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Spanish-American War

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History -- Military history -- War

The Spanish-American War took place in 1898, and resulted in the United States of America gaining control over the former colonies of Spain in the Caribbean and Pacific.

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Background For many centuries Spain's postion as a world power had been slipping away. By the late nineteenth century the nation was left only a few scattered possessions in the Pacific, Africa, and the West Indies. Much of the empire had gained its independence and a number of the areas still under Spanish control were clamoring to do so. Geurilla forces were operating in the Phillipines, and had, for decades, been present in Cuba. The Spanish government did not have the financial or the manpower resources to deal with these revolts and thus turned to expedients of building camps to seperate the rebels from their rural base of support. The Spaniards also carried out many executions of suspected rebels and harshly treated villages and individuals thought to be supporting them. By the end of the 1890s the rebels had msotly been defeated and Cuba was returning to a relative peace. In the long run, however, Spain's postion was completely untenable.

These events in Cuba conicided in the 1890s with a struggle for readership between the American newspaper chains of Hearst and Pulitzer. One of the most popular features were tales of great atrocities (some based on fact, some not) which the 'cruel Spanish masters' were inflicting on the 'hapless native Cubans' (see: Black Legend). Cuban. Sections of the American people began pushing for intervention.

There were other pressures pushing towards war. The US navy had recently grown considerably, but it was still untested. The Navy had drawn up plans for attacking the Spanish in the Philippines over a year before hostilities broke out. The end of western expansion and of large scale conflict with the First Nations also left the army with little to do, and army leadership hoped taht some new task would come. From an early date many in the US had felt that Cuba was rightly theirs. The theory of manifest destiny made the island just off the coast of Florida seem very attractive. Much of the island's economy was laready in American hands, and most of its trade, much of wich was black market, was with the US. Some business leaders pushed for conflict as well. In the words of Senator Thurston of Nebraska: "War with Spain would increase the business and earnings of every American railroad, it would increase the output of every American factory, it would stimulate every branch of industry and domestic commerce."

In Spain the government was not entirely averse to war. The US was an unproven power. The Spanish navy, however decrepid, had a glorious history and it was thought it could be a match for the US. There was also a widely held notion among Spain's aristocratic leaders that the United States' ethnically mixed army and navy could never survive under severe pressure.

The Start of the War On February 15, 1898 the American battleship USS Maine in Havana harbor suffered an explosion and quickly sunk with a loss of 260 men. Evidence as to the cause of the explosion was inconclusive and contradictory, but the American press, lead by the two New York papers, proclaimed that this was certainly a despicable act of sabatoge by the Spaniards. The press aroused the public to demand war, with the slogan "Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!".

(Expert opinion is still divided, some now consider an accidental explosion of coal fuel to be as likely a reason as any for the ship's fate. Others think a mine could have been the cause. Some believe it could well have been sabotage, but by Cuban revolutionaries who hoped to draw the US into the war. Almost all agree the Spaniards would have no interest in provoking a war)

US President William McKinley was not inclined towards war, and had long held out against intervention, but the Maine explosion so forcefully shaped public opinion that he had to agree. Spanish minister Práxedes Mateo Sagasta[?] did much to try to prevent this, including withdrawing the officials in Cuba against whom complaints had been made, and offering the Cubans autonomy. This was well short of full independence for Cuba, however and would do littel to change the status quo.

Thus On April 11 McKinley went before Congress to ask for authority to send American troops to Cuba for the purpose of ending the civil war there. On April 19 Congress passed joint resolutions proclaiming Cuba "free and independent", demanded Spanish withdrawal, and authorized the President to use such military force as he thought necessary. In response Spain broke off diplomatic relations with the United States. On April 25 US Congress declared that a state of war between the United States and Spain had existed since April 21st.

The Philippines The first battle was in the Philippines where on May 1, Commodore George Dewey commanding the United States Pacific fleet, in six hours defeated the Spanish squadron, under Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasarón[?], at the Battle of Manila Bay. Meanwhile Philippine nationalists led by Emilio Aguinaldo attacked the Spanish on land, and many of the Spanish troops surrendered.

Cuba In Cuba the American navy met the Spanish Atlantic fleet in Santiago Bay[?] on July 3. The Americans defeated the Spanish and gained control of the waterways around Cuba. This prevetned resupply of the Spanish forces and also allowed the US to land its considerable forces safely on the island.

In Cuba Theodore ("Teddy") Roosevelt became a war hero when he led a charge at the battle of San Juan Hill outside of Santiago as lieutenant colonel of the Rough Riders Regiment on July 1. The Americans were aided in Cuba by the pro-independence rebels lead by General Calixto García[?].

The ground war had far more problems dealing with heat a disease than the Spanish forces, and within a month the island was in US hands.

End of the War With both fleets incapacitated, Spain realized her forces in the Pacific and Caribbean could not be supplied or reinforced, so Spain sued for peace.

Hostilities were halted on August 12. The formal Peace Treaty was signed in Paris on December 10, 1898 and was ratified by the United States Senate on February 6, 1899.

The United States gained almost all of Spain's colonies including Cuba, The Phillipines, Guam and Peurto Rico.

Aftermath On August 14, 1898, 11,000 ground troops were sent to occupy the Philippines. When US troops began to take the place of the Spanish in control of the country, warfare broke out between US forces and the Filipinos. A long and bloody war was fought (unsuccessfully) to quash the Filipino desire for independence, with thousands of military and civilian casualties. (see: Philippine-American War)

The Spanish-American War is significant as it saw the US emerge as the equal of any European power. It was also the start of the American Empire in which America would be forced to manage the affairs of several small colonies, much like the Empires of Europe.

Congress had passed a resolution in favor of Cuban independence before the war started, and after debate the USA decided to allow this, although American forces occupied Cuba until January 28, 1909. The USA annexed the former Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico, The Philippines, and Guam. The idea of the United States as an imperial power with foreign colonies was hotly debated domestically, with President McKinley and the Pro-Imperialists winning their way over vocal opposition. The American public largely supported the possession of colonies, but there were many outspoken ciritcs such as Mark Twain.

The Spanish-American War is also famous for its "yellow journalism." Newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst is reported to have responded to a request by illustrator Frederick Remington's to return from a Havana that was quiet, by saying, "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." (Orson Welles deliberately mocked this particular quote in the movie Citizen Kane.) The Hearst papers did much to agitate public sentiment in favor of war before it started.

According to data from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, the last surviving U.S. veteran of the conflict, Nathan E. Cook, died on September 10, 1992 at the age of 106.


William Glackens: A Street scene at Tampa City
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SEE ALSO: Battles of the Spanish-American War

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