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The Spanish-American War Introduction

In A Nutshell

The 1890s were a transitional decade for the United States. Rapid growth in industry following the Civil War had resulted in greater national wealth, but by the end of the century Americans learned that their economy was far weaker than they could have ever imagined. The "Gilded Age" had passed, leaving in its wake labor conflict, business corruption, racial violence, population surges, poverty, unemployment, and markets saturated with manufactured goods.

America's great Western frontier had closed. After nearly three centuries of American pioneering on the continent, the lines between settled and unsettled territory had vanished. The destiny of the nation, long rooted in the spirit of exploration and expansion, suddenly seemed uncertain.

The United States economy needed foreign markets to sustain itself, the federal government was under pressure to secure its power and prestige in the world community, and Americans yearned to be reassured of their national prowess. As Theodore Roosevelt told a friend in 1897, "I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one."1


Why Should I Care?

Why wouldn't you want to know everything there is to know about the Spanish-American War?

"Wait," you may be thinking, "aren't you talking about 'the splendid little war', the one that lasted, like, three weeks or something? What's the big deal?"

Yes, that's the one. Except it lasted four months to be exact, but most certainly was a big deal. That might not be entirely clear at first glance. We admit that on the surface this brief conflict doesn't seem so epic. Our American history books never allot more than a few sentences for it, and we haven't seen much mention of heroic battles, dramatic military campaigns against tyrannical enemies, or great heroes with the fate of the nation in their hands. So why should we spend any more time on this topic? Because 1898 was a pivotal moment in American history. Not only was a new century approaching, but the nation, in intervening in the Cuban revolutionary struggle against Spain, was embarking on a new global mission—new imperialism. (That's huge!)

The Spanish-American war was also a significant period in Cuban history. You'd never know it from the title, but this war was fought in Cuba alongside thousands of Cuban freedom fighters... and, really, the "splendid little war" might not have been so "splendid" or so "little" had Cuban revolutionaries not spent three full years fighting the Spanish colonial forces before the arrival of the first U.S. soldier. 1898 was a pivotal year for the Cuban people, but not for the reasons you might think.

Now, why wouldn't you want to know everything there is to know about the Philippine-American War?

"Are you sure the U.S. fought against the Filipinos?" you're saying. "Are you sure you're not pulling my chain?" you ask. Yes, we're sure. The U.S. did, in fact, fight a war against the Filipinos. Didn't you learn about this in your U.S. history courses? (That's okay, neither did we.) The Philippine-American War is one of those moments in American history that is often skipped over, or plain forgotten. Like the Spanish-American War, it is easy to dismiss because it was waged on foreign soil and resulted in relatively few American casualties. But upon closer inspection, this conflict reveals a great deal about the nation the United States was becoming at the turn of the century—and it wasn't pretty.

So, we repeat... Why wouldn't you want to know everything there is to know about the Spanish-American and the Philippine-American Wars?

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