The Needless War With Spain

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The question of peace or war now lay with McKinley. The Spaniards, Woodford had conceded, had gone about as far as they could go; but with the Maine in the mud of Havana Harbor, with the country, following Proctor’s speech, crying for war, how much longer could McKinley hold out? The jingoes were treating his attempt to preserve peace with outright contempt; McKinley, Roosevelt told his friends, “has no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.”

“We will have this war for the Freedom of Cuba,” Roosevelt shouted at a Gridiron Dinner on March 26, shaking his fist at Senator Hanna, “in spite of the timidity of the commercial interests.” Nor was McKinley permitted to forget the political consequences. The Chicago Times-Herald warned: “Intervention in Cuba, peacefully if we can, forcibly if we must, is immediately inevitable. Our own internal political conditions will not permit its postponement …. Let President McKinley hesitate to rise to the just expectations of the American people, and who can doubt that ‘war for Cuban liberty’ will be the crown of thorns the free silver Democrats and Populists will adopt at the elections this fall?”

On March 28 the President released the report of the naval court of inquiry on the Maine disaster. “In the opinion of the court the Maine was destroyed by the explosion of a submarine mine, which caused the partial explosion of two or more of the forward magazines,” the report concluded. Although no one was singled out for blame, the conclusion was inescapable that if Spain had not willfully done it, Spain had failed to provide proper protection to a friendly vessel on a courtesy visit in its waters. Overnight a slogan with the ring of a child’s street chant caught the fancy of the country:

Remember the Maine!
To hell with Spain!

“I have no more doubt than that I am now standing in the Senate of the United States,” declared Henry Cabot Lodge, “that that ship was blown up by a government mine, fired by, or with the connivance of, Spanish officials.”

Desiring peace yet afraid of its conséquences, McKinley embarked on a policy of attempting to gain the fruits of war without fighting. On March 29 Woodford demanded that Spain agree to an immediate armistice, revoke the reconcentration order, and co-operate with the United States to provide relief; Spain was given 48 hours to reply. On March 31 Spain replied that it had finally revoked the reconcentration orders in the western provinces; that it had made available a credit of three million pesetas to resettle the natives; that it was willing to submit the Maine controversy to arbitration; and that it would grant a truce if the insurgents would ask for it. In short, Spain would yield everything we demanded, except that it would not concede defeat; the appeal for a truce would have to come from the rebels. Since the rebels would not make such an appeal, since they were confident of ultimate American intervention, the situation was hopeless; yet Spain had come a long way. Woodford cabled to Washington: “The ministry have gone as far as they dare go to-day …. No Spanish ministry would have dared to do one month ago what this ministry has proposed to-day.”

For a week the Spaniards attempted to cling to their last shreds of dignity. On Saturday, April 9, Madrid surrendered. Driven to the wall by the American demands, the Spanish foreign minister informed Woodford that the government had decided to grant an armistice in Cuba immediately. Gratified at achieving the final concession, Woodford cabled McKinley: “I hope that nothing will now be done to humiliate Spain, as I am satisfied that the present Government is going, and is loyally ready to go, as fast and as far as it can.”

It was too late. McKinley had decided on war. Spain had conceded everything, but Spain had waited too long. Up until the very last moment, Spanish officials had feared that if they yielded to American demands in Cuba, it might mean the overturn of the dynasty, and they preferred even a disastrous war to that. Proud but helpless in the lace of American might, many Spanish officials appeared to prefer the dignity of being driven from the island in a heroic defensive war to meek surrender to an American ultimatum. In the end they surrendered and promised reforms. But they had promised reforms before—after the Ten Years’ War which ended in 1878—and they had not kept these promises. Throughout the Nineteenth Century, constitutions had been made and remade, but nothing had changed. Even in the last hours of negotiations with the American minister, they had told Woodford that the President had asked the Pope to intervene, when the President had done nothing of the sort. Even if their intentions were of the best, could they carry them out? Spain had had three full years to end the war in Cuba and, with vastly superior numbers of troops, had not been able to do it. And the insurgents would accept nothing from Madrid, not even peace.