The United States Declares War

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The United States Declares War

The United States was formed under the belief that people have a natural right to control their government. Some people think this right comes from God, while others believe it comes from being human. The Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) when the American colonies separated from Great Britain in 1776, reflects this principle by saying, "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed." The Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, written in 1789 to restrict the power of the newly formed federal government, also supports this belief by saying that all power not given to the federal government stays with the states and with the people.

In spite of these democratic principles, America still allowed slavery. Shortly after the United States adopted a constitution in 1789, the slavery states in the South expressed interest in acquiring the colony of Cuba from Spain. The colony sat just ninety miles from the tip of what would become the state of Florida. Cuba's agriculture, slave trade, and location in the Caribbean made it valuable to America's economy and military strategic interests. When several revolutions occurred in the early 1800s throughout Latin America, the U.S. slavery states were not disappointed that Cuba failed to win its independence.

During the nineteenth century, the United States offered to buy Cuba from Spain three times: in 1823 through Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (1767-1848), in 1848 through President James K. Polk (1795-1849), and in 1854 through President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869). Spain refused all three offers. In 1854, three U.S. diplomats in Europe issued the Ostend Manifesto, urging U.S. secretary of state William L. Marcy (1786-1857) to support seizure of Cuba if Spainwould not sell it. Their advice stemmed from a wish to avoid Cuban slave revolts, such as those that had occurred in nearby Haiti, and to extend slave territory for the United States.

The Ostend Manifesto provoked anger among American antislavery Republicans, primarily in the North. Spain, however, still refused to sell Cuba, and U.S. interest in the island decreased as the United States entered the Civil War (1861-65) in 1861.

American social conditions

Five years before the Spanish-American War (April-August 1898), the United States had undergone its worst economic crisis ever. After decades of expansion, over six hundred banks failed and sixteen thousand businesses closed in 1893, unable to sustain the rapid growth. Twenty percent of working Americans were unemployed that year.

The depression came at a time when two groups of American workers—laborers and farmers—were organizing as they never had before. Members of unions such as the American Federation of Labor, the Knights of Labor, and the American Railway Union sought higher pay and better working conditions from the steel, railroad, textile, and other industries that had become wealthy from the laborers's hard work. Farmers formed a political party—the Populist Party—to seek relief from oppressive economic conditions that caused land, equipment, loan, and transportation prices to rise while food prices dropped.

Many racial and ethnic minority Americans faced human and civil rights abuses during this time. The federal government, which had pushed Native Americans into the western part of the continent, waged war against them to take their land for railroads and forced them onto reservations. African Americans, entitled to equal treatment under the law according to the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution—passed after the Civil War—still found themselves discriminated against, especially in the South. In fact, during the first forty-four years after the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868, the U.S. Supreme Court cited the amendment in only twenty-eight cases involving African Americans but in 312 cases concerning the rights of corporations. Between 1889 and 1903, an average of two African Americans were lynched—killed, often by hanging—by mobs each week.

Oppression in Cuba

These oppressed Americans empathized with the Cubans' desire for independence when Cuban rebels began to organize revolts against Spain in the 1860s. Cuba had been a colony of Spain since Cristoforo Colombo (Christopher Columbus, 1451-1506) had landed there on October 27, 1492. By the mid-1800s, Cuba had developed a thriving agricultural economy based mainly upon sugar, tobacco, and coffee plantations worked by African slaves.

Corruption was commonplace in the Cuban government. Local officials and Cuban representatives in the Spanish parliament operated the island's government to benefit Spanish businesses. Spain's tariff and tax policies made trade with other countries very expensive for small farmers and small businesses in Cuba. Middle-class civilians, laborers, and the slaves all wished to break free from Spain to improve their respective economic and social conditions.

In 1868, Cuban rebels launched their first war for independence. The war lasted for ten years before both sides signed a truce in 1878. The rebels organized a second revolution in February 1895. Unable to crush the rebellion early on, Spain assigned a vicious general named Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau (1838-1930) to take over military operations in Cuba in February 1896.

At the time, Spain controlled Cuba's main cities and ports while the rebels dominated the countryside. To starve the rebels of food, shelter, and support, Weyler decided to re-locate all rural civilians into the cities and to burn what they left behind. Crowded, unhealthy conditions and scarce food in the concentration camps led to death for hundreds of thousands of relocated civilians. Meanwhile, volunteers in the Spanish army committed gross deeds of torture and murder after capturing Cuban rebels.

America's "Yellow Press"

Weyler's conduct of the war and Spain's refusal to give the Cubans freedom both received intense American newspaper coverage. Two papers in particular, the New York World and the New York Journal, used the conflict to wage their own circulation war for greater readership. Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), whose name accompanies the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for Literature, controlled the World, which he had purchased in 1883. Using sensational journalism to cover scandals such as governmental corruption and the plight of the poor, Pulitzer had significantly increased the paper's circulation and profitability by 1895.

That year, a young man named William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951; see entry in Biographies section) used inherited money to purchase the competing Journal. Hearst immediately developed his own sensationalism to compete with Pulitzer. In early 1896, Pulitzer cut the price of the World in half, to one cent, to battle his new rival. Both newspapers published shocking stories without checking facts and sometimes by inventing them. The tactic came to be called "yellow journalism" after a popular comic strip character from the World called the Yellow Kid.

The Cuban revolution of 1895-98 and America's war with Spain in 1898 were the primary sources of material for the newspapers' circulation war. Pulitzer found it easy to side with the rebels, who sought freedom from economic and social oppression. Hearst used the conflicts to develop publicity stunts that made his paper famous. In their coverage, both men sought to motivate the United States to take some form of action to support the Cuban rebels, leading to the term "the journalism that acts," according to Charles H. Brown in The Correspondents' War.

When a Spanish ship mistakenly fired on an American merchant vessel in March 1895, Pulitzer's World announced "Our Flag Fired Upon," according to Ivan Musicant in Empire By Default. Other papers urged the United States to teach Spain a lesson with a military response.

In August 1897, Spain imprisoned Evangelina Cisneros, a niece of the president of the Cuban rebel republic. Upon learning of the case, Hearst immediately launched a campaign to have Cisneros released. After she escaped, with the assistance of Journal correspondents and some bribery money, Cisneros came to America. She attended a rally of one hundred thousand people at Madison Square Garden in New York City and visited with President William McKinley (1843-1901; served 1897-1901; see entry in Biographies section). These events boosted morale for those Cubans who wanted the United States to support their efforts.

Public opinion on Cuba's cause

Newspapers were Americans' primary connection to the outside world in the 1890s, so press coverage shaped public opinion of the Cuban revolution. Historians suggest that newspapers led most Americans to sympathize with the rebels, and this is easy to believe. The nation of the United States was founded in 1776 with a colonial revolution against an oppressive motherland. In the 1890s, American farmers, laborers, African Americans, and Native Americans all could relate to the plight of their counterparts in Cuba. In 1897, American Federation of Labor president Samuel Gompers said, "The sympathy of our movement with Cuba is genuine, earnest, and sincere," according to Howard Zinn in A People's History of the United States. Virtually all Americans, including those in the upper and middle classes, eventually came to understand and support the Cuban desire for self-government.

There was, however, a less noble force shaping American public opinion—prejudice. Many Americans ignorantly viewed the Spaniards as naturally savage. According to Gerald F. Linderman in The Mirror of War, historian Charles Francis Adams said in 1898, "No single good thing in law, or science, or art, or literature…has resulted to the race of men…from Spanish domination in America.… I have tried to think of one in vain."

According to Linderman, the president of the University of Wisconsin also used these themes in his address to graduating seniors in June 1898, saying, "What has Spain ever done for civilization? What books, what inventions have come from Spain? What discoveries in the laboratories or in scientific fields? So few have they been that they are scarcely worth mentioning." Later in the speech he continued, "Examination of the Spanish character shows it to be the same as it was centuries ago. Wherever the Spaniard has endeavored to rule he has shown an unrivaled incapacity for government. And the incapacity was such and the cruelty was such that all their colonies and provinces have slipped away."

The Cleveland administration

When the Cubans launched their second revolution in February 1895, Grover Cleveland (1837-1908; served 1885-1889 and 1893-1897) was president of the United States. Initial reports accurately reflected that Spain had come very close to ending the rebellion from the start. By June, however, the rebels had recovered and were taking control of the countryside on the eastern end of the island, where large numbers of poor people eagerly joined the cause. The Cuban rebels were following a strategy of destroying plantations, sugarcane mills, and other business property in order to starve Spain financially by depriving it of revenue from taxes on trade.

With the revolution growing, President Cleveland had to let the world know where the United States stood on the dispute. Siding with the rebels would destroy diplomatic relations with Spain. Siding with Spain would make the United States appear insensitive to Spain's harsh treatment of the colony. In June 1895, Cleveland announced that the United States would remain neutral, officially favoring neither side in the revolution. More significantly, however, Cleveland refused to give official recognition to the rebels and their government under international law.

Cleveland's decision was unpopular with Cuban Americans and many members of Congress. With the United States remaining neutral, American businesses could still sell weapons and other military equipment to Spain, with whom the United States had normal diplomatic relations. Refusing to recognize the Cuban republic made it illegal for Americans to supply arms to the rebels. This annoyed members of Congress who were imperialists—people who wanted the United States to begin acquiring colonies of its own. It also displeased U.S. representatives who had Cuban Americans in their districts.

Cleveland's stance on the revolution did satisfy big business interests in the United States, however. American business leaders that had survived the economic hard times of 1893 did not want to see war disrupt their recovery. They were unsure whether a rebel Cuban government would continue to support policies that had resulted in $50 million of U.S. investment in Cuban plantations, sugar mills, and other businesses, and $100 million of trade with the island each year. According to journals of the time, most businesses wanted the federal government to focus on negotiating trade agreements to provide foreign markets for American goods and otherwise to avoid all conflict.

Racial prejudice also may have played a role in Cleveland's stance on the revolution. His secretary of state, Richard B. Olney, expressed concern that a free Cuba would descend into a war between blacks and whites "until the one had been completely vanquished and subdued by the other," according to Philip S. Foner in The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism.

The McKinley administration

When President William McKinley succeeded Cleveland in March 1897, he adopted a similar approach to the Cuban revolution. As a Christian who had served in the American Civil War (1861-65), McKinley simply hated war. "I shall never get into a war, until I am sure that God and man approve. I have been through one war; I have seen the dead piled up, and I do not want to see another," McKinley said in February 1898, according to Musicant.

In May 1897, McKinley received a plea from over three hundred American business leaders—bankers, merchants, manufacturers, and steamship owners—who said that the destruction of the Cuba's sugar industry and commerce was hurting the U.S. economy. Then in June 1897, McKinley received a report from Judge William J. Calhoun, who had visited Cuba to survey the situation. Viewing the effects of Spanish reconcentration and rebel economic destruction in the countryside, Calhoun said, "Every house had been burned, banana trees cut down, cane fields swept with fire, and everything in the shape of food destroyed," according to Musicant. Calhoun continued, "The country was wrapped in the stillness of death and the silence of desolation." The judge told McKinley that Spain could not win the war, suggesting that American support for the rebels would tilt the conflict in the rebels' favor.

Historians disagree on the motives for McKinley's conduct at this point. Some say he still held out for peace because of his Christian faith. Others say that when Spain removed General Weyler from Cuba in August 1897 and promised to enact economic and social reform on the island, McKinley wanted to give those efforts time to work. In A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn suggests that McKinley strove for peace only until the business community spoke out in favor of war in March 1898. Foner charges McKinley with responding to Calhoun's report by pressuring Spain to secure peace only so the United States could later take over Cuba.

American insult and tragedy

McKinley himself left little written record of his thoughts and beliefs, so it is impossible to be certain of what he was thinking. History does, however, record two events in February 1898 that made the American public cry out for war with Spain. On February 9, Hearst's Journal published a letter that had been written by the Spanish minister to the United States, Enrique Dupuy de Lôme. In it, Dupuy de Lôme told a friend in Havana that "McKinley is weak and catering to the rabble and, besides, a low politician who desires to leave a door open to himself and to stand well with the jingos of his party," according to Foner. (Jingo was a term used to describe people who wanted to wage war in order to expand the territory of the United States.) In the letter, Dupuy de Lôme also said that Spain had promised reform in Cuba only to buy time for its army to crush the rebellion.

Six days later, the American warship Maine exploded and sank in the harbor at Havana, Cuba, killing more than 250 sailors onboard. The yellow press devoured the catastrophe. Within days, the Journal had accused Spain of the crime, saying "the Maine was destroyed by treachery" and was "split in two by an enemy's secret infernal machine," according to Foner. Hearst offered a fifty-thousand-dollar reward for conviction of the people responsible. Pulitzer's World said there was evidence that a mine had destroyed the vessel. Across the country, "Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!" became a rallying cry.

McKinley appointed a naval commission to investigate the explosion. In late March, the commission reported that a mine outside the ship had set off some of the ammunition in the Maine's magazines. The naval commission could not determine who had planted the mine, but many Americans already blamed Spain. (In 1976, a naval investigation concluded that spontaneous combustion of coal inside the ship was really the most likely cause of the whole disaster. But a National Geographic Society study in 1997 said that computer analysis pointed equally to an internal or external explosion as the cause.)

The letter from Dupuy de Lôme and the destruction of the Maine created momentum for war with Spain. That momentum increased when McKinley received messages through Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (1850-1924) and others that the business community finally supported military action by the United States to end the conflict. U.S. minister to Spain Stewart L. Woodford (1835-1913) spent April negotiating with Spain for peace, but his efforts may have been a mere formality. On April 21, 1898, McKinley ordered a naval blockade of Cuba and severed diplomatic relations with Spain. Four days later, Congress declared war on Spain and the country prepared to fight.

For More Information

Blow, Michael. A Ship to Remember: The Maine and the Spanish-American War. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1992.

Brown, Charles H. The Correspondents' War: Journalists in the Spanish-American War. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1967.

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: Capstoneb Books, 2001.

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.

Rosenfeld, Harvey. Diary of a Dirty Little War: The Spanish-American War of 1898. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2000.

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.

Frederic Remington

Historians often describe newspaper coverage of the Second Cuban War for Independence (1895-98) and the Spanish-American War as a battle in print. Competing for readership, the New York World and the New York Journal featured stories written to shock Americans into supporting the Cuban cause. One of the most famous of these sensationalistic journalists was a man named Frederic Remington (1861-1909).

Remington was born in Canton, New York, on October 4, 1861. The son of a journalist, Remington set out to become an illustrator, enrolling at Yale University's School of Fine Arts in 1878 and the Art Students League in 1886. In between his student days, Remington spent some time out West, where he began to paint portraits of America's dying frontier, depicting cowboys, Native Americans, and horses.

In late 1896, during the Second Cuban War for Independence, Spanish General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau (1838-1930) was wreaking havoc by relocating Cuban civilians into dirty, overcrowded, concentration camps in the cities to prevent them from helping the Cuban rebels in the country. William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York Journal, sent Remington and fellow reporter Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916; see entry in Biographies section) to Key West, Florida, in December 1896 to cover the war. Remington and Davis were supposed to make their way to Cuba and report from the front alongside rebel leader General Máximo Gómez y Báez (1836-1905; see entry in Biographies section) and his troops.

Travel problems prevented the team from reaching Gómez and the rebels, however. Landing in Spanish-controlled Havana instead, Davis and Remington met with Spanish general Weyler, who gave Davis a pass to travel throughout Cuba's western provinces to cover the fighting. Weyler sent spies to follow Davis.

Stuck in Havana, Remington soon became bored. According to Charles H. Brown in The Correspondent's War, Remington sent a telegram to Hearst that said: "Everything is quiet. There is no trouble. There will be no war. I wish to return." As reported by Brown, some historians say Hearst replied, "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." Hearst, however, denied the statement.

On January 17, 1897, the Journal falsely reported that Remington and Davis had joined the insurgents. One week later, the paper printed Remington's first illustrations from the island. As told by Brown, a drawing published on page three of the Journal contained the following caption, penned by Remington and reflecting many prejudices of the day:

The acts of the terrible savages, or irregular troops called 'guerrillas,' employed by the Spanish, pass all understanding by civilized man. The American Indian was never guilty of the monstrous crimes that they commit. The treatment of women is unspeakable and as for the men captured by them alive, the blood curdles in my veins as I think of the atrocity, of the cruelty, practiced on these helpless victims. My picture illustrates one case where the guerrillas saw fit to bring their captives into the lines, trussed up at the elbows.

Remington delivered his illustrations to the Journal himself, choosing to leave Cuba despite Hearst's request. He later returned to the island to cover the mysterious destruction of the Maine on February 15, 1898, the U.S. naval blockade in April, and the U.S. Army's siege of El Caney on July 1. According to Brown, after the siege at El Caney, Remington recalled "men half naked, men sitting down on the roadside utterly spent, men hopping on one foot with a rifle for a crutch, men out of their minds from heatstroke, men dead, men dying."

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The United States Declares War

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The United States Declares War