"Torn from their homes, with foul earth, foul air, foul water, and foul food or none, what wonder that one-half have died and that one-quarter of the living are so diseased that they can not be saved?"
Excerpt from a speech to the U.S. Senate, March 17, 1898
Reprinted from the Congressional Record of the 55th Congress,
Second Session, Volume XXXI
Published in 1898
In March 1898, U.S. president William McKinley (1843-1901; served 1897-1901; see entry in Biographies section) faced pressure to wage war against Spain in Cuba. The month before, on February 15, the U.S. warship Maine had exploded mysteriously in the harbor at Havana, Cuba, killing more than 250 people aboard. Spain's three-year-old war with Cuban revolutionaries fighting for their independence was hurting America's $100 million annual trade with the island. American newspapers reported that hundreds of thousands of Cuban civilians had died in concentration camps, imprisoned by Spanish general Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau (1838-1930).
McKinley was desperately avoiding war, however. As a Christian and as one who had seen the horrors of combat in the American Civil War (1861-65), McKinley wanted to negotiate for peace. He also feared that a war would hurt America's booming economy, which had recovered from a depression begun in 1893. Despite the revolution's negative impact on America's trade with Cuba, leading U.S. newspapers and business magazines joined McKinley in opposing war, even after the Maine exploded.
That winter, Senator Redfield Proctor (1831-1908), a Republican from Vermont, traveled to Cuba to assess the revolution. While newspapers reported that Proctor went at McKinley's request, Proctor insisted that he went only for himself. When he returned, the horror of what he had seen moved him to prepare a speech to the U.S. Senate, which he delivered at the urging of colleagues on March 17, 1898.
Things to remember while reading Proctor's speech to the U.S. Senate:
• President McKinley neither wanted nor expected Proctor to deliver the speech on March 17. Proctor visited McKinley at the White House to share his statement with the president before going on to the Capitol. When McKinley asked Proctor if he would deliver the speech later that day, Proctor said no because he wanted to have it type-written first. When Proctor arrived at the cloakroom in the Capitol, however, Senator Frye of Maine urged Proctor to give the speech, literally pushing him into the Senate chamber. Afterwards, a close friend of McKinley's, Senator Mark Hanna, told Proctor, "Had I known what you meant to do, I should have got down on my knees and tried to stop you," according to Gerald F. Linderman in The Mirror of War.
Speech by Senator Redfield Proctor to the U.S. Senate, March 17, 1898
Mr. President, more importance seems to be attached by others to my recent visit to Cuba than I have given it, and it has been suggestedthat I make a public statement of what I saw and how the situation impressed me. This I do on account of the public interest in all that concerns Cuba, and to correct some inaccuracies that have, not unnaturally, appeared in reported interviews with me.
My trip was entirely unofficial and of my own motion, not suggested by anyone. The only mention I made of it to the President was to say to him that I contemplated such a trip and to ask him if there was any objection to it; to which he replied that he could see none. No one but myself, therefore, is responsible for anything in this statement.…
Outside Habana all is changed. It is not peace nor is it war. It is desolation and distress, misery and starvation. Every town and village is surrounded by a "trocha" (trench), a sort of rifle pit, but constructed on a plan new to me, the dirt being thrown up on the inside and a barbed-wire fence on the outer side of the trench. These trochas have at every corner and at frequent intervals along the sides what are there called forts, but which are really small blockhouses, many of them more like large sentry boxes, loopholed for musketry, and with a guard of from two to ten soldiers in each.
The purpose of these trochas is to keep the reconcentrados in as well as to keep the insurgents out. From all the surrounding country the people have been driven in to these fortified towns and held there to subsist as they can. They are virtually prison yards, and not unlike one in general appearance, except that the walls are not so high and strong; but they suffice, where every point is in range of a soldier's rifle, to keep in the poor reconcentrado women and children.…
Their huts are about 10 by 15 feet in size, and for want of space are usually crowded together very closely. They have no floor but the ground, no furniture, and, after a year's wear, but little clothing except such stray substitutes as they can extemporize ; and with large families, or more than one, in this little space, the commonest sanitary provisions are impossible. Conditions are unmentionable in this respect. Torn from their homes, with foul earth, foul air, foul water, and foul food or none, what wonder that one-half have died and that one-quarter of the living are so diseased that they can not be saved? A form of dropsy is a common disorder resulting from these conditions. Little children are still walking about with arms and chest terribly emaciated, eyes swollen, and abdomen bloated to three times the natural size. The physicians say these cases are hopeless.
Deaths in the streets have not been uncommon. I was told by one of our consuls that they have been found dead about the markets in the morning, where they had crawled, hoping to get some stray bits of food from the early hucksters, and that there had been cases where they had dropped dead inside the market surrounded by food. Before Weyler's order, these people were independent and self-supporting. There are not beggars even now. There are plenty of professional beggars in every town among the regular residents, but these country people, the reconcentrados, have not learned the art. Rarely is a hand held out to you for alms when going among their huts, but the sight of them makes an appeal stronger than words.…
I inquired in regard to autonomy of men of wealth and men as prominent in business as any in the cities of Habana, Matanzas, and Sagua, bankers, merchants, lawyers, and autonomist officials, some of them Spanish born but Cuban bred, one prominent Englishman, several of them known as autonomists, and several of them telling me they were still believers in autonomy if practicable, but without exception they replied that it was "too late" for that.
Some favored a United States protectorate, some annexation, some free Cuba; not one has been counted favoring the insurrection at first. They were business men and wanted peace, but said it was too late for peace under Spanish sovereignty. They characterized Weyler's order in far stronger terms than I can. I could not but conclude that you do not have to scratch an autonomist very deep to find a Cuban. There is soon to be an election, but every polling place must be inside a fortified town. Such elections ought to be safe for the "ins."
I have endeavored to state in not intemperate mood what I saw and heard, and to make no argument thereon, but leave everyone to draw his own conclusions. To me the strongest appeal is not the barbarity practiced by Weyler nor the loss of the Maine , if our worst fears should prove true, terrible as are both of these incidents, but the spectacle of a million and a half of people, the entire native population of Cuba, struggling for freedom and deliverance from the worst misgovernment of which I ever had knowledge. But whether our action ought to be influenced by any one or all these things, and, if so, how far, is another question.…
But it is not my purpose at this time, nor do I consider it my province, to suggest any plan. I merely speak of the symptoms as I saw them, but do not undertake to prescribe. Such remedial steps asmay be required may safely be left to an American President and the American people.
What happened next…
According to Gerald F. Linderman in The Mirror of War, "Redfield Proctor's half-hour speech so excited the proponents of war and converted the proponents of peace that it supplied the nation's final propulsion to war against Spain." On March 19, the Wall Street Journal reported that Proctor had convinced many business leaders on Wall Street to support war. Many conservative journals that had opposed war, such as the American Banker, now spoke out in favor of it. By April 11, McKinley reluctantly asked Congress to give him the authority to use America's armed forces to end Spanish control of Cuba.
Did you know…
• Before becoming a senator, Proctor owned the Vermont Marble Company (the world's largest marble company in 1903). Although he resigned as company president and director to serve as senator, he still controlled the company unofficially in 1898. After Proctor delivered his speech to the Senate, antiwar Congressman Thomas Reed accused the senator of serving his business interests by speaking out in favor of war. According to Linderman, Reed said, "Proctor's position might have been expected. A war will make a large market for gravestones."
For More Information
Foner, Philip S. The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972.
Congressional Record of the 55th Congress, Second Session, Volume XXXI. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office (daily edition, March 17, 1898).