The Meaning of ’98


Such were many of the voices current in 1898. They were not necessarily what the majority of Americans thought. But such influences cannot be precisely defined. Hard and determined minorities may acquire an impact on a majority beyond numerical calculations. Still, in any event, they cannot be very influential when they represent something quite different from broader popular inclinations. The politicians knew that. So did the progressive intellects. When Captain (later Admiral) Mahan wrote that the Navy must have bases abroad, he added: “At present the positions of the Caribbean are occupied by foreign powers, nor may we, however disposed to acquisition, obtain them by means other than righteous; but a distinct advance will have been made when public opinion is convinced .” (The italics are mine.) In 1890 a Republican Congress voted on seven battleships and eventually authorized the building of three first-class battleships, even though the Secretary of the Navy had asked only for two. The former Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine wrote to President Harrison in 1891 that the United States should annex Cuba and Puerto Rico and perhaps all of the West Indian islands. In June 1896 the Washington Post editorialized: “A new consciousness seems to have come upon us—the consciousness of strength—and with it a new appetite, the yearning to show our strength. . . . Ambition, interest, land hunger, pride, the mere joy of fighting, whatever it may be, we are animated by a new sensation. We are face to face with a strange destiny. The taste of Empire is in the mouth of the people even as the taste of blood in the jungle. It means an Imperial policy, the Republic, renascent, taking her place with the armed nations.”

It was thus that in 1898 the majority of the American people took satisfaction from the pictures of the Stars and Stripes solidly planted on faraway islands and floating over the oceans, just as their ears took satisfaction from the originally somewhat odd, but soon intensely familiar, martial band music of John Philip Sousa, music with a Central European flavor, but no matter, for it was at that time that American popular music—indeed, the tuning of American ears—was changing too, from the simpler Anglo-Celtic strains to newer rhythms and melodies. It was thus that the American Dominion Over Palm and Pine came into being at the very time when Kipling in his Recessional warned America’s British cousins that their dominion over palm and pine might be short-lived: “Lest we forget!”

In an article entitled “Our Blundering Foreign Policy,” Henry Cabot Lodge wrote in March 1895: “Small states are of the past and have no future. . . . The great nations are rapidly absorbing for their future expansion and their present defense all the waste places of the earth. It is a movement which makes for civilization and the advancement of the race. As one of the great nations of the world, the United States must not fall out of the line of march.” During the war Theodore Roosevelt wrote him: “You must get Manila and Hawaii; you must prevent any talk of peace until we get Porto Rico and the Philippines as well as secure the independence of Cuba.”

And yet, all in all, and for all its strident excrescences, the rising spirit of American imperialism was not ungenerous.

Would the United States have become a world power in the early twentieth century even without the Spanish-American War and the events of 1898? Probably. But the consequences of 1898 are still with us.

Was it worth it? That was the question that American opponents of the War of 1898 were asking, among them Mark Twain. Their vision of American destiny was different, but then they were overwhelmed by the great national success of the war. However—sooner rather than later—events themselves accumulated to reveal that all was not well with this acquisition of peoples in distant parts of the world. Only a few months after the “liberation” of Manila, a rebellion in the Philippines broke out against the American occupiers. Its suppression took two years and hundreds of lives. The “liberation” of Cuba from the “tyranny” of Spain led to the rule of that island by a series of native tyrants of whom the last (and still present) one has been obsessively anti-American, in one instance not unwilling to inveigle the United States into a potential nuclear war with the distant Soviet Union. Whether the acquisition of Puerto Rico and of its people by the American Republic was a definite gain is still an open question, as is the future status of that island. One may even speculate that had Hawaii remained a Pacific kingdom the tragedy at Pearl Harbor or perhaps even a Japanese-American war might not have occurred—but that carries speculation too far.