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The Meaning of ’98

June 2024
17min read

Our war with Spain marked the first year of the American Century

One hundred years ago, in April 1898, the American Century suddenly began. “Suddenly” because what happened then—the declaration of war against Spain—led to a rapid crystallization of a passionate nationalism. The American longing for national aggrandizement existed before 1898—indeed it was gathering momentum—but as the great French writer Stendhal wrote in his essay “On Love,” passion has a way of “crystallizing” suddenly, as a reaction to external stimuli. Such a stimulus, in the history of the United States, was the Spanish-American War in 1898. When it was over, in a famous (or infamous) phrase John Hay would call it “a splendid little war.” Well, as far as wars go (and many of them tend to go unexpectedly far), it was “a splendid little war.” But its consequences were not little at all. They were enormous, and one hundred years later we live with them still. So allow me to begin this essay with a brief summary of the Spanish-American War.

The island of Cuba was one of the last (and the largest remaining) Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere. Its political class wanted independence from Spain. It could not achieve this by itself. There was nothing very new about that. Trouble in Cuba had flared up often during the nineteenth century. But in 1895 there arose conditions resembling a civil war (or, more precisely, a guerrilla war). At first the Spanish military reacted energetically. Soon it became evident that the problem was triangular, involving not only Spain and the Cuban rebels but also the United States. For one thing, the rebels depended more and more on American support, and particularly on their abettors in Florida. (What else is new?) Perhaps more important was a surge of American public and popular opinion, which was dishonestly inflated by the novel element of the “yellow press,” the national chains of Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers, proclaiming the Cuban situation to be intolerable.

Intolerable” is, of course, what people think must not be tolerated, and that was the continued presence of Spain in Cuba. In late 1897 the Spanish government showed a very considerable willingness to compromise, whereby all sensible reasons for an American intervention in Cuba could be eliminated. But passion is not governed by reason, and there were many groups of people with reasons of their own. On February 15, 1898, the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in Havana Harbor. There was a large loss of American lives and an immediate clamor for war. “Remember the Maine !” One hundred years later we do not know what caused the explosion. Possibly it was the work of Cubans, hoping to incite Americans thereby for the sake of their “liberation” from Spain. (Sixty years later a Cuban leader arose whose main purpose was to declare Cuba’s “liberation” not from Spain but from the United States. Fidel Castro was not anti-Spanish but anti-American. His ancestors were Spanish-Cubans in 1898; he maintained cordial relations with Generalissimo Franco, the anti-Communist dictator of Spain, upon whose death Castro declared three days of national mourning in Cuba. Such is the irony of history—or, rather, of human nature.)

In 1890 Congress authorized the building of three new battleships, even though the Secretary of the Navy had only asked for two.

After the catastrophe, the Spanish government was willing to settle almost everything to the satisfaction of the United States, but it was too late—too late because of the inflamed state of American public opinion. President McKinley did not have the will to oppose anything like that. On April 11, 1898, he sent a message to Congress; the formal declaration of war came two weeks afterward.

One week later Commodore (soon to become Admiral) George Dewey destroyed a Spanish squadron on the other side of the world, in Manila Bay. Some of his warships now raced across the southern Pacific and around the Horn to help blast another Spanish squadron out of the warm waters of Santiago Bay. Meanwhile, American troops had landed, unopposed, in Cuba and then won battles (in reality, successful skirmishes) at El Caney and San Juan Hill. Later in July Americans, again unopposed, invaded Puerto Rico. The war was over. Spain asked for peace. An armistice was signed on August 12, and the final terms were nailed down in Paris in December. American losses were minimal: a few hundred men. The United States insisted on, and got, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam.

And also Hawaii, whose annexation had been—unsuccessfully—urged on two Presidents by American intriguers and filibusterers. President Cleveland, and for a while McKinley, refused the annexation. But by July 1898 the nationalist tide was too much for this President and for much of the Congress: The United States annexed Hawaii.

It was thus that one hundred years ago the United States—which, during the first century of its existence, thought of itself as the prime power in the Americas, a hemispheric power—became a world power imperiously, geographically, a world power of the first rank, with incalculable consequences.

In 1898 there were no Gallup Polls; there was no such thing as public-opinion research. Still, it is possible to reconstruct the main elements of what the people of the United States thought (and perhaps felt) about these events.

That tremendous surge of national self-confidence, debouching into super-nationalism (in reality, imperialism, though most Americans would shy away from such a word), must not obscure the fact that as in every war in the history of this country, Americans were divided. On one side, which turned out to be the dominant one, were the expansionists of 1898. Of their many and increasingly vocal declarations let me cite but one or two. There was Sen. H. M. Teller of Colorado, who as early as 1893 proclaimed: “I am in favor of the annexation of Hawaii. I am in favor of the annexation of Cuba. I am in favor of the annexation of the great country lying north of us.” (He meant Canada.) The language of Sen. E. O. Wolcott of Colorado was more florid: “Who is to say that in the evolution of such a Republic as this the time has not come when the immense development of our internal resources and the marvelous growth of our domestic and foreign commerce and a realization of our virile strength have not stimulated that Anglo-Saxon restlessness which beats with the blood of the race into an activity which will not be quenched until we have finally planted our standard in that far-off archipelago which inevitable destiny has intrusted to our hands?” (He meant the Philippines.) And when the war was over, Sen. Orville H. Platt of Connecticut said: “The same force that had once guided Pilgrim sails to Plymouth Rock had impressed our ships at Manila and our army at Santiago. Upon us rested the duty of extending Christian civilization, of crushing despotism, of uplifting humanity and making the rights of man prevail. Providence has put it upon us.” On the other side of Congress were the opponents of the expansionists. There was Sen. George F. Hoar: “The Monroe Doctrine is gone.” Or Sen. Donelson Caffery: “Sir, Christianity can not be advanced by force.” What drove the expansionists was “lust of power and greed for land, veneered with the tawdriness of false humanity.”


It is at this point instructive to look at the character and the development of these divisions of American opinion. The twentieth-century terminology of “internationalists versus isolationists” does not apply. Besides the fact that “isolationism” as a category came into usage only after World War I, the expansionists of 1898 were American unilateralists, not internationalists, while their opponents were not isolationists either. What clashed were two different visions of American destiny. These were already visible well before 1898, to which I shall soon turn. More germane to the national debate of 1898 were the differing tendencies of political parties, national regions, and portions of society. With few exceptions Republicans were expansionists; Democrats were not. That was already evident earlier in the 1890s, when the Republican President Benjamin Harrison and his Secretary of State, John W. Foster (grandfather of John Foster Dulles), were in favor of the forced annexation of Hawaii, whereas the Democratic President Grover Cleveland and his Secretary of State, Walter Q. Gresham, were not. These divisions were not absolute; there were a few anti-imperialist Republicans. Yet it ought to be observed that the Republicans were the more nationalist party of the two, something that, by and large, remained true for most of the following century and is discernible even now. (In 1892 the Republican party platform called for “the achievement of the manifest destiny of the Republic in the broadest sense.” In 1956 the Republican party platform called for “the establishment of American air and naval bases all around the world.” The man who coined the term manifest destiny in the 1840s, John L. O’Sullivan, was a Democrat, who later condemned “wicked and crazy Republicanism.” He died in 1895.) It is significant to note that many of the opponents of the expansionists were Southern Democrats, including such unreconstructed populists as “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman—which is interesting, since forty years earlier it was the South that had proposed the acquisition of Cuba. Many, certainly the most vocal, expansionists were Protestant churchmen; the hierarchy of American Catholics was, for the most part, not. The leaders of American finance and business (Andrew Carnegie, James J. Hill, J. P. Morgan, and most of Wall Street) opposed the war—at least for some time.

But much of this was soon swept away. Immediately after the declaration of war the businessmen’s and financiers’ opposition crumbled (another instance of the limitations of the economic interpretation of history, or of the flag following trade; the reverse is rather true). In the hot skillet of nationalist emotions, the opposition of most Catholics melted away fast. Two former Confederate generals, Joe Wheeler and Fitzhugh Lee, were now major-generals of the United States Army. Fifteen Democrats and Populists voted for the ratification of the peace treaty with Spain; only two Republicans voted against it. The vote was 57 to 27 in the Senate, one above the needed two-thirds majority. William Jennings Bryan, once an anti-expansionist, urged a speedy ratification. It did not do much for him; in 1900 McKinley beat him by a landslide. Less than a year later McKinley was dead, the President was now Theodore Roosevelt, and the American Century was on.

A blend of Darwinism and racism and Protestant Christianity sounds strange today. In the 1890s it was not.

In 1898 the Spanish-American War was the culmination of a great wave of national sentiment that had begun to rise many years before. There was a change, less in the temperature of patriotism than in the national vision of the destiny of the United States, after the end of the first century of its existence. In sum, the time had come for the United States to expand not only its light and its example but its power and its institutions all around the globe. When the Chicago world’s fair opened in 1893, Chauncey M. Depew gave the speech of dedication. “This day,” he said, “belongs not to America but the world. . . . We celebrate the emancipation of man.” No one had spoken in such tones at the Centennial in 1876 in Philadelphia. But now in March 1893 the Philadelphia Press proclaimed, “Our nation stands on the threshold of a new policy as surely as it did in 1803, when Jefferson annexed Louisiana and the United States realized it must govern it.”

It is wrong to think that this rise of a national sentiment was nothing but emotional, fueled by war fever and declamatory rhetoric. What had begun to change the course of the mighty American ship of state was a change of mentality, including a powerful intellectual impulse. Its proponents included some of the most intelligent, and learned, Americans of a generation. The usage of the noun intellectual (adopted from the Russian, designating a certain kind of person) had hardly begun to appear in the American language in the 1890s, but the adjective was properly applicable to the capacities of such men as Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, Alfred Thayer Mahan, John Hay, Whitelaw Reid, and Albert J. Beveridge. Far from being provincial, they looked around the world and saw how the European powers had embarked on their imperialist expansion. For the United States to opt out from a course of spreading its influence beyond its continental boundaries would be a sickening symptom of a materialist small-mindedness.

And what were the ingredients of this philosophy—for a kind of philosophy it was. It amounted to more than a mere emulation of the other Great Powers of the present. One principal ingredient was the belief in sea power. That was the key to modern history, as Alfred Mahan wrote in his famous book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History in 1890, and it was more than coincidental that a Republican President and Congress embarked on a Big Navy program in the same year, the first substantial American military expenditure since the Civil War. There was a racial ingredient: the belief that the most advanced, indeed the ruling, people of the globe were of Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic stock. Besides the Roosevelt-Lodge-Mahan-Hay-Reid coterie of progressive imperialists, there were prestigious professors in the leading American universities whose eulogies of the Teutonic-Germanic races were influential as well as popular: John W. Burgess, for example, whose Political Science later acquired a foreword by Nicholas Murray Butler, the much-respected president of Columbia University. Very similar were the advocacies of John Fiske of Harvard. The Congregationalist minister Josiah Strong wrote as early as 1885 about the American Anglo-Saxon destined to be his brother’s keeper: “If I read not amiss, this powerful race will move . . . down upon Central and South America, or upon the islands of the sea . . . and beyond. And can any one doubt that the result of this competition of races will be ‘the survival of the fittest’?” Not many people know that Rudyard Kipling’s “Take Up the White Man’s Burden” was written for Americans; even fewer are aware that in The Descent of Man Charles Darwin wrote about America: “the heir of all ages, in the foremost files of time.” Such a concordance of Darwinism and of racism and of Protestant Christianity sounds strange now. In the 1890s it was not. In 1894 Mahan wrote: “Comparative religion teaches that creeds which reject missionary enterprise are foredoomed to decay. May it not be so with nations?” Many of the shrill proposals for American imperialism in the name of Protestant Christianity were reconstructed later by historians, foremost among them Julius W. Pratt. Thus the editorial of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in April 1898: “God is stronger than either the Romish Church or the Catholic powers of Europe. We should pray not only that Cuba be free, but that these fair Eastern isles shall become scenes of gospel triumphs and the salvation of countless souls. . . .” And The Christian Standard : The time has arrived “to crack the Monroe Doctrine like a shell, and to introduce the nation to an enlarged mission. . . . The Lord has not raised up this mighty people to dwell in selfish contentment, indifferent to the wrongs and oppressions of other lands. . . . The magnificent fleets of Spain have gone down as marvellously, as miraculously, as the walls of Jericho went down.”

Such were many of the voices current in 1898. They were not necessarily what the majority of Americans thought. But such influences cannot be precisely defined. Hard and determined minorities may acquire an impact on a majority beyond numerical calculations. Still, in any event, they cannot be very influential when they represent something quite different from broader popular inclinations. The politicians knew that. So did the progressive intellects. When Captain (later Admiral) Mahan wrote that the Navy must have bases abroad, he added: “At present the positions of the Caribbean are occupied by foreign powers, nor may we, however disposed to acquisition, obtain them by means other than righteous; but a distinct advance will have been made when public opinion is convinced .” (The italics are mine.) In 1890 a Republican Congress voted on seven battleships and eventually authorized the building of three first-class battleships, even though the Secretary of the Navy had asked only for two. The former Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine wrote to President Harrison in 1891 that the United States should annex Cuba and Puerto Rico and perhaps all of the West Indian islands. In June 1896 the Washington Post editorialized: “A new consciousness seems to have come upon us—the consciousness of strength—and with it a new appetite, the yearning to show our strength. . . . Ambition, interest, land hunger, pride, the mere joy of fighting, whatever it may be, we are animated by a new sensation. We are face to face with a strange destiny. The taste of Empire is in the mouth of the people even as the taste of blood in the jungle. It means an Imperial policy, the Republic, renascent, taking her place with the armed nations.”

It was thus that in 1898 the majority of the American people took satisfaction from the pictures of the Stars and Stripes solidly planted on faraway islands and floating over the oceans, just as their ears took satisfaction from the originally somewhat odd, but soon intensely familiar, martial band music of John Philip Sousa, music with a Central European flavor, but no matter, for it was at that time that American popular music—indeed, the tuning of American ears—was changing too, from the simpler Anglo-Celtic strains to newer rhythms and melodies. It was thus that the American Dominion Over Palm and Pine came into being at the very time when Kipling in his Recessional warned America’s British cousins that their dominion over palm and pine might be short-lived: “Lest we forget!”

In an article entitled “Our Blundering Foreign Policy,” Henry Cabot Lodge wrote in March 1895: “Small states are of the past and have no future. . . . The great nations are rapidly absorbing for their future expansion and their present defense all the waste places of the earth. It is a movement which makes for civilization and the advancement of the race. As one of the great nations of the world, the United States must not fall out of the line of march.” During the war Theodore Roosevelt wrote him: “You must get Manila and Hawaii; you must prevent any talk of peace until we get Porto Rico and the Philippines as well as secure the independence of Cuba.”

And yet, all in all, and for all its strident excrescences, the rising spirit of American imperialism was not ungenerous.

Would the United States have become a world power in the early twentieth century even without the Spanish-American War and the events of 1898? Probably. But the consequences of 1898 are still with us.

Was it worth it? That was the question that American opponents of the War of 1898 were asking, among them Mark Twain. Their vision of American destiny was different, but then they were overwhelmed by the great national success of the war. However—sooner rather than later—events themselves accumulated to reveal that all was not well with this acquisition of peoples in distant parts of the world. Only a few months after the “liberation” of Manila, a rebellion in the Philippines broke out against the American occupiers. Its suppression took two years and hundreds of lives. The “liberation” of Cuba from the “tyranny” of Spain led to the rule of that island by a series of native tyrants of whom the last (and still present) one has been obsessively anti-American, in one instance not unwilling to inveigle the United States into a potential nuclear war with the distant Soviet Union. Whether the acquisition of Puerto Rico and of its people by the American Republic was a definite gain is still an open question, as is the future status of that island. One may even speculate that had Hawaii remained a Pacific kingdom the tragedy at Pearl Harbor or perhaps even a Japanese-American war might not have occurred—but that carries speculation too far.

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.

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.


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