The Meaning of ’98

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There may be another consideration, on a different level. For Spain the loss of its colonies in 1898 marked the lowest point of a decline that may have begun three hundred years earlier, with the defeat of its armada by Drake. Yet that amputation in 1898 proved to be a blessing in disguise for the Spanish spirit. Reacting against antiquated institutions and mental habits of their country, a Generation of ’98 arose, an intellectual revival that produced some of the leading minds not only of Spain but of the twentieth century: Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, José Ortega y Gasset, and other great names in the arts. On the other side of the ocean, the rise of American arts and letters had nothing to do with the Spirit of ’98. Years later great American writers such as Henry James and Thomas Stearns Eliot chose to abandon their American citizenship and live in England. Twenty years had to pass until American arts and letters—and popular music—began to impress the world.

And yet . . . and yet . . . all in all, and for all its strident excrescences, the rising spirit of American imperialism in 1898 was not ungenerous. Not even in the short run; if there was any popular hatred for Spain in 1898, it burned out instantly (as manifest in the words of the captain of the USS Texas when his men roared their approval while an ungainly Spanish war vessel sank rapidly at Santiago: “Don’t cheer, boys, the poor devils are dying!”). American rule in the Philippines, in Puerto Rico, in Cuba led to a rapid and impressive improvement of living conditions, education, institutions of self-government, sanitation; under the command of the very able Brig. Gen. Leonard Wood, American Army doctors, foremost among them William Gorgas, extinguished yellow fever in Cuba within a year or two. Every foreign government expected the United States to annex Cuba. It did not do so, though an amendment proposed by Senator Platt allowed the United States to intervene there militarily, but then President Franklin D. Roosevelt abolished the Platt Amendment too. In 1946 the Philippines, one year after their American liberation from the Japanese, became fully independent. In 1959 Hawaii became the fiftieth state of the Union. Surely in the long run the record of American imperialism compares favorably with that of many other powers.

History—indeed all human thinking—depends on retrospect. And retrospect too—again, as all human thinking—has its own limitations. We may judge the past according to our standards of the present, but we ought to know that such standards are not perennial and not categorically applicable to people and events of the past. A man such as Theodore Roosevelt had his faults (who hasn’t?), but his American imperialism may still have been preferable to that of the small-minded trumpeteers of Manifest Destiny, or to the cloudy evangelical populism of William Jennings Bryan, or to the imperialism of some of Roosevelt’s foreign contemporaries—William II, for instance, the German kaiser. In The Oxford History of the American People , Samuel Eliot Morison describes William McKinley as “a kindly soul in a spineless body”—and who was our last American President with a “kindly soul”? The origins of the War of 1898—and the intentions of many of its proponents—were not simple.

And now we have to turn to its consequences to the world at large.

In three years there occurred a subtle change in the relationship of Great Britain and the U.S. that had momentous consequences.

In the sixteenth century Spain became the greatest power in the world. In the seventeenth century it was France. In the eighteenth century France and Britain fought a series of world wars—of which the American War of Independence was but one—mainly over the inheritance of the then decaying Spanish Empire. During the nineteenth century the greatest world power was Britain. In 1823 Thomas Jefferson wrote to President James Monroe: “Great Britain is the nation which can do us [the] most harm of any one . . . and, with her on our side, we need not fear the whole world.” In 1898, seventy-five years later, this relationship was reversed.