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At 9:40PM, on the evening of February 15th, 1898, an explosion obliterated the U.S. battleship Maine stationed in Havana Harbor.
Most of the crewmen had been sleeping in their quarters when the blast ripped through the front portion of the ship, destroying one-third of the vessel instantly. The remaining wreckage slid quickly to the harbor floor. 260 men lost their lives that night, and six more died soon after from injuries.
The disaster occurred at a time when tensions brewed between the United States and the Spanish government.
Spain had been engaged in a fierce conflict with Cuban insurgents who sought to expel the colonial power from their land. Many Americans, moved by sensational accounts of Spanish brutality and Cuban suffering, had chosen to side with the insurgents and called for U.S. intervention on their behalf. Mutual suspicion had weakened the already-strained relationship between the U.S. and Spain.
Just one week before the tragedy in Havana Harbor, the New York Journal published the full text of a private letter written by Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, a Spanish Minister, to a Spanish official in Cuba.
In it, the minister attacked President William McKinley, calling him "weak," and "a low politician," and forewarned of American intervention in support of Cuban insurgents. The American public fumed over the De Lôme letter, and demands for war against Spain increased.
But in recent years, historians have begun to argue that the destruction of the Maine didn't cause war with Spain, nor did the American public or the press force the United States government into transforming its foreign policies. Instead, these scholars have suggested, the tragedy only accelerated plans already in motion to expel the European power from the American sphere of influence. Expansionists hoped for war, they note, long before the night of February 15th, 1898.
Records of United States foreign policy prior to 1898 reveal a long history of expansion and growing interest in Latin America, the islands of the Pacific, and, even China. The urge to spread American power and influence began not with Cuba, but with the Western frontier and Mexico. The roots of the Spanish-American conflict run much deeper than the floor of the Havana Harbor where much of the USS Maine wreckage remains today.
After the Civil War, the United States economy changed significantly. War tends to do that, you know.
With a boost in industrialization, an ever-growing system of railroads, and western expansion, the newly unified nation enjoyed post-war prosperity. But by the 1870s, farmers and businessmen began to see just how vulnerable the United States economy was to depression. As factories spewed more and more manufactured products, the agricultural industry began to suffer. As conditions in farming regions began to worsen and fewer Americans were unable to afford all those manufactured goods, industrialists saw their own profits decline.
The economic downturn of the 1890s devastated agricultural business and depleted industrial profits, but factories continued to generate goods, far too many to be consumed by Americans strapped by unemployment. New waves of immigration exacerbated pressures on the economy and contributed to social strife, particularly in urban regions in the Northeast. But these newcomers provided factory employers with cheap labor that helped big industry maintain its rapid pace of production.
Business leaders, then, refused to reduce factory output. They proposed that the way to strengthen United States industry was not to produce less, but to find more customers to buy goods. For this reason, many called for greater access to foreign markets, fewer restrictions on exports, and aggressive foreign policy in "underdeveloped" regions in which civilians, if educated, could become consumers.
This idea was in no way novel. Throughout the 19th century, many European nations sought to sell goods beyond their borders to maximize profits, create new jobs, and enhance national power abroad. The United States, until the 1890s, had expanded only within the North American continent. Foreign policy prescribed isolation from any and all turmoil abroad, but by the end of the century, the U.S. federal government began to change its tune.
A State Department memorandum in 1898 declared, "We can no longer afford to disregard international rivalries now that we ourselves have become a competitor in the world-wide struggle for trade."
Born in New York in 1858, Theodore Roosevelt was a small and frail child.
Bullied for much of his youth, he became obsessed with physical fitness, strength, and "manliness." As a teen, he lifted weights and practiced boxing. As a young man studying at Harvard, he joined a fraternity, a rowing club, and competed in several boxing matches.
Still, upon completing college, doctors advised him to limit his physical activity and choose a more sedentary lifestyle. But it wasn't in Roosevelt's nature to take such advice. By the age of 26, he'd moved to the Dakota Territory to become a rancher, a hunter, and a deputy sheriff.
Not long after pursuing his dreams in the West, Roosevelt returned to New York to fulfill another.
As an avid reader with a tremendous love for history and politics, Roosevelt sought the life of a civil servant. First, he ran for mayor of New York City, but lost. In the following presidential election, he campaigned for the Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison. In 1895, Roosevelt returned to his work as a lawman and became President of the New York City Board of Police Commissioners, but just two years later, he accepted a position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, an exciting role for a man fascinated by the military.
Upon declaration of war against Spain in 1898, Roosevelt found himself itching for frontline experiences. He resigned from his post in the Navy Department and proceeded to organize a volunteer regiment of young men willing to aid the fight in Cuba. As Colonel of the "Rough Riders," Roosevelt took up arms and headed off to war.
In Rough Riders, a testimonial sketch of the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt fashioned himself a "natural leader" of the regiment, a man among often-unruly volunteer soldiers. He successfully harnessed the passions of his motley group, he wrote, to form a cohesive, organized unit.
Imagining himself carrying on the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, he assembled and commanded a distinctly "American" force, one uniting Ivy Leaguers with miners, cowboys with Native Americans, and sons of Confederate veterans with African Americans.
Upon arrival in Daiquari, Cuba in the summer of 1898, Roosevelt wrote that he and his Rough Riders struck fear in the hearts of the Spanish, saying the Spaniards "had fled even before the ships began shelling." Cuban insurgents cowered too, he recalled, as they shirked the firing line and were of "no use in serious fighting." In addition, the Spanish government ceded Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine Islands to the United States. For expansionists, these acquisitions would aid American business.
For men like Roosevelt who treasured glorious memories of the open frontier, these territories represented the new Wild West—lands to be tamed by "great and high-spirited nations."
The treaty that ended the Spanish-American War did far more than settle the conflict between the United States and Spain and cripple Cuban independence. The Treaty of Paris transferred control of the Philippines—a Spanish colony—to the United States.
For a mere $20 million, the treaty granted the U.S. the opportunity to purchase the islands. It was quite a lucrative deal, a tempting acquisition of land, resources, and a population of people that could be just what growing American industry needed.
"[O]ur only chance is to extend our American market by acquiring more trade territory," pro-expansion senators Henry Cabot Lodge and Stephen Elkins proclaimed in 1898. "With our protective tariff wall around the Philippine Islands, its ten million inhabitants, as they advance in civilization, would have to buy our goods, and we should have so much additional market for our home manufactures."
A wire from Captain Fernando Grey of the Filipino Army to headquarters illustrates just what happened next: "At nine sharp tonight, American camp started hostilities. Our forces answered enemy fire. All in their posts without fear. Await orders."
The Philippine-American War had begun.
On paper, the conflict would last just three years with President Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley's successor, declaring an end to hostilities—and U.S. victory over Aguinaldo's "rebellion"—on July 4th, 1902.
A three-year conflict, to be sure, is no small war, especially compared to the so-called "splendid little war" between the U.S. and Spain. For the Filipino people, however, the war extended over 15 years, long after Teddy Roosevelt had left office, and years after the American public had forgotten what all the fuss in the Philippines had been about. Across the water, war remained very real. Violent battles continued to rage between U.S. troops and Filipino guerilla soldiers still desperately seeking independence.
An end didn't come until 1915 when the United States agreed to Filipino demands for self-government and vowed to grant full independence to the Philippines. But the U.S. didn't fulfill its promise immediately. In fact, full Philippine independence and the removal of the last U.S. military troops wouldn't come until 1992, nearly a century after the first shot had been fired in Manila.