A Splendid Little War

*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, and the United States wanted a share in the world-wide scramble for colonies. 


*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.


*José Martí began a war for independence in Cuba in 1895.  The Spanish general Valeriano Weyler, in command of 150,000 troops, brutally crushed the rebellion, rounding up dissenters and placing them in ‘reconcentration camps’ and earning the nickname ‘Butcher Weyler.’  About 200,000 Cubans died due to this policy, and a number of American-owned sugar plantations were destroyed.

*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.  According to legend, when Hearst sent Frederic Remington to
Cuba to cover the rebellion against Spanish rule, he found that there was not much going on. When Remington cabled the paper saying ‘There is no war. Request to be recalled,’ Hearst shot back ‘Please remain. You furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war.’


*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 the real cause was probably an electrical failure that 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.


*On 25 April, 1898, the United States declared war on Spain, and on 1 May, the US Pacific Fleet under Commodore George Dewey (a Civil War veteran who had sailed with Farragut) showed up in Manila Bay.  He was prepared to do so because the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, had told him to get ready for major operations before war had even been declared.


*Dewey gave the order, ‘fire when ready,’ and his fleet destroyed the entire Spanish fleet without the loss of a single American life (although one of his sailors did die of heat stroke).  His ships sailed in front of the Spanish ships repeatedly, crossing the T of the Spanish line, and only pulled back to redistribute ammunition before returning to the battle.

*Dewey brought exiled Philippine independence leader Emilio Aguinaldo back from Hong Kong, and he led Filipino guerrillas alongside the US Army to take control of most of the Philippines within a few months. 


*On 13 August, US General Wesley Merritt and the Spanish general in Manila agreed to stage a bloodless battle so that the Spanish could surrender with honour.  Aguinaldo and the other Filipinos were left out of the bargain, and not allowed to march into Manila.


*The United States also took Guam from Spain, planning to use it as a coaling station.  The small Spanish garrison there had not even known there was a war on until the US Navy arrived, and surrendered without a fight.


*The most conspicuous fighting of the war would be in the Caribbean, as America invaded the Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico and Cuba. 


*This was harder than it seemed, as the US Army was still fairly small (28,183 men), and to reach its planned war-time size of 250,000 men, it had to be augmented with volunteers, many of them organised as militia from the various states—including some Southern states, who had spent the past three decades resenting the US government and US Army.  One US Major-General in the war was Joseph Wheeler, a congressman from Alabama and a former Major-General of the Confederate Army.  When Wheeler met James Longstreet in 1902, Longstreet said "Joe, I hope that Almighty God takes me before he does you, for I want to be within the gates of hell to hear Jubal Early cuss you in the blue uniform."


*The most famous volunteers, however, were the Rough Riders, a cavalry regiment recruited by Theodore Roosevelt from the cowboys he had met as a rancher out west and the polo players and Ivy League athletes he knew as a wealthy member of New York society back east.  Initially they were under the command of Leonard Wood.


*Furthermore, the army had problems with supplies.  Wool winter uniforms were sent to the troops in Cuba while lightweight summer uniforms were distributed to troops when they returned from Cuba to cold northern harbours.  Transporting horses to Cuba was almost a total failure--although the Rough Riders were supposed to be a cavalry unit, most of them had to fight on foot.  Canned beef provided to soldiers was of such poor quality that an investigation was ordered by the Commanding General of the US Army, Nelson Miles, after the war. 


*Eventually, the war forced many reforms on the army and on the militia system, most notably through the Militia Act of 1903, which organised the state militias into the National Guard.


*Although Havana is the capital of Cuba, its main naval base and a large part of its army were at Santiago, so that is where American forces concentrated.  The Army, under the overall command of General William Shafter, landed near Santiago between 22 and 24 June, 1898, while the Navy blockaded and eventually took control of the harbour after capturing the port at Guantanamo Bay to use for shelter during hurricane season.


*The Army had trouble with the tropical climate of Cuba and with fighting through the tropical forests of the island, where the Spanish soldiers had learnt to conceal themselves in the trees while fighting Cuban independence fighters.  The US Army did have help from the Cuban independence movement, partly because some Americans were part of it, most famously Fred Funston.


*On 1 July, the US Army fought the Battle of San Juan Hill (which, along with Kettle Hill, was part of San Juan Heights, the more proper name for the entire battlefield), just outside Santiago.  The Rough Riders captured Kettle Hill after fierce fighting alongside the 10th US Cavalry, made up of Buffalo Soldiers who actually planted the first US Flag atop San Juan Hill (one of their white officers was John Pershing, called ’Black Jack’ due to his command of the Buffalo Soldiers, who later commanded the American Expeditionary Force in World War I).


*Although there were a few other battles before and after the Battle of San Juan Hill, it was the key to surrounding and besieging Santiago, which surrendered on 17 July, 1898.


*The US Army also invaded Puerto Rico, where they faced stiff resistance from the Spanish, who would fight small battles and then retreat before they could be captured.  However, many Puerto Ricans supported the US, who they believed were helping them win their independence.


*Fighting between the US and Spain officially ended on 12 August, 1898 (and actually ended shortly after that).  A peace treaty officially went into effect on 11 April, 1899, and it made the United States into an empire.


*The US gained Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines (where the US Army fought a long, hard war against the Filipinos who thought they had been fighting for their independence from Spain).  Cuba was made an independent country, but the US retained the right to intervene in Cuba whenever necessary (as defined by the United States).  The United States also retained a perpetual lease on Guantanamo Bay.


*John Hay called the Spanish-American War a ‘splendid little war,’ and in many ways it was.  The United States lost fewer than four hundred soldiers killed in battle (although more than 5,000 died of disease).


*In the United States, the war reinforced Americans’ opinions favouring a strong Navy, which continued to expand in the early 1900s.  It forced improvements in Army organisation and Federal regulation of the National Guard.  It helped reunite Northerners and Southerners.  It also made Theodore Roosevelt a national hero, and his fame as leader of the Rough Riders helped him become Governor of New York, Vice-President, a powerful reforming President, and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.


*Some Americans were also opposed to keeping these new colonies.  Mark Twain helped found the Anti-Imperialist League in 1898 and served as its vice-president from 1901 to 1910.  Andrew Carnegie, Samuel Gompers, Grover Cleveland, Jane Addams, and William Jennings Bryan.


*William Jennings Bryan 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 their victory in the war, which established the United States as a major world power.


*Although America planned to keep most of the territory taken from Spain, it was not an easy thing to do.  For one thing, the most valuable of all the territories, Cuba, was off-limits.


*When America declared war on Spain, anti-imperialists in Congress passed a resolution adding the Teller Amendment to the declaration of war, saying that Cuba would not be annexed if conquered.  However, when Congress passed an Act removing the last US troops from Cuba in 1902, the Platt Amendment to that act gave America the right to intervene in Cuban foreign and domestic affairs whenever necessary--necessity being defined by the United States.  The main points were protection of American property in Cuba and preferential trade agreements between the two countries.  The US Marines would also be sent to Cuba several times.


*The Foraker Act of 1900 created a government for Puerto Rico.  The US would appoint the governor (and did so until 1948) and some of the legislature, while the rest of the legislators would be chosen by the Puerto Ricans.  In 1917, the Jones-Shafroth Act declared them to be citizens and gave them more control over their legislature, but not equal rights with other Americans.  They could be taxed and drafted, but could not vote in US elections, have their own members of Congress, or enjoy some other rights.


*This inequality was because of a series of Supreme Court decisions in the Insular Cases (mainly between 1901 and 1905).  These cases declared that the Constitution did not follow the flag--people in America’s overseas territories were not guaranteed the same rights as Americans living in the states.


*This was particularly true in the Philippines, which were much easier to conquer than to occupy.


*During the Spanish-American War, the US had fought alongside Filipinos who sought independence from Spain led by Emilio Aguinaldo.


*When the Spanish surrendered, Aguinaldo helped create the Philippine Republic and served as its first president.  However, despite what he thought, the United States intended to keep the Philippines as a US possession to have a trading and military base near Asia and the US did not recognise the Philippine Declaration of Independence. 


*Some fighting between Filipino and American forces took place in 1898, and in 1899 a large-scale uprising called the Philippine Insurrection began, led by Aguinaldo. 


*The Filipinos fought a guerrilla war, attacking out of the jungle and out of villages, often hitting the US Army behind their own lines.  The US fought a war of extermination in return, particularly under the US military governor Arthur MacArthur.  Both sides tortured prisoners and generally fought in the most brutal fashion they could. 


*Insurgents tortured American prisoners, some of whom were buried alive, or worse, up to their necks in anthills to be slowly devoured, or tied to trees next to anthills with their stomachs cut open and marmalade spread on their exposed bowels. Others were castrated, had the removed parts stuffed into their mouths, and were then left to suffocate or bleed to death. Supposedly some prisoners were deliberately infected with leprosy or other diseases before being released to spread the disease among their comrades. Spanish priests were horribly mutilated before their congregations, as were other people who refused to support the insurrection.


*American soldiers often shot surrendered in Filipinos or gave them the water cure, forcing water down their throats until their stomachs or bladders burst, while other Filipinos, both soldiers and civilians, were placed in concentration camps.  A few American officers were tried in courts martial for their actions, and many captured Filipino leaders were executed, but many perpetrators of war crimes went unpunished.


*Many people felt the role of the US in the Philippines should be to ‘civilise’ the local people—teach them English, end the role of the Catholic Church in government, convert the large Muslim minority to Christianity, and generally make the Philippines as much like America and Europe as possible.


*Emilio Aguinaldo was captured in 1901 and only allowed to go free after swearing allegiance to the US and asking his followers to stop fighting.  Most did so by 1902, although in more remote areas violence lasted at least until 1913.


*Over 5,000 Americans died in the Philippine Insurrection and more (perhaps many more) than 200,000 Filipinos were killed.


*One reason violence did decrease is that Arthur MacArthur was replaced by a new governor of the Philippines, William Howard Taft, who treated the Filipinos with much greater respect and allowed some self-government (although he also was strict in some areas, limiting the freedom of the press and imprisoning people who protested against American rule).


*In 1916 the Jones Act of 1916 promised that the Philippines could eventually have their independence, which was granted in 1946 after the end of World War II, although the US continued to keep military bases in the Philippines for years afterwards.  Emilio Aguinaldo did live to see this and was given a position in the Council of State in which he served a full term before retiring.


*Despite these difficulties, by the dawn of the Twentieth Century, America was an imperial power to match any ancient power of Europe.

This page last updated 18 October, 2018.
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