Introduction to the Spanish-American War (1898)

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Introduction to the Spanish-American War (1898)

The American Revolution established the United States as an independent nation. A little over a century later, the Spanish-American War established it as a major world power. The conflict lasted four months in the summer of 1898, and ended in a resounding American victory. Led by President William McKinley, the U.S. government went to war for a variety of conflicting reasons, including humanitarian, economic, nationalistic, anti-imperialist, and imperialist feelings.

Cuban insurgents rebelled against Spanish rule in 1895, touching off a brutal guerrilla war. Because of slash-and-burn tactics on both sides, hundreds of thousands of Cubans died of hunger or disease over the next three years. The American press launched a strident propaganda campaign designed to rouse public outrage. Their newspapers stirred pro-Cuban sentiment by publishing sensational (and often exaggerated) accounts of Spanish atrocities. This inflammatory reporting, so-called “yellow journalism,” was very effective. The American public began calling for the liberation of Cuba—by force, if need be.

Hostilities broke out after the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor. The battleship had ostensibly been sent to Cuba on a “friendship mission,” but it was obviously there to safeguard American interests. On January 25, 1898, an explosion tore open the hull of the Maine and sank the vessel. Spain disavowed any involvement, but a U.S. naval review declared that the battleship had been breached from an external explosion.

Responding to public pressure, McKinley issued an ultimatum. He demanded, among other things, that Spain declare an immediate armistice with the Cuban rebels. The Spanish government accepted American arbitration in the conflict, but they insisted that the insurgents should call for an armistice. The insurgents refused to do so.

Eager to avoid armed confrontation, Spain tried to be conciliatory. America, on the other hand, was spoiling for a fight. On April 19, Congress declared Cuban independence, and then approved military action to achieve it. Five days later, Spain declared war on the United States. Congress answered that a state of war had existed since April 21.

The war was fought on several fronts. The U.S. Navy blockaded Cuba, while the Army hastily assembled enough volunteers to storm the island. Joined by Cuban insurgents, American troops seized the San Juan Heights above the harbor of Santiago. The city surrendered after a crushing naval defeat.

After Cuba was taken, Major General Nelson Miles led a force to Puerto Rico, crossing the island from Ponce to San Juan. In the West Pacific, Commodore George Dewey captured the Philippines from the Spanish.

The fighting was short and, for America, relatively painless. Secretary of State John Hay called the venture “a splendid little war.” His words reflected a rising sense of American nationalism and a growing confidence in the country's military strength.

McKinley and the Spanish ambassador signed a peace protocol on August 12. Four months later, the Treaty of Paris officially acknowledged the independent republic of Cuba. The United States assumed control of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, and was already in the process of annexing Hawaii, moving the country's concerns beyond the North American continent. From that point on, America would take an increasingly prominent role in international affairs.

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Introduction to the Spanish-American War (1898)

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Introduction to the Spanish-American War (1898)