War of 1898

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War of 1898


The Spanish-American War of 1898 presented a series of opportunities and consequences for both nations. For example, Spanish historiographers have evaluated the war as a disaster after which Spain experienced decades of disarray and disorder. For Cuba, the Philippines, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico the year 1898 represented a transition from colony to nation status, although not without fierce opposition from resistance fighters such as Emilio Aguinaldo and leaders such as Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii who fervently protested foreign encroachment on their sovereignty. Moreover, U.S. historians have debated whether to describe the war as an accidental conflict, a war for territorial expansion, or an inevitable war induced by public opinion. In the end, as benevolent victors, most Americans believed that they had acted as humanitarian benefactors on behalf of their neighbor Cuba.

A major cause of disarray on the island had been the appointment by Spain of Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau as the governor of Cuba in 1896, a period of heightened insurgency. His cruelty captured the attention of American newspapers dominated by William Randolph Hearsts sensationalist New York Journal (the Yellow Press). Governor Weyler disturbed humanitarian observers by establishing reconcentration camps that were designed to confine the peasants in detention facilities and thus isolate the insurgents, who theoretically would remain outside the quarantined areas. Although unintended, conditions in the camps caused the malnutrition of hundreds of thousands. The estimates of those who died from disease and hunger approach 321,934.

In 1898 a private letter written by the Spanish foreign minister, Enrique Dupuy de Lome, who was stationed in Washington, characterized U.S. President William McKinley as a would be politician. Cuban revolutionaries intercepted the communiqué and offered it to the American print media. Portions of the infamous de Lome letter were published throughout the United States.

The primary event that justified going to war occurred in the middle of the controversy about Governor Weyler and the danger to American investments on the island. Americans labeled it fiendish treachery on February 15, 1898, when the American battleship USS Maine suddenly and without warning exploded in Havana Harbor. Out of a complement of 354 officers, 266 perished in the explosion. The Maine had been situated in what had been recognized as Spanish waters. The cause of the destruction of the Maine was uncertain. Nonetheless, on March 28 a report of the U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry determined that the explosion had been caused by a mine planted by Spanish operatives. On April 19, after a short period of deliberation, Congress voted for the immediate outbreak of hostilities against the Spanish forces in Cuba by a margin of 311 to 6 in the House and 42 to 35 in the Senate.

The first battle of the war occurred halfway across the world from Cuba, on the high seas in Manila Bay in the Philippines. The famous orders at Manila Bay to fire when ready were issued by the commander of the Asiatic Squadron, Commodore George Dewey. Dewey transferred the fleet from Hong Kong to the Philippines when briefings arrived on April 24. Deweys strategy included the broadsiding of the Spanish fleet, which had been caught by surprise and ultimately proved obsolete compared with the U.S. fleet. In Cuba the American forces first landed at Guantánamo Bay and then at San Juan Hill (the site of Teddy Roosevelts dangerous assault with the American volunteer force known as the Rough Riders), El Caney, and Santiago de Cuba. The Spanish surrendered at Santiago de Cuba on August 12. Overall, the United States lost 379 troops in combat and an estimated 5,000 as a result of disease and tropical conditions.

The war concluded with the Treaty of Paris, which was signed on December 10, 1898. The Cuban government was denied the opportunity or right to participate in the peace negotiations. Congress followed the cessation of hostilities with the Platt Amendment, guaranteeing the right of the United States to intervene militarily in Cuba any time internal disarray attracted its attention.

In the aftermath of the war the United States acquired Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Wake Islands. Those territorial acquisitions allowed the United States to penetrate foreign markets, most importantly China, and end a decade of economic depression. The United States elected to maintain a naval station at Guantánamo Bay that proved to be a vital security installation. Securing Cuba had been a longtime priority because of its proximity to American shores and former control by a European government. President McKinley delivered the Imperial Gospel speech in 1899, in which he offered a justification for conquering foreign territories that seemed reasonable to business advocates, the military, and imperialist patriots: to uplift, civilize and Christianize them. Seemingly overnight America became a world colonial power.

SEE ALSO Colonialism; Concentration Camps; Guantánamo Bay; Imperialism


Perez, Louis. 1998. The War of 1898. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Pratt, Julius W. 1951. Expansionists of 1898: The Acquisition of Hawaii and the Spanish Islands. New York: P. Smith.

Schoonover, Thomas. 2003. Uncle Sams War of 1898 and the Origins of Globalization. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Jonathan Jacobs

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War of 1898

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