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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
Between 1895 and 1898 there occurred a revolution in the relationship of Great Britain and the United States, a subtle and undramatic adjustment but one that had momentous consequences. In 1895 there arose a controversy between Washington and London over a boundary question in Venezuela. After a few exchanges of notes, both sides climbed down. When, less than three years later, the United States provoked a war with Spain over Cuba, the British government sided with the United States without reservation. And not only the government; in 1898 the vast majority of British public opinion and the press took our side. The global implications of this change were immense. Since 1898 there has not been a single instance when a British government opposed the United States—indeed, when a principal consideration of a British government was not the securing of American goodwill. And there was more to that. Soon after 1898 the British, for the first time in their history, were beginning to be anxious about Germany. In order to be able to respond to a German challenge, they had to secure the friendship of the United States, at almost any price. This American factor was one of the elements behind the British decision to arrive at an entente with France in 1904. Eventually this policy bore fruit: In both world wars of the twentieth century, the United States stood by Britain. This alliance brought them victory—as well as the gradual abdication of the British Empire and the continuing rise of an American one. And this went beyond and beneath governmental calculations. As early as 1898 the young Winston Churchill (he was twenty-three years old then) began to think (and write) about an ever-closer British-American alliance, perhaps even leading to an eventual confederation of the English-speaking peoples of the world. To replace the Pax Britannica with a Pax Anglo-Americana: This was the vision he pursued throughout his long life. It was not to be; but that is another story, though not unrelated to the above.
But the Spanish-American War had an immediate effect on the other European powers too. At first many of them were shocked at the sight of the aggressive newcomer bullying Spain. In December 1897 Count Goluchowski, the foreign minister of the creaking old Austrian Empire, wrote that the United States now represented “a common danger to Europe ... the European nations must close their ranks in order successfully to defend their existence.” They did nothing of the sort. None of them did anything to help Spain. As a matter of fact the Russians kept urging the United States to take Hawaii, in order to cause trouble between the United States and Britain (as they had done during the Civil War and even after). It did not work out that way. Less than ten years after 1898, the Russians composed their differences with Britain because of Germany. A few years later Britain, France, Russia, and the United States became allies in World War I, against Germany. Had Germany won the First or the Second World War—and those were the last attempts of a European power to become the main power in the world—the twentieth century would have been a German one. It became the American Century instead.
In 1898, for the first time, the world became round—politically and not merely geographically. Until 1898 all the Great Powers were European ones. Now two other world powers arose: the United States and Japan. What was now happening in the Far East had a direct impact on the relationship of the powers in Europe and also the reverse. Thus there were seven Great Powers now, but less than fifty years later there were only two, the United States and Soviet Russia, and less than another fifty years later the United States stood alone at the end of a century that may properly be designated the American one.
Will the twenty-first century—the third century in the history of the United States—still be the American one? We may speculate on that. Yet it behooves us to recognize that the American Century began not in 1917 or in 1945 but in 1898.