American History
Imperialism

*In the early 1500s, the King of Spain controlled half of Europe and most of North and South America.  By the late 1800s, Spain owned the Philippines and a few small Pacific islands, Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, and a few areas in Africa.  In both Cuba and the Philippines, however, many local people wanted independence from Spain, and thought they could get it, as Spain was much weaker than it had once been.

*In the early 1500s, the English had barely begun to explore North America, and would not settle it for another century.  By the late 1800s, though, the old English colonies had become the United States and had filled up half the continent.  Furthermore, the Frontier had been filled in, and Americans wanted to expand beyond the seas.

*This was not unusual.  The more powerful European nations, particularly Britain and France had spent the 1800s taking over Africa and Asia, and Japan had just begun dominating its neighbours, and beat China in a war in 1894-1895.  Conquering overseas empires in this manner is called imperialism, and the United States wanted a share. 

*Among other things, American built a huge navy, partly because Alfred Thayer Mahan had published a book called The Influence of Sea Power upon History which said that great navies had built and protected great empires throughout history.

*One reason America wanted to expand, particularly in the tropics, was the sugar trade.  Sugar was a valuable commodity, and many Americans had invested in sugar plantations in Cuba, Hawaii, and elsewhere, and wanted to protect their investments, particularly as those islands had political problems.  They also wanted to develop those islands, particularly Cuba, as places to sell more American products.

*In 1893 the Queen of Hawaii, Liliʻuokalani tried to create a new constitution that would have given native Hawaiians more rights and taken special privileges away from American and European landowners.  Furthermore, the big sugar planters were suffering because a new US tariff had made their trade with the US much less profitable.  Therefore, some sugar planters rose up to overthrow the Kingdom of Hawaii and form the Republic of Hawaii under President Sanford Dole.  Soon they asked to join the United States, and were annexed in 1898.

*In Cuba, José Martí began a war for independence in 1895.  Soon the Spanish sent the army in to put down the rebellion.  In 1896 General Valeriano Weyler arrived and treated the rebels so brutally that he was called Butcher Weyler.  He rounded up rebels and their families and put them in concentration camps, where many died.

*Many Americans sympathised with the Cubans, partly because we remembered our revolutionary war, partly because American property was being destroyed in the war and businessmen wanted to put a stop to that, and partly because American newspapers covered the war in brutal detail.

*Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst competed with each other for readers, and therefore published the most sensational papers they could.  They exaggerated news and told it in a very biased fashion with shocking photographs to drum up interest.  This was called Yellow Journalism or the Yellow Press.

*The Yellow Press presented Weyler as a monster who was not only brutal to the Cubans but ignored the rights of Americans.  A famous photograph showed an American woman being strip-searched by the Spanish authorities.  To protect Americans in Cuba, President McKinley sent a battleship, USS Maine, to Havana. 

*Soon afterwards, a private letter written by the Spanish Ambassador to the US was stolen by Cuban rebels and leaked to the press.  It called McKinley weak and stupid.  This infuriated Americans further, and many began to call for war. 

*Soon after this letter was published, USS Maine blew up in Havana Harbour.  An investigation showed that a Spanish mine had blown up the ship (although years later it was discovered that an electrical failure caused a spark in the powder magazine).  Soon Americans demanded war, chanting ‘Remember the Maine!’

*This desire for was known as jingoism, a term from an old British song:
We don't want to fight but by Jingo if we do
We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too.

*In April, 1898, the United States declared war on Spain, beginning the Spanish-American War. 

*On 1 May, Commodore George Dewey sailed into Manila Bay and surprised the Spanish fleet.  Dewey gave the order, ‘fire when ready,’ and his fleet destroyed the Spanish fleet without the loss of a single American life.  In August, 15,000 American troops landed in the Philippines and joined up with Emilio Aguinaldo, the Philippine independence leader, and soon forced the Spanish to surrender.

*In June, 1898, American forces had landed in Cuba near Santiago under the command of General William Shafter, a 300-pound Civil War veteran so sick and fat he had to be carried around on a door. 

*His more prominent subordinate officers included Joseph Wheeler, a Congressman from Alabama who had been a general in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and now became a general in the US Army (at one point during the Spanish-American War, he reportedly yelled ‘Damn the Yankees—I mean the Spaniards!’), Theodore Roosevelt who resigned from the Navy Department to raise a regiment of volunteers made up of wild cowboys and rich Eastern friends of Roosevelt--they were known as the Rough Riders, and John J. Pershing, known as ‘Black Jack’ Pershing because he commanded part of the ‘Buffalo Soldiers,’ as African-American soldiers were then known.  Many of them had been encouraged to enlist by Booker T. Washington, who saw army service as one way for African-Americans to earn respect and their rights.

*The Rough Riders and the Buffalo Soldiers became famous for capturing San Juan Hill and Kettle Hill just outside Santiago, while the Navy forced the Spanish fleet in Santiago to surrender, and blockaded the island, preventing Spain from sending reinforcements.  Soon Cuba surrendered to the US.

*The United States also took over Puerto Rico and Guam. 

*America lost relatively few men in battle—Theodore Roosevelt called it a ‘splendid little war’—but lost many more men due to disease, heat stroke (partly caused by being issued heavy winter uniforms in the tropic summer), and other problems off the battlefield.

*Most fighting was over by August, 1898, and a peace treaty was signed in December that went into effect in April, 1899.

*After the War, the United States allowed Cuba its independence, but with a couple of conditions.  The US wrote Cuba’s constitution, including the ‘Platt Amendment,’ which allowed the US to intervene in Cuba any time Cuba had problems—as defined by the US.  Furthermore, the US could have a naval base at Guantanamo Bay as long as we wanted—and we still have it.

*American kept Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, which angered many Philippinos, who thought they had been fighting alongside America for independence (like the Cubans got).  The United States would keep the Philippines until 1946 and still own Puerto Rico and Guam.

*Some Americans were also opposed to keeping these new colonies, particularly William Jennings Bryan, who ran on an anti-imperialist platform in 1900, but was unable to defeat William McKinley and his running mate, war hero Theodore Roosevelt.  Most Americans were proud of the victory in the war, which established the United States as a major world power.




This page last updated 9 September, 2009.