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The Meaning of ’98
Our war with Spain marked the first year of the American Century
May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
One hundred years ago, in April 1898, the American Century suddenly began. “Suddenly” because what happened then—the declaration of war against Spain—led to a rapid crystallization of a passionate nationalism. The American longing for national aggrandizement existed before 1898—indeed it was gathering momentum—but as the great French writer Stendhal wrote in his essay “On Love,” passion has a way of “crystallizing” suddenly, as a reaction to external stimuli. Such a stimulus, in the history of the United States, was the Spanish-American War in 1898. When it was over, in a famous (or infamous) phrase John Hay would call it “a splendid little war.” Well, as far as wars go (and many of them tend to go unexpectedly far), it was “a splendid little war.” But its consequences were not little at all. They were enormous, and one hundred years later we live with them still. So allow me to begin this essay with a brief summary of the Spanish-American War.
The island of Cuba was one of the last (and the largest remaining) Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere. Its political class wanted independence from Spain. It could not achieve this by itself. There was nothing very new about that. Trouble in Cuba had flared up often during the nineteenth century. But in 1895 there arose conditions resembling a civil war (or, more precisely, a guerrilla war). At first the Spanish military reacted energetically. Soon it became evident that the problem was triangular, involving not only Spain and the Cuban rebels but also the United States. For one thing, the rebels depended more and more on American support, and particularly on their abettors in Florida. (What else is new?) Perhaps more important was a surge of American public and popular opinion, which was dishonestly inflated by the novel element of the “yellow press,” the national chains of Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers, proclaiming the Cuban situation to be intolerable. “Intolerable” is, of course, what people think must not be tolerated, and that was the continued presence of Spain in Cuba. In late 1897 the Spanish government showed a very considerable willingness to compromise, whereby all sensible reasons for an American intervention in Cuba could be eliminated. But passion is not governed by reason, and there were many groups of people with reasons of their own. On February 15, 1898, the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in Havana Harbor. There was a large loss of American lives and an immediate clamor for war. “Remember the Maine !” One hundred years later we do not know what caused the explosion. Possibly it was the work of Cubans, hoping to incite Americans thereby for the sake of their “liberation” from Spain. (Sixty years later a Cuban leader arose whose main purpose was to declare Cuba’s “liberation” not from Spain but from the United States. Fidel Castro was not anti-Spanish but anti-American. His ancestors were Spanish-Cubans in 1898; he maintained cordial relations with Generalissimo Franco, the anti-Communist dictator of Spain, upon whose death Castro declared three days of national mourning in Cuba. Such is the irony of history—or, rather, of human nature.)
In 1890 Congress authorized the building of three new battleships, even though the Secretary of the Navy only H asked for two.
After the catastrophe, the Spanish government was willing to settle almost everything to the satisfaction of the United States, but it was too late—too late because of the inflamed state of American public opinion. President McKinley did not have the will to oppose anything like that. On April 11, 1898, he sent a message to Congress; the formal declaration of war came two weeks afterward.
One week later Commodore (soon to become Admiral) George Dewey destroyed a Spanish squadron on the other side of the world, in Manila Bay. Some of his warships now raced across the southern Pacific and around the Horn to help blast another Spanish squadron out of the warm waters of Santiago Bay. Meanwhile, American troops had landed, unopposed, in Cuba and then won battles (in reality, successful skirmishes) at El Caney and San Juan Hill. Later in July Americans, again unopposed, invaded Puerto Rico. The war was over. Spain asked for peace. An armistice was signed on August 12, and the final terms were nailed down in Paris in December. American losses were minimal: a few hundred men. The United States insisted on, and got, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam.
And also Hawaii, whose annexation had been—unsuccessfully—urged on two Presidents by American intriguers and filibusterers. President Cleveland, and for a while McKinley, refused the annexation. But by July 1898 the nationalist tide was too much for this President and for much of the Congress: The United States annexed Hawaii.
It was thus that one hundred years ago the United States—which, during the first century of its existence, thought of itself as the prime power in the Americas, a hemispheric power—became a world power imperiously, geographically, a world power of the first rank, with incalculable consequences.
In 1898 there were no Gallup Polls; there was no such thing as public-opinion research. Still, it is possible to reconstruct the main elements of what the people of the United States thought (and perhaps felt) about these events.