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Thursday, November 5, 2015

Reflections on The Spanish-American War of 1898


by Brad K. Berner

As fleeting images of Spanish ships exploding amidst the pall of battle 
thrilled American vaudeville audiences in the fall of 1898, it mattered
little that the ships were paper models pulled by wires across a shallow
pocket of water while the producer’s wife, coughing on her first cigare-
tte, provided the smoke of battle. “The Battle of Santiago,” a short film
produced by James S. Blackton and Albert E. Smith for $1.98, was a
smash hit, just like its topic – the Spanish-American War.

In the fall of 1898, there were good reasons for this war’s popularity; for,
without losing a single major engagement, the United States had defea-
ted Spain in a short and inexpensive war. In fact, the U.S., in less than
four months of war, had sustained only 379 combat deaths in achieving its
stated objective – the liberation of Cuba from Spanish tyranny. Furthermore,
Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico had been conquered, and Hawaii
finally annexed – all for an initial cost of around $250 million. But this self-
styled humanitarian crusade to liberate Cuba was more than just another
late 19th century imperialist war for empire. For the United States, it was
a mass media war of empire, historically conditioned by race, which thrust
her into the 20th century world arena.

A Mass Media War

Upon the outbreak of the Spanish-American War at the end of April 1898,
vaudeville entrepreneurs, who had recently begun to insert short newsreels in-
to their shows, were confronted with an insatiable public demand which could
not be met. So, not wanting to miss the chance of profiting from America’s pa-
triotic war frenzy, they faked what could not be filmed directly, and spurious
films, such as “The Battle of Santiago,” flooded vaudeville. Veracity mattered
little as audiences flocked to vicariously participate in the war. And while the
cinematic venue of vaudeville would soon be replaced by the nickelodeon
and the movie theater, the American symbiosis of war and movies had begun.

Although the Spanish-American War was America’s first filmed war, most Am-
ericans, not having access to vaudeville’s films, eagerly read about it in Ameri-
ca’s most pervasive medium – the newspaper. And read they did, for America
of the 1890’s was a nation of newspaper readers. Recent developments such as
the linotype machine, which speeded up the printing process, and news services
such as the Associated Press, which provided fast and timely national distri-
bution, routinely supplied a mass audience which regularly consumed over 14,
000 weeklies and 1,900 dailies. Consequently, both the technology and audien-
ce existed for breaking stories to quickly become national concerns.

It was a technological certainty that soon after the outbreak of the Cuban
revolt against Spain in 1895 atrocity stories began to fill newspaper colu-
mns throughout the United States. As the war intensified and Spain was ini-
tially unable to effectively counter an insurgent hit-and-run strategy that
attacked the island’s economic infrastructure, an inhumane policy of recon-
centrating the civilian population into an 1890’s version of “strategic ham-
lets” was implemented. Conveniently ignoring the wholesale destruction cau-
sed by the insurgents, the sensationalist American press, epitomized by Wi-
lliam Randolph Hearst’s Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s World, led an increa-
sing chorus of newspaper invective against Spain. If the truth weren’t suffi-
cient, then Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s Yellow Journalism, named after the Ye-
llow Kid, a World cartoon character, would routinely fabricate battles, he-
roes, quotations and villains.

Even though most American papers did not blindly mimic the Journal or the
World, their key location in New York City gave them an inordinate influence
in poisoning the waters of public opinion through their papers and their news
services. No clearer examples of this exist than their respective hypocritical
and fallacious coverage of the De Lôme Letter and the Maine explosion. Fac-
ts, or lack thereof, were not allowed to get in the way of a profitable story,
and the story whi-ch sold was that of Spain’s guilt. Despite their critics,
their brand of journalism reached millions of people.

However, the influence of the yellow journals should not be overly empha-
sized; for, when Hearst later claimed the Spanish-American War to be the
Journal’s War, he was only doing what he did best – using hyperbole and
untruth to sell his paper. Contrary to Hearst’s claim, Yellow Journalism did
not cause the war. It merely sold its message to an American public eager for

In the late 1890’s Americans were living in a quickly changing society cha-
llenged by rapid industrialization and urbanization. Set against the back-
drop of the 1893 depression, trusts were fundamentally changing the way
America did business; the frontier was gone; and a vibrant populist move-
ment and free silver agitation defied the political establishment. With res-
pect to foreign affairs, the resulting upsurge in humanitarianism and aggre-
ssion became ideologically packaged in a new, expansive Manifest Destiny
with a humanitarian duty; moreover, both major political parties proved wi-
lling accomplices in fulfilling this duty, since rising domestic concerns co-
uld be expeditiously deflected into an outlet for foreign aggression – the li-
beration of Cuba. Not surprisingly, media criticism of this mission was sli-
ght and ineffective since the messenger, the correspondent and his newspa-
per, believed in their mission.

As true believers, many correspondents actively participated in the war
effort. A few, such as Richard Harding Davis and Stephen Crane, took part
in combat. Others served as spies and provided intelligence information to
the very same military authorities who, with good reason, often attempted to
censor their reporting, since classified information frequently showed up on
the front page. However, for numerous reporters, as for many newspapers
and films, distinctions between fact and falsehood, classified and unclassi-
fied, and correspondent and soldier meant little, since it was ‘their’ war, and
their mission was patriotic, popular, and profitable.

Yet, as profits soared, with newspapers quadrupling their sales, patriotism
acquired its 20th century symbols, with the coming of age of Uncle Sam and
the “Star Spangled Banner.” However, the war’s almost universal popularity
proved to be ephemeral as the humanitarian crusade to liberate Cuba unfol-
ded into the conquest of an overseas empire.      

A War of Empire

Upon hearing the news of Commodore George Dewey’s overwhelming victo-
ry at the naval battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, William McKinley, Pre-
sidentof the United States, confessing that he did not know where the Philipp-
ineIslands were within 2,000 miles, went to a globe to see where the newly
won lands were located, or so the story goes; yet, whether factually true or
not, the story accurately points out the unexpected gains of the war. Nevert-
heless, it did not take McKinley long to decide as he, within days, ordered an
American expeditionary force to the Philippines. Victory had developed its
own dynamic, or as William James so succinctly put it: “Once the excitement
of action gets loose, the taxes levied, the victories achieved...the old human
instincts will get into play with all their old strength, and the ambition
and sense of mastery which our nation has will set up new demands.”

Like many wars, it was a war of skill – a combined Navy/Marine operation
seized and held Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, suffering minimal casualties – and
of bungling – Spain’s initial coded request for peace was delayed for four days
due to a lost cipher key. It was a war of heroism – outnumbered 10 to 1, Spa-
nish forces at the battle of El Caney held off American forces for ten hours
before succumbing, and of cowardice – the 71st New York panicked in the
face of enemy fire before San Juan Hill. But unlike many wars, it was a war
which neither of the leaders wanted nor believed would happen.

Almost from the beginning of the Cuban revolt, U.S. domestic pressure, us-
ually expressed through a plethora of congressional resolutions, effectively
demanded some sort of U.S. governmental involvement. In response, beginn-
ing with Secretary of State Richard Olney’s Note of April 4, 1896), continu-
ing on through the McKinley Administration’s instructions to its ambassador
to Spain and its final ultimatums of March 26-28, 1898, the U.S. government
offered its good offices as a mediator to bring about a negotiated solution.
However, such a solution was impossible. The insurgents would settle for no-
thing less than independence, while the Spanish government, which viewed
theCuban revolt as an internal problem caused and exacerbated by rebel su-
pporters in the United States, consistently refused U.S. offers of mediation
while demanding that the U.S. enforce its own laws to shut down Cuban in-
surgent operations in the U.S.

Unbeknownst to the American public, most members of Congress, and the
McKinley administration, there were legitimate internal reasons for Spain’s
diplomatic position. For Spain at the beginning of 1898 was a country which
had seen two decades of peace at home through a process of manipulated elec-
tions in which power peacefully alternated between the Conservatives, under
the leadership of Antonio Cánovas, and the Libe-rals, under Práxedes Mateo
Sagasta. Peace had been secured, and the monarchy under the custodianship
of Maria Cristina, the Queen Regent, remained in power. However, all was not
well for the current Sagasta government. Serious revolts in the Philippines
and Cuba had not only been costly in terms of lives, but they had brought the
country to the verge of bankruptcy; moreover, as social tensions grew, the
government felt threatened by Carlists who supported a different claimant to
the throne, Catalan and Basque regionalist movements, and radical republi-

Fully cognizant that a war with the U.S. meant inevitable defeat, Sagasta
was confronted by influential elements of the press and the military that
trumpeted Spanish valor and demanded that his government stand up to the
Yankees. Not surprisingly, his government, convinced that a diplomatic so-
lution was possible, gingerly walked through the political minefield of ever-
increasing U.S. demands for greater concessions on Cuba. Various strategies
were tried and failed. The Queen Regent appealed directly to her cousin Queen
Victoria of England for help; ineffective appeals were made to the Great Po-
wers; the Vatican briefly offered to mediate; and reforms, which included
Cuban autonomy and a proclamation of a suspension of hostilities in Cuba,
were promulgated. Nevertheless, by mid-April 1898, there was no room left
on the home front for political maneuver, for Sagasta could not agree to the
ultimate American demand – Cuban independence. Such a concession, he be-
lieved, would have brought down not only his government but quite probably
the monarchy.

While domestic politics constrained Sagasta’s ability to meet the ultimate
American demand, in the United States they forced McKinley into war. For
in the wake of the public and congressional outcry following the release of the
official U.S. report on the Maine disaster, McKinley not only sent a final ul-
timatum of Cuban independence to Spain but ignored Spain’s latest concess-
ions when he delivered his ‘War Message’ to Congress on April 11th. A mis-
nomer, McKinley’s message did not call for war, but its upshot was war as
McKinley, fearing a split in his own party, turned the issue over to a bellicose
Congress, which soon passed a resolution demanding Cuban independence and
Spain’s immediate evacuation of Cuba. Within days, shooting began and both
countries officially declared war.

Tragically, two governments which had not wanted war had been forced into
war by domestic politics, and as the religious establishments of both countries
gave their respective blessings, these governments at war had very different
aims. For Spain, it was a foregone defeat necessary to save the government
and Spanish honor; for the United States, it was a fight for victory.

Americans victories were not long in coming. On May 1st an American squa-
dron under the command of Commodore George Dewey annihilated the Spa-
nish squadron at Manila Bay. Soon, U.S. expeditionary forces were on their
way to the Philippines, and on August 13th the city of Manila was taken. Me-
anwhile, soon after Guantánamo Bay, Cuba was taken and secured by U.S.
Marines in mid-June, the Fifth Corps, under the command of Major General
William Shafter, landed in southern Cuba, fought bloody battles at El Caney
and San Juan Hill on July 1st, and, after an American fleet had destroyed Ad-
miral Pascual Cervera’s escaping squadron on July 3rd, forced the capitula-
tion of Santiago on July 17th. The American juggernaut rolled on as Ameri-
can troops under the command of Major General Nelson Miles landed in Pu-
erto Rico on July 25th, only being stopped as they overran the island by the
proclamation of an Armistice Protocol on August 12th. With the signing of
the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898, a victorious U.S. acquired Cuba,
Guam, the Philippines and Puerto Rico. Sagasta’s defeated government had
managed to survive.

Throughout it all, while the world’s powers declared their neutrality and did
little due to the war’s rapidity and their own rivalries, William McKinley,
the reluctant warrior, directed the war effort through an elaborate telephone
and telegraph network established in the War Room on the second floor of
the White House. Plagued by incompetent and feuding advisors, McKinley,
acting as his own Secretary of State and making the major military decisions,
had become the first modern American Commander-in-Chief. As such, he
had to decide what to do with the newly won American empire.

A War of Race 

When asked for his opinion on what to do with the post-war American empire,
Major General William R. Shafter, an obese and laconic man who had comm-
anded the American army in Cuba, voiced his views in no uncertain terms.
With respect to the Cubans, he stated: “Why, these people are no more fit for
self-government than gunpowder is for hell!” Later, after the outbreak of war
between Filipino nationalists and American occupation forces, he announced:
“My plan would be to disarm the natives...even if we have to kill half of them
to do it.” In an age of imperialist wars, many people agreed; for, the Spanish-
American War, like its contemporary imperialist wars for empire in Asia and
Africa, was, at its core, a racist war.

Racism was not a monopoly of the victor. Many Spaniards had effectively
used racial fears to justify Spain’s war against a Cuban insurgency which itself
had been subject to its contagion when leading insurgent politicians unsuccess-
fully attempted to remove black officers from command. Inevitably, when the
shooting stopped, many Spanish and Americans soldiers openly fraternized, for
they found common ground on one salient issue – race. Pedro López de Castillo,
a Spanish infantryman at Santiago, Cuba, openly stated this in his farewell
letter to the American forces on August 21, 1898. After embracing the Ameri-
can soldiers as valiant brothers in arms, he went on to describe the Cubans as
“the descendants of the Congos and Guineas mingled with the blood of unscru-
pulous Spaniards and of traitors and adventurers – these people are not able to
exercise or enjoy their liberty, for they will find it a burden to comply with
the laws of civilized humanity.” Many of the victors agreed and attempts were
made to draw the color line in Cuba. Significantly, López de Castillo had
neglected to mention in his letter that many of the victorious American troops
were black, and that these troops had been at the forefront of battle, earning
not a few Congressional Medals of Honor and numerous certificates of merit.
Such patriotic and valiant conduct resulted from their profound sense of duty
to their country.

While a few African-Americans could be found either whole-heartedly suppor-
ting the war or virulently condemning it from the beginning, most, viewing it
through the historical lens of American racism, reacted with cautious optimism.
Faced with increasing segregation on the home front while serving in a segrega-
ted army on the war front, many agreed with the analysis of the editor of the
Wisconsin Weekly Advocate when he pointed out that opposition would surely
 not lessen their burden while support would at least put them “on the safe side.”
Yet, repeated protestations of loyalty and heroism in combat could not erase
the question of race, prompting even soldiers such as George W. Prioleau, the
chaplain of the 9th U.S. Cavalry (colored) to ask: “Is America any better than
Spain?” For most African-Americans the answer quickly became no as the U.S.
moved, in the aftermath of the war, to control the Philippines – an imperial
venture which moved even Booker T. Washington, a supporter of the war, into
opposition.  Just as the Philippine issue crystallized African-American opposi-
tion to the war’s results, it also produced a soul-searching debate within the
Senate as it vociferously debated the ratification of the Treaty of Paris. Once
again race was key for many. Imperialists and anti-imperialists alike used the
issue to argue for and against the treaty. Nevertheless, on February 8, 1899,
by a vote of 57-27, the Senate ratified the treaty just days after the Filipino
-American War had begun.

The issue of future empire had been decided based in part on an ugly aspect
of America’s past – race. For, in the opinions of those who believed that
Cubans, Filipinos, and Puerto Ricans were incapable of governing themselves,
in the opinions of those missionaries who felt called to bring Anglo-Saxon
Christianity to the heathens, and in the opinions of many in the McKinley admi-
nistration, it was America’s duty to take up the ‘White Man’s Burden.’ Not un-
expectedly, American soldiers, engaged in what would become a bloody three-
year war with Filipino nationalists, began to call the Filipino insurgents ‘niggers.’
The historical present – the establishment of empire – was pregnant with the
historical past.


Seventeen years later during World War I, James Blackton was once again ur-
ging Americans on to war in his film “The Battle Cry of Peace,” and most Am-
ericans remembered only the myths of a quaint little war: the Rough Riders’
gallant charge up San Juan Hill, and McKinley’s divine inspiration in deciding
to keep the Philippines. Yet, historical amnesia to the contrary, America had
crossed a historical watershed. Mass media had become technologically capa-
ble of mobilizing public opinion in an instant, and an American symbiosis of
movies and war had begun. McKinley had become the first modern American
Commander-in-Chief, and archaic weapons of war, such as the ram and the dy-
namite cruiser, disappeared to be replaced by John Holland’s submarine boat.

A fractured military command structure would soon be unified, and soldiers
such as John J. Pershing, the future commander of the American Expeditionary
Force during WWI, had received his baptism of fire along with numerous future
marine commandants, admirals and generals. Moreover, Theodore Roosevelt
would becatapulted into the Presidency, and America began her direct involve-
ment in the affairs of 20th century Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico.

Decades after the war, Carl Sandburg, who had briefly been a soldier in the
American army when it invaded Puerto Rico during the war, wrote of the war,
“It was a small war edging toward immense consequences.” Tragically, impor-
tant lessons emerging from such immense consequences were forgotten: Gene-
ral Nelson A. Miles’ admonitions against direct frontal assaults went unheeded
 in the ‘no man’s land’of World War I, America’s experience in its first south-
east Asian war in the Philippines vanished in the miasma of anti-communism
in Vietnam, and that wars, like the Spanish-American War, often develop their
own unforeseen dynamic. For Clio, the Muse of History, can be a fascinating
and instructive servant of the knowledgeable and a tragic and vindictive mis-
tress of the ignorant.


Brad K. Berner is Moscow-based writer and author of The Spanish-
American  War: A Documentary History with Commentaries (Far-
leigh Dickinson University Press, 2014). The preceding article served
as the introduction to that book.

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