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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class


Learning Objective III

Discuss the development of international Social Darwinism and the background leading up to the Spanish American War AND Discuss the factors that influenced the US’ decision to enter the war.

American relations with foreign nations were few and far between in the generation after the Civil War. Americans during this period were busy with their internal affairs--repairing the devastations of the Civil War, settling the frontier, constructing their transportation and industrial systems and enjoying the game of politics.


The change in American attitude and the desire for a "LARGER FRONTIER" came in the l 890's with the passing of the continental frontier and the coming of age of the American industrial system.


In 1865 the foreign trade of the United States had been $404 million; by 1890 it had reached $1635 million or a 400 percent increase in 25 years. Consequently, the American people and businessmen looked for a new frontier with new markets and more resources. The emergence of the United States as a world power was not an unusual phenomenon. The closing years of the 19th century witnessed the development of "internal Social Darwinism" with an international struggle for new markets and for sources of raw materials.

Great Britain was once again fired up with enthusiasm for expansion. Germany, having proved herself the strongest continental power, demanded her share of the colonial pickings. (It is said that one of the causes of World War I was the attempt by the United States and European powers to stunt Germany's growth.) France found compensation for her defeat by Germany m consolidating her African empire. In the United States the question was how to channel the immense energy and the aggressive frontier values (the big six) that had built up after the Civil War? Would this aggressive competitive economic activity be turned inward to improve existing living conditions and the quality of life in this country, or would it be turned outward to compete in the NEW international FRONTIER for greater profit and economic satisfaction?

The rationalization for American expansion: In the l 890's the spirit of manifest destiny, long dormant in America, was once again activated. The phrase that had once served as a rationalization for the conquest of Texas and California was now to serve as a rationalization for a "larger policy" in the Caribbean , the Pacific, and the Far East. By the l 890's, advocates of such a policy asserted that now that the continent had been conquered, it was the destiny of the United States to become a world power


While the United States was acquiring her new territories, Britain, France, and Germany were busy carving up Africa; and Russia and Japan joined them in scrambling for special concessions in China.


By snapping up most of Africa and systematically destroying the independence of the crumbling empire of China, the French, British, Germans, and the other colonizers inspired some patriots in the United States to advocate joining the feast before all the choice lands had been swallowed.

The Washington Post stated on the eve of the Spanish American War:


"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 taking her place with the armed nations ."


From the days of John Adams, Cuba had been an object of particular interest of the United States and regarded as properly within the American sphere of influence . As long as Spain owned the island, most Americans were inclined to let matters rest, but the possibility of ultimate acquisition was never out of the minds of American statesmen.


When the Cuban revolution against Spain broke out in 1895, the United States carefully avoided any commitment to the cause of the rebels, but finally in 1898 entered the war on their side. There were four basic factors which influenced the United State's decision to enter the war. Manifest destiny: Americans of the 1890's had come to share with the British, Germans, and French a special sense of manifest destiny and a willingness to take up "the white man's burden."


The "white man's burden" is the idea that the United States has the responsibility to lead inferior races, and it would be inhumane to turn its back on people who are less civilized . Although the idea of the "white man's burden" is racist, it also demonstrates a genuine humanitarian concern the American people had for the Cubans. 


Yellow Journalism:

Newspaper editors found that circulation responded to stories of atrocity, and it became immensely profitable to exploit them . The New York World (Joseph Pulitzer) and the New York Journal (Randolph Hearst), then engaged in a struggle for circulation, were the worst offenders in the business, feeding the popular taste for sensation: but they were by no means alone. Hearst efforts paid off for him in newspaper sales from 77,000 copies a day to 1.5 million daily at the war's height.


For 3 years, from 1895 to 1898, this campaign of propaganda went on until at last the American people were brought to the point where they demanded intervention on behalf of humanity. 


During his presidency Cleveland remained neutral as he preferred Spanish rule to the kind of turmoil that might invite foreign intervention. Opposed to the annexation of Cuba, he issued a proclamation of neutrality and tried to restrain public opinion. Taking office in March 1897, McKinley also urged neutrality but tilted more toward the insurgents. But the sinking of the battleship Maine and the de Lome letter helped move McKinley into the anti-Madrid camp and the United States finally declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898.


Cubans Rebel Against Spain


By the end of the 19th century, Spain—once the most powerful colonial nation on earth—had lost most of its colonies. It retained only the Philippines and the island of Guam in the Pacific, a few outposts in Africa, and the Caribbean islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Americas.




The United States had long held an interest in Cuba, which lies only 90 miles south of Florida. In 1854, diplomats recommended to President Franklin Pierce that the United States buy Cuba from Spain. The Spanish responded by saying that they would rather see Cuba sunk in the ocean.


But American interest in Cuba continued. When the Cubans rebelled against Spain between 1868 and 1878, American sympathies went out to the Cuban people. The Cuban revolt against Spain was not successful, but in 1886 the Cuban people did force Spain to abolish slavery. After the emancipation of Cuba’s slaves, American capitalists began investing millions of dollars in large sugar cane plantations on the island.




Anti-Spanish sentiment in Cuba soon erupted into a second war for independence. José Martí, a Cuban poet and journalist in exile in New York, launched a revolution in 1895. Martí organized Cuban resistance against Spain, using an active guerrilla campaign and deliberately destroying property, especially American-owned sugar mills and plantations. Martí counted on provoking U.S. intervention to help the rebels achieve Cuba Libre!—a free Cuba. Public opinion in the United States was split. Many business people wanted the government to support Spain in order to protect their investments. Other Americans, however, were enthusiastic about the rebel cause. The cry “Cuba Libre!” was, after all, similar in sentiment to Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death!”


The economic stake: The Spanish American War is going to lead to a "larger policy" in the world economic environment. The idea was first popularly put forth by Admiral Alfred T. Mahan in his book The Influence of Sea Power upon History in 1890.


Mahan proposed an export and investment empire based on naval power. His tactics centered upon building a Panama Canal, acquiring protective bases around it, and then colonial stepping stones across the Pacific to Asia. This would ensure American trade and influence in Latin America and the Orient.


Among American businessmen this imperialist attitude was slow at developing at first. This is because the economy was finally coming out of the depression of 1893 and they feared any disturbance such as the Spanish-erican War might destroy the recovery.

However, once the war started the opportunities that Admiral Mahan outlined gained a great deal of support as politicians, businessmen, and scholars echoed the ideas and the United States was quickly set on an imperial course.


Military interest:


The United States had developed a new set of world interests which made it seem necessary for Americans to control the entire Caribbean area.

American interests in the Pacific and the Far East enhanced the importance of an isthmi,an canal, and the prospect of having to defend such a canal made the islands that guarded the route strategically important.


The War built a. mood of national confidence, altered more insular patterns of thought, and reshaped the way Americans saw themselves and the world. By the time Spain sued for peace in August, 1898, the outlines of an American empire existed:

a protectorate over Cuba, with claims to Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines . Hawaii and the port of Pearl Harbor now belonged to the United States. The question that remained was, Should the United States annex the Philippines?


To hold the Philippines meant fighting Filipino nationalists. Here was a problem that required re-thinking the whole history of American foreign relations. To take the islands meant embarking on colonialism. It meant holding and keeping whole territories and peoples in subordination to the United States.


McKinley weighed these factors carefully . He agreed that a naval station at Manila was highly desirable, but doubted it could be defended without holding all of the Philippines. If the United States moved out, on the other hand, European powers .such as Germany were ready to move in.


McKinley finally concluded to fulfill manifest destiny and take the Philippines. He decided it was America's duty to "Christianize" the islands. The president forwarded his demands to the peace conference in Paris and Spain ceded the islands to the United States for $20 million. Before peace negotiations began, four out of five American commissioners had already committed themselves to a "large policy" of imperialism and expansion.


To the American demand for the independence of Cuba and the cession of Puerto Rico and Guam the Spanish had no objections and even assumed the Cuban debt of $400 million.


The beginning of the twentieth century was a period of unprecedented American prosperity and power. The economic and social environment was perfect for the rise of the International Darwinism movement. Followers of this movement applied some of the fundamental views of Darwin’sOrigin of Species (1859) to international politics. They believed that the earth belonged to the strong, and with America quickly growing in strength, there was a strong surge of support for increased U.S. imperialism.


The International Darwinism movement was enthusiastically promoted by Josiah Strong’s book, Our Country: It’s Possible Future and Its Present Crisis (1885). The book asserted that natural law dictates that strong countries will dominate weaker countries and that the Anglo-Saxon race is superior to other races. Inspired by Strong’s book, many American imperialists began calling for the spread of American religion, culture, and values to what they considered “backwards” third-world countries.


Another concern for many American business people, politicians, and religious leaders was that the U.S. would not be able to keep pace with European powers. During the 1880s and 1890s, many European nations had flexed their imperial muscles throughout much of Africa, the Pacific, and China. Imperialists feared that the U.S. would be frozen out of these regions and would not be able to spread its influence or reap the financial benefits. Many people began to strongly encourage the federal government to spread American influence, and the government was more than happy to comply.


In 1895, Cuban citizens revolted against their Spanish occupiers because of widespread poverty and oppression and what they perceived as Spanish tyranny. Some of the poverty was due to high U.S. duties that were placed on Cuban sugar. In a reactionary move to the revolt, Spanish General “Butcher” Weyler herded thousands of Cuban civilians into “reconcentration” camps. These camps were filthy and many of the residents died of diseases that flourished in these overcrowded and unsanitary camps. The sentiment of the American people was strongly against Spanish barbarism and there was a call of support for the Cuban people.

Newspaper tycoons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer played a major role in shaping the attitudes and opinions of Americans during this era. These two men owned many major newspapers across the country, and they were engaged in a fierce rivalry. In an attempt to outdo one another, they routinely created sensational headlines designed to “scoop” the competition. Unfortunately, these “yellow journalism” headlines were often enhanced or sometimes entirely made up in order to maximize their sensationalism. On February 9, 1898, Hearst greatly stoked the fire of anti-Spanish sentiment when he published a private letter written by Spanish diplomat Dupuy de Lome that was very critical of President McKinley. De Lome was forced to resign, but the public was angered and outraged by the sensational stories and began to call for armed intervention in Cuba.


President McKinley ordered the battleship USS Maine stationed in Havana Harbor ostensibly to monitor the situation and keep the peace. Then, on February 15, 1898, the Maine suddenly exploded in the harbor killing all 260 officers and crewmembers aboard. Immediately, both Spanish and American officials began investigating the cause of the explosion. The Spanish investigation concluded that the explosion was the result of an internal malfunction, and they ruled it an accident. However, after a hurried investigation, the American investigators reported that a Spanish mine caused the explosion. Spain attempted to pacify the U.S. and avoid armed confrontation with an offer of arbitration. However, fueled by the ever-present “yellow press,” the U.S. was enraged and ready to go to war, with the American public proclaiming, “Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain.” Years later in 1976, a thorough investigation was conducted and it showed that the Spanish theory was correct and the explosion was accidental.

On April 11, 1898, Congress declared war on Spain. They also ratified the Teller Amendment, which pledged to give Cubans their freedom after the Spanish were defeated. Many Europeans and Americans were skeptical of this anti-imperialistic pledge. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, acting in the absence of the Secretary, ordered Commodore George Dewey to attack the Spanish-controlled Philippines at Manila Harbor. The U.S. also annexed Hawaii to use as a naval base in the Pacific on July 7, 1898. Although American confidence was very high, on paper the Spanish possessed a superior army and a navy of equal status. However, their navy was run-down and far from its home base.

The U.S. Navy easily destroyed the aging Spanish fleet in Manila. In the battle, over 400 Spanish sailors were killed or wounded, while the U.S. suffered no casualties. Having crushed the Spanish Navy, Dewey had no choice but to wait for ground support as his sailors were incapable of ground combat. Finally, soldiers arrived to lead the attack on the capital. The soldiers recruited rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo, and on August 13, 1898, soldiers collaborating with Filipino rebels quickly captured Manila.


The U.S. Navy had similar success in Cuba. They engaged the Spanish Navy and easily defeated it. The U.S. suffered only one casualty compared to over 500 Spanish casualties. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army, including Roosevelt’s famed “Rough Riders”, routed the Spanish but suffered significant fatalities. There were many other battles and skirmishes, but the U.S. Army’s most significant enemy was their lack of logistical preparedness, not the Spanish. For example, they were wearing wool uniforms in the intense heat, and were very susceptible to tropical illnesses. In addition, the lack of medical knowledge concerning the causes and treatments of tropical diseases such as malaria cost many American lives. During the course of the war, 400 U.S. soldiers were killed by Spanish hostilities, while over 5,000 were killed by disease. Despite these American shortcomings, the Spanish military was greatly overmatched, and they surrendered on August 12, 1898.


Later in 1898, the Pact of Paris was signed, which freed Cuba from Spanish rule and gave the U.S. control over Guam and Puerto Rico. Cuban freedom was conditional, as they were pressured to sign the Platt Amendment, which prohibited Cuba from contracting debts and allowed the U.S. to intervene militarily at its discretion. The U.S. agreed to pay $20 million for the Philippines, since it was captured the day after the armistice was signed and therefore was not considered a spoil of war. The U.S. acquisition of the Philippines, the first American venture into true imperialism, sparked a great deal of domestic debate.