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The Needless War With Spain
"The current was too strong, the demagogues too numerous, the fall elections too near"
February 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 2
While McKinley attempted to search out a policy that would preserve peace without bringing disaster to the Republican party, the yellow press made his job all the more difficult by whipping up popular anger against Spain. On February 12 the Journal published a dispatch from Richard Harding Davis, reporting that as the American steamship Olivette was about to leave Havana Harbor for the United States, it was boarded by Spanish police officers who searched three young Cuban women, one of whom was suspected of carrying messages from the rebels. The Journal ran the story tinder the headline. “Does Our Flag Protect Women?” with a vivid drawing by Frederic Remington across one half a page showing Spanish plainclothes men searching a wholly nude woman. War, declared the Journal, “is a dreadful thing, but there are things more dreadful than even war, and one of them is dishonor.” It shocked the country, and Congressman Amos Cummings immediately resolved to launch a congressional inquiry into the Olivette outrage. Before any steps could be taken, the true story was revealed. The World produced one of the young women who indignantly protested the Journal ’s version of the incident. Pressured by the World. the Journal was forced to print a letter from Davis explaining that his article had not said that male policemen had searched the women and that, in fact, the search had been conducted quite properly by a police matron with no men present.
The Olivette incident was manufactured by Hearst, but by the spring of 1897 the American press had a new horror to report which was all too true. Famine was stalking the island. Cuba had been in a serious economic state when the rebellion broke out in 1895: two years of war would, under any circumstances, have been disastrous, but the deliberate policies pursued both by the insurgents and by the government forces made the situation desperate. It was a simple matter for Hearst and Pulitzer reporters to pin the lull responsibility on Weyler.
By the middle of July, McKinley had formulated a policy which he set down in a letter of instructions to our new American minister to Spain, General Stewart L. Woodford. The letter emphasized the need of bringing the Cuban war to an end and said that this could be done to the mutual advantage of both Spain and the Cubans by granting some kind of autonomy to Cuba. If Spain did not make an offer to the rebels and if the “measures of unparalleled severity” were not ended, the United States threatened to intervene.
On August 8 an Italian anarchist assassinated the Spanish premier; and when Woodford reached Madrid in September, a new government was about to take over headed by Senor Sagasta and the Liberals, who had repeatedly denounced the “barbarity” of the previous government’s policy in Cuba. Sagasta immediately removed General Weyler, and the prospects for an agreement between the United States and Spain took a decided turn for the better.
While Woodford was carrying on skillful diplomatic negotiations for peace in Madrid, the Hearst press was creating a new sensation in this country with the Cisneros affair. Evangelina Cisneros was a young Cuban woman who had been arrested and imprisoned in the Rocojidas in Havana, guilty, according to the American press, of no other crime than protecting her virtue from an unscrupulous Spanish colonel, an aide to Butcher Weyler. The Rocojidas, Hearst’s reporter told American readers, was a cage where the innocent beauty was herded with women criminals of every type, subject to the taunts and vile invitations of men who gathered outside.
When it was reported that Señorita Cisneros, whose lather was a rebel leader, was to be sent for a long term to a Spanish penal colony in Africa or in the Canaries, the Journal launched one of the most fabulous campaigns in newspaper history. “Enlist the women of America!” was the Hearst war cry, and the women of America proved willing recruits. Mrs. Julia Ward Howe signed an appeal to Pope Leo XIII, and Mrs. Jefferson Davis, the widow of the president of the Confederacy, appealed to the queen regent of Spain to “give Evangelina Cisneros to the women of America to save her from a fate worse than death.” When the Journal prepared a petition on behalf of Señorita Cisneros, it obtained the names of Mrs. Nancy McKinley, the mother of the President, and Mrs. John Sherman, the wife of the secretary of state, as well as such other prominent ladies as Julia Dent Grant and Mrs. Mark Hanna.