In the early months of 1895, Cuba was struggling to gain independence from Spain. Spain was brutally repressive towards Cuba and this was played out in the American media. Newspaper editors, politicians, and regular American citizens wanted U.S. intervention on Cuba's behalf but there was not probable cause to enter the conflict at the time. William Randolph Hearst, the editor of the "New York Journal", sent a correspondent to Cuba in 1859 to draw pictures for the newspaper. The correspondent sent word to Hearst that there was no hint that war would break out; in his reply, Hearst famously replied, "You supply the pictures and I'll supply the war."
On February 15, 1898, an explosion occurred on the USS Maine, a U.S. naval ship sent to Cuba to monitor the rebellion. The explosion was completely unexpected and a large number of the crew, 260 men, were killed as a result. Although the cause of the explosion is still being debated by naval historians and naval archaeologists today (with the primary belief today being that the cause was an internal combustion issue after decades of research), the U.S. Navy believed through its investigations that the USS Maine was destroyed by a missile fired by the Spanish.
The phrase "Remember the Maine" became a rallying cry for the U.S. as civilian citizens, military members politicians, and even the president believed that the U.S. should enter into a war with Spain.
President Grover Cleveland wanted to avoid going to war with Spain during his term and was successful; however, President McKinley was not successful. After the incident with the USS Maine, President McKinley sent the Spanish a strongly worded letter demanding a truce and an end to the brutality against the Cubans. The Spanish refused and the U.S. Congress would declare war on April 25, 1898.
The events in Cuba would trigger the Spanish-American War but the first official events of the war would kick-off in the Philippines in Southeast Asia. In late February 1898 after the incident with the USS Maine, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt had warned Commodore George Dewey to prepare for possible military action in the Philippines as these islands served as a base for part of the Spanish naval fleet. In the early morning hours of May 1, Commodore Dewey had launched a surprise attack on the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay. Most of the Spanish ships that were present would be destroyed. In July, American troops arrived in the Philippines and combined forces of the Americans and the Filipino rebels, led by Emilio Aguinaldo, would capture the city of Manila; on their own, the rebels would capture the island of Luzon and declare independence from Spain.
Back in the Caribbean, a Spanish fleet entered the Cuban harbor at Santiago on May 19. The American Navy soon blockaded the Spanish fleet, trapping them inside the harbor. About 17,000 American troops then came ashore while forces under Cuban general Calixto Garcia drove off the Spanish soldiers. As the Cuban and American forces advanced, heavy fighting followed.
As the war advanced, Theodore Roosevelt would resign from his position as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy and would join the war efforts as a commanding officer of the First Regiment of U.S. Cavalry Volunteers--known famously as the Rough Riders. On July 1, the Rough Riders charged up San Juan Hill, capturing the hill after intense fighting. Two days later, the Spanish fleet in Santiago Harbor was destroyed, bringing an end to Spanish colonial rule in Cuba. In late July, the U.S. then turned its sights on Puerto Rico and quickly took control of the island.
The Spanish-American War led to the acquisition of new territories to the United States, which included Puerto Rico and the Philippines; the U.S. also became a protectorate of Cuba via the Platt Amendment (1901) which granted Cuba its independence under the conditions that the U.S. could control the naval base at Guantanamo Bay and also intervene in Cuban affairs if the country's independence was threatened. In 1907 under the Jones Act, Puerto Rico became an official U.S. territory and all Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship; at that time, Puerto Rico wanted independence and to be its own sovereign nation whereas today many Puerto Ricans want the territory to be granted statehood.
The Philippines, however, would continue to fight for independence and would have support from anti-imperialist backers such as Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, and others. Imperialists Henry Cabot Lodge, Albert Beveridge, and others argued what they believed to be the benefits of American imperialism and in securing the islands--that the Philippines could be home to (another) Pacific naval base, that they could use the location as a trade hub with China, and that the U.S. had a duty to help "less civilized" peoples. The imperialists would win the argument and the Treaty of Paris would be ratified on February 6, 1899.
Rebellion in the Philippines would continue as the islands struggled for independence not from Spain but from the U.S. More than 4,000 Americans died in the conflict, but the Filipinos suffered much greater casualties with a death toll of 200,000 civilians and soldiers. In the summer of 1901, the U.S. transferred authority from a military government to a civilian government with William H. Taft at its head. In 1946, the Philippines would finally be granted independence.
Although the Spanish-American War was one of the shorter conflicts the U.S. was involved in, it has lasting impacts on the country today as far as international and national relations are concerned with the acquisition of lands. In 2017, Puerto Rico was ravaged by Hurricane Maria, leaving over one million people without electricity, communications technology, and their homes. Relief aid was slow to come, and many in the U.S. commonwealth are still left without homes and electricity. Today, many people don't realize that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory rather than a sovereign nation and believe that they should be left alone to deal with the fallout and the cleanup of the hurricane on their own, which arrived in the midst of an economic downturn for the territory, further straining relationships with our own people.
The next post on the blog will examine U.S. international relations and the construction of the Panama Canal.