LATE 19th CENTURY IMPERIALISM AND THE SPLENDID LITTLE WAR
*The late 19th Century was a time of imperialist expansion in Europe. The reasons were much the same as those in the 16th Century: God, Gold, and Glory, at least more or less. Missionaries, both for God and for humanistic humanitarian goals, brought civilisation with its benefits of the Christian religion, hospitals, schools, railroads, industry, and modern law. The western nations also made a fortune in extractive industries, taking gold, rubber, petroleum, and even tea from the colonies, along with other things (and incidentally developing the economies of all those areas, albeit in an unbalanced way). Finally, almost no major wars had occurred between western nations since the fall of Napoleon and the War of 1812—the nations of Europe were too powerful to fight each other safely, so they competed for land and for glory overseas.
*America wanted part of this. Missionaries went to Hawaii, as did pineapple planters, who would eventually rebel under the leadership of Stanford Dole in 1893 and be annexed by the United States in 1898. The United Fruit Company, now known as the Chiquita Banana company, loaned money and built railroads and other services in many Latin American countries, and soon used this influence to control the governments of Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Honduras, which came to be called ‘banana republics.’
*In this period, people came to worry about Europe’s power, and to feel that America ought to be able to compete, or at least defend herself. Perhaps the most important of these was a young naval officer, Captain (later Admiral) Alfred Thayer Mahan, who wrote The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. This said that history showed that America’s economic future and military security depended on a big navy to develop and protect foreign interests—for GOLD and GLORY. In response, the US Navy built numerous new, big, modern battleships, to replace the rusting ironclads of the Civil War.
*With the GODLY reforming spirit of the late 19th Century, many Americans wanted to bring the benefits of American society and government to the rest of the world, especially when it was economically beneficial to do so.
*In Cuba and the Philippines, impoverished peasants rebelled against Spanish authority. In Cuba this was especially troublesome, and the Spanish general Valeriano Weyler, in command of 150,000 troops, brutally crushed the rebellion, rounding up dissenters and placing them in ‘reconcentration camps.’ About 200,000 Cubans died in the course of this policy, and a number of American-owned sugar plantations were destroyed.
*American journalists, hoping to sell papers, publicised and exagerated the attrocities of the ‘Butcher’ Weyler. This practise, which was very successful, was known as ‘yellow journalism.’
*In 1898, the USS Maine was sent to Havana harbour to protect Americans and their property. On 15 February, there was an explosion, and the Maine sank, killing 250 Americans. The explosion was blamed on a mine blast, and Spain was accused of attacking America. It has since been suggested fairly convincingly that it was actually an electrical failure on the ship, but at the time it was seen as an attack on the United States.
*At the time, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy was a young, aggressive expansionist named Theodore Roosevelt. The regular Secretary, and quiet older man, had left the office early one day, and Roosevelt sent the Pacific Fleet to patrol the Philippines.
*McKinley demanded Spain give Cuba independence. When Spain refused, America declared war, shouting ‘Remember the Maine!’ This was the start of the Spanish-American War.
*On 1 May, 1898, Commodore (later Admiral) George Dewey destroyed the entire Spanish Pacific Fleet, and, co-operating with Filipino rebels soon captured all of the Philippines.
*Roosevelt quit his job in the Navy Department and raised a regiment of volunteer cavalry made up of Ivy League polo players and western cowboys. They called themselves the Rough Riders.
*Cuba was blockaded and soon invaded. The overall US commander was General Shafter, a man so fat he had to be carried around on a door. One of his subordinate generals was General Joseph Wheeler, a former Confederate cavalry commander, famous for more than once charging the enemy yelling ‘D-mn the Yankees... I mean the Spaniards!’ There were several minor battles, the most famous and important being that of San Juan Hill, which allowed the US Army to fire down into Santiago, one of Cuba’s major ports. The heroes of the hour were Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders.
*It was a splendid little war, over by 1900. With relatively few casualties, it brought American together for the first time—Southerners cheered for the US Army and waved US flags as it rode the rails south towards Tampa. It gave Europe more respect for America. It also gave America Puerto Rico and the Philippines (where the rebels who had helped us against the Spaniards now fought the US). The US wrote a new constitution for Cuba, which was mostly good and based on the US Constitution, but it included the Platt Amendment, which gave the US the power to build naval bases in Cuba, to run Cuba’s foreign policy, and the intervene in the island’s business whenever necessary.
*Based on his popularity won at San
Juan Hill, Roosevelt would eventually become Vice-president and the President.
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This page last updated 27 October, 2003.