Interpretations of the Spanish-American War

William McKinley 1896
Fidel Castro 1959
We'll Stand By the Flag
medals of Augustus L. Reed, African American naval officer, served aboard the U.S.S. Terror in Admiral William Sampson's command
Strowger wall phone 1899
magic lantern ad 1900
John L. Sullivan
Sousa team 1904
monument after 1961
"Rough Rider Charge" in Puck July 27, 1898
Fred Funston cigar label
U.S. soldier in Iraq
Frank McCoy of The Family
Joseph Grew of The Family
H. Stimson, War Secy 1913
Clinton in Miami 1994
Gerald F. Linderman in The Mirror of War, (1974), wrote that the "Splendid Little War" served as a watershed in American history. To understand the war, according to Linderman, the public must focus on the social consensus in the 1890s that made the war possible. It was McKinley's predicament that the nation, abetted by the popular press, clamored for war, whereas the president, if left alone, would have avoided a clash at all costs. McKinley had sought to heal the nation's wounds still evident from the American Civil War, but "the last of the Civil War's soldiers to sit in the White House could preserve that work only at the price of another war." John Offner in An Unwanted War: The Diplomacy of the United States and Spain Over Cuba, 1895-1898, (1992) showed that the United States, Spain, and Cuba did not want war. Washington's and Madrid's courses of action were limited by domestic considerations. Few of those involved fully understood the consequences of those policies. As a result, a war ensued that no one wanted but one that was the only conceivable remedy to the diplomatic impasse in April 1898. Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, (1987) argued that the U.S. was propelled by a momentum of forces that started with its industrial revolution and grew stronger with expansion and foreign trade. By 1900, the U.S. had 30% of the world's industrial production making it the number one industrial power, with a growth rate of 5% per year. Emily Rosenberg in Spreading the American Dream, (1982) described the creation of a "promotional state" in which the federal government asisted "functionals" such as missionaries, big navalists, steamship entrepreneurs, industrial capitalists, bankers and upper class "cosmopolitans" to promote imperialism.

Hugh Thomas in Cuba: or, the Pursuit of Freedom, (1971), a classic account of Cuba's quest for national liberation, puts the long Cuban revolutionary tradition in historical context from the birth of the independence movement to the rise of Fidel Castro. Two modern revolutionaries emerged from that milieu, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, who was Castro's ideologue and the embodiment of Latin American revolution. Robert Quirk's Fidel Castro, (1993) remains the best single-volume examination of Castro to date, and Jon Anderson's Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, (1997) offers readers rare glimpses into the modern Cuban revolution.

The popular zeal for the Spanish-American War offered the opportunity to rally around the flag both literally and symbolically. According to historian John Bodnar in Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, (1992) , "As American society simultaneously became more integrated economically and more diverse culturally, an attempt was made to fashion patriotic symbols that would appeal to the broadest possible segment of the nation." Certainly the vivid illustrations and headlines of the new mass media provided something of this sort. So did a revived "cult of the flag" that emerged in the late nineteenth century and raised veneration for the Stars and Stripes as a national emblem to a new level. The march music of John Philip Sousa matched the rise of patriotism and nationalism. The song "Hot Time In the Old Town" became the anthem of Roosevelt's Rough Riders and one of the most popular songs of the war era.

National identity also infiltrated everyday life in less overt but more pervasive ways through the objects of daily existence, including clothing. Consumers for the most part accepted the mix of consumption and patriotism, buying red, white, and blue ribbons, neckwear, fans, hatbands, parasols, vest chains, walking canes--even garters and petticoats. They purchased suspenders with portraits of Admiral Dewey or images of the battleship Maine woven into the design; they wore belt buckles ornamented with eagles, swords, and flags. They bought veils with "all styles of red, white and blue chenille dots and borders"; tri-color shirtwaists and straw hats; handkerchiefs in red, white, and blue; and handkerchiefs with Dewey's portrait or depictions of the American and Cuban flags. They wore badges and emblems shaped like military decorations; they favored faux military buttons on belts, cufflinks, studs, and hat pins; they used lace pins topped with tiny knapsacks and flags--in short, war motifs appeared on nearly every type of personal clothing or object. Fashion cut and detail were also affected, as garments began to appear trimmed a la militaire. An advertisement in the Ladies' Home Journal declared that military-style capes were "a necessary article in the wardrobe of patriotic American women," and fashion columnists recommended adding a military collar decorated with fiat gold braid and brass stars to bring the previous year's outerwear and dresses up to date. Cavalry caps were popular as casual headwear for both women and children. Bunting, the worsted material used to make flags, gained favor as dress material. Popular colors included army gray, army blue, and army red, as well as navy blue, artillery red, cadet gray, battle gray, and later "Sampson blue" and "rough rider brown," after Admiral William Sampson and Theodore Roosevelt's famous volunteer regiment, respectively. The war was in general good for American business, helping sustain the post-depression recovery that had begun in 1897, and even the 3% telephone tax imposed to pay for the war did not stop the rapid growth of the Bell network.

Eric Hobsbawm in The Age of Empire 1875-1914, (1987) cites uncertainty and the rapid growth of urban centers in both Europe and the United States as fundamental to the expansionist impulse. As a consequence of the breakdown of the worldwide liberal order, politicians encouraged imperialism as a means to subsidize the reforms that the public in Britain, France, and Germany expected to resolve domestic social questions. Imperialism gave the elites a new legitimacy. For the United States, according to Hobsbawm, "American imperialism mobilized guns successfully against Spain in 1898 . . . and the gun-toting cowboy became the symbol of true Americanism, freedom, and native white tradition against the invading immigrants and the uncontrollable big city." Although some women participated in the military and African American soldiers fought under John J. Pershing, the long-term effect of the war was to keep women and blacks out of the military.

Thomas Schlereth in Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, (1991) offers a vivid picture of home life for Americans during that transitional period in American history. As cities and the middle class expanded, commercial institutions emerged to provide the services people wanted. Schlereth examines consumer patterns and the evolution of the department store as symbolic of the new America. Motion picture films and magic lanterns provided new commercial entertainment. As Americans in general sought improvements in their everyday existence, many men turned their attention to spectator sports, either as participants or observers. The strenous life was elevated to a national standard by Theodore Roosevelt. Boxing became a major preoccupation for American men, and John L. Sullivan was portrayed by the National Police Gazette as America's first national sports hero. Randy Roberts in Papa Jack: Jack Johnson and the Era of White Hopes, (1983) contrasts Sullivan's popularity with the challenge of Jack Johnson; because of the racial stereotypes of Victorian America, his skill as an athlete never was appreciated by the public. In time, baseball overtook boxing as the major spectator sport. Organized sports, such as American football and baseball, not only separated the privileged from the workers but also served as means for American men to demonstrate their manhood.

Peggy and Harold Samuels, in their book Remembering the Maine, (1995), have cast doubt on the standard interpretation of the Maine tragedy. As a result of their work, the Samuelses have refuted Admiral Hyman Rickover's conclusions, first published in 1974, that spontaneous combustion caused the disaster, not Spanish machinations. Their study places the blame for the sinking of the Maine on Spanish extremists, often called Weylerites, who sought to maintain Spanish dominion in Cuba, instead of giving further autonomy to the Cuban rebels. A computer analysis of the Maine explosion by National Geographic in Feb. 1998 concluded the cause could have been external or internal.

The Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 has received considerable attention. In the comparative study, Sitting in Darkness: Americans in the Philippines, (1984), David Bain examined the origins of the war and also highlighted the lives of Frederick Funston, a Klansan and soldier of fortune, and Emilio Aguinaldo, a Filipino freedom fighter and the first president of the Philippines. "Fighting Fred" Funston became a household word in the United States for his capture of Aguinaldo and took the brunt of Mark Twain's pointed barbs in opposition to American imperialism. In the book Response to Imperialism: The United States and the Philippine-American War, 1899-1902, (1979), Richard Welch analyzed the impact of the Anti-Imperialist League, particularly in light of the disturbing reports of American atrocities in the Philippines.

The Philippines presented American military and political figures with the problem of controlling insurgents, which they had not confronted since the Indian wars. Yet in the same vein, Americans also subscribed to the mission, a form of American exceptionalism, that stressed that the United States should uplift the lives of "our little brown brothers." How could the two coincide? In Benevolent Assimilation: The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899-1903, (1982) , Stuart Miller argued that American field commanders were unsuited to negotiate a peaceful resolution of the outstanding issues that separated the leaders of the Philippine Republic and the United States. Miller's criticism is uncharitable when he claims, "Virtually every member of the high command had spent most of his career terrorizing Apaches, Comanches, Kiowas, and Sioux. Some had taken part in the massacre at Wounded Knee. It was easy for such commanders to order similar tactics in the Philippines." Other scholars disagree with Miller's assessment of American strategy to defeat the insurgents. In The U.S. Army and Counterinsurgency in the Philippine War, 1899-1902, (1989), author Brian Linn, while noting the harsh policies adopted and refusing to condone American misconduct, concluded that he found little to support the claims that the occupation of the Philippines "was an orgy of racism." Instead, Linn focused on American counterinsurgency policies in various regions of Luzon. By defeating the insurgents, the Army managed to work with Filipino elites to establish the necessary reforms to pacify the regions beyond Manila. In Schoolbooks and Krags: The United States Army in the Philippines, 1898-1902, (1973), John Gates chronicled the "policy of attraction," the blend of force and reform, that eventually pacified the Philippine archipelago. Yet, while the army pacified the Philippines, friction emerged between the military and civil authorities over the proper course to follow. In the biography of Arthur MacArthur, The General's General, (1994), Kenneth Young shows the relationship between the civilian governor, William Howard Taft, and the American generals, Arthur MacArthur, Elwell S. Otis, and Adna R. Chaffee, was strained because the military concluded that they were better qualified than civilians to monitor the situation, inasmuch as army commanders were closer to the issues at hand. Glenn Anthony May has studied a single province at war in Battle for Batangas, (1991) and found that the American policy of benevolence was more attractive to the Filipino elites, who were the backbone of the insurrection and had more to lose, than a continuation of the war in the name of the peasantry. Like Linn and Gates, May found that American actions in the Batangas province indicated that Americans were neither as innocent nor as guilty as many historians have assumed. From analyzing the various sources, teachers and students can discover the complexities of American aspirations in the Philippines and evaluate American imperialism in that light.

According to Andrew J. Bacevich in his 1982 article "Family Matters" and his book Diplomat in Khaki, about Frank McCoy, "Not least among the legacies of the Spanish-American War was the emergence of a new genus of American public servant. The new frontier established by the victories of 1898 stirred the popular imagination and, by bestowing upon the United States weighty imperial obligations, generated renewed interest in government as a worthwhile career. In one sense, the ensuing migration of able and ambitious young men to Washington merely symbolized the overall shift of the nation's attention from Wall Street, where it had rested throughout the Gilded Age, to the seat of an increasingly active and powerful federal government. Bored by the prospect of what William Phillips called a "pallid career" in business, the sons of upper-class America--many of whom had impetuously followed Roosevelt up San Juan Hill--now followed the Rough Rider to Washington.' This sudden interest in government, especially pronounced during Roosevelt's term of office, also reflected the impact of the challenging ideals and boundless exuberance of the President himself. Roosevelt, recalled Phillips, had "turned men's thoughts from the localities where they lived to the dignity of the nation and our national problems." He had fostered "a new conception of what the United States stood for and of the responsibility involved [in] citizenship." Many others could agree with Phillips, a career diplomat, that "it was T.R.'s call to youth which lured me to Washington. For many of Phillips's contemporaries, attracted in particular by the scope of America's burgeoning international commitments, this dedication to national service eventually carried them far beyond Washington to posts overseas. Just as domestic affairs in the Progressive era became increasingly the realm of the nonpartisan expert, so also diplomacy, long the preserve of political hacks and moribund bureaucrats, henceforth seemed to require the attention that only a corps of skilled professionals could provide. Thus, in the words of one official of the period, there developed under Roosevelt's tutelage a new generation of diplomatists, with their new American outlook on the world and their vision of a new American position and influence in it. They took charge of the new diplomacy wherein a man could hope to become one day a new kind of proconsul or procurator in some tropical province or tetrarchate. Men such as Phillips, Henry P. Fletcher, a former Rough Rider, and Joseph Grew, who first commended himself to Roosevelt by shooting a tiger in China, "become the elite or legendary 'inner circle' of the Department of State ... for the next twenty years."

As a consequence of the Splendid Little War, the pan-americanism pioneered by James G. Blaine declined. U.S. administrations believed that they had carte blanche to intervene in the Caribbean. Lester Langley in The Banana Wars: United States Intervention in the Caribbean 1898-1934, (1985) and Ivan Musicant in The Banana Wars: A History of United States Military Intervention in Latin America from the Spanish-American War to the Invasion of Panama, (1990) recount the record of American intervention as the United States sought to maintain the Monroe Doctrine. With the dawn of the Cold War, American intervention took on additional meaning, as national security became of paramount concern for American administrations. The era of the good neighbor policy was over, and the ugly specter of gunboat diplomacy had returned. The Reagan Doctrine during the 1980s justified intervention in Nicaragua and the Iran-Contra scandal. The PBS documentary Frontline in 1985 produced a 4-part series on the history of American interventions, starting with the first episode on "The Yankee Years." Only in the 1990s did NAFTA and Clinton begin a return to pan-americanism.

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