. Long thrown out of Mexico, Dominica and other continental possessions, Spain still controlled much of the Caribbean, but the remainder of the islands had been agitating for independence for years. America kept a watchful eye on Cuba in particular. Cuba had been the one exception to the Monroe Doctrine that stated European powers should respect the Western hemisphere and not attempt to interfere in their affairs. As reports of the brutal methods used to quell Cuban patriots spread, American public sentiment steadily grew in favor of assisting them in throwing off Spanish rule. But President William McKinley was greatly opposed to war with Spain.

McKinley had attempted several measures to end the revolt peacefully, or at least without direct American intervention. Although he opposed what he saw as "extermination" tactics used by the Spanish to put down rebels, he saw intervention in Cuba as loaded with potential political nightmares. The military strength of Spain was indeterminate. War, especially protracted war, would derail economic recovery efforts after the severe recession of the 1870s. "Manifest Destiny" or the desire to spread the U.S. from shore to shore on the continent had already been realized, and possession of Cuba would spur America towards expansionist empirical behavior. In the interest of preventing conflict, McKinley sent ambassador Stewart Woodward to Madrid to negotiate an end to the conflict. Woodward was successful and Cuban autonomous rule was set to begin January 1, 1898.

The hulk of the U.S.S. Maine in Manila Harbor.
The hulk of the U.S.S. Maine in Manila Harbor. | Source
The "Spanish Ape" hunkers over the graves of the Maine's sailors in one of many political cartoons that aroused American fury over the tragedy.
The "Spanish Ape" hunkers over the graves of the Maine's sailors in one of many political cartoons that aroused American fury over the tragedy. | Source

Remembering the Maine

The transition from Spanish to Cuban rule did not go smoothly. Riots erupted in Havana less than two weeks after the first of the year. Spanish nationalists clashed with Cuban patriots and the large number of Americans living in Cuba feared for their safety. In order to ensure American safety, McKinley dispatched the U.S.S. Maine to Havana. Around the world, other naval fleets were put on alert for possible unrest in the remainder of Spain's holdings, including the Philippines and Guam.

The Maine had been in Havana less than three weeks when an explosion caused her to sink in the harbor on February 15, 1898. Over 260 sailors were killed. An internal Navy investigation determined an external explosion had detonated the ship's powder stores, while the Spanish investigation showed the explosion originated within the ship. An incensed American public demanded retribution. Despite McKinley's calls for patience and negotiation, war was now inevitable. Congress passed a resolution calling for troops to be sent to aid the Cuban efforts towards independence from Spain at all costs, including a provision stating the U.S. would not attempted to annex Cuba after the war was over. The U.S. Navy began a blockade. In response, Spain broke off diplomatic ties and declared war on the United States on April 25.

The U.S.S. Olympia at the Battle for Manila Bay
The U.S.S. Olympia at the Battle for Manila Bay | Source

A One-Sided War

When war broke out, Admiral Thomas Dewey moved quickly to seize Spain's Pacific possessions. Despite serious problems with resupply, Dewey seized Manila harbor in the Philippines and destroyed Spain's Pacific fleet. However Germany had a sizable interest in the islands and provided assistance to the Spanish forces still in the Philippines, hoping the U.S. would be forced to withdraw, leaving Germany in control of valuable Manila. Dewey brought rebel leaders including Emilio Aguinaldo from exile in Hong Kong, and managed to rally the Filipinos to oust Spanish rule. The Germans sheepishly backed off. On August 13, American forces captured the city of Manila without allowing Filipino nationalists to enter the city. This action lead to further conflict later.

In the Caribbean the war was short and sweet. In a major battle at San Juan Hill (where Theodore Roosevelt and all four of the Army's colored divisions were engaged) 15,000 troops landed and secured a base on the island. In an eerie prelude to World War I, a series of connecting trenches were constructed for the American-Cuban forces to besiege the Spanish. Although there were combat fatalities, the U.S. lost more soldiers to diseases such as malaria, than enemy fire.

The U.S. Navy also took control of Guantanamo Bay and landed Marines there. In the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, the U.S. destroyed Spain's Caribbean fleet. 3,300 troops also landed in Puerto Rico where they made little progress in controlling the island, resulting in a standoff, and eventual U.S. retreat.

With their fleet in shambles, Spain had no choice but to sue for peace. In the Treaty of Paris, signed December 10, 1898, Spain handed over almost all her colonial holdings to the United States including Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Cuba was granted autonomy and formed it's own civilian government, taking formal autonomous sovereignty in 1902.

"The Charge of the Rough Riders" at the Battle of San Juan Hill, by Frederic Remington. The Rough Riders were Theodore Roosevelt's cavalry brigade.
"The Charge of the Rough Riders" at the Battle of San Juan Hill, by Frederic Remington. The Rough Riders were Theodore Roosevelt's cavalry brigade. | Source
Col. Theodore Roosevelt astride his horse, 1898
Col. Theodore Roosevelt astride his horse, 1898 | Source

Aftermath of the War

Spain's power as a colonial empire was extinguished as a result of the conflict. Ironically, this sparked a wave of economic growth and development in Spain, as the colonies had long been draining the resources of the parent nation. The United States gained large territorial holdings, some of which they still hold today. It marked the U.S.'s debut onto the world stage as a power to be reckoned with alongside the stalwarts in Europe. Theodore Roosevelt, already an infamous political figure, became a bona fide war hero which assisted in his presidential campaigns. But less obvious factors were equally as important.

William Randolph Hurst's newspaper "The New York Journal" and Joseph Pulitzer's "New York World" showed the power of the press to influence public opinions. Their sensational stories about Cuba, Spain and the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine did much to sway public opinion in favor of a war that could have been totally avoided. This power has continued to grow and is still very much in evidence today.

The conflict was also the first major military action since the American Civil War. Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Northerners, Southerners and Westerners all fought together under the same banner, showing that harmonious society could exist between the different embittered factions when national security was perceived threatened. We've seen this happen in our own lives in the aftermath of September 11th. If only it did not take a national tragedy to inspire co-operation and harmony!

One amusing footnote to the war was in a rider passed on the declaration of war. A tax was passed on long-distance telephone calls to assist in paying for the war's costs. At the time only the wealthiest Americans had telephones. However the tax was not repealed for over 100 years, finally dissolved by the IRS in 2006. It is estimated to have payed for the cost of the Spanish-American War at least 15 times over.

What Might Have Been?

If Germany had not been willing to back down in the Pacific theater, how much different would this war have become? Spain aided by Germany, a growing power with a strong economy and rapacious interest in colonial holdings, would have been a much more formidable opponent. Would Britain have aided the two European powers in a stand against the upstart America or, sensing a German threat to her own Pacific empire, come in on the side of the U.S. against her long-time enemy Spain? France was still licking it's wounds from the Franco-Prussian war and would surely have opposed Germany as well. World War I could have started right then.

Then there is the agreement by Congress not to annex Cuba after her liberation. The U.S. made no such promise for the other Spanish holdings and has or tried to retain direct control of them. Continued U.S. presence in Cuba would have negated that country's role in the Cold War, prevented the Bay of Pigs scare and possibly the decades of social repression and poverty Cubans have experienced under the Castros. But would U.S. rule have been palatable to the Cuban patriots? U.S. autocracy in Cuba might have erupted in further violence and protracted conflict that clashed with the supposed ideals of democracy and freedom.

Finally, what if McKinley had his wish and the U.S. had stayed out of the conflict altogether? Spain would have been in a difficult position of attempting to honor their treaty obligations to allow Cuban autonomy, yet protect and control the actions of their citizens on the island. Their history suggests they would have re-occupied Cuba until peace was restored, likely at the point of a bayonet. Cuba might have had a much bloodier and longer conflict in their quest for independence.


Submit a Comment

  • kestrana profile imageAUTHOR


    7 years ago from Virginia

    Thank you!

  • TKs view profile image

    TKs view 

    7 years ago from The Middle Path

    I really enjoy reading your history hubs, kestrana. even though I liked history back in school, my teachers weren't very inspireing. I learn more in the ten minutes of reading your hub than I did in a couple days.

  • profile image


    7 years ago

    Another fascinating look at American history. Your speculations on what might have happened are indeed food for thought. Rated up and interesting.

  • dahoglund profile image

    Don A. Hoglund 

    7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

    For what it is worth many there was quite a bit of anti war feeling then by writers.


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