Skip to main content


America Goes to War

By Meredith Hindley | HUMANITIES, May/June 1998 | Volume 19, Number 3

This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the Spanish-American War, which capped off a decade of soul-searching about America's role in the world. By the end of it, the United States had acquired the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam from a defeated Spain; it had also annexed Hawai'i, Samoa, and Wake Island in what would lead to a growing global presence.

Over the years, the war itself has acquired a new and more complicated designation from historians: the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino War. The change acknowledges that the war was not just a face-off between an upstart republic and a fading Old World power, but involve revolutionary tides in Cuba and the Philippines.

Economic forces were at work as well. In Hawai'i, American plantation owners helped overthrow Queen Liliuokalani’s government and then appealed to Congress to annex the islands. The Spanish-American war sealed Hawai'i’s fate, when it gained new attention as an important strategic and commercial gateway to the Philippines and Asia. In July 1898, President William McKinley successfully pushed an annexation bill through Congress.

In Cuba, a Spanish possession, a new U.S. tariff on Cuban sugar plunged the island into depression, jeopardizing a $50 million investment by U.S. businesses.

A cry of Cuba Libre went up across the island as Jose Martí parlayed the peasants’ growing dissatisfaction into a revolutionary movement. Guerrillas burned cane and leveled mills; Spanish officials herded 300,000 Cuban peasants into concentration camps. News of the inhumane conditions, reported in lurid detail in the U.S. press, built sympathy among the American public.

Then, in early 1898, pro-Spanish loyalists and army personnel rioted in Havana, prompting the U.S. to order the battleship Maine to Havana harbor to protect American citizens. On February 15, an explosion under the enlisted men’s quarters rocked the Maine, killing 266 of 354 American officers and crew. The sinking, believed to be caused by a mine, outraged the American public.

With reconciliation between Spain and Cuba increasingly remote, President McKinley asked Congress to authorize the use of force. The United States was going to war. Some in the United States saw it as a chance for America to become a great power; others seized on the possibility that the war would create new markets for goods. And some -- young men like Teddy Roosevelt, too young to remember the Civil War -- saw an opportunity for adventure.

More than 288,000 Americans served; 5,400 died only 379 of the deaths combat-related; the rest succumbed to malaria and yellow fever.

Surprisingly enough, the first news of the war came not from Cuba, but from the other side of the globe. On May 1, 1898, American Commodore George Dewey steamed into Manila Bay and sank the out-gunned and out-tonned Spanish fleet.

With American forces in both Cuba and the Philippines, Spanish resistance quickly collapsed. At the end of July, American forces invaded Puerto Rico. Recognizing that the war was a lost cause, Spain sued for peace.

In Paris in December 1898, American and Spanish negotiators agreed on the terms: independence for Cuba and cession of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam to the U.S. in return for a $20 million payment to Madrid. The spoils from Spain, along with the annexations of Hawai'i and Wake Island in 1898, and Samoa in 1899, had created a new American “empire.”

Not everybody was happy about it. An unlikely alliance of Mark Twain, William Jennings Bryan, Jane Addams, and Andrew Carnegie fiercely argued against both U.S. intervention in Cuba and annexation of the Philippines, Philosopher Williams James warned that by becoming an imperial power, America would relinquish its special place among nations.

McKinley refused to apologize: “It is no longer a question of expansion with the U.S. If there is any question at all it is a question of contraction; and who is going to contract?”