The Spanish-American War (1898)

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The Spanish-American War (1898)



By the late nineteenth century, almost all of the world’s powerful nations practiced imperialism, the economic and political control of foreign territories. Great Britain ruled an enormous number of countries around the world. France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Germany, and Japan scrambled to compete with England, dividing the globe into their “spheres of influence.” As the trauma of the Civil War faded, a strengthening United States also set out to create an empire.

Isolation and Expansion

Since 1823, the United States had maintained a policy of isolationism, as defined by the Monroe Doctrine. This declared that the United States would remain neutral in any colonial quarrels outside the Western Hemisphere.

Following the Civil War, the United States generally stayed out of international affairs, devoting itself instead to Reconstruction at home. The country also turned to the West, following America’s “manifest destiny.” Expansionism provided opportunities for the unemployed and new markets for the enterprising. However, these benefits diminished as time went by. In 1890, the U.S. Bureau of the Census declared that the frontier no longer existed.


Since the West was tamed, many Americans began agitating for new territories and protectorates. It was not without precedent. President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875) had bought Alaska from Russia in 1867. Between 1875 and 1887, the kingdom of Hawaii signed a series of treaties giving America substantial economic control of the island and use of the strategically important Pearl Harbor.

These new lands were not intended to become states. Imperialists simply wanted to acquire new markets, where merchants could dump excess American goods. Advocates of the growing navy wanted coaling ports around the world to fuel international ventures.

Nationalism also fueled the desire for empire. Americans disliked being overshadowed by the “Great Powers” of Europe. Imperialism was also motivated by a genuine, if misguided, altruism. Colonialists and missionaries believed that they could offer a better life to native peoples.

Not everyone shared these sentiments. President Grover Cleveland (1837–1908), in particular, opposed overseas involvements. He argued that colonialism was a betrayal of America’s founding principles and would drag the country into unnecessary wars. One of his first acts as president was to reject the proposed annexation of Hawaii.

Anti-imperialists occasionally put forward arguments that were frankly prejudiced. They opposed closer ties with Cuba, for example, because they did not want any more “colored” races and Catholics in American society.


American empire builders were keenly aware of their late start. Most of the world had already been claimed. Nevertheless, the ambitious cast their eyes on the possessions of Spain. As Spain’s power declined, its colonies began to break free of its control.

The Cubans had waged a ten-year war of independence from 1868 to 1878. That conflict erupted again in 1895. Spanish troops moved to crush the rebellion using methods that provoked widespread criticism in the U.S. press. In an attempt to starve out the insurgents, Spain moved thousands of villagers into urban centers. Then they destroyed the houses, fields, and livestock left behind. The result was a human and economic catastrophe.

The suffering of the Cuban people sincerely appalled many Americans. Remembering their own revolutionary heritage, they cheered on the Cuban patriots and condemned the tyranny of the Spanish imperialists. But other factors also swayed public opinion. America had invested $50 million in Cuba, and annual trade with Cuba was $100 million. The Cuban insurrectionists burned sugar cane plantations, factories, and mills in an attempt to make the island unprofitable for Spain. Investors begged the American government to protect their business interests.

On the other hand, many Americans did not believe that the Cubans could govern their own country, especially after centuries of Spanish misrule. Some industrialists wanted to help Spain regain control of the island in order to stabilize trade. Imperialists suggested that the United States should forcibly annex Cuba.

When legislators first asked for armed intervention in Cuba, President Cleveland stubbornly refused to get involved. Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas Reed (1839–1902), a staunch anti-imperialist, effectively barred all discussion of the issue.

With the destruction of the USS Maine in 1898, the national will to fight became irresistible. When all attempts at diplomacy broke down in April, President William McKinley (1843–1901) reluctantly asked for a declaration of war. Congress happily obliged.

The American Empire

Five months after the surrender of Santiago, Cuba, an official peace treaty was signed in Paris. The terms ceded Puerto Rico and Guam to the United States. Cuba was recognized as an independent country. The United States bought the Philippines from Spain for $20 million and had annexed Hawaii in August. America was officially an imperial power.

War hero and future president Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) returned home with a reputation for boldness. He also brought back the conviction that American interests should be pursued abroad by vigorous means. Upon becoming president, Roosevelt would introduce “big-stick diplomacy,” advancing American negotiations around the world with the threat of force.

Not everyone embraced American imperialism with Roosevelt’s enthusiasm. Disgusted, Thomas Reed resigned from Congress. Ex-president Grover Cleveland helped found the Anti-Imperialist League, which would include Mark Twain and Andrew Carnegie.

Another malcontent was Emilio Aguinaldo (1869–1964), a Filipino insurrectionist who had helped the Americans. He had expected the Philippines to become independent after the war. Disappointed, he denounced the Treaty of Paris and declared a revolutionary government. The Filipinos launched a bloody war of resistance. In the next three years, over four thousand Americans died trying to keep control of the islands.

The Filipino insurrections employed savage guerrilla tactics such as torture and burying prisoners alive. The U.S. Army responded with atrocities of its own. During one attack, American soldiers were ordered to kill every male over ten years old. The rebellion was eventually crushed, but it haunted the American conscience.

Nevertheless, by 1915, the United States had extended its influence to Puerto Rico, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Virgin Islands. Cuba was made an American protectorate in 1903. The economic advantages of imperialism never really materialized, however, and eventually the drive for new territories slowed. The cataclysm of World War I ultimately destroyed the old world empires.

Major Figures

Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland (1837–1908) was the 22nd and 24th President of the United States. He was an anti-imperialist who refused to let the United States become involved in Cuba, among other locations, in the years before the Spanish-American War. Born Stephen Grover Cleveland on March 18, 1837, in Caldwell, New Jersey, he was the son of Richard Falley Cleveland, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife, Anne Neal Cleveland. Raised in Fayetteville and Clinton, New York, Cleveland received his education at the Fayetteville Academy and the Clinton Liberal Institute.

Cleveland’s father died in 1853, forcing Cleveland to give up hope of attending college. Instead, he worked to help support his family. He spent a year working at a school for the blind as an assistant teacher and then documenting the pedigrees of a herd of his uncle’s dairy cows. By the end of 1855, he had settled on a legal career, working as a clerk for an attorney in Buffalo, New York, and studying law with him as well. Cleveland was admitted to the bar in 1859 and founded his own law practice.

Early Political Career

Already active in the Democratic Party, Cleveland was named an assistant district attorney in Erie County, New York, in late 1862. Because he was still responsible supporting his mother and sisters, he avoided military service for the Union by borrowing funds to pay a substitute. Cleveland returned to his private legal practice after losing the election for district attorney in 1865.

Cleveland eventually won a series of elective offices on the local and state level, though he maintained his law practice through the 1870s. From 1871 to 1873, he served as Erie County sheriff. In 1881, Cleveland was elected Buffalo’s mayor and promised to reform the corrupt government. He cleaned up the city successfully by vetoing questionable municipal contracts and also restrained public spending. A year later, he ran for and won the governorship of New York on the same platform of reform.

First Presidential Term

Cleveland’s political rise continued in 1884 when he ran for and won the American presidency, though he was a novice in national politics and his victory was by a narrow margin. The campaign was bitter, and his opponent, Republican James G. Blaine (1830–1893), was revealed to be corrupt. Cleveland faced challenges of his own relating to his financial support of his illegitimate child.

During his first term in office, Cleveland continued to be a civil-service reformer; he wanted lower tariffs, and he spent federal dollars conservatively. He also vetoed a bill that would have made many more Civil War veterans eligible for federal pensions. Passing his bills proved difficult, because the Senate was controlled by Republicans, and he also had to deal with Democrats who expected to be rewarded with offices by his administration.

The pension veto, along with Cleveland’s support of a lower tariff, contributed to his loss of the White House in the 1888 election to Benjamin Harrison (1833–1901). Though Cleveland won the popular election in 1888, Harrison won the Electoral College and the presidency. After the loss, Cleveland returned to practicing law, in New York City. This time was but a respite, because he won the Democratic nomination in 1892 and defeated Harrison in the general election. One reason for Cleveland’s victory was the high cost of the pensions and the drain they created on the federal budget.

Second Term in Office

During Cleveland’s second term in office, he again faced controversy because he would not allow the inflation of American currency by allowing notes, backed by silver, to be redeemed for silver. Cleveland also lost support by sending federal troops to bust the 1984 Pullman strike in Chicago and arresting the leaders of the strike. He intervened because the strike was harming the country’s mail service. In addition, anti-Cleveland sentiments increased when the president seemingly worked with big business in creating deals with leading financiers like J. P. Morgan (1867–1943) to reinforce America’s gold reserves.

Internationally, Cleveland went against the popular grain by holding anti-imperialist views and avoiding overseas involvement. He stopped American involvement in Cuba and Hawaii. In Cuba, the president did support the revolutionaries on the island fighting Spain, but he did not want to intercede. In Hawaii, Cleveland would not recognize the revolutionary government, which was encouraged by Americans who wanted the islands to be immediately annexed by the United States. He also forced a settlement with Great Britain over border issues between British Guiana and Venezuela in the Venezuela Boundary Dispute of 1895.

Cleveland left office in 1897 and moved with his wife, Frances Folsom, and their children to Princeton, New Jersey. He taught at Princeton University and later served on the school’s board of trustees. Cleveland also remained nationally prominent. During the presidency of William McKinley, Cleveland was publicly critical of the new president’s expansionist polices. Cleveland died on June 24, 1908, in his home in Princeton.

William McKinley

President William McKinley (1843–1901) was the 25th President of the United States and allowed America to become involved in the Spanish-American War, an early step in making the United States a player on the international stage. Born on January 29, 1843, in Niles, Ohio, he was one of nine children of William McKinley Sr., a Christian charcoal furnace operator, and his wife Nancy Allison. Raised in Niles and Poland, Ohio, McKinley was educated at public schools in Niles and at the Poland Academy, a Methodist seminary. He received some college education at Allegheny College and then worked as a schoolteacher and postal worker in his home state.

During the Civil War, McKinley fought in the Union army, which he joined in June 1861 as a private. He served with honor and distinction, showing bravery at the Battle of Antietam. By the time of his discharge in 1865, McKinley had reached the brevet rank of major. McKinley then continued his education by studying law for a short time at the Albany Law School and also clerked with a judge. In 1867, he began a legal practice in Canton, Ohio, and became active in the Republican Party.

Early Political Career

McKinley’s elective political career began shortly thereafter. He was elected prosecuting attorney of Stark County in 1869. Between 1876 and 1891, McKinley served several terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, ably representing Ohio. Because of his defense of the tariff policy, his administrative and organizational skills, and his ability to promote compromise among disharmonious elements among Republicans, he played a significant role in both the Ohio and national Republican Party. In 1890, McKinley devised the McKinley Tariff bill of 1890, which offered protection for U.S. interests, especially special interest groups.

After losing reelection to his congressional seat in 1890, McKinley ran for the governor’s office in Ohio in 1891. He won and was reelected in 1893. McKinley’s terms as governor were marked by public appearances at which he often spoke in support of tariffs and the passage of laws that favored labor interests.

Becoming President

In 1896, McKinley secured the Republican nomination for president, in part because of his established public stature and his ability to transcend party politics. While McKinley’s Democratic opponent, William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925), campaigned by traveling to spread his political message, McKinley remained in Canton and campaigned from his front porch. To the Americans who came to see him there, he emphasized his message of Republican victory equaling prosperity in the United States. He also believed in the United States expanding overseas, though preferably in a peaceful manner. Though the campaign was bitter, McKinley easily won the White House.

Support for the Spanish-American War

While campaigning, McKinley emphasized domestic issues such as tariff reform and increasing tariffs. However, his presidency is better remembered for its international activities, especially in Cuba. Pressure had been building in the United States about the situation in Cuba since 1895, when Cubans rebelled against their Spanish overlords, sparking an ongoing internal conflict.

The Spanish army acted savagely to put down the Cuban rebels, and American business interests, primarily sugar companies, were hurt by the ongoing conflict. Some Americans also believed that the United States had to take a greater interest in leadership and politics on the world stage, and one way to do so would be by ending oppressive Spanish control in the Western Hemisphere. Yet McKinley did not immediately agree with congressional sentiments about declaring war. Instead, he negotiated with Spain to come up with a diplomatic solution. He was able to pressure Spain into some reforms, but they were not enough to satisfy Cubans or Americans.

More Americans called for war on Spain and U.S. intervention in Cuba after a stolen letter from the Spanish ambassador, Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, (1851–1904) was published. It implied that McKinley was only acting to satisfy public opinion and that Spain would not moderate its policies in Cuba. Then the USS Maine, an American battleship, exploded and sank while anchored in Havana Harbor, adding fuel to war-supporting Americans. Though McKinley still tried to avoid war by calling for a Spanish ceasefire and Cuban independence, he had no choice but to change his stance.

On April 11, 1898, McKinley asked Congress for the authority to go to war; on April 25, Congress declared that a state of war with Spain had existed since April 21. After winning the brief conflict, McKinley had to deal with the aftermath, primarily the question of what to do with the former Spanish colonies gained by the United States: Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.

While some Americans wanted the nations to gain their freedom, those who supported annexation had their point of view generally supported by the president. With the Treaty of Paris, McKinley bought the Philippines from Spain for $20 million and also gained Puerto Rico and Guam. Cuba was freed, though the new country was forced to lease a naval base at Guantanamo Bay to the United States. McKinley believed that these choices would help further develop American trade, a keystone to his political agenda.

Second Presidential Term

In 1900, McKinley again ran against Bryan for the presidency. American imperialism was still a significant political topic, though the country’s course had already been decided. McKinley easily won reelection and began dealing with issues related to governing the new U.S. territories. Tariff reform was also on the agenda. Before he could fully address these issues, McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon F. Czolgosz (1873–1901) on September 6, 1901, in Buffalo, New York. He died from the wounds on September 14, 1901.

Henry Cabot Lodge

Henry Cabot Lodge (1850–1924) was an author, historian, and Republican Senator. Lodge was an enthusiastic supporter of American entry into the Spanish-American War in 1898. He was also an outspoken opponent of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, and the U.S. joining the League of Nations. Lodge was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on May 12, 1850, the son of John Ellerton Lodge, who worked in shipping and mercantile operations, and his wife, Anna Cabot Lodge. His family was socially prominent, and he received his education at Harvard. Lodge earned his undergraduate degree in 1871, his law degree in 1874, and his Ph.D. in political science in 1876. His doctorate in history was the first ever awarded in that discipline at Harvard.

While a graduate student from 1873 to 1876, Lodge was an editor of the North American Review, which later published his doctoral thesis, “The Anglo-Saxon Land Law.” Though he was admitted to the bar in 1876, much of Lodge’s time was spent on academic pursuits, including teaching American history at Harvard for three years. He also began writing books, including a biography of early American politician George Cabot (1752–1823), his great-grandfather, in 1877. In addition, Lodge served as an editor of the International Review from 1880 to 1881.

Early Political Career

Lodge began his political career as an elected official in 1880 when he won a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives for two years. In 1883, Lodge successfully managed the Massachusetts Republican Party and continued to act as a loyal party member. Winning the Republication nomination for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1886, he won the close election and took office in 1887. While serving in these capacities, Lodge continued his writing career, penning biographies of Alexander Hamilton in 1882, Daniel Webster in 1883, and George Washington in 1889.

Serving in the House for three terms, Lodge was a persuasive voice for the Republican Party. He supported the African American right to vote, in part to help build up Republican Party backing in the South, and the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act, which he helped write. In 1893, Lodge was elected to a seat in the U.S. Senate. He would keep this post for the next thirty years. After taking office, Lodge came to be regarded as an influential senator who counted Theodore Roosevelt among his close friends. Always defensive of the material interests of the United States, Lodge continued to believe that the American economy should be sheltered with a high protective tariff.

Support for the Spanish-American War

Lodge supported American acquisition of others domains, primarily as means to ensure continued American economic progress. Thus, he was a leading backer of United States’ entry into the Spanish-American War in 1898. Lodge was pleased with the American victory but understood that it came with responsibilities. At the end of the war, Lodge believed the Unites States should annex the Philippines, though this event did not come to pass. The war was also an illustration of some of Lodge’s other beliefs, including the need for the United States to have a strong army and navy, and the need for the spending of federal dollars to build up these branches of the military. He believed a strong military would ensure peace. Lodge also continued to support Roosevelt’s forceful Caribbean policies when he Roosevelt president in 1901.

Opposition to the Treaty of Versailles and League of Nations

As World War I loomed in Europe, Lodge believed the United States should be prepared for action. He was against President Woodrow Wilson’s (1856–1924) neutral stand on arming the country and opposing Germany. Lodge supported an early entry of the United States into World War I in support of the Allies because he believed a victorious Germany could hurt American economic interests in Latin America and other parts of the world. When World War I ended with a German defeat, Lodge was a powerful Republican voice in Congress, serving as both the chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the Senate majority leader. He used his position to influence America’s post-war stance.

While President Wilson played a significant role in crafting the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, Lodge had a significant number of Republicans on his side in opposition to both plans. Lodge was a vocal opponent of both the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations because he believed the United States should control its own fate in international politics and stay away from alliances that would entangle the country into events it could not control. Lodge also believed the treaty would compromise American sovereignty and was especially opposed to the United States joining the League of Nations unless specific provisions were made to protect American interests.

After formally objecting to Wilson’s treaty with thirty-six other Republicans in 1919, the tensions between Wilson and Lodge played out as the treaty was debated in the Senate. Lodge spoke out in favor of reparations against Germany and used his position as Foreign Relations Committee chairman to add amendments to the treaty. Both Wilson’s and Lodge’s versions were voted on in the Senate and neither passed, effectively spelling a victory for Lodge.

Neither the Treaty of Versailles nor the League of Nations were ratified by the Senate due to Lodge’s workings, and a separate peace was made by the United States with Germany in 1921. For similar reasons, Lodge also opposed the United States joining the World Court in 1922, despite the support of Republican President Warren G. Harding (1865–1929). While still serving as a U.S. senator from Massachusetts, Lodge died on November 9, 1924, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the age of seventy-four.

William Randolph Hearst

William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951) was an editor, publisher, and newspaper magnate. Hearst was a proponent of the Spanish-American War, advocating his position from the pages of his New York Journal. Hearst was born on April 29, 1863, in San Francisco, California, the only child of George and Phoebe (Apperson) Hearst. George Hearst (1820–1891) was a multimillionaire who gained his fortune in mining properties, while his wife worked as a schoolteacher before thier marriage. Hearst had an extensive education at private schools and with private tutors as befitting his family’s wealth. He attended Harvard College until he was expelled in 1885 because of poor grades.

Early Newspaper Career

Though George Hearst planned on leaving his fortune to his wife, not his son, Hearst asked his father for ownership of the San Francisco Examinersoon after his expulsion. George Hearst had bought the paper to further his own political ambitions and initially refused to hand the paper over to his son. Hearst then spent two years working as an apprentice for the New York World, then owned by Joseph Pulitzer, and learning about Pultizer’s new journalism and its sensationalist techniques.

When George Hearst became a U.S. senator in 1887, he gave the San Francisco Examiner to his son. Experimenting with the journalistic ideas he learned in New York, Hearst used the paper as a means to shock readers by creating bogus news as well as embellishing real news. He attracted readers by recruiting well-known writers like Ambrose Bierce by offering them large salaries. Hearst’s sensationalism and publicity stunts worked, and the paper became a success.

George Hearst died in 1891, and after his death, his wife sold $7.5 million of his mining interests and gave the money to Hearst. He used the funds to buy the New York Journal, a failing paper. In 1895, Hearst moved his headquarters to New York City. Using the same tactics in that paper as he had used in San Francisco, and by poaching the talent of rival Pultizer’s New York World among other papers, Hearst was able to increase the circulation of the Journal from seventy-seven thousand to at least one million a year later.

Spanish-American War Coverage

Hearst supported Cuban independence from the first edition of the Journal, and he spent significant sums of money to hire Richard Harding Davis (1864–1916) to report on the conflict and Frederick Remington (1861–1909) to create related illustrations for the Journal. When the pair arrived in Cuba in early 1897, they telegraphed New York that there was little conflict. Hearst assured them a conflict would be forthcoming. Hearst later claimed that he made the war, through the publication of the de Lôme letter.

The de Lôme letter

On February 9, 1898, William Randolph Hearst published the Lôme letter in his New York Journal and pushed forth the start of the Spanish-American War. The letter had its origins in President William McKinley’s State of the Union address in December 1897. In the speech, he continued to push for Spanish reform of their corrupt government in Cuba and cessation of fighting the Cuban rebels. McKinley’s actions did little to affect the situation, because the rebels did not want reform; they wanted independence.

Soon after McKinley’s speech, Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, Spain’s minister in the United States, sent a letter to an acquaintance in Cuba. In the letter, de Lôme stated that McKinley was ineffective and was leaving open the possibility of war only to increase American power worldwide. Furthermore, de Lôme revealed that Spanish reform efforts were insincere, because military victory in Cuba was Spain’s only desired outcome.

De Lôme’s letter was stolen by Cuban rebels and sent to the United States. In New York, it was given to the New York Journal. Without authenticating the letter or its contents, Hearst published the letter and added a sensational headline that emphasized that the Spanish insulted the United States. Hearst’s publication of the de Lôme letter took the United States one step closer to entering the Cuban conflict.

Hearst continued to trumpet war after the USS Maine mysteriously exploded shortly after arriving in Havana Harbor. Though the president wanted to wait for the results of the investigation, Hearst used his newspapers to demand American intervention. When his wish was granted and the United States declared on April 25 that a state of war with Spain had existed since April 21, the newspaper magnate continued to support the war and used his newspaper to push his views.

Hearst also volunteered to fund an army regiment with which he would fight, but President McKinley declined the offer. Hearst later donated and armed one of his yachts for the U.S. Navy but was not allowed to serve on it. He was finally part of the action by acting as a Journal correspondent in Cuba during the conflict and was able to interview a number of top military leaders. The war also served as a means of increasing readership as part of his ongoing rivalry with Pulitzer and the New York World. Hearst’s coverage of the war brought many readers to the Journal.

Failed Political Career

After the Spanish-American War ended and the twentieth century dawned, Hearst continued to expand his newspaper empire. He founded newspapers in Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles between 1900 and 1904. Hearst bought these papers in part because he had decided to run for president and they provided a forum for his candidacy.

To that end, Hearst ran for and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1902 and 1904. Hearst was a Democrat who represented New York. However, he failed his constituents and congressional colleagues by focusing his time and money on his failed 1904 presidential campaign. Hearst then ran as an independent candidate for mayor of New York City in 1905. A year later, Hearst was a Democratic candidate for governor of New York. He lost both elections and ran for office one more time a few years later. Hearst had another failed mayoral candidacy in 1909.

Hearst continued to expand his newspaper empire; by the 1920s, he was the owner of twenty daily papers and eleven Sunday papers. He also owned six national magazines, the King Features Syndicate, International News Service, and the syndicated Sunday supplement, the American Weekly. About 25 percent of Americans read a newspaper owned by Hearst during that decade.

Through his newspapers, Hearst lobbied against reform Democrats and American intervention in both World War I and World War II. His already shaky reputation took a further hit in 1927 when his newspapers printed fake documents that claimed that the government of Mexico paid more than $1 million to a handful of U.S. senators. The senators allegedly were going to throw their support behind a plot based in Central America that would start a war with the United States. Hearst’s newspapers did not suffer as much of a fall in reputation as he did personally.

Empire in Decline

By 1937, the two corporations that Hearst owned to run his newspapers and other businesses were $126 million in debt. Hearst’s company only avoided bankruptcy by his personal fortune and his stepping down as the overseer of his newspaper empire. However, Hearst was able to regain control by 1945.

After an illness, Hearst died on August 14, 1951, in Beverly Hills, California. He was survived by his long-time paramour, actress Marion Davies (1897–1961), and his sons from his marriage to showgirl Millicent Willson (1882–1974). At the time of his death, he was still a media mogul, owning sixteen newspapers, King Features, magazines, the International News Service, and radio and television stations.

Yellow Journalism

At the end of the nineteenth century, Pulitzer’s New York Worldand Hearst’s New York Journal were in a fierce circulation battle. A comic strip called Hogan’s Alley, better known as the “Yellow Kid,” typified and named the war between the two publishing giants. Artist Richard F. Outcault (1863–1928) began publishing the strip in 1894 in Truth magazine. It moved to the New York Worldin 1895, and to the New York Journal (under the name McFadden’s Row of Flats in 1897. Pulitzer hired another artist, George Luks (1866–1933), to continue drawing Hogan’s Alley.

The cartoon’s main character was Mickey Dugan, known as the “Yellow Kid,” a bald child with big ears and buck teeth in a long, yellow shirt. He and his friends were lower-class New Yorkers who spoke in their own slang and satirized society from behind their facades of children’s innocence—a tactic whose popularity has not since waned in comics and cartoons.

During the time leading up to and during the Spanish American War, both competing papers were running versions of “Yellow Kid” comics, and their tactics became known as “yellow journalism.” Beyond dueling satire, both papers also competed for readers with sensational, emotional, exaggerated, and inflammatory news. Stories played on the public’s emotions, focusing on suffering women and children in the brutality in Cuba. After the sinking of the Maine on February 15, 1898, that outrage was encouraged by a stream of sensationalistic front-page stories, editorials, and cartoons blaming Spain for the attack and demanding war.

Joseph Pulitzer

Joseph Pulitzer (1847–1911) was an editor, publisher, and newspaper magnate. He is known for originating yellow journalism and posthumously establishing the Pulitzer Prizes. As the publisher of the New York World, Pulitzer pushed for the Spanish-American War and covered the conflict extensively as part of his rivalry with fellow newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Born in Mako, Hungary, on April 10, 1847, he was the son of Philip Pulitzer, a wealthy grain dealer, and Louise Berger Pulitzer. As a child, Pulitzer was educated by tutors, but was physically weak, suffering from poor vision and frail lungs. Though he tried to enlist in three different militaries in Europe, his health issues prevented it every time.

Pulitzer immigrated to the United States in 1864, having been recruited to serve in the Union army during the Civil War. He was a member of the Lincoln Cavalry for less than a year. After his discharge, he settled in St. Louis, Missouri, where many Germans lived. Shortly after arriving, he held a number of jobs, including waiter, laborer, and hack driver.

Soon after being hired as a reporter for the Westliche Post, the German-language newspaper in St. Louis, Pulitzer was nominated by the Republicans for a seat in the state legislature. His candidacy was not taken seriously because his district was heavily Democratic, but by creating a focused campaign, he won the seat. While serving in office, Pulitzer attacked corruption.

Newspaper Fortune

In the 1870s, Pulitzer began building his newspaper empire. His first purchase came in 1872 when he bought the St. Louis Post for $3,000. After buying and selling a German newspaper for a profit, Pulitzer used the funds to establish a secondary career in law. He attended law school, passed the Missouri bar in 1876, and spent two years in his own legal practice.

Newspapers again became Pulitzer’s primary focus after he bought the St. Louis Evening Dispatch in 1878 for $2,700 at auction. He then combined the Post and the Dispatch. The new St. Louis Post-Dispatchbecame a profitable success under the active leadership of Pulitzer and his editor-in-chief, John A. Cockerill. The paper promoted civic action against gambling and lotteries and pushed for cleaner streets. Pulitzer was also doing well because of the talent he recruited and paid well.

A success in St. Louis, Pulitzer used profits from the St. Louis Post-Dispatchto make the down payment on his purchase of the New York World for $346,000 in 1883. At the time, the paper was losing money, but Pulitzer was able to turn it around using the same formula that made him successful in St. Louis. One reason for his achievement was his paper’s appeal to the common man by its battling fraud, public abuse, and generally supporting unions during strikes. Pulitzer also drew in readers with sensational stories and human interest pieces.

While Pulitzer’s newspaper career was on the rise, he suffered some personal setbacks. After several years of increasingly poor eyesight, he was totally blind by 1889. Pulitzer also had an ever-worsening nervous condition, which was probably manic depression, as well as other health concerns such as diabetes, asthma, and insomnia. Pulitzer was unable to supervise the paper first-hand because of his illnesses. After 1890, he no longer went to the newsroom of World.

To run his empire, Pulitzer then depended on a number of secretaries and editors with whom he communicated continuously. They helped him battle William Randolph Hearst and the New York Journal for supremacy in the 1890s. Hearst imitated many of Pulitzer’s innovations, but took the sensationalism to a new level as he tried to lure away Pulitzer’s readers and employees. As the pair clashed, Pulitzer allowed the screaming headlines and sensational art that he had previously avoided to appear in his papers.

Support for the Spanish-American War

Shortly before and during the Spanish-American War, the rivalry between Pulitzer and Hearst reached a new height. Both men supported the Cubans and American involvement in the conflict, but vied to produce the most sensational stories. The pair were competing to report on the acts of violence perpetuated on the Cuban rebels by the corrupt Spanish government ruling on the island.

After the explosion of the USS Maine in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, in February 1898, Pulitzer and Hearst published the belief that Spain was behind the explosion and that the United States must act. The pair continued their sensational coverage throughout the short conflict. By this time, the circulation of the World had reached fifteen million, a vast increase over the circulation of fifteen thousand that existed when Pulitzer purchased the publication in 1883.

Pulitzer soon lost his taste for the over-the-top journalism he and Hearst had been practicing. While still embracing sensationalism and the extensive reporting of crime, Pulitzer ended his more questionable journalistic practices. In 1902, he gave $2 million to establish a school of journalism at Columbia University to further legitimize his image.

By the end of his life, Pulitzer often traveled, primarily aboard his yacht, the Liberty. He died on October 29, 1911, while on his yacht, which was anchored in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. By the terms of his will, the well-known Pulitzer Prizes for writing excellence were established in 1915.

Admiral George Dewey

Admiral George Dewey (1837–1913) was a hero of the Spanish-American War who led the United States to victory in the battle of Manila. Born on December 26, 1837, in Montpelier, Vermont, Dewey was the son of Dr. Julius Y. Dewey and Mary Perrin Dewey. Dewey’s physician father raised him after his mother’s death when he was five years old, and the pair were close. After attending public schools, Dewey received the rest of his education at a Norwich, Vermont, military academy. Though Dewey hoped to attend West Point, the lack of vacancies forced his entry into the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He graduated in 1858.

Civil War Service

During the Civil War, Dewey served in the Union Navy as a lieutenant. His assignment was aboard the Mississippi, and he served on blockading fleets. His vessel was also involved with the Battle of New Orleans in 1862. His ship was then commanded by Captain David Farragut (1801–1870), whose tactics influenced Dewey’s own tactical choices during his Spanish-American War victory in Manila. By the end of the Civil War, Dewey had been promoted to lieutenant commander.

After the Civil War, Dewey remained with the U.S. Navy, which saw significant expansion. Accordingly, Dewey’s career progressed as well. He was promoted to commander in 1872, and then captain in 1884. By 1889, he was named the chief of the Bureau of Equipment. Four years later, he was serving as the president of the Lighthouse Board. By 1895, Dewey had been promoted to the president of the Board of Inspection and Survey. Dewey was named a commodore the following year, though he was unpopular with his fellow naval commanders.

In 1897, Dewey was given command of the U.S. Navy’s Asiatic squadron, stationed in the Pacific Ocean. His appointment was probably influenced by the sway of Theodore Roosevelt, then the assistant secretary of the Navy, and President William McKinley. In early 1898, Roosevelt ordered Dewey to move his fleet to the Philippines and fight the Spanish navy, which controlled the area, if war was declared. Thus, Dewey was in a key position when the Spanish-American War broke out in the spring of 1898. Prepared for the events that followed, he was able to take charge of American interests in the Philippines.

Naval Leadership During the Spanish-American War

Dewey guided the American fleet to the bay of Manila by May 1, 1898, about two weeks after war was declared on Spain. His forces attacked the Spanish fleet anchored in the harbor at dawn. The Americans had more modern ships and more arms than the Spanish, but were fewer in number—for every six Americans, there were seven Spanish. Spain also stationed its ships behind a minefield. In addition, heavy guns were positioned on the shore.

Using the Farragut-taught strategy, Dewey was able to destroy all of the Spanish vessels commanded by Spanish Admiral Patricio Montojo (1839–1917) within a few hours. He then controlled the Spanish naval base at Cavite, and the Spanish surrendered. Only eight American sailors suffered injury in the battle, and U.S. ships were essentially undamaged in the operation. This victory at Manila guaranteed that the United States would win the Spanish-American War. It also ended Spanish influence in Far East Asia and the Pacific.

Though Dewey controlled Manila because of his success at the Battle of Manila, he set up a blockade and stood ready for reinforcements. This situation proved difficult, as he had to deal with neutral ships. For example, five German ships did not want to consent to the rules of Dewey’s blockade; though outnumbered, Dewey intimidated the Germans with the threat of force until they backed off.

Dewey also played a role in what happened on land as well. While waiting for backup forces, Dewey had the Filipino rebel Emilio Aguinaldo return to the Philippines from his exile in Hong Kong. Aguinaldo had worked against the Spanish while forced away from his home. The commodore wanted him to take charge of launching a revolution in his native country. Soon General Wesley Merritt (1834–1910) made it to the area with U.S. Army soldiers. Together, Merritt, and Dewey completed the capture of the city of Manila.

By winning Manila, the United States spent many years playing a significant role in the region. Dewey was also promoted to rear admiral for his dramatic victory at the Battle of Manila a short time later. After the conflict ended, Dewey received another promotion, to admiral of the Navy, a position created for him by an act of Congress.

An American Hero

Dewey returned to the United States in the fall of 1899 to much acclaim and public admiration as a hero. Because of his high profile, some Democrats supported Dewey as a candidate for president in the 1900 election for a time, though this candidacy went nowhere because Dewey did not want—nor did he possesses the skill for—a political career. He withdrew his candidacy after a short time.

Instead, Dewey remained the highest ranking uniformed officer in the U.S. Navy. Dewey spent the next seventeen years as the president of the General Board of the Navy. In 1903, he was also named the Joint Army-Navy board’s chairman. During these years, Dewey led the Navy on a massive expansion as the United States grew in world stature. The Navy built a number of modern warships and established a number of bases in the Pacific. Dewey remained General Board president until his death on January 16, 1917, in Washington, D.C., of the effects of a 1913 stroke, arteriosclerosis, and old age.

Emilio Aguinaldo

A leader in the Filipino insurrection during the Spanish-American War, Emilio Aguinaldo (1869–1964) worked in conjunction with American forces to win the Philippines from the Spanish. He was also technically and briefly the first president of the Philippines. Born Emilio Aguinaldo y Famy on March 23, 1869, he was part of large, Chinese mixed-race family of wealth. His father was a lawyer who once served as the mayor of Kawit. Raised primarily in the Cavite Province of the Philippines, Aguinaldo was educated in the Filipino city of Manila at the University of Santo Tomás. He also worked in the family businesses related to mining, cattle, and sugar. As an adult, Aguinaldo held an appointed municipal position in the Cavite Province. By 1895, he was serving as Kawit’s mayor himself.

Revolt Against Spanish Rule

In 1896, Aguinaldo took a leading role in the insurrection, the so-called Katipunan movement, against the Spanish government, which had controlled the Philippines for many years. The Katipunans did not want Spanish rule. Aguinaldo showed himself to be an outstanding military leader, expert in using guerrilla military tactics to attack the Spanish. After Spain essentially trapped Aguinaldo and his rebels in mountain terrain, both sides decided to settle, and a treaty was negotiated with rebel leaders. Spain remained in control of the territory but promised to put reforms into place as well as pay a significant amount of compensation for damages. Aguinaldo was forced to go into exile in Hong Kong in 1897 as part of the agreement.


Founded in 1892, the full name for the Filipino rebel group known as Katipunan was the Kataastaasang Kagalanggalang Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan, or the “Highest and Most Honorable Society of the Sons of the Country.” This secret society was founded by Andrés Bonifacio (1863–1897) and had as its goal the overthrow of the Spanish colonial government controlling the Philippines. Inspired by the French Revolution, Katipunan represented the working peoples of the Philippines as they sought equality, independence, and freedom.

It was not until August 19, 1896, that Katipunan was exposed and its existence made public. A few days later, Bonifacio and many of the ten thousand members decided armed conflict would be their next step. They soon began guerrilla warfare assaults on the Spanish in the Philippines. Within a short time, there was conflict within Katipunan and the group split in two.

Because Bonifacio lacked skill as fighter and was unable to mediate a solution to the internal conflicts, Aguinaldo, by then a proven leader, had Bonifacio and others arrested. After being tried, Bonifacio was executed on May 10, 1897. The rebels continued to carry out their military plans under Aguinaldo until Spain forced a cease-fire later that year. When Aguinaldo returned from exile, he again headed Katipunan rebel forces who fought against the Spanish with American support during the Spanish-American War.

Participation in the Spanish-American War

When the United States declared war on Spain in 1898 at the start of the Spanish-American War, Aguinaldo went back to the Philippines at the invitation of the United States. As American naval troops led by Commodore George Dewey attacked the Spanish troops, Aguinaldo reignited the Filipino revolt against the Spanish. On June 12, 1898, before the conflict ended, Aguinaldo declared the Philippines free from Spanish rule. He then founded a Philippine republic on January 23, 1899, complete with a national flag and a national anthem. Aguinaldo was proclaimed president and established his capital at Malolos.

The peace treaty negotiated between Spain and the United States undermined Aguinaldo’s plans for an independent Philippines. The United States took over the Philippines as a possession from Spain. Aguinaldo started another rebellion, this time against the Americans already occupying his country. He eluded American forces for three years as he led other rebels in desperate guerrilla warfare. After being caught by the better-armed U.S. forces on March 23, 1901, Aguinaldo acquiesced to taking an oath of allegiance to America. On April 19, 1901, Aguinaldo publicly proclaimed peace between his rebels and the Americans. Hostility towards the United States eased as the United States began working with Filipinos to make the Philippines an independent country.

Public Role in the Philippines

After spending some time in prison, Aguinaldo became a private citizen, primarily living in Kawit. He did return to public life several times over the years. In 1935, Aguinaldo ran for president in the Philippines. He lost the election to Manuel Quezon (1878–1944). During World War II, the Philippines were invaded and occupied by Japanese forces. Aguinaldo helped the Japanese publicly, and when American forces returned, he faced charges of helping the enemy. Though arrested, Aguinaldo was never tried, because he was freed as part of a general reprieve. Aguinaldo was able to witness the United States’ granting independence to the Philippines a few years later, on July 4, 1946.

Aguinaldo continued to have public moments up to the 1950s. He was appointed to a presidential advisory body, the Council of State, in 1950. Seven years later, he became an author when he wrote A Second Look at Americawith V. A. Pacis. By the end of his life, Aguinaldo was a board chairman overseeing pensions for revolutionary veterans. He died on February 6, 1964, in Manila.

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) served as the assistant secretary of the Navy in the late 1890s and prepared the U.S. Navy for the Spanish-American War. He also was a member of the “Rough Riders,” who fought in the conflict. Roosevelt also served as the Govenor of New York, Vice President of the United States, and later became the 26th President of the United States.

Born on October 27, 1858, in New York City, Roosevelt was the son of Theodore Roosevelt Sr. and Martha Bulloch Roosevelt. His family was wealthy, but the young Roosevelt suffered from health issues including severe asthma for much of his childhood. Despite his poor health, Roosevelt was able to pursue an interest in biology and geology, and he received an extensive education at home, overseen by his aunt, which was supplemented by his family’s trips abroad. He was also able to conquer his poor health by taking up physical training and involvement in sports, such as boxing, as he grew older.

In 1876, Roosevelt entered Harvard and intended to become a scientist, but he became more interested in politics. Roosevelt graduated with honors from Harvard in 1880 and enrolled in Columbia Law School that fall. His law studies did not hold his interest, so Roosevelt finished a book he began writing while at Harvard, The Naval War of 1812. He had dropped out of law school by the time the book was published in 1882.

Early Political Career

Though law school bored Roosevelt, politics remained an interest and his career choice. A Republican, he began his first political campaign when he was twenty-one years old. Roosevelt won a seat in the New York Assembly in 1882. When he took office, he was the youngest member of this legislative body. While serving in the assembly, Roosevelt was a reformer who wanted to root out corruption and improve conditions for workers.

After the deaths of his wife, Alice Lee (shortly after giving birth to their daughter, Alice), and his mother on the same day in 1884, Roosevelt left the baby with relatives and purchased a cattle ranch in the Dakota Territory. There, he educated himself about the cattle trade, hunted big game, and wrote three books about these subjects. After natural disasters a few years later that resulted in the loss of most of his cattle, he sold the ranch and moved back to New York. In 1886, after an unsuccessful bid for the office of mayor of New York, he traveled to London and married Edith Carow, his old childhood friend.

Throwing himself back into politics, Roosevelt supported the presidential campaign of Benjamin Harrison in 1888. After Harrison won, he appointed Roosevelt U.S. Civil Service commissioner by him. Roosevelt continued his reform activities from his federal office in Washington, D.C., where he ensured that federal employees were given their posts because of their abilities and not their social connections. He remained in the post when Grover Cleveland took office in 1893. No longer interested in the Civil Service Commission by 1895, Roosevelt took a position in the New York City Police Commission, and again targeted corruption.

Service in the Spanish-American War

When Republican William McKinley won the presidency in 1896, Roosevelt was named assistant secretary of the Navy. As soon as he took the post, Roosevelt wanted the U.S. naval fleet expanded and also wanted to build submarines on an experimental basis. He also became extremely interested in the Cuban rebellion against their Spanish colonial overlords. However, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long (1838–1915) did not have the same strong, war-promoting opinions as Roosevelt, which led to conflicts between them.

Because Roosevelt believed that the United States would have to become involved with the conflict, he was also sure that America would go to war with Spain. Roosevelt even drew up plans for a naval war with Spain. After Long’s retirement, Roosevelt was left in charge of the Navy and began preparing naval ships for war. When McKinley finally declared war in the spring of 1898, the Navy was equipped and ready for action in Cuba as well as the Philippines, the other theater of battle in the Spanish-American War.

The Rough Riders

Because Roosevelt wanted to see action in the conflict, he stepped down from his position in the Navy and took up an offer from the secretary of war for a commission in the army. Roosevelt was made a lieutenant colonel and helped organize the First United States Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, whose one thousand members soon became known as Roosevelt’s Rough Riders for their intense bravery. The Rough Riders first saw frontline action in Cuba, fighting at Las Guasimas. After the skirmish at Las Guasimas, Roosevelt was promoted to colonel and named acting commander of the Rough Riders.

The unit continued to see action at the American assault on Santiago de Cuba, and, most famously, the Battle of San Juan Hill. With the help of a unit of African American soldiers, Roosevelt and the Rough Riders first took Kettle Hill and then San Juan Hill. Roosevelt considered the charge to capture San Juan Hill one of the best days of his life, despite the general lack of knowledge of events around them, the disorganization of the army, regular lack of supplies, and the fact that he and the Rough Riders sometimes had a hard time seeing the enemy. After the U.S. Navy completed the victory in the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt and the Rough Riders returned home to a hero’s welcome. He later published a book about the experience, The Rough Riders (1899).

Elected Office

Building on his fame as a war hero, Roosevelt ran for New York governor on the Republican ticket in 1898. He won the office, and, as with his earlier offices, pushed reform legislation as well as conservation. Because Roosevelt was unpopular with Republican leaders due to his new reform laws, they arranged for him to be selected as President McKinley’s running mate when he ran for reelection in 1900. McKinley won, and Roosevelt became the vice president of the United States.

Though he was bored as vice president, Roosevelt’s position soon changed when President McKinley was assassinated in September 1901. Roosevelt became the U.S. president, and he again championed reform and conservation issues as well as further expansion of the Navy. He also busted trusts (massive holding companies), which had created business monopolies, and he worked to increase federal regulation of businesses.

Roosevelt was reelected in 1904, and he selected his successor, William Howard Taft (1857–1930). In 1912, Roosevelt was dissatisfied with Taft’s actions as president and challenged him for the Republican nomination. Because Taft essentially won the Republican nomination, Roosevelt formed the Progressive Party and ran for president again. He and Taft lost to Woodrow Wilson.

After the loss, Roosevelt traveled to Brazil and spoke out in support of the United States’ participation in World War I. When America sent troops to Europe, Roosevelt’s request to lead a volunteer division was denied. Because of declining health, he was unable to run for president again as he had hoped to in 1920. Well before the election, Roosevelt died in his sleep on January 6, 1919, at his home in Oyster Bay, New York.

John Hay

During the Spanish-American War, John Hay (1838–1905) served as the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain and then took the leading role in negotiating its peace treaty as secretary of state. John Milton Hay was born on October 8, 1838, in Salem, Indiana. Raised primarily in Warsaw, Illinois, Hay received his education at an academy in Pittsfield, Illinois, and then briefly attended a college in Springfield, Illinois. Though he was not sure of the vocation, Hay prepared for a law career at Brown University from 1855 to 1858.

Service to Abraham Lincoln

Hay began his career as a lawyer in Springfield in 1859, working for his uncle, Milton Hay. During this time he met future president Abraham Lincoln, who was employed in the law office next to his. Hay worked on Lincoln’s presidential campaign. When Lincoln won the presidency, Hay left Illinois for Washington, D.C., to serve as Lincoln’s assistant private secretary. He remained in the position until Lincoln’s assassination. Hay was also commissioned as a major in the U.S. Army—later promoted to colonel—and used his position to execute special missions as needed by Lincoln.

After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Hay spent five years at American legations in Paris, France (as secretary), Vienna, Austria (as chargé d’affairs), and Madrid, Spain (as secretary of legation). In these minor posts, he displayed his social prowess more than foreign policy skills. Returning to the United States in 1870, he then spent the next four years as a New York City–based journalist and editor for the New York Tribune. A writer of some note, he published two volumes of poetry in 1871 that established his reputation as a writer, Pike County Ballads and Other Pieces and Castilian Days. Hay was also an author of other poems and novels that were well received.

In this time period, Hay married a wealthy, socially prominent woman, Clara Stone, who was the daughter of Amasa Stone, a Cleveland, Ohio, industrialist. This elevation in social status allowed Hay time to write and travel as well as take his political career to a new level. In 1878, Hay was appointed assistant secretary of state, a position he held until 1881. He also entertained the socially prominent at his home in Washington while completing his then-important satirical novel The Bread-Winners in 1884.

Biography of Lincoln

After five years of focused labor, Abraham Lincoln: A History, his influential biography, was published in 1890. This ten-volume work was written by Hay with John G. Nicolay, Lincoln’s private secretary. The men had begun gathering materials for the project during Lincoln’s presidency, with his blessing. Hay and Nicolay followed this book with a related two-volume work, Abraham Lincoln, Complete Works: Comprising His Speeches, State Papers, and Miscellaneous Writings, in 1894.

During William McKinley’s campaign for president in 1896, Hay befriended the candidate and soon held positions of importance in his administration. Hay became the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain in March 1897. Hay was serving as the ambassador during the Spanish-American War and had to deal with related issues using his diplomatic skills. Though living abroad, he was an ardent support of the United States entering the war.

The Treaty of Paris

When he returned to the United States in the fall of 1898, McKinley appointed him secretary of state. Hay took office on September 20, 1898. He had an active role in making policy, including dealing with the events stemming from American victory in the Spanish-American War. Hay took charge of negotiating the peace treaty with Spain. The Treaty of Paris was signed in late 1898 and ratified by Congress in early 1899. The agreement saw Spain ceding Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines to the United States. In return, the Americans gave Spain $20 million as compensation for the Philippines. While Hay had initially believed the Philippines should not be annexed by America, he later believed the islands should be annexed, because they would allow a U.S. presence in Asia and balance power between the West and the East (Japan and Russia).

Hay took a hard-line stance in the new American territory of the Philippines. When Filipino nationalists challenged American domination of their country during the Filipino Insurrection of 1899 to 1902, Hay supported their suppression. He also worked to better the position of the United States in Latin America. Secretary of State Hay was additionally responsible for the 1899 Open Door policy concerning China so that American merchants could continue to have needed trade rights while respecting China’s sovereignty.

Service to Theodore Roosevelt

After McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Hay retained his post under President Theodore Roosevelt. While Hay had played an important role in foreign policy making under McKinley, he deferred to Roosevelt’s lead after he took office. Hay actively worked to gain the land and the rights to build the Panama Canal during this time period. He negotiated the Hay-Pauncefote Treaties of 1900 and 1901 with Great Britain, which helped allow the Panama Canal to be built. He also negotiated the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty with Panama, which created the Canal Zone and gave the United States the right to build the canal.

Hay became ill with uremia in 1902, and his health continued to decline in 1903. As Hay became more seriously ill, he held his political office in name only. While still serving as secretary of state, Hay died on July 1, 1905, in Newbury, New Hampshire, after suffering a pulmonary embolism.

Major Battles and Events

Sinking of the Maine>

The sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine drove the United States to declare war on Spain, launching causing the Spanish-American War. In January 1898, the Maine had been sent by the United States from Key West, Florida, to Havana Harbor in Cuba. A so-called “act of friendly courtesy,” the ship was stationed there as a means of safeguarding the lives and property of Americans in Cuba.

At the time, Cubans had been rebelling against the Spanish, who controlled Cuba as a colony. This revolutionary conflict had been going on and off for several years and was both bloody and costly to American business. The Spanish resented Americans on the island, but they had not taken action against them directly.

The Maine Explodes and Sinks

The Maine was under the command of Captain Charles Sigsbee (1845–1923) and moored to a buoy about 500 yards away from the Havana arsenal when the incident occurred. The ship exploded on February 15, 1898, at 9:40 p.m., about three weeks after its arrival in Havana Harbor.

There were actually two separate blasts that happened in succession. The first was more muffled than the second, more powerful blast. The two explosions caused pieces of the ship to fly 200 feet in the air, and the steel of the forward half of the ship to be bent and twisted. Two hundred sixty sailors, including two officers, died in the blast. The ship’s remains sank in Havana Harbor. Many of those killed were buried in a cemetery in Havana.

Blame Placed

After the explosion occurred, Americans immediately believed that Spain was responsible for the sinking of the Maine. This idea was pushed by war-mongering newspapers in the United States. The newspapers, especially those owned by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, believed the United States should declare war on Spain. They emphasized one of what would become the Spanish-American War’s more popular rallying cries: “Remember the Maine!”

The U.S. Navy immediately began an inquiry into the matter, which was helmed by William T. Sampson (1840–1902). The report, released on March 21, 1898, concluded that the ship’s sinking was caused by an external explosion, rather than an accident inside the ship. A floating submarine mine was blamed. However, the responsibility for the mine was not placed on Spain, Cuba, or anyone else, though the mine was probably of Spanish origin.

Spain’s navy also conducted an investigation into the sinking. Its report concluded that there had been an internal explosion in the forward magazine of the ship that caused it to sink. This blast, they argued, was possibly caused by an unexpected fire in the coal bunkers. Regardless of the cause, the United States declared war on Spain in April 1898, and the American victory led to independence for Cuba.

Later Conclusions

In 1912, what was left of the Maine—primarily the after hull—was raised from the floor of Havana Harbor by U.S. Army engineers. The ship was taken further out to sea and sunk again with appropriate ceremony. The remains of sixty-six sailors still on board were removed and buried at the Arlington National Cemetery. As the Maine was removed, another inquiry was made as to the cause of the explosion. This 1912 report found that an exterior explosive caused the first blast, which resulted in the ignition of the stored ammunition that caused the second explosion.

Throughout the twentieth century, other researchers have offered their own explanations about what caused the sinking of the Maine. Some believe a defective boiler caused an internal blast. It is more generally believed that the conclusions of the Spanish inquiry were correct. There was probably a fire in the coal bunkers that reached the ammunition and caused the ship to blow up and sink. The lack of conclusive evidence makes the actual cause forever uncertain.

Manila Bay

On May 1, 1898, U.S. Commodore George Dewey defeated the Spanish squadron defending Manila Bay. His quick and decisive victory thrilled the nation and paved the way for the capture of the Philippines.


When the Spanish-American War was declared in April, Commodore Dewey was ready. Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt had given him instructions months earlier. If war were to break out with Spain, Dewey was to “see that the Spanish squadron does not leave the Asiatic coast” and undertake “offensive operations in Philippine Islands.”

His squadron consisted of the flagship Olympia, the cruisers Baltimore, Boston, and Raleigh, and the two gunboats Concord and Petrel. They had all been carefully fitted out in the Hong Kong harbor when Dewey received his orders. He was to capture or destroy the Spanish squadron of Admiral Patricio Montojo.

As a state of war existed between Spain and the United States, Dewey could no longer legally use the neutral harbor of Hong Kong, or any port within seven thousand miles. He set out immediately to secure the harbor of Manila.

The attack was daring. Manila was a large city, with a defensive fleet and an arsenal. Thirty-nine heavy, land-based guns guarded the Boca Grande—the main entrance of the bay. The consul general of Singapore warned Dewey that the harbor waters had been mined. In the Hong Kong clubs, even the sympathetic British were betting heavily against American success.


At midnight on April 30, Dewey’s squadron reached Manila Bay. “Mines or no mines,” the commodore said, “I’m leading the squadron in myself.” The six ships steamed directly into the harbor. The land batteries, poorly handled, only got in a few shots. All of them missed, and not a single mine exploded.

In fact, they could not have exploded. The Spanish were not as prepared as Dewey believed. They had no insulated wire and could not arm the mines.

If the Americans felt nervous about the upcoming battle, their enemies felt miserable. Admiral Montojo’s squadron had seven cruisers to Dewey’s four. But Montojo knew that his battleships were much smaller and older. The American ships carried fifty-three guns over four-inch caliber; the Spanish had only thirty-one. The Americans had larger and better-trained crews.

Montojo saw no hope for victory, but resolved to fight nonetheless. The Spanish squadron took a stand by the Cavite Navy Yard. They would have been better defended under the guns of Manila, but Montojo hoped to avoid civilian casualties in the city.

The Battle

At dawn, the Americans sighted the Spaniards and made straight for them. At 5:41 a.m., Dewey gave the order to the captain of the Olympia: “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.”

The American squadron formed a column moving south towards the Spanish, who were deployed in what the report of the engagement described as an “irregular crescent.” When they drew close enough, the column turned sharply to the west, running roughly parallel to the enemy line. Firing their port broadsides, the Americans traversed the Spanish formation. At the other end, the battleships doubled back in an oval path. Looping back and forth, Dewey’s squadron always presented a moving target. The range of the attack varied from 2,000 to 5,000 yards, which threw off inexperienced Spanish gunners.

At 7:00 a.m., Montojo’s flagship Reina Cristinalaunched a spirited attack, but it was quickly repelled. Dewey’s rapid-fire cannon did massive damage very quickly, while Spanish return fire was slower and less accurate. Their shore guns had almost no effect at all.

At 7:35, Dewey received an alarming (though incorrect) report that American ammunition had run out, so he ordered the squadron to withdraw. During the lull, it became clear that the Spanish fleet was crippled. The Castillacaught fire and sank. The Reina Cristina was also burning. Montojo ordered it to be scuttled before the magazines could explode. The Don Antonio de Ulloa alone kept its position while the smaller ships took refuge behind the arsenal.

Dewey renewed the attack at 11:16 a.m. The Ulloawas sunk, and the remaining ships were surrounded. In an hour, the entire Spanish fleet was “sunk, burned, or deserted.” The shore batteries were quiet, and a white flag flew over Cavite.

The Spanish had fought fiercely, under orders to sink their ships before surrendering them. They suffered 161 dead and 210 wounded. In contrast, only nine Americans were wounded, and their ships sustained only minor damage.

The Blockade

Dewey lacked the manpower to take the city, so he maintained a blockade of Manila until the U.S. Army arrived. Twenty thousand men arrived in late July, commanded by Major General Wesley Merritt.

While anchored off Manila, Dewey encouraged Emilio Aguinaldo, a Filipino resistance leader, to prepare his forces for a land battle against the Spanish. Aguinaldo later claimed that Dewey promised Filipino independence in exchange for their help. Dewey denied this. He insisted that he had offered only a military alliance.

Surrounded, the Spanish governor, Dom Fermín Jáudenes, struck a deal with Dewey. They staged a fake battle to preserve Spanish honor, and Manila formally surrendered on August 31.

In the meantime, Captain Henry Glass (1844–1908) of the USS Charlestoncaptured Guam. Actually, the Spanish in Guam had not heard from Spain in months and did not know that they were at war. When the Charlestonfired on their forts, Spanish officials rowed out to ask what was going on. Finding themselves prisoners of war, they reluctantly arranged for Guam’s surrender.

When Dewey returned to the United States, a grateful public overwhelmed him with praise. They sold Dewey hats, Dewey cigarettes, and Dewey paperweights. Congress created a new Admiralty position just so that he could be promoted. There was even a serious, though short-lived, campaign to make him president.

Las Guasimas

The capture of Cuba was the first priority of the United States in the Spanish-American War. While the navy blockaded Santiago harbor, the Fifth Army Corps fought through the jungle hills to approach the city by land. Their first battle was a short but bloody skirmish at Las Guasimas.

The Amateur Army

The war found the U.S. Army relatively weak and outmoded, despite recent efforts to modernize it. It was also outnumbered. Cuba held around 150,000 regular Spanish troops, supported by 40,000 loyalist volunteers. The Cuban rebel army was about 50,000 strong. Only 26,000 men served in the U.S. Regular Army.

On April 22, Congress passed the Mobilization Act. This raised the regular army strength to 65,000 and called for a wartime volunteer force of 125,000. The new recruits were gathered into crude South Florida camps, awaiting deployment to Cuba. The camps were astonishingly undersupplied, unsanitary, and chaotic. Hundreds of the volunteers had never fired a gun in their lives.

This makeshift army included the First Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, called the “Rough Riders.” When Spain declared war, Theodore Roosevelt had promptly resigned his naval commission in order to seek glory in combat. With his friend Colonel Leonard Wood (1860–1927), Roosevelt mustered about a hundred men—cowboys, American Indians, college football players, and policemen—into an unprofessional but wildly enthusiastic fighting force.

The Landing

Spanish General Arsenio Linares (1848–1914) had spread his forces widely to intercept the expected American invasion. As a diversion, Cuban General Calixto Garcia (1839–1898) attacked a village outside of Santiago, drawing Linares’s troops away. On June 22, the Fifth Army Corps landed near the village of Daiquiri, about fourteen miles east of Santiago. Only three hundred Spaniards had remained to defend Daiquiri, and they abandoned their posts at the first round of American fire.

The Corps disembarked clumsily—two men and several horses drowned. Still, around 16,000 troopers made it to the shore. They could only bring enough horses for officers and for transportation. Most of the cavalry would have to fight on foot.

The Battle

Commander William Shafter (1835–1906) made headquarters in a small town named Siboney. Before the army had completely settled there, however, Cuban intelligence reported a Spanish ambush at Las Guasimas. Spanish Brigadier General Antero Rubin (1851–1923) had a few thousand men in a strong position to the northwest of Siboney. They meant to delay the Americans; their orders were to retreat if attacked.

American Major General “Fighting Joe” Wheeler (1836–1906) was eager for action. He ordered the Las Guasimas attack, knowing full well that Shafter was not ready to move. Three cavalry regiments fought under his command: the First Regular, the Tenth Regular and the Rough Riders.

On June 24, the three regiments advanced slowly but steadily through the thick jungle. Around 7:30 in the morning, an advanced patrol found Spaniards waiting at a crossroads, in deep pits or hidden in heavy undergrowth. Brigadier General Samuel Young (1840–1924) of the Tenth Cavalry discovered entrenchments and a small blockhouse along a high ridge.

Around 8:00, Young opened fire with Hotchkiss guns. These mounted cannons smoked a great deal, giving away their position. By contrast, the Spaniards carried Mauser “smokeless” rifles. The Americans took heavy fire, but they could not see where it came from. When his men began cursing in frustration, Colonel Wood snapped, “Don’t swear—shoot!”

The First and Tenth Brigades approached the ridge from the north, the Rough Riders from the south. They lost a great number of men, but apparently proceeded calmly and in good order. When they had fought their way to an assault line, they charged the blockhouse. The Spanish withdrew around 11:00 in the morning.


A few days later, Young succumbed to fever. Leonard Wood was given a field promotion, effectively leaving Roosevelt in command of the Rough Riders. Wheeler also fell ill, but he recovered in time to join the San Juan Heights battle a week later. It was said that the elderly ex-Confederate general became confused as he was watching the blue-coated Spanish retreat. “Come on boys!” he shouted. “We’ve got those damned Yankees on the run!”

The engagement at Las Guasimas raised American morale, but it was also sobering. The enemy was well seasoned, having fought in Cuba for three years. It knew the country and was accustomed to the climate. The Spanish were outnumbered, but better positioned. Their soldiers were brave and stubborn fighters.

The Americans, on the other hand, arrived with inexperienced troops, inferior weapons, and almost nonexistent supply lines. The next few weeks, however, gave them a chance to show their own courage and determination.

The Yellow Fever

The Americans faced another enemy on the islands, one that would take far more lives than the Spanish. Through the entire Cuban campaign, the United States lost around 350 men in combat. However, more than 2,000 died of yellow fever and malaria.

The Cuban land campaign was not, on any level, well planned. Questionable decisions were made, not the least of which was the timing of the invasion. The Fifth Army Corps arrived in July—high season for tropical diseases.

The leadership perfectly understood the risk they were taking. Theodore Roosevelt wrote in a letter home: “The surgeons here estimate that over half the army, if kept here during the sickly season, will die.”

Sure enough, sickness began to spread through the American camps in early July. Shafter divided the army. Hundreds of yellow fever victims remained in a hospital at Siboney.

The four African American Regular regiments had been nicknamed “Buffalo Soldiers,” because of their bravery on the frontier. In Cuba they were also called “the Immunity Regiments.” Americans mistakenly believed that blacks could not contract jungle diseases. Shafter ordered the Twenty-fourth Infantry, a black brigade, to care for the sick at Siboney. Over a third of that “immune” regiment fell ill and died.

Some good did come of the tragedy. The United States wanted to keep the army in Cuba long after the war ended. To do so, the devastating outbreaks of disease had to be stopped. Major Walter Reed (1851–1902) was commissioned to do a study of yellow fever. The Reed Commission discovered that mosquitoes transmit the disease, a revelation that would save innumerable of lives.

San Juan Hill

On July 1, 1898, U.S. Army troops captured the San Juan Heights after a confused and bloody battle. Possibly the most famous engagement of the Spanish-American War, this costly victory opened the path to Santiago de Cuba. It also made Theodore Roosevelt a national hero and propelled him to the presidency.

The Plan

On June 22, the Fifth Army Corps, commanded by Major General William Shafter, arrived in Cuba. They landed about fourteen miles west of their primary objective, Santiago. Two days later, American troops seized the Las Guasimas ridge.

The Fifth Army Corps consisted of the First and Second Infantry Divisions, commanded by Brigadier Generals Jacob Kent (1835–1918) and Henry Lawton (1843–1899), respectively, and the Calvary Division, commanded by Brigadier General Samuel Sumner (1842–1937). The cavalry included the First Volunteer Regiment, nicknamed “Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.”

While the troops waited, General Shafter took some time to assess their situation. Some 3,000 Cuban insurgents, under General Calixto Garcia, cut off Spanish reinforcements from the north. But Spanish General Arsenio Linares had placed a series of fortifications in the hills between Siboney and Santiago. In addition, 520 Spaniards waited in the sugar mill village of El Caney, threatening the army’s right flank.

It was decided that Kent and Sumner would advance towards Santiago. After crossing the Aguadores River, Kent would bear left, while Sumner would bear right. Lawton would wipe out El Caney first (he thought it should take about two hours) and then come to reinforce the others. Captain George Grimes’s howitzer battery would provide supporting fire.

On July 1, the troops began moving at dawn. Lawton began his assault on El Caney first at 7:00. An hour later Grimes’s cannons opened fire. They battered the highlands for forty-five minutes, filling the valley with smoke. Then, around 9:00, the main attack moved forward.

San Juan Hill

Kent’s First Brigade advanced through the jungle in stifling tropical heat. The objective was a cement blockhouse on top of San Juan Hill that was protected by trenches and eight barbed wire fences. From that position, the Spanish were able to pour continual rifle fire down on the attackers.

The American plan of attack almost immediately began to dissolve. Their brigades had been slowed on the narrow jungle paths and then separated. Chief Engineer Officer George Derby decided to go up in the Division’s hydrogen balloon to get the lay of the land. The balloon immediately drew enemy fire and was shot down. The Seventy-first New York Volunteer Brigade froze under incoming fire, blocking the trail. Kent could not move them, so they were shoved aside.

By 1:00, the Sixth and Sixteenth Infantries had managed to take their assault positions. They found cover as they could along a little river valley, constantly losing soldiers under the Spanish guns. The men would later call the valley “Hell’s Pocket.”

Around the same time, Lieutenant John Parker arrived with four horse-drawn Gatling guns. “Where in the hell are the Spaniards?” he asked. “I’ve been fighting all day and haven’t seen a damned one!” When someone pointed to the hilltop, Parker set the guns to work.

The officers waited for orders. Orders never came. The elderly, overweight General Shafter had collapsed from the heat. In the meantime, there was no sign of Lawton’s reinforcements. He had encountered savage resistance from El Caney. Under their commander, Vara de Rey, the Spanish had fought almost to the last man. They would not give way until their ammunition ran out at 4:00 in the afternoon.

The senior commanders, mostly former Civil War officers, were trained to follow orders as part of a larger, disciplined force. Their junior officers, generally frontier soldiers, showed more independence and initiative. Lieutenant Jules Ord (1866–1898) begged his commanding officer, General Hamilton Hawkins (1834–1910), to let him lead an attack. “I will not ask for volunteers, I will not give permission and I will not refuse it,” the general answered, after a long pause. “God bless you and good luck!”

What followed was a disordered, murderous, heroic scramble. Without orders, brigade after brigade followed Ord’s screaming charge up the hill. Covered by Parker’s Gatling guns, they cut through the barbed wire and ran forward. The defenders increased their fire.

The cavalry, having secured Kettle Hill, arrived at the top of San Juan Hill just before the infantry. When the Americans reached the trenches, the Spanish fled to the next line of hills. The infantry took the blockhouse, breaking in through the tile roof and fighting hand-to-hand. By 2:00 in the afternoon, San Juan Hill had fallen.

Kettle Hill

A short distance to the north, Sumner’s Calvary Division lined up to assault another hilltop entrenchment. (The Americans later named the place “Kettle Hill,” for a large teakettle found at the top.) The volunteer Rough Riders took their positions behind the Ninth Regular Cavalry.

Taking fire, the calvary advanced but did not attack. Frustrated, losing men, and unable to find a ranking officer, Roosevelt took command and ordered a rush. The Ninth Regular captain balked, reluctant to follow a volunteer. “Then let my men through, sir.” Roosevelt said, whereupon the Rough Riders took the lead.

Independently, other regiments also decided on a charge. Yelling,they ran full-tilt up the hill against bursts of artillery and small arms fire. The Americans overran the trenches and seized the small blockhouse.

Having taken Kettle Hill, they turned their attention to San Juan Hill across the road. They supported the American infantry charge by firing at the San Juan trenches and blockhouse.

The Ninth Cavalry Regiment then advanced across the valley to where the Spaniards had retreated from San Juan Hill. The black regular troops fought magnificently, driving the Spanish back. Roosevelt then rode out and took command of the regiment. By the end of the day, the U.S. Army controlled the highlands looking down on Santiago.

Exhausted, the U.S. Army did not continue to Santiago that day. Instead, they entrenched on the heights and waited for reinforcements.

The Fifth Army Corps suffered 205 dead and 1,180 injured in the battle. Many of the wounded would die in the next few days. Altogether, the Americans lost 10 percent of their force. The Spanish lost more than a third of their 17,000-man force.

Santiago Harbor

On July 3, 1898, the Spanish squadron at Santiago tried to break the American blockade and escape from the harbor. The battle ended with an overwhelming American victory, which destroyed Spain’s naval presence in the Western Hemisphere.

The Blockade

When war broke out between Spain and the United States, two U.S. naval squadrons were sent to the Caribbean. The first was the Flying Squadron, with the Texas, Massachusetts, and Brooklyn, commanded by Commodore Winfield Schley (1839–1911). The other was the Atlantic Squadron, commanded by Rear Admiral William Sampson. This included the armored cruiser New York and the battleships Iowa and Indiana. The Oregon arrived later, having come from San Francisco. Sampson had overall command, even though he ranked lower than Schley.

At the same time, a Spanish fleet, led by Admiral Pascual Cervera (1839–1909), made its way to Cuba. Because of hesitancy on Schley’s part, Cervera eluded the Americans and slipped into Santiago harbor. Annoyed at Schley, Sampson joined the blockade of Santiago on June 1.

A month later, William Shafter’s Fifth Army Corps seized the San Juan Heights, only two miles outside Santiago. Shafter sent a message to the Spanish, threatening to bombard the city if they did not surrender.

Surrounded, Cuban governor-general Don Ramón Blanco (1833–1906) ordered Cervera to run the blockade. The admiral initially refused to leave. He knew very well that the Americans had larger, more modern ships with far greater firepower. “I have considered the squadron lost ever since it left Cape Verde,” he wrote gloomily, “in view of the enormous disparity which exists between our own forces and those of the enemy.” Even worse, the narrow mouth of Santiago Harbor forced the Spanish to leave in single file. They would have to run the American gauntlet one by one.

The New Navy

In 1890, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840–1914) published The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, a book that was to change modern warfare. Using historical examples, Mahan argued that a nation’s greatest military strength was its ability to control the sea with a strong navy.

At the time, the United States did not have a strong navy. Europe generally mocked the American fleet, which consisted almost entirely of wooden ships, leftovers from the Civil War. By 1889, the U.S. Navy was generally ranked twelfth in the world.

However, in the 1880s and 1890s, younger naval officers began to push for naval reform. In 1883, Congress approved funds for three all-steel plated cruisers. Three years later, Secretary of the Navy William Whitney (1841–1904) persuaded Congress into the construction of nine steel cruisers, including the Maine and the Texas. In 1885, the Naval War College was founded.

The 1890s saw the construction of huge, fully armored battleships and cruisers like the Indiana, the Oregon, and the Massachusetts. Equipped with the latest technology, these ships bristled with 13-inch rapid-fire guns, and could reach seventeen knots. Big-navy enthusiasts, such as Theodore Roosevelt, also pushed for more manpower and better training.

By 1898, most countries rated the U.S. Navy fifth or sixth in the world. Europeans generally placed America about on par with Spain. The Spanish-American War was to decisively end debate on the question of which navy was superior.

Nevertheless, Blanco overruled his objections. If the fleet were captured without a fight, he said, “Spain will be morally defeated.” Cervera gave in, and he ordered a sortie on July 3.

The Sortie

At 9:00 a.m., Cervera led the squadron in his flagship, the Infanta Maria Teresa. In grim silence, the six ships steamed out, about ten minutes apart. Their goal was to escape to Cienfuegos or Havana.

On reaching the mouth of the bay, Cervera saw a weak point in the American blockade. Sampson had left that morning for a rendezvous with Shafter, taking his flagship, the New York. Four other ships had left to re-coal in Guantánamo. The Spanish fleet took advantage of their absence and made straight for a gap to the southwest.

The American ships, left under Schley’s command, were taken by surprise. Most took a short time to swing around and pursue. Schley’s flagship, the Brooklyn, found itself alone on an intercept course with the enemy column. Schley ordered a bizarre loop back, almost colliding with the oncoming Texas .

The Battle

For the Spanish, the battle went downhill from there. Within forty-five minutes, the Infanta had caught fire and was driven ashore. American fire concentrated on the flagship, allowing the two following vessels, the Vizcaya and the Cristóbal Colón, to pour on speed to the west.

The fourth ship in line, the Almirante Oquendo, took fifty-seven shells and was beached not far from the Infanta. The Gloucesterran the destroyer Plutón aground, and the Furor sank shortly afterwards.

The New York had been seven miles away when the engagement began. Sampson turned back immediately and returned in time to chase the Vizcayaand the Colón. A shell set off a huge explosion in the torpedo room of the Vizcaya, and she ran onto a reef. Watching the ship burn, the captain of the Texas said to his men, “Don’t cheer, boys. Those poor devils are dying.”

The Colón would probably have escaped if its supply of good coal had not run out. On inferior grade coal, she slowed and was overtaken, whereupon its captain deliberately beached the ship.


The battle was a rout. The Spanish lost over 300 men in the engagement, with 157 wounded. Only one American died, and one other was hurt. The United States took 1,720 prisoners of war, including Admiral Cervera.

After a brief naval bombardment, Santiago de Cuba formally surrendered on July 17. Schley was popularly idolized at home, much to Sampson’s disgust. Sampson claimed credit for the victory, since he had never officially turned over command. Schley, he claimed, had made serious errors before and during the engagement. The quarrel between the two commanders would become public, and embarrassing, after the war.

When he returned home, Cervera faced an inquiry regarding the loss of his squadron. He was honorably acquitted; it was evident that he had done all he could. American technological superiority—especially in gunnery—had carried the day.

The Home Front


From around 1890 to 1920, the United States experienced a huge inflow of immigrants, mostly from southern and eastern Europe. About a million newcomers arrived in 1889 alone. Their arrival threatened the Protestant Anglo-Saxon majority and changed the nature of America.


The first great wave of immigration had washed over the country in the 1840s and 1850s. Irish and German farmers had flocked to the New World, escaping severe famine in their home countries. In the 1890s, a new influx began, this time caused not by shortage but by plenty. Thanks to the industrial revolution, Europe had made great strides in agriculture and medicine. As a result, the birth rate and the death rate dropped. At the same time, mechanized production made it more difficult to fully employ the burgeoning population.

In Italy and Eastern Europe, it was commonly believed that America was a land of plenty and opportunity. Young people would go to the United States to seek their fortunes. They wrote home, telling their parents and friends that there were, indeed, fortunes for the seeking. Most worked in sweatshops or as menial labor, but they often made far more money than they could have made in the old country.

While some people were drawn to America, others were pushed. Slavic Jews fled regimes that tolerated or even encouraged antisemitic violence. One Jewish intellectual wrote: “The only hope for Jews in Russia is to become Jews out of Russia.” By 1898, half a million Jews had moved to New York City alone—about a third of Europe’s Jewish population.


Many Americans were alarmed by the inflow of immigrants. They saw the United States as a British-born Protestant country. The new arrivals came from different ethnicities, spoke foreign languages, and embraced alien creeds.

People expressed frank contempt for the newcomers. The Irish were already despised as ignorant, lazy drunks. With the new wave of immigration, Americans adopted the European belief in Jewish greed and dishonesty. They mocked Slavs for stupidity, and they feared Italians as “Mafioso,” criminals with no self-control. The Baltimore News wrote, “The disposition to assassinate in revenge for a fancied wrong is a marked trait in the character of this impulsive and inexorable race.”

Judaism, having just arrived, provided fresh fodder for American prejudices. But anti-Catholicism had blossomed in America from the beginning. Prior to the Revolutionary War, many colonies denied Catholics the vote and outlawed Catholic schools. Conflict with French Canada and Spanish Mexico only increased their antipathy. In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) openly declared: “If we are to have another contest …, I predict that the dividing line will not be Mason and Dixon’s, but between (Protestant) patriotism and intelligence on one side, and (Catholic) superstition, ambition and ignorance on the other.”

Protestant Americans tended to think of the Catholic Church as anti-democratic and tyrannical, the antithesis of American values. The Vatican, in their view, ruled over a cult that overlapped, and undermined, national loyalties. In New England, many communities celebrated an annual Pope-burning day as a kind of patriotic display.

Labor Relations

The willingness of immigrants to work for low wages also caused tension. Employers used the new labor to lower costs and to weaken the unions. Lower and middle-class Americans, fearing for their jobs, reacted angrily. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) vocally opposed immigration as a threat to the working class.

People also protested out of humanitarian concerns. Immigrants were often exploited by the practice of contract labor. Under this system, an immigrant was given free passage to the United States and then made to pay off the debt with free labor. In 1885, the Foran Act outlawed most forms of contract labor, but the practice continued illegally.

Finally, immigrants brought foreign economic and social doctrines. Socialist and communist movements thrived in Europe, and some sought to bring those revolutions to America. Anarchists assassinated several heads of states around the turn of the century, including U.S. President William McKinley.


Various political groups attempted to resist the changes American society was facing as immigration boomed. In the 1840s, a group called the Order of the Star Spangled Banner had been active. Like many anti-Catholic societies, the Order feared being infiltrated by agents of the “romanish” conspiracy. To prevent this, they became secretive and conspiratorial themselves. If anyone asked about the group, its members were instructed to reply, “I don’t know.” As a result, they were known thereafter as the “Know-Nothing” party.

In 1887, a number of small nativist associations were absorbed into the American Protective Association (APA). This group, like the Know-Nothings, distributed anti-Catholic propaganda and promoted anti-Catholic politicians. They supported women’s suffrage on the grounds that Protestant women would protect the country’s youth.

The Ku Klux Klan, the largest of the nativist organizations, was founded in 1866. It faded during Reconstruction but was revived with vigor in 1915 as the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The first Klan had focused its animosity entirely on African Americans. The second incarnation opposed blacks, Catholics, Jews, and Communists.


Though none of these groups were long-lived, they had an effect on the political scene. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade Chinese immigration for ten years. In 1891, laws prohibited polygamists and people with contagious diseases to enter the country.

In 1892, the federal government established an immigration way station on Ellis Island in New York. Similar agencies for regulating immigrants were created in San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia.

In 1897, Congress passed a law requiring immigrants to be literate, but President Grover Cleveland vetoed the measure. William Taft and Woodrow Wilson also vetoed literacy bills, but the legislation was pushed through in 1915. In 1921, Congress drastically reduced immigration and imposed a quota system to limit entries from southern and eastern Europe.

International Context

The Russo-Japanese War

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Japan was ready to take its place as a world power. Worried by Russian designs on Manchuria and Korea, the Japanese attacked Russia’s forces in northeast Asia. After two years of fighting, Russia was soundly defeated. Japan’s victory, costly to both sides, changed the balance of power in Asia.

Before the War

Since the establishment of the Meiji government in 1868, the Japanese had been building their industrial and military infrastructure. They were determined not to fall under a foreign empire and planned to forge one of their own. To these ends, Japan fiercely held to a doctrine of Korean interventionism. The Korean peninsula under foreign control, they contended, represented “a dagger pointing at Japan’s heart.”

This policy led to the Sino-Japanese war (1894–1895), which ended in a decisive Japanese victory over China. However, a “Triple Intervention” of Russia, Germany, and France forced Japan to return the Liaodong peninsula to China. The Japanese people felt deeply humiliated by this interference.

To add insult to injury, Russia took possession of Fort Arthur (Lushunkou), on the coast of Liaodong. Moreover, Russian troops began to move in Manchuria, just north of Korea. For ten years, Japan sought a diplomatic solution. It offered Russia a free hand in Manchuria if the czar would recognize Korea as a Japanese territory. Russia refused.

In 1902, Great Britain signed an alliance with Japan, promising to intervene if Russia allied itself to any third party. The treaty forced the Russians to fight alone, giving a strategic advantage to Japan. The Russians still did not back down. Civil unrest at home made the czar unwilling to show weakness abroad. He thought that the Japanese were bluffing. Even if it came to blows, his advisors believed that Russia would win quickly.

On February 8, 1904, Japan opened the war with a surprise torpedo attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur. Vice Admiral Togo Heihachiro (1846–1934), a former samurai, took the main Japanese fleet and blockaded the harbor. Japan declared war on Russia on February 10.

From the South

In March, General Tamesada Kuroki’s (c. 1844–1923) First Army landed at Chemulpo, Korea. From there they moved north to the Yalu River. Kuroki met a Russian advance guard under General Zasulich at the Yalu crossing. Vastly outnumbered, Zasulich was driven back.

From the North

On May 5, the Japanese Second Army, under General Yasukata Oku (c. 1846–1930), landed northeast of Port Arthur. Moving towards the harbor, they encountered Russian resistance in the Nanshan Hills. After intense fighting, Oku drove back the Russians, opening the port of Dalny (Dairen) to the Japanese.

From the East

Once Dalny was secured, General Maresuke Nogi (1849–1912) mustered the Third Army there. In July, with 80,000 men and 474 siege guns, Nogi moved to seize Port Arthur, an imposing complex of forts, walls, and trenches. It was manned by a large, well-armed garrison and commanded by the incompetent Anatoly Stoessel (1848–1915).

Nogi attacked the fortified hills east of the city. The fighting was long and brutal, but, one by one, the outer defenses fell. Surrounded and starving, Stoessel surrendered Port Arthur on January 2.


In August, Marshal Iwao Oyama (1842–1916) took command of the Japanese forces north of Port Arthur. These were the combined armies of Generals Oku and Kuroki, along with fresh troops from the coast. They had 125,000 men in total.

This force bore down on Liaoyang, held by 158,000 Russians under General Alexei Kuropatkin (1848–1925). After ten days and 18,000 casualties, the Russians retreated. But the Japanese had lost even more men (23,600), and Oyama could not press his advantage.

When both sides had been reinforced, they clashed again at Sha He on October 5. The battle raged almost two weeks and claimed over 60,000 lives, without a decided outcome. Spent, both armies bedded down for the dreaded Manchurian winter.

In a late January snowstorm, Kuropatkin launched an assault on Oyama’s position in Heikoutai (Sandepu). The battle turned into another stalemate, and the Russians were forced to withdraw to Mukden (Shenyang).

Joined by the Nobi province’s Second Army and other troops, Oyama attacked Mukden in February. The battle was the largest in world history until that time—207,000 Japanese soldiers against 291,000 Russian soldiers. After losing 69,000 men, Kuropatkin fell back. The Japanese had lost 75,000 men. Both armies were too exhausted to continue.

On the Water

On August 10, the Russian fleet tried to break out of the Port Arthur blockade. The excursion, known as the Battle of the Yellow Sea, ended in catastrophe for Russia. A few ships escaped, one sank, and most retreated back into the harbor.

In October, Russia’s Baltic fleet set out from Europe with Admiral Zinovi Rozhdestvenski (1848–1909) in command. Refused passage through the Suez Canal, they did not reach Vladivostok until May. The force was large, but it was composed almost entirely of older, antiquated vessels.

On May 27, Togo’s fleet pounced on Rozhdestvenski as he passed through the Tsushima Strait. Japan’s ships were more modern, its sailors were better trained, and its commander was far more capable. By the next day, only six of thirty-tree Russian warships managed to escape; all of the others were sunk or captured. The Japanese lost three torpedo boats.

The Peace

Japan was ready for peace. It had achieved superiority at sea, but the land campaign was deadlocked, and Russian reinforcements could eventually arrive. For their own part, Russians were sick of the war, and the czar had problems at home.

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt brokered a deal that resulted in the Portsmouth Treaty. Russia pulled all troops out of Manchuria. They ceded Port Arthur and half of Sakhalin Island to Japan. However, the czar refused to pay any indemnity money. Once again, the Japanese people felt cheated by an absurdly light peace settlement. Their resentment against Roosevelt and the United States would simmer for decades.

Japan emerged as a recognized world imperial power, challenging white people’s assumptions about their own superiority. Western observers praised the Japanese commanders, but they were even more impressed by the fanatic courage of the Japanese soldiers. As the New York Sun observed: “The Russians were not so much outgeneraled as they were outfought.”

The cost in human life was appalling. This was due to new methods of warfare—trenches, machine guns, barbed wire, mines, and distant artillery—which grimly foreshadowed the bloodbath of World War I.


Annexation of Hawaii

For much of the nineteenth century, U.S. business interests sought to control the rich islands of Hawaii in the South Pacific. At the beginning of 1893, American citizens deposed the ruling Hawaiian monarch and took control of the country. Five years later, the U.S. formally annexed Hawaii.


The islands of Hawaii had been unified under the Hawaiian royal family since 1810, when King Kamehameha I (1758–1819) consolidated his reign over the other tribal chiefs. He was succeeded by his son, Liholiho, who ruled as Kamehameha II (1797–1824). Heavily influenced by American Protestant missionaries, Liholiho abolished the traditional Hawaiian religion.

On Liholiho’s death, the crown passed to his brother, Kauikeaouli, known as Kamehameha III (c. 1813–1854). Also advised by missionaries, Kauikeaouli instituted a series of reforms, including a constitution and a legislature. He also ended feudalism, privatized land, and offered public education. The United States, Britain, and France officially recognized the kingdom of Hawaii under his rule, which lasted from 1824 to 1854.


Hawaii’s relations with the U.S. Navy got off to a rocky start. In 1826, Captain James “Mad Jack” Percival (1779–1862) arrived in the schooner Dolphin, in search of some mutineers. His men had been looking forward to the famed hospitality of Hawaiian women. They were horrified to learn the missionaries had brought about a mass conversion of the island, and that Queen Kaahumanu (c. 1772–1832) had forbidden women to welcome sailors in the traditional way.

Enraged, Percival demanded that the queen release her girls, and threatened to shoot the missionaries if she did not. The queen loftily held her ground. The next day, 150 drunken sailors stormed Honolulu, rioting, breaking windows, and bullying clergymen. Reluctantly, to prevent further violence, Kaahumanu allowed Hawaiian women to visit the ship.


Foreign influence was usually subtler. Over the years, more and more Americans moved to Hawaii, as missionaries and as planters. Sugar plantations thrived as owners imported cheap labor from China, Japan, and Portugal. Ships of every nationality, especially whalers, docked in Hawaii. The islands were strategically placed for any imperial nation with ambitions in the Pacific. With all of these considerations in mind, Americans began calling for the United States to annex Hawaii.

In 1876, King Kalakaua (1836–1891), the “Merry Monarch,” signed a treaty that gave Hawaii a free sugar market in the United States. In exchange, Hawaii promised not to sell or lease any territory to any other nation. In 1887, Kalakaua leased Pearl Harbor to the U.S. Navy. In the same year, an American-backed revolution forced the king to accept a limited, constitutional monarchy.

Thereafter, American businessmen more or less ran Hawaii, because they controlled the local legislators. However, their comfortable rule was soon to be interrupted. The 1895 McKinley Tariff put duties on Hawaiian sugar. The law cost American companies almost $12 million. To make matters worse, Kalakaua died while visiting San Francisco in 1891, passing the crown to his independent-minded sister, Liliuokalani (1838–1917).


Liliuokalani tried to limit foreign interference in her country and to empower native Hawaiians. In 1893, foiled at every turn by American-controlled legislators, Liliuokalani announced a new constitution. She reversed the constitutional monarchy and returned power to the throne.

Alarmed, U.S. citizens in Hawaii took steps to overthrow her government. They formed the “Committee of Public Safety” and demanded that Liliuokalani step down. John L. Stevens (1820–1895), the U.S. envoy to Hawaii, sent for marines from the USS Boston to “protect American life and property.” Threatened by a superior force, Queen Liliuokalani resigned under protest.

In her place, American sugar interests declared a provisional government under Sanford Dole (1844–1926), an American judge. Dole immediately sent a treaty to Washington, petitioning Congress for annexation. “The Hawaiian pear is now fully ripe,” Stevens gloated, “and this is the golden hour for the United States to pluck it.”

Unfortunately for Dole, Grover Cleveland, a staunch anti-imperialist, became president while Congress was debating the issue. Five days after taking office, he withdrew the treaty. He sent Commissioner James Henderson Blount (1837–1903) to investigate the matter.

Blount arrived in the islands to see the American flag raised over the government house. Already incensed by rumors of the coup, he ordered the flag lowered, and he sent the marines back to their ship. On receiving Blount’s report, Cleveland wrote to Congress:

By an act of war, committed with the participation of a diplomatic representative of the United States, and without the authority of Congress, the government of a feeble but friendly and confiding people has been overthrown. A substantial wrong has been done, which … we should endeavor to repair.

Following an appeal from Liliuokalani, Cleveland sent a letter to the Committee of Public Safety, calling for the restoration of the monarchy. Dole answered that the United States had no right to interfere with Hawaiian affairs. Although Cleveland condemned the “lawless occupation of Honolulu under false pretexts,” he could not reinstate the queen without taking military action. He declined to do so.

The Committee of Public Safety drafted a new constitution, declaring the Republic of Hawaii on July 4, 1894. The next year, a group of Hawaiian loyalists attempted to overthrow the new government. The Republic captured them and threatened to kill them. To save their lives, Liliuokalani formally abdicated. She retired gracefully into private life, writing the following in her autobiography:

I would ask you to consider that your government is on trial before the whole civilized world, and that in accordance with your actions and decisions will you yourselves be judged. The happiness and prosperity of Hawaii are henceforth in your hands as its rulers.… May the divine Providence grant you the wisdom to lead the nation into the paths of forbearance, forgiveness, and peace, and to create and consolidate a united people ever anxious to advance in the way of civilization outlined by the American fathers of liberty and religion.


After the Spanish-American War, the United States was empowered. In a few brief months, its military had trounced that of Spain. People agreed that the newly prestigious U.S. Navy should have fueling stations around the world. Carried on a wave of national exultation, Congress approved the annexation of Hawaii on August 12, 1898. Hawaii was not made a state until 1959.

In 1993, the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution apologizing for the illegal seizure of power from the Hawaiian royal family.

Gunboat Diplomacy

The Spanish-American War ushered in an era of unabashed American imperialism. During this time, the United States often used its impressive navy to intimidate and to control weaker nations, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean. This kind of interventionism came to be known as “gunboat diplomacy.”

America’s Foreign Policy

In the Monroe Doctrine, first formulated in 1823, the United States declared that she would fight any European colonial power that attempted to act in the Western Hemisphere. By 1904, however, several unstable Latin American governments had accumulated large foreign debts, which they were unable to pay. In response, European powers prepared to forcefully collect what was owed.

Determined to not give Britain or Germany an imperial foothold in the Americas, and never hesitant to assert American power, President Theodore Roosevelt expanded the Monroe doctrine. The “Roosevelt Corollary” declared America’s right to directly interfere with Latin American nations. The United States was to act as a kind of police force, ensuring political and economic stability.

Much of America’s subsequent domination was achieved not by force but by the threat of force. For a long time, U.S. foreign policy was guided by Roosevelt’s famous dictum: “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”

Latin America

Most smaller countries did not have the faintest chance of challenging the United States militarily. Sometimes just the presence of a U.S. warship was enough to protect American interests. In 1903, the USS Nashvilleeffectively removed Panama from Colombian control without firing a shot. This allowed America to buy, build, fortify, and control the Panama Canal.

Prior to this, Nicaraguans had hoped that the canal would run through their own territory—the project represented an enormous economic windfall for its host country. However, Nicaraguan President José Santos Zelaya (1853–1919) had refused to hand over land or sovereignty to the United States. Annoyed, the American government had shifted its attention to Panama.

Equally irritated, Zelaya declared his intention to build another canal, this time with the aid of Germany or Japan. The United States could not accept that scenario. In 1909, a revolt broke out against Zelaya, and the American government made sure that it succeeded.

Supposedly to protect American citizens, the United States sent gunboats and marines to Nicaragua. America also declared the Bluefields port on the Atlantic to be neutral territory, thus giving the rebels a safe haven and a source of supplies. Furthermore, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Nicaragua after Zelaya executed two American citizens (they were caught laying mines in the San Juan River). Because America no longer recognized Zelaya’s government, the Nicaraguan rebels were considered belligerents, not revolutionaries. This allowed them to legally import weapons.

Zelaya resigned, and his government collapsed. U.S. marines occupied Nicaragua almost continually until 1933. American banks virtually controlled the country’s economy for decades. Though these measures did provide some civil order and financial stability, Nicaraguans increasingly resented these infringements of their national sovereignty.

The Caribbean

The United States had already exerted its power in much of the Caribbean. After the Spanish-American War, U.S. troops had remained in Cuba, and in 1903, the island was made an official protectorate of the United States. Puerto Rico had also been occupied in the war and was formally annexed in 1900.

The Roosevelt Corollary sanctioned American action in cases of “brutal wrongdoing or impotence.” The fact was that political instability in neighboring countries threatened American interests. By 1915, Haiti had been ruled by twenty-two dictators in a span of thirty-two years. The last, General Vilbrun Sam, was assassinated in a public uprising. The very same day, President Woodrow Wilson sent 330 marines into the country. They established a U.S. military government that was to rule Haiti until 1933. In 1916, America also occupied the Dominican Republic. The next year, Denmark sold the Virgin Islands to the United States for $25 million.

The Good Neighbor Policy

Although American imperialism in the Western Hemisphere was seldom brutal, it was often exploitive and condescending. Latin American and Caribbean peoples disliked and distrusted American intrusion into their affairs. After a long series of protests, riots, and rebellions, President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) officially renounced the Roosevelt Corollary. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt (1882–1945) announced a “Good Neighbor Policy.” He vowed that America would no longer interfere in Latin American internal politics.

Nevertheless, during the twentieth century the United States continued to directly and indirectly intervene in countries such as Cuba, Nicaragua, Colombia, and Guatemala.

The Great White Fleet

After 1898, Americans felt justifiable pride in the U.S. Navy. In a little more than a decade, it had changed from a fossil into a fighting machine. Its superior gunnery, well-trained crews, and capable commanders earned significant international respect.

President Theodore Roosevelt could see no point in having a world-class navy if one never got to show it off. Between 1907 and 1909, he sent sixteen American battleships on a cruise around the globe. This “Great White Fleet” tour was meant as a good-will mission as well as a military training exercise.

In Asia, the fleet was also a demonstration of American strength in the Pacific. Nevertheless, the fleet was warmly welcomed in Yokohama, where thousands of schoolchildren waved American flags and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Chinese officials were embarrassed that only half of the fleet arrived in Peking harbor—the others had been sent for gunnery practice. To save face, the Peking government announced that the missing ships had been lost in a typhoon.

The fleet stopped in twenty-six countries altogether. In many ways, the trip proved a great success. The Navy demonstrated that it could effectively operate in both oceans, and its leadership gained a lot of operational insight. Diplomatically, tensions with Japan were eased for a time, and many foreign people formed favorable opinions of the U.S. Navy.

However, the expedition doubtlessly contributed to the ongoing European arms race. The competitive military buildup of the imperial powers would come to a head in World War I.

The Panama Canal

Since the European discovery of the Americas, ocean-going vessels had been the lifeblood of warfare and of trade. Yet to cross between the Atlantic and the Pacific in 1900, a ship had to sail six thousand miles around the tip of South America. In 1903, the United States undertook an ambitious engineering project: to build a water canal across the narrow isthmus of Panama.

Early Attempts

The “Great Powers” had considered the idea of a Central American canal for centuries. The advantages were obvious. To journey around Cape Horn, Chile, was not only time-consuming, it was also expensive and dangerous. In Panama, less than fifty miles separated the two oceans.

In the 1850s, an American company constructed a railroad across that narrow strip of land. Passengers sailed to Panama, took the train across it, and then sailed to California.

In 1869, a French company, under the direction of Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805–1894), completed work on the Suez Canal in Egypt. Connecting the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, this man-made waterway allowed direct passage between Europe and Asia.

Emboldened by this success, de Lesseps turned his attention to the Americas. Visiting the Panama site, he declared that a canal could be built there without too much trouble. He raised funds, assembled a team of top French engineers, and began construction in 1881.

He underestimated the difficulty of the project. Panama’s muddy, rocky soil proved more intractable than Egyptian sand. Furthermore, the French were attempting to build a sea-level canal, which meant that they had to flatten seven miles of highland. They used dynamite to blast through 300-foot-high mountains. It was expensive, dangerous work, and landslides partially refilled the passage that they had cleared.

Accidents killed many men, but tropical diseases killed far more. In ten years, the company lost $287 million and almost 25,000 lives. They gave up, bankrupt, in 1889.

The “Phony” Revolution

At the beginning of the Spanish-American War, the USS Oregon took almost ten weeks to travel from San Francisco to the Caribbean. The war was almost over when she arrived in Cuba. Rattled by this strategic weakness, the U.S. government worked to create a Central American waterway.

Their first choice of location was Nicaragua, but they had found the Nicaraguan government too independent to cooperate. They had also attempted to buy the Panama site from Colombia, but Colombia had refused to sell. In 1903, a group of Panamanian separatists offered an alternative to these vexing negotiations.

Over the last few decades, rebels in Panama had repeatedly tried to gain independence from Colombia. They had no success, however, until they managed to contact U.S. Secretary of State John Hay and President Theodore Roosevelt. Both men were ardent expansionists and militarists. Roosevelt agreed to help the Panamanian revolution in exchange for a certain favor.

On November 4, Panama declared its independence. The announcement went virtually unopposed—the commander of Colombian forces in Panama had been bribed to not act. His men were further discouraged by the presence of the USS Nashville, docked in Colón. Moreover, the American railroad company kept all trains in Panama City so that Colombia could not mobilize its army.

Naturally, the Colombians were furious. They were to protest until 1921, when America agreed to pay Colombia $25 million for the loss of Panama.

In the meantime, having tidily secured the secession, the United States officially recognized the Republic of Panama in 1904. The new government immediately sold them a 10-mile-wide strip of land, called “the Canal Zone.” Soon afterwards, American engineers poured into the country.


The Americans were more successful in Panama than the French had been, for several reasons. The Reed Commission had just discovered that mosquitoes carried yellow fever and malaria. Accordingly, Roosevelt appointed William Gorgas (1854–1920) to head a mosquito eradication program. Mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing water, so workers’s residences were built with modern sewage systems. Exterminators fumigated buildings and sprayed larvicide on water surfaces. The sick were isolated behind mosquito nets. By 1906, these measures had wiped out yellow fever, and greatly reduced malaria, in the Canal Zone.

The American canal design was also superior to the French design. Chief Engineer John Stevens (1853–1943) decided, after study, that a sea-level waterway could not be done. Instead, he convinced Congress to build dams in the mountainous area. This would create a lake at a higher elevation, a “bridge of water.” To adjust for the height, Stevens proposed a series of locks. These were to act like elevators, lifting ships from below at one end, and lowering them at the other.

Construction went well, not least because it was one of Roosevelt’s pet projects. He visited in 1906—the first time a sitting U.S. president left American soil. When Stevens resigned in 1907, Roosevelt immediately found a replacement in Colonel George Goethals (1858–1928).

Goethals provided vigorous leadership and saw the work to completion. The project nevertheless experienced difficulties along the way. Mudslides, accidents, and tropical disease still haunted the workforce. By the end of construction in August 1914, over five thousand men had died.

Nevertheless, the final price tag—$302 million—was $23 million less than had been estimated, and the canal opened six months ahead of schedule. It was widely acknowledged as a marvel of modern engineering. “A stupendous undertaking has been finally accomplished,” U.S. Secretary of War Lindley Garrison (1864–1932) wrote, “[A] perpetual memorial to the genius and enterprise of our people.”


According to the Panama Canal Act of 1912, non-American vessels were to pay a toll. Despite this, commercial shipping of all kinds passed through the waterway—an average of ten thousand ships a year between 1914 and 1990.

After World War II, resentment grew in Panama over the continued presence of U.S. troops in the Canal Zone, which America claimed to own in perpetuity. In 1964, Panamanian nationalists rioted against American soldiers. Several people were killed, and diplomatic relations were temporarily cut.

In accordance with the U.S. “Good Neighbor” policy, President Jimmy Carter (1924–) signed a controversial treaty in 1978 with Panama. The canal was operated jointly until 2000, at which time Panamanians assumed full control.



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The Spanish-American War (1898)

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