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The Spanish-American War Summary & Analysis

The 1893 World's Columbian Exposition

In May of 1893, fairgrounds covering nearly two square miles of Chicago were opened to the public. The city had been chosen to host the World's Columbian Exposition, a year-long celebration of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the New World. The fair was a grand display of American history and world culture featuring carefully crafted buildings, exciting exhibits, notable speakers, and remarkable new inventions: the giant Ferris Wheel, strange new foods such as the hamburger, and a concoction of popcorn, molasses, and peanuts called "Cracker Jacks." Some 27 million people—one quarter of the nation's population in the 1890s—visited the exposition, making it the largest tourist attraction in United States history.

The Chicago World's Fair, with its scale-model replicas of classic architecture, its immaculate streets and sidewalks, and its wealth of wholesome entertainment, was quite different from the world that existed outside the fairgrounds. Like a nineteenth-century Disneyland, the exposition offered, for those who could afford the admission fee, a respite from the humdrum of daily life.

Searching for a New Frontier

Fair exhibits and presenters inspired guests to indulge in America's glorious past and to dream of a splendid future. Frederick Jackson Turner, a historian picked to speak in Chicago during the exposition, chose to talk with his audience about the new frontier. For nearly three centuries, Americans had explored the western frontier in search of land, wealth, freedom, and adventure. As the nineteenth century came to a close, he said, America's borders could stretch no further within the continent. All the land in the western frontier had been explored and settled, and the great era of expansion appeared to be over. Would the unique, rugged spirit of the nation disappear with its open land? Turner assured his audience it would not. Movement would continue, he predicted, as the nation broadened its notion of "manifest destiny" and looked beyond its continental borders toward the rest of the world.7

Setting the Stage for War

Several scholars had suggested similar plans for global expansion. In 1885, clergyman Josiah Strong wrote Our Country in which he urged the Anglo-Saxon race to "civilize and Christianize" other "inferior races."8 He promised that such missionary work would benefit the U.S. economy by transforming "savages" into consumers of American goods. Alfred Thayer Mahan, a naval officer, wrote in 1890 that as the western frontier dissolved, "Americans must now begin to look outward."9 Wealthy industrialists also promoted American expansion abroad in order to build new markets and to find sources of raw materials, such as sugar, coconut, and copper unavailable in the United States. Under the stress of economic downturns, businessmen and investors were especially anxious to embrace a global mission in order to regenerate their own country.

Still, other vigorously patriotic leaders thought foreign policy should support national honor. Men such as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy Theodore Roosevelt advocated intervention in colonial wars abroad. America, they proclaimed, deserved its own colonies, and by installing its superior institutions and values, it could better serve "savage" peoples.10

Politics, too, helped set the stage for American imperial exploits. Popular opinion on domestic and international issues influenced the nation's leaders. Americans were particularly tough on political figures when the country's economy suffered. Public restlessness in the 1890s and early 1900s steered Presidents Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt to pursue international adventures, including annexing territory and declaring war against an imperial power, to boost national self-confidence and to win votes.

The War of 1898

The Spanish-American War marked not a beginning but the final stage in a thirty-year struggle for independence. In 1868, Cubans seeking to expel Spain and regain political autonomy staged a revolt that resulted in a ten-year war between colonists and colonizers. This movement for independence resumed in 1895 with Cuban leaders such as José Martí and Máximo Gómez at the helm, calling for "Independencia o muerte" (Independence or death).

Reports of war atrocities in Cuba stirred the sentiments of the American public. Rumors of suffering, starvation, and thousands of deaths in Spanish detention camps inspired many to offer support to the Cuban cause. Americans held rallies, food drives, and fund-raisers for "Cuba Libre," and many petitioned the federal government to intervene. These demands intensified when on February 15, 1898, an explosion destroyed the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana Harbor. Investigations could not prove who or what was to blame for the destruction of the ship and the deaths of the 270 people aboard, but mass-circulation newspapers blamed Spain and demanded retribution.

In April the United States declared war against Spain. In adopting the Teller Amendment, Congress was careful to stress the government's humanitarian interests in Cuba. Senator Henry Teller stated that the reason for intervention was for "liberty and freedom," and not for annexation of the island.11

America's New Imperialism

"The splendid little war," as Secretary of State John Hay called the Spanish-American conflict, lasted a mere four months. The United States emerged victorious after a series of major battles in Cuba and in the Pacific Ocean. The Treaty of Paris, signed by both nations in December 1898, formally ended the war and Spain acknowledged Cuban independence.

The United States, however, remained in Cuba. Under Republican Senator O.H. Platt of Connecticut, the American government established the conditions under which Cubans would be permitted to govern themselves. The Platt Amendment stated that the U.S. government held the right to intervene in Cuban affairs to maintain peace. It also required the Cuban government to lease military bases to the United States and limited Cuban authority in negotiating treaties with other nations.

As revolutionary leaders had feared, American policy instilled in Cuba a new dependency just as the Cuban republic was born. Before his death in 1895, Cuban independence leader José Martí warned of American aid. "Once the United States is in Cuba," he remarked, "who will drive it out?"12

The Philippine War

As the treaty that ended the Spanish-American war obscured Cuban independence, it also left the status of the Philippines up to the American government. Spain, in selling the Philippine Islands to the United States, laid the foundation for a new conflict. Filipinos, like Cubans, had initially welcomed American intervention in their struggle against Spanish forces. But once war with Spain had ended and it became clear that American armies would remain to assert control over the islands, Filipino insurgents turned against the United States. The Philippine-American War was officially declared over in 1902 after three years of fighting, far longer than the Spanish-American War. The lives of thousands of U.S. soldiers were lost, and hundreds of thousands of Filipino soldiers and civilians died in the struggle. The United States succeeded in crushing Emilio Aguinaldo and his armies, and ultimately it annexed the Philippine Islands.

For Filipinos, however, the war with the United States was far from over. For thirteen years after President Theodore Roosevelt announced the end of the war in the Philippines, battles raged between U.S. troops and Filipino guerilla soldiers seeking independence. In 1915, the United States government granted the Philippines self-government and vowed to gradually return the islands to the Filipino people, but full independence and the removal of U.S. military troops would not come until 1992, nearly a century after the first shot had been fired in the Philippine-American War.13

A New Empire

For some Americans, U.S. policies in the Philippines looked quite a bit like Spanish imperialism. These anti-expansionists objected to what they perceived as an abuse of their nation's power. Many worried that, if the United States continued its pursuits, it would become entangled in too many foreign crises, spend far too much money abroad, and damage its international reputation, much like the crumbling European empires. "Dewey took Manila," one critic wrote, "with the loss of one man—and all our institutions."14 Others, like humorist Mark Twain and Progressive Jane Addams, opposed war and annexation by arguing that the U.S. government was more intent on killing Filipinos than on "civilizing" them. Andrew Carnegie sarcastically praised President McKinley for his mission in the Philippines upon learning of the thousands of Filipinos killed in the first year of the war. "About 8000 [Filipinos] have been completely civilized and sent to Heaven," he wrote. "I hope you like it."15 Still others resisted U.S. plans to annex the islands by insisting that Filipinos were an inferior race, incapable of absorbing American values.

The American anti-imperialists, like the Filipino insurgents, lost their struggle against annexation. With success declared in the Philippines in 1902, the United States kicked off a new century of aggressive policies throughout the world. It had become a new empire.

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