International Affairs: Hawaii and the Spanish-American War

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International Affairs: Hawaii and the Spanish-American War


Naval Expansion. In 1880 international experts ranked the U.S. Navy twelfth in the world, sounding a wake up call for the government. The following year a naval advisory board recommended the construction of a new fleet of steel-bottomed ships. In 1883, during the administration of Chester Arthur (1881-1885), Congress approved funding for a shipbuilding program, and the following year the U.S. Naval War College was founded in Newport, Rhode Island, to provide naval officers with postgraduate training in international law, history, and technical subjects useful as the navy was modernized. During Grover Clevelands first term (1885-1889), Undersecretary of the Navy William Whitney reorganized naval administration to make it more modern and efficient. He coordinated the work of the various bureaus involved in purchasing materials and equipment, destroyed antiquated ships, and oversaw the construction of the new fleet. When Whitney left office in 1889, he had begun building or had authorized twenty-two steel ships that became the nucleus of the modern navy. The New Navy program continued after Whitneys departure. By 1900 the fleet was ranked third in the world, behind only those of Great Britain and Germany.

Good Policy, Good Politics. The New Navy policies received warm support from businessmen, politicians, and from many within the navy. By insisting that armor plates for the new ships be made in the United States, the navy directly supported the expansion of the American steel industry, bringing new jobs to American shipyards and making millionaires of steel producers. Because it stimulated the economy and strengthened the position of the United States on the world stage, the New Navy also enjoyed bipartisan political support. During the 1890s the building of an effective fleet provided Presidents Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, and William McKinley with a powerful international bargaining tool. Backed by sea power, the United States was able to convince other world powers to consider its positions on affairs in Latin America and the Pacific.

Hawaii. The New Navy enabled the United States to assume a larger role in international affairs. The debate over annexing the Hawaiian Islands served as a rehearsal for later disagreements over what that role should be, sparking controversy over whether the United States should seek to acquire overseas territory like the great colonial empires of Europe. Americans, mainly farmers and missionaries, had settled among native Hawaiian tribes in the early nineteenth century. By the 1880s descendants of these white settlers owned large sugar plantations and cattle farms and exerted considerable power. In 1887 they forced King Kalakaua to install a democratic government and adopt a liberal constitution. Since 1875 sugar planters in Hawaii had been protected by an arrangement that freed them from custom duties on sugar imports to the United States in exchange for a promise that no Hawaiian territory would be given or leased to a nation other than the United States. This reciprocal trade agreement was renewed in 1884, but Congress did not approve it until 1887, when Hawaii gave the United States the right to build a naval base at Pearl Harbor. Under the McKinley Tariff of 1890, however, Hawaiian sugar growers lost their trade advantage. All sugar imports to the United States were given duty-free status, and planters in the United States were paid a bounty of two cents a pound for their sugar. Hawaiian sugar planters lost some $12 million. Amid growing discontent with U.S. involvement in Hawaiian affairs, Queen Liliuokalani succeeded her brother on the throne in 1891, revoking the liberal constitution and assuming autocratic powers. In January 1893, with the help of U.S. Marines from the naval cruiser Boston, Americans in Hawaii led by Sanford B. Dole overthrew the Hawaiian government and asked to be annexed by the United States, in large part because they hoped to profit from the two-cents-per-pound bounty for domestic sugar.

The Annexation Battle. The landing of the marines had been authorized by John L. Stevens, the U.S. minister to Hawaii, who favored the annexation of Hawaii by the United States. Without authorization from the U.S. State Department, Stevens recognized the new government and proclaimed Hawaii a U.S. protectorate. A treaty of annexation was drawn up, and just weeks before Republican Benjamin Harrison left office on 4 March 1893, it was sent to the Senate, where Democrats blocked its ratification. After Democrat Grover Cleveland began his second term as president, he withdrew the treaty from consideration by the Senate, and sent former congressman James H. Blount, a liberal Republican from Georgia, to investigate the situation in Hawaii, where he withdrew the marines. After Blount reported that Stevens had acted improperly and that, except for the sugar growers, most Hawaiians opposed annexation, Cleveland denounced the American rebels, and although he recognized Doles provisional government, he attempted to restore the queen to the throne with the provision that she pardon the rebels and reinstate the constitution of 1887. Despite the queens agreement to these conditions, Doles provisional government remained in power, arguing that it had been recognized by the United States, which did not have the right to interfere in Hawaiian internal affairs. Unwilling to use force to reinstate Queen Liliuokalani, an angry Cleveland refused to resubmit the annexation treaty to the Senate. On 4 July 1894 the provisional government proclaimed the Republic of Hawaii, which the United States formally recognized the following month. The new Hawaiian constitution had a provision welcoming annexation by the United States, which Cleveland blocked for the remainder of his tenure in office

fice. For several years Hawaiian annexation remained a heavily partisan issue, with Republicans favoring it and Democrats opposing. Clevelands successor, Republican William McKinley, sent a new annexation treaty to the Senate in June 1897, but Democrats and antiimperialist Republicans managed to delay ratification. Finally, on 7 Jury 1898, recognizing the strategic importance of Pearl Harbor during the naval war with Spain in the Pacific, both houses of Congress ratified the Hawaiian annexation by joint resolution, a procedure that required only a simple majority of the votes cast rather than the two-thirds vote required for passage in the Senate.

The Spanish-american War. Most Spanish colonies in South and Central America had won their independence by the mid 1820s, but with its strong naval force Spain continued to hold its territory in the Caribbean. By 1896 the Cubans call for freedom had led the Spanish to establish a ruthless military regime, which attempted to prevent Cubans from joining rebel forces at night by gathering many of them behind Spanish lines in detention centers called reconcentrados, a term translated in the American press as concentration camps.

Fanning the Flames. American sympathy for the Cuban rebels was fueled by press coverage of the conflict in U.S. newspapers. Led by Joseph Pulitzers New York World and William Randolph Hearsts New York Journal which were engaged in a major circulation warAmerican newspapers tried to outdo each other with gruesome and heart-wrenching stories of Spanish torture and mistreatment of captured prisoners. Although President Cleveland tried to maintain neutrality, offering to help Spain bring about peace through instituting Cuban home rule, Spain refused the offer. In November 1896 Republican William McKinley was elected president on a platform that endorsed Cuban independence, and by 1898 pressure had mounted for the United States to side actively with the rebels and to demand Cubas independence from Spain. Though many American business leaders opposed intervention, $50 million in U.S. investments in Cuban mining and sugar created another incentive to bring an end to Spanish rule.

War. In a show of naval force President McKinley ordered the U.S. battleship Maine to visit Havana, Cuba. On 15 February 1898, while in the harbor, the ship exploded and sank. Many suspected sabotage, although later accounts suggest that the explosion was accidental. Urged on by widespread cries of Remember the Maine!, McKinley demanded that Spain make a truce with Cuban rebels. Spain agreed, but the United States prepared for war, and on 20 April, at the request of President McKinley, Congress recognized Cuban independence and authorized the use of military force if Spain did not agree to withdraw by the twenty-third. On 22 April McKinley ordered a partial blockade of Cuban ports, prompting Spain to declare war on 24 April. The next day the United States declared war on Spain, retroactive to 21 April. After a brief series of military engagements, the United States defeated Spain. Commodore George Dewey led the Pacific naval squadron to victory over the Spanish fleet in the Battle of Manila Bay on 1 May 1898, winning a promotion to admiral and the adulation of the American people. Victories on 1 July at El Caney and San Juan Hill in Cuba, where American troops included Col. Theodore Roosevelts famous Rough Riders, were followed by a naval victory off Santiago on 3 July that spelled defeat for Spain, which surrendered on 17 July. In the peace treaty signed on 10 December, Spain sold its territory in the Philippines to the United States for $20 million, renounced all claims to Cuba, and ceded Guam and Puerto Rico to the United States as indemnity for the costs of the war.

The Legacy of the War. The brief Spanish-American War justified the massive, ongoing program of naval modernization and expansion. Its outcome raised the key question of how the United States was to deal with its newly acquired overseas empire, which also included uninhabited Wake Island, claimed by the United States in 1898 as a military outpost, and some of the Samoan Islands, partitioned by the United States and Germany in 1899. On the eve of the twentieth century the United States found itself deeply involved in the difficult international politics of the Caribbean and the Philippines, no longer insulated from the conflicts and tensions of the rest of the world.

Political Divides. Politicians split over what to do with the new territories. Jingoists argued that as a great nation, the United States should have an empire like those of the major nations of western Europe, which were competing fiercely for control of raw materials, markets, and military outposts around the globe. Many Americans believed that the Anglo-Saxon race was destined by God and nature to govern inferior peoples such as Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, and Polynesians. Anti-imperialists, many of whom were old enough to remember the Civil War, argued that as a democracy, the United States should not possess a colonial empire. Sharing the jingoists unenlightened racial views, many antiimperialists also pointed out that if the new possessions became U.S. territories, with the promise that they could eventually become states, the nation would be admitting as citizens millions of Spanish-speaking peoples, many of African-Latin and Asian ancestry.

The Compromise. President McKinley, who was standing for reelection in 1900, found himself torn between the two positions. He and Congress eventually settled on a series of compromises. They reaffirmed the independence of Cuba, but with a provision that the United States could intervene to maintain democratic government in the new country. Many Cubans found the provision insulting to their capability for self-government. To make such intervention possible and to ensure the sea lanes past Cuba, the United States claimed a large military reservation on the southeastern end of the Island at Guantánamo Bay. Puerto Rico, Guam, and American Samoa were made U.S. territories, while a U.S. civil government was set up in the Philippines, with the commitment to grant independence when the United States believed the Filipinos were ready for self-government. (The Philippines did not achieve full independence until 1946.) Like most compromises, these settlements satisfied no one. From 1899 through 1902 a brutal guerrilla war continued between U.S. troops and insurgents in the Philippines, with scattered resistance until 1906. By the turn of the century the United States, long an advocate of democratic self-government, found itself in control of an empire.


Ernest R. May, Imperial Democracy: The Emergence of America as a Great Power (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961);

H. Wayne Morgan, Americas Road to Empire: The War with Spain and Overseas Expansion (New York: Wiley, 1965);

Thomas J. Osborne, Empire Can Wait: American Opposition to Hawaiian Annexation, 1893-1898 (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1981);

William Adam Russ Jr., The Hawaiian Republic, 1894-98, and Its Struggle to Win Annexation (Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1961);

David F. Trask, The War with Spain in 1898 (New York: Macmillan / London: Collier Macmillan, 1898).

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International Affairs: Hawaii and the Spanish-American War

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International Affairs: Hawaii and the Spanish-American War