The Needless War With Spain

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It was a startling coup for Mr. Hearst, but he had not yet even begun to display his ingenuity. On October 10, 1897, the Journal erupted across its front page with the banner headline: “An American Newspaper Accomplishes at a Single Stroke What the Best Efforts of Diplomacy Failed Utterly to Bring About in Many Months.” Hearst had sent Karl Decker, one of his most reliable correspondents, to Havana in late August with orders to rescue the Cuban Girl Martyr “at any hazard”; and Decker had climbed to the roof of a house near the prison, broken the bar of a window of the jail, lifted Evangelina out, and, after hiding her for a few days in Havana, smuggled her onto an American steamer. Decker, signing his dispatch to the Journal “Charles Duval,” wrote: “I have broken the bars of Rocojidas and have set free the beautiful captive of monster Weyler. Weyler could blind the Oueen to the real character of Evangelina, but he could not build a jail that would hold against Journal enterprise when properly set to work.” The Cuban Girl Martyr was met at the pier by a great throng, led up Broadway in a triumphal procession, taken to a reception at Delmonico’s where 120,000 people milled about the streets surrounding the restaurant, and hailed at a monster reception in Madison Square Garden. The Bishop of London cabled his congratulations to the Journal, while Governor Sadler of Missouri proposed that the Journal send down 500 of its reporters to free the entire island.

On October 23 Sagasta announced a “total change of immense scope” in Spanish policy in Cuba. He promised to grant local autonomy to the Cubans immediately, reserving justice, the armed forces, and foreign relations to Spain. On November 13 Weyler’s successor, Captain-General Blanco, issued a decree modifying considerably the recontrado and on November 25 the queen regent signed the edicts creating an autonomous government for the island. In essence, Madrid had acceded to the American demands.

While Woodford was conducting negotiations with a conciliatory Liberal government in Madrid and while there was still hope for peace, the fatal incident occurred which made war virtually inevitable. On January 12, 1898, a riot broke out in Havana, and Spanish officers attacked newspaper offices. The nature of the riot is still not clear; it was over in an hour, and it had no anti-American aspects. If the United States now sent a naval vessel to Havana, it might be buying trouble with Spain. Yet if a riot did break out and Americans were killed, the Administration would be stoned for not having a ship there to protect them. For several days McKinley wavered; then he ordered the Maine to Havana, but with the explanation that this was a courtesy visit demonstrating that so nonsensical were the rumors of danger to American citizens that our ships could again resume their visits to the island.

As the Maine lay at anchor in Havana Harbor, the rebels, with a perfect sense of timing, released a new propaganda bombshell. In December, 1897, in a private letter, Señor Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, the Spanish minister at Washington, had set down his opinions of President McKinley’s annual message to Congress: “Besides the ingrained and inevitable bluntness (grosería) with which it repeated all that the press and public opinion in Spain have said about Weyler,” De Lôme wrote, “it once more shows what McKinley is, weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd, besides being a would-be politician (politirastro) who tries to leave a door open behind himself while keeping on good terms with the jingoes of his party.” De Lôme added: “It would be very advantageous to take up, even if only for effect, the question of commercial relations, and to have a man of some prominence sent here in order that I may make use of him to carry on a propaganda among the Senators and others in opposition to the junta.”