Treaty and Imperialism

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Treaty and Imperialism

The Spanish-American War began on April 21, 1898, when the United States decided to fight Spain for control of the Spanish colony of Cuba. Though it initially stayed out of the conflict between Spain and Cuba, the United States eventually decided it had to intervene to protect its financial interests in Cuba and the welfare of the Cuban people, who were being severely mistreated at the hands of the Spanish.

When the United States went to war with Spain, Cuba had a thriving economy based primarily on sugarcane, tobacco, and coffee production. Americans had $50 million invested in businesses on the island. Such interests were the primary reason the United States intervened in the Cuban revolution.

A shift to imperialism

Imperialism is the act of controlling people in foreign lands. The United States of America owed its very existence to the spirit of anti-imperialism. In 1776, white men from thirteen colonies declared independence from the empire of Great Britain and set out to govern themselves. The famous revolutionary cry against taxation without representation captured the unfairness of being governed without participating in the government. Owing their very freedom to anti-imperialism, early Americans were critical of several European countries' practice of holding foreign colonies.

Prior to 1898, the United States did not have any colonies. To be sure, the United States committed its own share of atrocities as it grew from thirteen colonies to span the North American continent. White Americans captured Africans and sold them into slavery. The federal government removed Native Americans from their homelands, forcing them onto reservations. The United States fought Mexico from 1846 to 1848 to acquire land stretching from Texas to California. Between 1798 and 1895, U.S. armed forces intervened no fewer than 103 times in the affairs of foreign nations.

In the late 1800s, Americans were starting a heated debate over imperialism. Imperialists believed the United States needed to acquire foreign colonies to provide markets for its goods. U.S. manufacturers already were producing $2 billion more products than Americans could consume each year. Imperialists also felt that having colonies made a country appear powerful. Great Britain, Germany, and Japan were building empires, so why shouldn't the United States?

Anti-imperialists believed America needed only to negotiate favorable trade agreements with foreign countries to provide markets for American goods. Many felt that acquiring colonies would burden the United States with financial responsibilities and foreign disputes. Some also clung to the honorable notion that colonies and imperialism are undemocratic.

When the United States prepared for war with Spain in April 1898, the national debate over imperialism led to a congressional document called the Teller Amendment, which promised Cuban independence. Senator Henry Teller of Colorado asked his country to pledge, "That the United States hereby disclaims [denies] any disposition or intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over [Cuba] except for the pacification thereof, and asserts its determination when that is accomplished to leave the government and control of the island to its people." Imperialists in Congress did not have the courage to oppose the Teller Amendment, so they included it in the war resolutions that Congress passed on April 19.

Less than four months later, on August 12, the United States signed a peace protocol with Spain to end the fighting. U.S. forces had defeated Spain in Cuba and in Spain's other colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. In the peace protocol, Spain agreed to set Cuba free, give Puerto Rico and Guam to the United States, and decide the fate of the Philippines during peace negotiations to be held in Paris beginning on October 1. The protocol set the stage for America to acquire its first colonies and become an imperialist nation.

Selecting the peace commissions

With treaty negotiations less than two months away, U.S. president William McKinley (1843-1901; served 1897-1901; see entry in Biographies section) quickly selected the American peace commissioners who would negotiate with Spain. McKinley asked William R. Day (1849-1923) to serve as chair of the group. Day, an attorney and U.S. secretary of state, believed the United States should purchase the Philippines rather than seize them outright. McKinley then stacked the commission with three Republican imperialists—Senators Cushman K. Davis and William P. Frye, and former ambassador to France Whitelaw Reid. One Democratic anti-imperialist—Senator George Gray—rounded out the team of five, meaning the commission leaned heavily in favor of acquiring the Philippines from Spain.

In Spain, Premier Práxedes Mateo Sagasta (1825-1903) faced a political problem. Members of the Conservative Party (a political party) refused to participate in peace negotiations because they did not want the inevitably disastrous outcome to affect their reputation. That left Sagasta to appoint all the peace commissioners from his party, the Liberal Party. Sagasta chose party leader and Senate president Eugenio Montero Ríos as chair. Montero Ríos went to Paris along with Senator Buenaventura Abaruza, Justice José de Garnica y Díaz, Minister Wenceslas Ramírez de Villa-Urrutia, and Major General Rafael Ceroro y Sáenz.

The major question to be worked out in Paris was the fate of the Philippines, where local rebels had been fighting for independence from Spain. Spain wanted to keep the islands. Anti-imperialist Americans opposed taking the colony, especially with the dangerous situation posed by the Filipinos who wanted freedom for their country. McKinley was unsure what to do, but at the very least he wanted to retain a naval base and coaling station to help support American commerce in Asia.

Imperialists in Congress and across the nation, however, wanted to take the whole colony from Spain. Some Americans worried that Japan or Germany would seize the islands if the United States left the Filipinos to govern themselves. Many Christians said it was America's duty to educate and convert the Filipino natives to Christianity and prepare them for a "civilized" existence. McKinley, a man of great religious conviction, wrongly believing the natives to be incapable of self-government, eventually adopted this approach after much thought and prayer.

Spain revealed its negotiating strategy before October 1 arrived. Because the United States had captured the Philippine city of Manila on August 13, one day after signing the peace protocol, Spain said the island still belonged to Spain. (U.S. commodore George Dewey [1837-1917; see entry in Biographies section] had cut telegraph cables in Manila Bay at the beginning of the war, so sending a telegraph message concerning the protocol had been impossible.) Contrary to both the law of war and the language of the protocol, the United States said the agreement did not take effect until a boat from Hong Kong arrived in Manila to deliver news of the cease-fire.

The Treaty of Paris

On October 1, as the peace commissioners began their meetings in Paris, a Filipino rebel named Felipe Agoncillo met with President McKinley to ask what the United States planned to do with his country. Agoncillo reminded McKinley that Commodore Dewey and U.S. consul general E. Spencer Pratt had promised rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo (1869-1964) that the United States would support independence for the Philippines if the rebels would help with the war effort in the city of Manila, as they had done. McKinley rejected the notion that Dewey and Pratt had made such a promise, and the historical record is unclear. What is certain is that, with the knowledge that Agoncillo was headed for Paris, McKinley instructed the peace commissioners to prevent the Filipinos from joining the negotiations to decide the fate of their own country.

The peace commissioners finally signed the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898. The treaty confirmed Spain's obligation to leave Cuba to govern itself. Spain gave Puerto Rico and Guam to the United States to compensate it for the cost of the war. Under threats that the war might resume without a treaty, Spain agreed to sell the Philippines to the United States for $20 million.

Both countries had to ratify—approve—the Treaty of Paris before it became law. The Senate ratified the treaty in the United States on February 6, 1899, by a vote of 57 to 27. Debate over imperialism made the vote close—only two votes over the two-thirds majority required for approval.

Spain's legislative body, the Cortes, failed to approve the treaty by the required number of votes. Instead, the queen regent had to override the legislature and approve the treaty on March 19. Premier Sagasta's government fell soon afterwards; he was replaced by the opposition party, the Conservatives.

The Philippines

When it became clear that the United States meant to replace Spain as their governing body, Filipino rebels decided to fight their new enemy. On February 4, 1899, two days before the U.S. Senate ratified the Treaty of Paris, a bloody revolution began in the Philippines. American historians often call it the Philippine Insurrection, even though they call their own country's fight for freedom the American Revolution.

Conquering the islands in the three-year conflict cost the lives of over four thousand American soldiers, sixteen thousand Filipino rebels, and two hundred thousand Filipino civilians. Many of the civilians died as a result of disease and starvation in American concentration camps—crowded camps designed to prevent the civilians from assisting the rebels. Such tactics resembled those of Spanish general Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau (1838-1930)—tactics that had drawn the United States into war with Spain in Cuba in the first place.

For example, on Samar, U.S. general Jacob Smith ordered his troops to convert the island to a "howling wilderness" by first removing civilians to concentration camps. All civilians who stayed behind and could carry arms, including Filipino boys over ten years of age, were to be shot and killed. "I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn; the more you burn and kill the better it will please me," Smith said, according to Philip S. Foner in The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism. Eventually put on trial by the U.S. military, Smith's only punishment for his brutality was an early retirement.

The Filipino rebels finally surrendered to the United States in April 1902. For the next thirty-three years, a governor appointed by the president of the United States ruled over the Philippines. Under the Tydings-McDuffie Act in 1935, the United States allowed the Philippines to begin a trial period as a commonwealth under a popularly elected governor. In 1946, the Philippines finally became an independent, self-governing republic, with Manuel A. Roxas as its first president.

Puerto Rico

The United States was headed for a military victory in Puerto Rico when it signed the peace protocol with Spain on August 12, 1898. While Puerto Rico had a rich agricultural tradition built around small farms, it was more valuable to the United States as a coaling station for warships, and as a stepping stone to a canal the United States wanted to build in Central America to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

At the time of the Spanish-American War, there was not a large movement for Puerto Rican independence from Spain. Most Puerto Ricans simply wanted more local control of their government. To pacify these desires, Spain set up a local government in 1897 to be supervised by a governor-general from Spain. This local government did not operate for very long before the United States attacked Puerto Rico in July 1898. In the aftermath of its victory in October, the United States put military governor General John R. Brooke in charge of the island.

At first, Puerto Ricans did not seem to be disappointed to be colonized by the United States. Their natural desire for self-government, however, caused unhappiness with the military arrangement. The United States responded to this over the years by giving Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship in 1917, a popularly elected governor in 1947, and commonwealth status with a constitution in 1952. Puerto Ricans, however, still cannot vote in U.S. elections and have no voting representatives in Congress. By the end of the twentieth century, almost half of all Puerto Ricans wanted their island to remain a U.S. commonwealth, a slightly smaller number wanted it to become the fifty-first state, and just a small minority favored independence.


Guam, like Puerto Rico, operated under a military governor before becoming a territory with its own popularly elected governor in 1968. It has been of great importance to the United States because of its naval bases. By the end of the twentieth century, U.S. armed forces owned one-third of the land on the island. Citizens of Guam are citizens of the United States but, like Puerto Ricans, do not vote in presidential elections and lack a voting representative in Washington, D.C.


The United States did not treat the Cuban revolutionaries respectfully either before or during the Spanish-American War. Presidents Grover Cleveland (1837-1908; served 1885-1889 and 1893-1897) and William McKinley refused to recognize the government set up by the rebels in 1895. McKinley maintained this position even as the United States declared war on Spain in April 1898, supposedly to fight for Cuban independence. When Spain surrendered at Santiago de Cuba in July 1898, U.S. military officers refused to include Cuban officers in the surrender negotiations and ceremonies. The Cubans, like the Filipinos, were not allowed to take part in the negotiations which resulted in the Treaty of Paris.

The United States continued to ignore Cuba's wishes when setting the country on the road to independence. As soon as the fighting ended in August 1898, American businesses began buying their way into Cuba. According to historian Howard Zinn, the United Fruit Company entered the sugar industry by purchasing 1.9 million acres of agricultural land. American businesses, led by Bethlehem Steel, acquired 80 percent of Cuba's mineral export interests.

To protect these economic interests, the United States wanted preferential trade relations with Cuba, a naval base on the island, and the power to interfere in case another country threatened to take the island for itself. Cubans wanted absolute independence and freedom to run their country as they wished. The United States of America—the land of the free—was not about to let such a valuable island enjoy the same freedom.

On January 1, 1899, the United States occupied Cuba under the leadership of a military governor named General John Brooke. Brooke disbanded the Cuban army and tried to exclude Cubans from all government positions. Leonard Wood (1860-1927), who had fought in Cuba during the war, replaced Brooke by December 1899.

The Cuban Constitution

As of the spring of 1900, the United States had made no progress toward turning the government over to Cuba. Prominent anti-imperialists such as Augustus O. Bacon (1839-1914) accused the United States of stalling to allow memory of the Teller Amendment to fade so Americans could take Cuba for themselves. This accusation motivated the United States to form a convention to adopt a constitution for Cuba.

The Cuban Constitutional Convention first met on November 5, 1900, with thirty-one delegates elected by the people of Cuba. It drafted a constitution that largely resembled the U.S. Constitution on February 11, 1901. The document proposed to set up a republican form of government with three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. It even went beyond the U.S. Constitution by giving all people, not just men, the right to vote. (Women did not obtain the right to vote in the United States until 1920.)

Contrary to President McKinley's wishes, however, the proposed Cuban constitution did not give the United States power to intervene in Cuban affairs to protect American interests. When the delegates signed the constitution on February 21, delegate Salvador Betancourt Cisneros even objected to sending it to the United States, saying America had no business approving the document.

The Platt Amendment

McKinley and War Secretary Elihu Root (1845-1937) devised a plan to extract what they wanted from Cuba. Through Senator Orville H. Platt (1827-1905), they attached language to an U.S. Army funding bill to outline the conditions under which the U.S. military would withdraw from Cuba. The Platt Amendment demanded that the United States retain the right to intervene in domestic affairs to protect Cuban independence and life, liberty, and property on the island; the right to review and approve Cuban treaties with foreign nations; and the right to buy or lease land for a naval base in Cuba (which would become the base at Guantánamo Bay). McKinley refused to withdraw the military from Cuba unless Cuba's new constitution included these American rights.

The U.S. Senate adopted the Platt Amendment on February 27, 1901. Fourteen senators who had voted for the Teller Amendment (promising Cuban independence) also voted for the Platt Amendment. Foner claims that anti-imperialist senators who could have defeated the Platt Amendment supported it in exchange for special federal projects for their states. The House of Representatives approved the Platt Amendment a few days later and McKinley signed it into law on March 2.

Popular reaction in the United States was unfavorable. In an article entitled "The Theft of Cuba," the Social DemocraticHerald made a strong point against the Platt Amendment by saying, "The independence of [the United States during the American Revolution] could not have been accomplished without the aid of France, and we search in vain for a clause in our constitution giving France any special rights," according to Foner. McKinley, Root, and supporters of the Platt Amendment defended it by saying Cuba might quickly descend into political chaos without supervision by the United States of America.

On March 3, 1901, Cubans in the capital city of Havana protested against the Platt Amendment. The Cuban Constitutional Convention voted 18 to 10 to reject the amendment on April 12. The next day, however, a committee of five convention delegates left for Washington, D.C., to discuss the situation with President McKinley and War Secretary Root. During conversations on April 25 and 26, Root suggested that if the convention accepted the Platt Amendment, the United States would negotiate a trade agreement favorable to Cuban businesses. This bribery and America's refusal to remove its military led the convention to approve the Platt Amendment on June 12, 1901, by a vote of 16 to 11.

Cuba's first president, Tomás Estrada Palma (1835-1908), took office in May 1902. Estrada Palma was an attorney who had been instrumental in helping the Cuban Revolutionary Party get started in the United States in 1892. The Platt Amendment, however, allowed the United States to intervene in domestic Cuban affairs many times in upcoming years. As an editorial in the Washington Post, reprinted by Foner, declared in the wake of the Spanish-American War, money drove everything:

Foolishly or wisely, we want these newly acquired territories, not for any missionary or altruistic purpose, but for the trade, the commerce, the power, and the money that are in them. Why beat around the bush and promise and protest all sorts of things? Why not be honest? It will pay. Why not tell the truth and say what is the fact—that we want Cuba, Porto Rico, Hawaii, and Luzon…because we believe they will add to our national strength and because they will someday be purchasers at our bargain counters?

For More Information

Beisner, Robert L. Twelve Against Empire. New York: McGraw-Hill Company, 1968.

Collins, Mary. The Spanish-American War. New York: Children's Press,1998.

Dolan, Edward F. The Spanish-American War. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 2001.

Foner, Philip S. The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972.

Gay, Kathlyn, and Martin K. Gay. Spanish American War. New York: Twenty First Century Books, 1995.

Golay, Michael. The Spanish-American War. New York: Facts On File,1995.

Graves, Kerry A. The Spanish-American War. Mankato, MN: Capstone Books, 2001.

Greene, Theodore P, ed. American Imperialism in 1898. Boston, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1955.

Langellier, John P. Uncle Sam's Little Wars: The Spanish-American War, Philippine Insurrection, and Boxer Rebellion, 1898-1902. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House, 2001.

Linderman, Gerald F. The Mirror of War: American Society and the Spanish-American War. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1974.

Musicant, Ivan. Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998.

O'Toole, G. J. A. The Spanish War: An American Epic-1898. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1984.

Smith, Angel, and Emma Dávila-Cox, eds. The Crisis of 1898: Colonial Redistribution and Nationalist Mobilization. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Somerlott, Robert. The Spanish-American War: Remember the Maine! Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2002.

Wukovits, John F. The Spanish-American War. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 2001.

Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present. 20th anniversary ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1999.

Cuba Libre

When the United States declared war on Spain in April 1898, U.S. president William McKinley and Congress said the country was fighting for Cuban independence. After losing the war, Spain withdrew from Cuba in 1900, leaving an American military government to control things until Cuba formed its own government.

By 1901, the United States said it would not withdraw its military force from Cuba unless the country adopted a constitution that gave the United States many rights that effectively destroyed Cuban independence. The United States wanted military and coaling bases on the island and the right to intervene in Cuban affairs to protect life, liberty, and property. McKinley, Secretary of War Elihu Root (1845-1937), and Secretary of State John Hay (1838-1905) were leading supporters of this policy. This led social reformer Ernest H. Crosby to write the poem Cuba Libre (meaning "Free Cuba"), as printed by Philip S. Foner in The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism:

When we sailed from Tampa Bay,
"Cuba Libre!"
And our ships got under weigh,
"Cuba Libre!"
As we floated down the tide,
Crowding to the steamer's side,
You remember how we cried,
"Cuba Libre!"

When we spied the island shore,
"Cuba Libre!"
Then we shouted loud once more,
"Cuba Libre!"
As we sank Cervera's ships,
Where the southern sea wall dips,
What again was on our lips?
"Cuba Libre!"

These are foreign words you know—
"Cuba Libre!"
That we used so long ago,
"Cuba Libre!"
And in all the time between
Such a lot of things we've seen,
We've forgotten what they mean
"Cuba Libre!"

Let us ask the President,
"Cuba Libre!"
What that bit of Spanish meant,
"Cuba Libre!"
Ask McKinley, Root, and Hay
What on earth we meant to say,
When we shouted night and day
"Cuba Libre!"

But alas! They will not speak,
"Cuba Libre!"
For their memories are weak,
"Cuba Libre!"
If you have a lexicon,
Borrowed from a Spanish don,
Send it down to Washington,
"Cuba Libre!"

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Treaty and Imperialism

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Treaty and Imperialism