If Capitol Walls Could Talk Essay Research

If Capitol Walls Could Talk Essay, Research Paper

Militarily, the Spanish-American War (1898) was not a monumental war. The war was brief, included few battles, and the US generally had an easy time of it, with the war’s outcome never in much doubt. Secretary of State John Hay called it a “splendid little war.” Internationally, however, the war had major historical significance.

The Spanish-American War signaled the emergence of the US as a great power onto the world stage of international relations and diplomacy. The war did not make the US a great power: the rapid industrialization and economic growth of the previous decades had done that. However, the war did announce to the rest of the world that the US was now a major player. Lifting its head from a century of isolationism and flexing its muscles against the Spanish, the US now transitioned to a vigorous role in world affairs.

The war demonstrated a US move towards imperialism (the taking of colonies). In general, this shift in policy was quite surprising, since the US, once a colony itself, had generally opposed the European colonial habit. Before the Spanish-American War, Congress even passed the Teller Amendment promising that the US would leave Cuba independent. Yet during the war or just after, the US annexed Guam, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to provide coaling stations for the US Navy throughout the world, as called for by the theories of strategist Alfred T. Mahan. There has been some debate among historians over whether 1898 was a rare moment of US imperialism or the beginning of a long period of informal imperialism accomplished through economic domination. The war also described a pattern extant through much of the 20th century: just as the Philippines and other annexed nations struggled against US rule, US interference in world affairs would not always be welcomed by the smaller nations that fell under Uncle Sam’s increasingly tall shadow. The most immediate effect of anger over US interference lay in the 1899-1901 war waged by Emilio Aguinaldo and the Filipinos against the US, which was actually bloodier than the Spanish-American War itself. American embroilment in a military quagmire with an Asian nationalist group over independence seems oddly familiar to later American involvement in Korea and Vietnam, again showing that the Spanish- American War was a sign of things to come.

The war also revealed the growing power of the media to control public opinion in the US. Around the turn of the century and most powerfully just before and during the war, newspapermen like Hearst and Pulitzer practiced yellow journalism, sensationalizing stories and whipping the public into a frenzy for the simple purpose of increasing circulation. There is a great deal of historical proof that the “yellow journalists” tried to instigate the Spanish- American war because they knew war would help sell more newspapers. The role of the newspapers in this war foreshadowed the increasing importance of the media in shaping public opinion regarding wars, as would be seen increasingly in all successive US wars, culminating with the Vietnam War and the Gulf War. In this way, the Spanish-American War was very modern, arguably the first “media war” in American history.

Finally, the Spanish-American War revealed that industrialization in the late 19th century had made the US a great power. Now, as the frontier in the American West disappeared, the nation sought new room to grow: world markets, protected by a worldwide Navy based on island territories throughout the world. Furthermore, new ideas of “Social Darwinism” in the period suggested to many Americans that international relations were a nasty contest in which the “fittest” nations would do what they had to in order to survive. Regardless of the reasons behind annexation, the Spanish-American War and the colonies it brought to the US marked, for good and for ill, the beginning of the modern era of US intervention in world affairs. And the emergence of the US onto the international stage as a power also symbolized to many that the US had finally emerged, whole and healthy, from the era of the Civil Wat.

Cuba had long been a colony of Spain, with almost its entire economy based on sugar production. As the second half of the 19th century wore on, many people in Cuba, which had been a Spanish colony, became dissatisfied with the ruling Spanish regime. The Spanish government was riddled with corruption, inefficient, and unwilling to grant the Cuban population any concessions.

Despite obvious Cuban dissatisfaction, the Spanish authorities refused to grant any amount of self-government to the Cubans. As a result, Cuban Nationalists, who wanted to end Spanish rule, fought the Ten Years’ War against the Spaniards from 1868-1878. The rebellion finally petered out, though the dissatisfaction motivating the fighting did not disappear. After the war, the Spanish promised reforms, but the Nationalists considered this too little, too late.

When a Nationalist-initiated conflict broke out again in Cuba in 1895, the Spanish, remembering the lengthy Ten Years’ War, sent 200,000 troops to Cuba. The Cuban insurrectos responded by wrecking Spanish property in hopes that the Spanish would leave, or at least hoping for US intervention (since the US had significant economic investment in Cuba). The insurrectos directed their destructive rampage at both sugar mills and sugar fields.

In 1896, the Spanish sent the infamous General Weyler, known as “The Butcher,” to Cuba to put down the insurrection. Weyler lived up to his name. To prevent the insurrectos from leading the population against Spanish rule, Weyler built concentration camps in which he imprisoned a large portion of the population. Under the harsh and unsanitary conditions in the concentration camps, Cuban prisoners died rapidly, especially from disease.

Segments of the US public, outraged by reports of atrocities in Cuba, immediately cried out for action. President Grover Cleveland (1893-1897), however, was dead set against going to war. He issued an ultimatum: even if Congress passed a declaration of war, he vowed as commander-in-chief of the army to never send the military to Cuba.


The Cuban Nationalists moved against Spain partly because they thought the US likely to come to their aid. The US was investing increasing amounts of money into Cuban sugar production ($50 million by 1895) and conducted a trade with Cuba worth $100 million annually. From the 1860s on, the US had even tried to purchase Cuba from Spain several times.

Other causes underlying the 1895 Cuban revolt include a general opposition to a long history of Spanish control, and the more immediate effects of the American Wilson-Gorman Tariff of 1894. The tariff, which raised prices on sugar imported from Cuba in order to protect US sugar growers, ended up hurting the Cuban economy significantly. Hard times in Cuba led to public unrest and conflict with the Spanish regime. However, it should be noted that although Spanish atrocities against the Cubans are often emphasized, both sides in the Cuban conflict beginning in 1895 killed civilians and destroyed private property.

The US was alarmed by developments in Cuba and had sympathies with the insurrectos from the beginning. First and foremost, the US was always concerned about having a strong European power just offshore the Florida coast. The Spanish, who were considered (wrongly) to have a powerful Navy at the time, posed a potential threat to US trade in the Caribbean. With the Panama Canal on the collective US drawing boards, US policymakers were particularly concerned with the future of maritime shipping in the Caribbean. And of course, the US had financial reasons for wanting to stop the conflict. As mills and plantations went up in flames, American leaders and businessmen increasingly feared that American investments in Cuba might be harmed, not to mention American citizens currently in Cuba.Less specific to the region, the US had long held a position of anti-colonial tradition, originating fromt he fact that the US had once been a set of colonies that had themselves #revolted against their British overlords#{history/american/revolution}#. Americans quickly drew parallels between themselves and the Cubans, seeing the Cubans as facing a similar situation to the one the 13 colonies had faced. For all these reasons, the US was happy to have an excuse to oppose the Spanish.

None of the above events or commentary seem to suggest that the after the Spanish-American War in 1898 the US would annex several territories (taking colonies). However, in many ways, the early 1890s were the perfect incubator for imperialist expansion at the end of the decade. The Depression of 1893-1897 and the continuing switch from a predominately agricultural export economy to one in which manufactured goods were the primary export combined to fuel the search for foreign markets. The actions of the US during and just after the Spanish-American War can thus be seen as a redefinition of values, or as an illumination of the separate values simultaneously animating American policy and public debate.

The atrocities General Weyler committed in Cuba were massively hyped and sensationalized in the US newspapers, then engaged in a practice known as “yellow journalism”. The two kingpins of the press at the time were William R. Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who were embroiled in a vicious circulation war, in which Hearst even “stole” Pulitzer’s most popular writers by convincing them to defect through promises of money and positions. Hearst’s major publication was the New York Journal and Pulitzer’s publication was the New York World. In order to grow their circulations, both men were willing to go so far as to make up stories.

In response to the rumors of Weyler’s abuses emerging from Cuba around 1896, Hearst sent artists to Cuba to paint and draw the atrocities, in hopes that the pictures would sell more papers. Foremost among Hearst’s artists was Frederic Remington. After arriving in Cuba, Remington reported back to Hearst that the rumors were overblown. To this, Hearst famously replied, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Although Hearst’s statement was egomaniacal and boastful, it was not all that far from the truth. Remington’s pictures in Hearst’s magazines did a great deal to arouse mass concern for Cuba in the US.

Though American yellow journalism exaggerated Weyler’s activities, those exaggeration were nonetheless based in some measure of fact. Realizing that Weyler had gotten out of hand in Cuba, Spain recalled him in 1897, hoping to quiet the yellow presses. Back in Spain, some citizens and legislators started discussing Cuban independence from Spain. The Spaniards in Cuba, who were afraid their property and their lives might be in danger if Cuba got independence, immediately started rioting.


Hearst upped his circulation by producing a new kind of paper, one with mass- market appeal. His papers used lots of pictures and illustrations, large headlines, and the like. Reducing the cost of a paper to as little as a single cent a copy, Hearst made his newspapers accessible to nearly everyone. Because he controlled so much of the market for newspapers, a market that was rapidly growing because of his newspapers, Hearst could practically dictate what the country would think the next day.

The whole point of yellow journalism was to produce exciting, sensational stories, even if the truth had to be stretched or a story had to be made up. These stories would boost sales, something very important in this period, when newspapers and magazines were battling for circulation numbers. In regard to the situation in Cuba in the mid-1890s, yellow journalism sought to exploit the atrocities in Cuba to sell more magazines and newspapers. The papers depicted Spanish behavior as exaggeratedly bad, and political cartoons depicted “Spain” as a nearly subhuman and brutal monster, while “Cuba” was usually depicted as a pretty white girl being pushed around by the Spanish monster. Once US opinions were inflamed over Cuba, Hearst in particular tried to do everything he could to whip the public into such a frenzy that a war would start. Once the country was at war, Hearst had little doubt his papers would have no end of interesting and sensational articles to publish.

In keeping with the philosophy of yellow journalism, Remington, actually did paint a one or two patently false pictures. For instance, he drew some pictures of an American woman being brutally searched by Spanish male security forces. This apparently never happened, as only female officials searched American females coming into the country. In addition, Remington’s famous painting of the Rough Riders charging up San Juan Hill was based not on the actual charge, but on a reenactment performed by the Rough Riders. That a military force would “redo” part of a battle for the sake of the media shows just serious a matter American leaders took the yellow press to be. Yellow journalism did not, ultimately, start the war on its own; it was the sinking of the USS Maine that provided the trigger, not some fabricated story created by Hearst of Pulitzer. Nonetheless, Hearst always referred to the Spanish- American War as “the Journal’s war.” In support of Hearst’s boastful term, many historians argue that the Spanish-American War was probably the first true “media war”.

The Spanish-American War was not the height of Hearst’s power. Afterwards, he continued to grow his media empire for several decades, and even successfully ran for a seat in Congress. Only in the 1930s did his business start to collapse. A controversial figure in American history, Hearst was the rough basis for the wealthy journalist-baron in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane.

Concerned with the situation in Cuba, in January 1897 the US sent a warship, the USS Maine, to Cuba under captain Charles D. Sigsbee. The Maine’s mission was purportedly friendly, its job to investigate the situation and provide an escape for American should things get out of hand. Shortly after the Maine set out, Hearst’s newspaper intercepted a letter from Spain’s minister in Washington, Dupuy du Lome. The letter spoke rudely of President McKinley. Of course, Hearst did not refrain from publishing the scandalous Lome letter. The letter appeared in the February 9, 1898 of the New York Journal. The letter outraged Americans and embarrassed Spain. Dupuy du Lome was forced to resign over the matter, and tensions between the US and Spain increased.

Six days after Hearst published the Lome letter, the USS Maine sailed into Havana harbor. The surprised Spanish, who had only been given a few hours notice that the Maine was coming, were quite upset. Although the Maine claimed to be on a friendly mission, it was a powerful warship. The Spanish authorities felt that the US was trying to intimidate them and was interfering with Spanish sovereignty by trying to affect Spanish policy toward the Cuban insurrectos.

On February 15, 1898, in an event that still remains a mystery, the Maine suddenly exploded as it sailed around Havana harbor. This was a tragedy for the United States, as 260 out of 350 American sailors and officers died in the explosion. Hearst’s newspaper immediately published a story with the headline, “The Warship Maine Was Split In Two By An Enemy’s Secret Infernal Machine!” The destruction of the Maine created an uproar in America, which, influenced by Hearst, immediately held Spain responsible. In fact, the details of the explosion were still not clear. Investigations by both the US and Spain began, and not surprisingly, they disagreed. While the Spanish investigation team claimed that the explosion was only an accident caused by some internal problem on the ship, the American investigation said the explosion must have been caused by a Spanish mine in the harbor. The yellow press exploited this story, whipping the US into an anti-Spanish frenzy. Newspaper circulation soared as the public demanded war with Spain. War would come, and when it did, the cry of “Remember the Maine” would be heard frequently.


Why did the US send the Maine to Cuba? Officially the claim was that it was simply a normal patrol, more of a friendly fact-finding mission than anything else. The real mission of the Maine was probably geared towards protecting US interests. Should a crisis approximating the 1897 riots by insurrectos break out, the US wanted a warship in the vicinity ready to evacuate American citizens in Cuba. And of course, the US had long been interested in increasing American influence in Cuba. Perhaps the Maine was a first step in this direction.

The true nature of the USS Maine explosion has long been one of the great mysteries of American history. At the time, Americans already had a negative view of Spain and almost instantaneously concluded that the explosion was caused by Spanish treachery. For a while after the Spanish-American War, most people accepted the answer that the American investigative commission gave: that a Spanish torpedo or mine blew up the Maine. The Spanish investigative commission, which was never allowed very close to the Maine’s wreck anyway, disagreed. According to the Spanish side of the story, some internal problem with the ship caused the explosion. Perhaps a boiler or a combustion engine exploded, they said. It turns out that they Spanish interpretation may well have been correct. In the 1970s, Admiral Hyman Rickover of the US Navy took another look at the Maine. According to Rickover’s investigation, it appeared most likely that an internal mechanical problem had caused a stockpile of ammunition and gunpowder stored nearby to explode. Rickover’s conclusion was almost identical to the Spanish claims. A third possibility, that the US intentionally exploded the Maine in order to give the nation a reason for going to war, seems to be an unlikely conspiracy theory with little supporting evidence. Nonetheless, some in Cuba hold this theory today. And despite Rickover’s study in the 1970s, the case is still not settled. A later investigation by the Smithsonian turned up numerous plots against the Maine, suggesting a mine or some type of sabotage. Computer modeling studies financed by National Geographic have demonstrated that, based on the wreckage, the explosion could have been caused by either a mine or an internal mechanical accident. Most likely, the causes behind the explosion of the USS Maine will never be known with complete certainty. But whatever the reason for the explosion, the event played directly into the hands of pro-war hawks, jingoists, and yellow journalists like Hearst.

Was the Maine explosion an unfortunate accident that pushed the US into a war that might otherwise have been avoided? Possibly, but given US actions prior to the explosion (such as the Maine’s voyage to Cuba or Theodore Roosevelt’s orders to Commodore George Dewey to attack the Spanish fleet at Manila in the case of a war with Spain), it seems that the United States had been gearing up for war prior to the explosion. The Maine explosion just provided the impetus.

After the explosion of the USS Maine, the US public was whipped up into an anti-Spanish hysteria. Despite Spain’s desire to avoid war and President William McKinley’s distaste for war, the yellow press continued feeding the public’s appetite for anti-Spanish news. Hawks like then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt loudly criticized the reluctant McKinley for being weak and afraid.

Although he disagreed with the public’s demands for war, McKinley finally submitted to the various pressure exerted on him. The Maine had exploded in Mid-February, and on April 11, 1898, McKinley finally sent a message to Congress giving his support for a declaration of war on Spain. Congress, which now had the President’s word that he would not block a war with Spain as Cleveland had threatened to do, was ecstatic. On April 24, 1898 Spain declared war on the US. The next day, on April 25, the US declared war on Spain. The US public was exuberant, and the people celebrated as the country cheerfully went to war.

In order to prove the righteousness of the US cause, Congress decided to send a message to the European powers, many of whom believed the American war against Spain to be an imperialistic land-grab, an effort to assume control of Cuba from Spain. Congress passed the Teller Amendment in May 1898, in which the US promised not to annex Cuba, but to liberate it as an independent state. Thus, the US claimed to be fighting the war not for selfish gain, but to liberate an oppressed people and promote justice in the world.


Even directly before the war, some people on both sides were trying to avoid conflict. Spain wanted to avoid war at all costs, and the Spanish diplomats to Washington promised to end the concentration camps and make peace with the insurrectos. The US would not have it, demanding only one thing: complete Spanish withdrawal from Cuba and a recognition of Cuban independence. Spain refused. American public opinion now rested decidedly against the Spanish, and because of the way the yellow press had covered the explosion of the USS Maine, most of the country distrusted everything the Spanish said.

Oddly enough, President McKinley also opposed the War. McKinley, who was closely tied to Wall Street and business networks, knew that most businessmen were against going to war. Mark Hanna, wealthy businessman and a leading advisor of McKinley, told McKinley to try and avoid war. Businessmen did not want a war with Spain because they feared that the destabilizing effects of a war might hurt the US economy. So why didn’t McKinley use his powers as Commander-and-Chief to prevent the war from being carried out, as President Cleveland had threatened to do a few years earlier? The question was one McKinley wrestled with. A staunch believer in the democratic process, it was McKinley’s personal philosophy that the people should get what they wanted, even if he knew that what they wanted would end up being bad for them.

McKinley had other concerns behind his decision to go to war. He was constantly being criticized by Theodore Roosevelt and other warmongers for a “lack of backbone”. (Of course, in the hysterical frenzy of 1898, not supporting war was actually a very brave stand.) McKinley also was afraid that not going to war would give the Democrats and his arch-nemesis, William Jennings Bryan, a campaign issue to use against the Republicans in 1900. McKinley knew that if he refused to send in the troops after Congress declared war, the Democrats would use this fact to destroy him in the 1900 election. Finally, a highly devout Christian, McKinley claimed to have been commanded in a dream to send the country to war. Conveniently, the religious experience coincided perfectly with the various pressures forced on McKinley at the time. And even at the same time as he committed the US to war because of a belief in democracy and a religious experience, he still couldn’t help but hope that, “perhaps it will pay.”

In passing the Teller Amendment, the US was trying to prove itself different from the European imperialist powers by not annexing territory as everyone expected it to, but actually opposing imperialist oppression in the world. Of course, pushing Spain out of Cuba would serve American interests even if the US did not formally own Cuba. US business would still have a dominant trade with an independent Cuba and pushing the Spanish out would create more a more stable and safe shipping zone in the Caribbean. As events would show, US behavior in the war did not exactly accord to the spirit of the Teller Amendment, though Cuba was allowed its independence.

After the declaration of war in April, the Spanish fleet was quickly sent to Cuba under Admiral Pascual Cervera. The ten boats in Cervera’s command were in truly horrible condition. Of the 10 rotting ships, only 7 actually made it to Cuba. The other 3 had to be abandoned along the way. Despite the rather pathetic nature of the Spanish fleet, Americans on the Eastern seaboard became very frightened of a potential Spanish invasion of the US. Eventually, Cervera’s decrepit fleet limped into Santiago harbor in Cuba, where they were blockaded by the US Navy.

With the Spanish fleet contained, the US planned a landing of the US Army, which would then attack the Spanish from the rear. The landing was made under the command of General William R. Shafter, a veteran of the Civil War. Shafter was so fat and ill with gout that his men had to carry him around on a door; he matched that dubious physical condition with an uninspiring talent at logistics and strategy. The US had absolutely no experience fighting in the tropics, and the unprepared US Army showed up in Cuba with vast supplies of wool clothing.

Better equipped for the job in Cuba were the famous “Rough Riders”, a ragtag group of volunteers fighting for the US. Most of them were cowboys, but all kinds of colorful characters, from the wealthy thrill-seekers to former criminals, found their way into the unit, which was commanded by Colonel Leonard Wood. The Rough Rider officer best remembered, however, was no doubt Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt, ever a fan of strenuous activity and competition, had resigned his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to fight in the war. Roosevelt had absolutely no military experience, and the military had even had to bend some rules to let him in with his terrible nearsightedness. Keeping enough glasses on hand for Roosevelt, so he could still see if the ones he was wearing broke, was a difficult task.

US forces landed at Santiago without having to fight the Spanish, as the Spanish proved even more confused than the Americans. On July 1, 1898, the first major land battles of the war were fought at El Caney and at San Juan Hill. The Battle of San Juan Hill was famous because the “Rough Riders”, walking since many of their horses did not arrive in Cuba, charged up the hill. The battle was soon immortalized in a Frederic Remington painting (mentioned earlier in the Commentary on Yellow Journalism. The US won both battles, though the “Rough Riders” suffered heavy losses. Roosevelt, for his part, enjoyed himself immensely, and even shot a Spanish soldier. These battles proved decisive.

Now that the war was almost over, the US quickly moved to occupy Spanish-owned Puerto Rico. On August 12, 1898, the Spanish signed an armistice ending the fighting.

From the signing of the armistice in August up until late 1898, Spanish and American diplomats met in Paris to argue over the terms of the peace agreement that would end the Spanish-American War. Most of the terms did not require serious debate. Of course, Cuba would become independent from Spain, with the intention that US occupation forces would eventually leave Cuba to become a free nation, as the Teller Amendment had promised. Also, the US would get Guam, a small Spanish island colony that the US had taken by surprise attack, as well as Puerto Rico. US acquisition of Puerto Rico ended several centuries of Spanish presence in the western hemisphere.

The only major contested issue in the Treaty of Paris was the question of what would happen to the Philippines. Because of Dewey’s decisive victory at Manila, President McKinley refused to just give the islands back to Spain, an act he felt would be a cowardly betrayal of the Filipino people. The Spanish, however, had a legitimate complaint. Since it took so long for US ground troops to reinforce Dewey, the actual surrender of Manila, the capital of the Philippines, took place after the American-Spanish armistice was signed. Technically, the US should have stopped all fighting, so the Spanish claimed that the US conquest of the Philippines did not count. The American negotiators offered the Spanish a deal: $20 million dollars for the Philippines. The Spanish accepted this offer.

The question of what to do with the Philippines remained, however. American leaders decided that granting the Philippines self-government would be a prelude to disaster. They came to their decision not only because they had a feeling the Filipinos weren’t ready to govern themselves, but because it seemed likely that some other European power would annex the country in short order. In particular, the US was afraid Germany might invade, especially after the German fleet’s ominous attempts to intimidate Dewey. Therefore, the US decided to annex the Philippines, in order to “educate and Christianize” the Filipinos. The ultimate goal was to eventually make the Philippines independent, once it was “ready” for self-government. No specific timetable for independence was provided, however.

On December 10, 1898, the US and Spain signed the Treaty of Paris.




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