Might Have Known The Cat Had Claws: The Spanish-American War (Part 3)

[This is part 3 of a series on the Spanish-American War. Read Part I and Part II.]

By late April 1898, the United States and Spain had declared war against each other, but that did not mean an immediate start of hostilities—at least not in the Caribbean. These were not the days of “shock and awe,” when the moment a deadline had passed, bombers were already airborne and closing in on their target. For the Americans to launch a full-scale assault on the Spanish in Cuba took time. It took planning. Lots and lots of planning. In fact, it took two months to load men, horses, and supplies—including some rather noxious tinned beef—off the docks in Tampa, Florida.

A black and white photo taken in 1898 of soldiers loading a ship at Port Tampa during the Spanish American War.
A black and white photo taken in 1898 of soldiers loading a ship at Port Tampa during the Spanish American War.

At home Americans grew nervous: Spain was not the power it had once been, but neither was the US military going to set them quaking in their boots. American military spending in the 1890s was roughly a quarter of what it is today, as a percentage of our national output. How would the Yanks fare?

Then came the good news that Commodore Dewey had sunk the entire (rusty) Spanish fleet in Manila—in half a day! The Spanish surrendered shortly after noon. (See featured image.) This lopsided victory boosted morale across the United States and made long recruiting lines longer. Dewey became a new national hero: “Dewey” emerged as the 19th most popular baby name for boys in 1898; the Commodore’s image graced calendars and other memorabilia; and the man himself was promoted to admiral and awarded a custom-made $10,000 Tiffany sword cast in 22-karat gold. Sweet.

“The hero of the new era” by Udo J. Keppler in 4 October 1899 issue of Puck. Note the gold sword.

Despite all of this hoopla, the young volunteers still did not expect to end up in the Philippines like their hero—let alone to be sent to China to fight in the 1900 Boxer War—but that was exactly where many headed. Once the Americans decided to keep the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam for itself—and paid Spain $20 million for the lot—that’s when the soldiers were needed. And boy would they be needed. See, there had been an ongoing Philippine revolution again the Spanish, just like in Cuba, and the Filipinos did not want to trade one imperial overlord for another. So they fought back. (I’m simplifying greatly, but the Filipino side of the story will have to be told in a later post. It’s a great story, too.)

So, what we have here was a classic case of mission creep. Americans believed they were fighting on the side of democracy, but where does that obligation stop? They did not want to kick the Spanish out of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam only to let someone else waltz right in. (In terms of the Philippines, it is not out of the question that Japan or Germany might have seen an opportunity there.)

Worse yet, in American minds, should they give over the land to its inhabitants only to see the locals “make a mess of it”? (Not my words.) Was not America the best country on earth, asked Roosevelt? Should we not “civilize” the Filipinos, asked Beveridge? Did we not have a duty to “benevolently assimilate” the islands and give them “the blessings of good and stable government,” asked President McKinley?

A 1900 Republican campaign poster for the US presidential election, with portraits of President William McKinley and Vice Presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt at center. On the left side “Gone Democratic” shows the US in economic slump and Cuba shackled by Spain; on the right side “Gone Republican” shows the US prosperous and Cuba being educated under US tutelage.

Psst…that’s sorta against everything we fought our own revolution for, others said. Psst…that’s gonna be expensive, Andrew Carnegie said. Psst…what you’re talking about is killing innocent people to “win” your imperialist game, Mark Twain said. Where will your “civilized values” be then, Twain added? Actually, it was not a debate in hushed tones; it was a loud, raucous, fiery debate in the press, in Congress, and on Main Street. It was the election of 1900.

1900 Democratic campaign buttons, as photographed for the Political Memorabilia website.

This was the moment when America tipped into the twentieth century, suddenly anxious to prove itself as one of the big kids on the block. What would follow was painful for all involved. The Philippine-American War was less glorious and more ambiguous than advertised. It would cost over 4000 American lives—which, as a proportion of the population, is more than the official death toll of the 2003-2011 Iraq War. The cost was far higher for the Filipinos—about 25,000 military deaths and an estimated 750,000 civilian deaths from war, starvation, and disease. Though the Philippines was officially pacified in 1902, there would be American operations through 1913, especially in the southern islands. (There were some particularly nasty campaigns, too, and these will be the subject of later posts. One is the backdrop for Sugar Moon: the Balangiga incident.)

New Sea Power

Even after these wars were over, America did not call Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam straight-up colonies. No, sir. We don’t like that word. It’s awkward, given our history. So we called them our “insular” (island) possessions. And then the question arose: does the Constitution follow the flag? Should our new insular mentees receive the full legal protections of the US Constitution? The answer might surprise you. It was, “Not exactly.”

The Insular Cases (e.g. Downes v. Bidwell, 1901) in front of the Supreme Court decided that there was a difference between land that was destined for statehood (the American West) and land that wasn’t (the insular possessions). The “incorporated” land on the American continent would eventually graduate to statehood, and its people would be granted citizenship in the meantime. You might be surprised that Hawaii and Alaska were seen as “incorporated,” but remember that there were a lot of white settlers there. No one said it at the time, but the real litmus test of incorporation was race.

“Unincorporated” land would not get citizenship, free trade, or statehood. The people would still have natural liberties—religion, speech, equal protection, and property—just not political liberties. Secretary of War Elihu Root put it succinctly: “The Constitution follows the flag, but never quite catches up.”

San Juan, Puerto Rico, photographed in 1904.

The people of Puerto Rico were granted US citizenship in 1917, but because they were not stripped of Puerto Rican citizenship, their current status has a bit of an asterisk next to it. Full Constitutional protections do not kick in until a Puerto Rican moves to one of the fifty states or the District of Columbia. Puerto Rican residents also do not have the right to vote in US congressional and presidential elections. Guam was given similar citizenship rights as of 1950, but their government is actually less autonomous. The people of the Philippines were never granted US citizenship, though they are the only ones to have eventually received independence, in 1946.

One final issue that came out of this “insular” designation was economic. One possible benefit of being a part of the United States would be unencumbered trade with Americans. That, after all, had been the original point. But American producers wanted to sell their stuff to the islanders, not compete with cheap island costs of production. So they kept tariff walls up—something that would not have been possible if Philippine and Puerto Rican soil had been truly American, but was possible as “insular possessions.”

J. S. Pughe cartoon from 4 February 1903 Puck illustration that shows the varied trade agreements discussed for the different insular possessions. President Roosevelt is saying to Uncle Sam: “You’ve been fair to the other two. Now, keep the faith with this one.”

Eventually, free trade would be extended to the Philippines in 1913, only to be gradually stripped away in preparations for independence. Puerto Rico has free trade with the United States, but honestly everything else about its economic status is confusing as hell because of the legal limbo in which some US laws apply, others don’t, and Congress specifically guts PR in others. It is like playing Monopoly with your six-year old and letting him be the banker. Suddenly, Boardwalk is not allowed to charge rent anymore, just “because.” Actually, to call Congress as whimsical and arbitrary as a six-year old is an injustice to six-year olds everywhere.

See how this has led to the Puerto Rican debt crisis in this cheeky Jon Oliver treatment, or in a more elevated (but still outstanding) discussion at On the Media. Maybe Puerto Rico deserves debt restructuring merely for dealing with the insane legislation imposed upon it by the United States? And because they are Americans? We bailed out General Motors, and they only employ 200,000 Americans. If Puerto Rico was a corporation, it would employ over a million Americans.

In the Philippines, things are moving more full circle. After kicking American military forces out of naval and air bases on Luzon in 1992, the Filipinos are now inviting the U.S. back—to bolster their defense against the Chinese presence in the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. And, somehow, this all started with Cuba and Spain. Crazy, huh?

The Ones Who Began It: The Spanish-American War of 1898 (Part 2)

[This is part 2 of a series on the Spanish-American War. Read Part I here.]

Cuba: a country so pretty, so well located, and so full of profitable sugar plantations—some owned by Americans—that a group of U.S. ambassadors in Europe considered offering Spain $120 million for it in 1854. Though these ambassadors met at the request of the American secretary of state, keep in mind that diplomatic posts back then were given to adventurers not necessarily known for their diplomacy or discretion, so the plan leaked—as they do. The northern states grew alarmed that this might be a back-door plot to expand slavery, so the whole thing was quickly scuttled. And when the Civil War broke out, people forgot Cuba for a while.

The Cubans had not wanted the Americans to take them over—but they didn’t want the Spanish to stay, either. They launched a revolution in 1868, seeking total independence, and they were happy enough to work with individual Americans toward that goal. The Cubans purchased an old Confederate blockade runner called the Virginius under an American frontman, and the ship began transporting guns and men to and from the island under a hastily-raised American flag. When the Virginius was captured by the angry Spanish in 1873, many of its officers were summarily executed, including several Americans and Brits. War drums began to beat. Yankees talked of action against Spain, but it was so soon after the end of the Civil War that few intended to go through with their threats. The moment passed. Twenty-five years later, Spain would not be so lucky.

Children of reconcentrados on the left, along with a political cartoon of Weyler on the right.

The Cuban revolution paused and then flared up again in 1895. It was a pretty ugly war on both sides—guerrilla war always is. The Spanish general Weyler got blasted in the American press for his reconcentrados: “protected zones” that cut civilians off from the rebels they supported. Conditions in these towns-cum-concentration-camps were abysmal, and anyone outside of one could be shot on sight. Keep in mind, though, that American outrage over the reconcentrados would have been more laudatory if we had not repeated the tactic in the Philippines in 1901—a truth that was acknowledged in the contemporary press.

Sensationalist newspapermen roused the American public into a frenzy, and the Spanish inadvertently helped them. For example, a letter by the Spanish ambassador Enrique Dupuy de Lôme was intercepted and published by William Randolph Heart in his New York Journal. In the letter, de Lôme said:

McKinley is weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd besides being a would-be politician who tries to leave a door open behind himself while keeping on good terms with the jingoes [extreme patriots who advocate an aggressive foreign policy] of his party.

De Lôme was not wrong, but it still got him recalled to Madrid because Spain was desperately trying to avoid war with the US. In fact, in an attempt to pacify the revolutionaries, Spain offered Cuba and Puerto Rico enhanced local autonomy—an offer that the Puerto Ricans took up. San Juan received its own constitution, a bicameral legislature on the island, and continued representation in the Spanish Cortes. Puerto Rico was in the process of putting together its government when US gunships arrived. An often overlooked aspect of the Spanish-American War is the fact that in the name of democracy, the United States extinguished that very thing. We “saved” Puerto Rico from the Spanish, yet the Spanish were actually giving that island MORE representation in their legislature in 1898 than the United States Congress gives it NOW. Think on that a minute.

General view of the wrecked battleship Maine, Havana Harbor, Cuba. A stereograph from 1898.

If the Spanish were trying to avoid war, then why did it still break out? Of course, you know: “Remember the Maine!” That is probably the one thing the average American history student does remember about the war. The explosion of the USS Maine in Havana was actually due to a coal fire igniting a reserve magazine of six tons of gunpowder, much of which was already degrading due to the humid climate. The navy’s leading weapons expert, Philip Alger, actually said this at the time—and got called a traitor by Theodore Roosevelt. Yet, what Americans knew came from their papers, and the papers said:

Maine

“A secret infernal machine! Oh no! Let’s get those jerks!” went America. I’m paraphrasing.

To make a long story short, Congress added $50 million to America’s defense budget and—to satisfy the non-imperialists—passed an Amendment that we would not colonize Cuba. (Nothing was said about Puerto Rico, the Philippines, or Guam.) President McKinley asked Congress for a declaration of war, though Spain—with few options left—did us the favor of actually declaring first. Congress followed suit the next day. American boys lined up at recruiting stations all around the country, anxious to prove their manhood.

A Puck illustration by Udo J. Keppler (27 July 1898) and a Scribner’s essay.

Roosevelt resigned his post as Assistant Secretary of Navy and recruited his own calvary unit, made up of half Ivy League boys (seasonal hunters who knew how to ride horses and fire guns) and half cowboys (whom Roosevelt admired for the same manliness that romance readers still swoon over). The 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry was known as the Rough Riders. Fun fact: later on in the war, American soldiers with venereal disease in the Philippines were known as “rough riders.” Oh, those soldier boys. How droll.

Col. Roosevelt and the officers of the Rough Riders from a stereograph card distributed in 1899.

Roosevelt’s focus on male virility in what he called the “strenuous life” was something he practiced as well as preached. No “over-civilized” man himself, Roosevelt wanted to be in the thick of the action, and his unit fought enthusiastically in Cuba, shaming others into action with eager charges. In fact, Roosevelt won the Congressional Medal of Honor—not bad for a sickly, asthmatic, near-sighted child who had to be home-schooled until college.

He made no bones about it: peace was a weakness. He said:

I have even scanter patience with those who make a pretense of humanitarianism to hide and cover their timidity, and who cant about “liberty” and the “consent of the governed,” in order to excuse themselves for their unwillingness to play the part of men.…Their doctrines condemn your forefathers and mine for ever having settled in these United States.

The war that Roosevelt fought in Cuba was the one that most American volunteers signed up for. Nevertheless, many boys actually found themselves somewhere entirely different: the Philippines. The bait and switch was partly Roosevelt’s doing. It was Roosevelt who told Commodore Dewey, who was in the Pacific, to steam toward Manila and lob the first cannon shot of the entire war there. And then, while they were there, some were sent to China to put down the Boxer War in 1900. Maybe the term “mission creep” is familiar to you? Stay tuned for more.

Public domain photo of Havana, Cuba, in 2010 by Carol M. Highsmith.

Featured image (at the top of the post) is a 1919 postcard of cutting sugar cane in Cuba.

Now Someone Say How This Began: The Spanish-American War of 1898 (Part I)

The historical backdrop of my books is the Spanish-American War of 1898, when the United States acquired the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam for the low, low price of $20 million. What a bargain!

American readers, how long did you study this war in your high school history classes? Maybe for like a day? A half a day? The Spanish-American War has been getting more attention recently but not nearly as much as it deserves. Frankly, everything Americans know about their country’s role in the world stems from this tipping point. Whether you agree with it or not, American “exceptionalism”—the idea that America’s democratic history, transparent legal system, and free market economy make it especially suited to transform the world for good—was born here.

“Here’s to the girl I left behind.” (Photograph from the Library of Congress.) Doesn’t war look like fun?

Before 1898, America’s overseas interventions were relatively minor. Sure, we had lots of scuffles in our yard (Texas and Mexico), and the US intervened in Chile, Brazil, and Nicaragua in the 1890s. And, admittedly, we almost got in a tussle with Britain over Venezuela, but that was settled by appointed commissioners (none of whom were actually Venezuelans). But outside of Central and South America—what James Monroe had declared a US “sphere of influence”—the Yanks claimed only small bits of territory, including a portion of the Samoan islands.

Most Americans had little appetite for conquest, as a group of American planters and US Marines found out when they overthrew the legal monarchy of Hawaii in 1893. They wanted the US to annex the islands, but President Grover Cleveland, an anti-imperialist, refused. At that time, the mood of the public was: “What are you boneheads doing? Why do we want Hawaiian problems when we have problems galore here on Main Street?” I’m paraphrasing.

So Hawaii went into limbo. More on them later. And then a depression hit in 1893—a big one. In fact, it was the worst American economic crisis to date (in a time of peace), and remains one of the worst in American history. And that was when everything changed.

An 1896 melodrama based upon the Panic of 1893.

The cause of the panic was, ironically, progress. Railroads turned a patchwork of small agricultural markets into a single large one. That plus mechanization and improved farming techniques drove down prices and put small farmers out of business—or in terrible debt, which led to a debate over abandoning the gold standard. Though manufacturing blossomed in the cities, conditions were appalling. Professional strikebreakers, including private security firms like the Pinkertons, were still a thing, and labor disputes were violent on all sides. In the end, wages stayed low, which meant there were not enough customers to buy all the stuff the country produced.

May 5, 1893: panic on the stock exchange as captured in Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.
May 5, 1893: panic on the stock exchange as captured in Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

You get the picture. What was the answer? People began to think: “If we can’t sell our goods here, let’s hawk them abroad, like the Europeans do! We should be able to sell to China, too. Commodore Perry already opened Japan for everybody. Oh, and by the way, you’re welcome!” I’m paraphrasing again.

Anti-labor propaganda that uses the memory of the 1893 depression to encourage a free trade agenda.

Americans began to get hungry for empire—but should that empire be an economic or a territorial one? Some said we needed the land, men such as Frederick Jackson Turner, who bemoaned the closing of the American frontier in 1890. He said the expansion across the West was where Americans had grown strong and manly. Sure, a lot of pioneers died in the process, but the virtually unlimited forests and plains available for the taking had ensured that America would never become a feudal society dominated by a small class of land-owning nobles. And now that we had settled everything from New York to San Francisco, where would we go? Space? No, not yet.

(And, no, Turner was not concerned about the Indians or the Mexicans—their lives, their rights, their culture, or their children. America was so racist at this time that the word “racism” did not exist yet; systemic discrimination based upon race or ethnicity was normal. See my related discussion here. The military that brought you the Indian Wars would eventually bring you the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. The very same officers, in fact.)

Alfred Thayer Mahan, photographed in 1904. “The Story of the Spanish Armada” was a promotional book and poster published in 1898 to celebrate America’s victory.

On the other hand, one influential group of strategists said that what we needed was reach, not largesse. We needed ports—lots and lots of them around both oceans. Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, a professor at the Naval War College, thought it imperative that America protect its sea lanes with a strong navy, which would be “the arm of offensive power.” To do that, America needed coaling stations all around the Caribbean and Pacific, à la the Portuguese maritime empire. Mahan particularly insisted that “no foreign state should henceforth acquire a coaling position within three thousand miles of San Francisco.” (By the way, coal would still be king for another twenty years or so. The oil era will not change our priorities, merely the pins in the map.)

Talk like this inspired a whole generation of imperialists. A prominent young lawyer in Indiana named Alfred J. Beveridge articulated this group’s position so cogently that his oratory alone propelled him to a seat in the United States Senate:

American factories are making more than the American people can use; American soil is producing more than they can consume. Fate has written our policy for us; the trade of the world must and shall be ours. And we will get it as our mother [England] has told us how. We will establish trading-posts throughout the world as distributing-points for American products. We will cover the ocean with our merchant marine. We will build a navy to the measure of our greatness. Great colonies governing themselves, flying our flag and trading with us, will grow about our posts of trade. Our institutions will follow our flag on the wings of our commerce. And American law, American order, American civilization, and the American flag will plant themselves on shores hitherto bloody and benighted, but by those agencies of God henceforth to be made beautiful and bright.

Note that Beveridge believed in the full colonial system, with all the rights and responsibilities that entailed. He was eager to take up Rudyard Kipling’s call to the “The White Man’s Burden”: “To wait in heavy harness, on fluttered folk and wild—your new-caught, sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child.” Though Kipling and Beveridge were born three years and a hemisphere apart, they were kindred spirits.

Cartoon from the April 1899 issue of Judge magazine.

Theodore Roosevelt agreed. It was time to “have done with childish days,” and time to “search your manhood,” in Kipling’s words. Roosevelt wanted conquest, even if it meant war. Maybe especially if it meant war. He said:

We do not admire the man of timid peace…Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.

“The man behind the gun will settle this war,” from Puck. Now this is a piece of propaganda that romance writers can really get behind. Nudge, nudge.

He saw no danger of “an over-development of warlike spirit.” In fact, just the opposite. He worried most about becoming “a wealthy nation, slothful, timid, or unwieldy.” We remember Teddy Roosevelt best for his adage to “speak softly, and carry a big stick,” but honestly I see no evidence of soft speaking in his public record. This quote of his is far more representative: “Peace is a goddess only when she comes with sword girt on thigh.”

Roosevelt was hungry for war, and he was not alone. But where? Against whom? And how would he rally an isolationist public recovering from depression and bring them all the way to war? Enter Spain, stumbling awkwardly into the room.

Continue reading Part 2 here.

(The featured image is from an 1898 patriotic poster, found at the Library of Congress.)