Hingham Public Library this Monday!

Hotly contested stump speeches on transpacific trade, immigration, and Muslim separatists aren’t new to American political discourse. Join historian, teacher, and author Jennifer Hallock to learn how our first experiment in overseas empire in the Philippines (1898-1946) still shapes our country now.

 What has brought the Americans full circle back to the Philippines, and why do some Filipinos want them to turn right around again? If you are in the Boston area, please come to the Hingham Public Library this coming Monday, September 19th, at 7pm.

Apparently, there will be community cable television there, so I need all the friendly faces I can get!

Sugar Sun series glossary term #20: insular

Georgie looked over at the weapon Pedro still held in his hand, and she shivered. No matter how she felt about Rosa, she could not send her away with this man.

She had to figure out a way to scare Pedro off. “The Insulares will come. Soldados!”

Filipinos had been put to death for far less than waving a knife in the face of an American. What good was the Insular bogeyman if she didn’t let him out of the closet once in a while?

Under the Sugar Sun

The Insular bogeyman? Is this some strange Grimm’s fairy tale you haven’t heard of? Oh, no, it is something far more insidious: it’s a euphemism, a legal one.

Euphemisms were a whole new tongue spoken in nineteenth-century America. In fact, I should not even say “tongue” because it could give you all sorts of salacious ideas. English naval captain Edward Marryat got in trouble for asking a female companion if she had hurt her leg when she had tripped, and he was informed that proper Americans did not use that word (leg). “Limb” was specific enough, thank you very much.

So, if you cannot say leg, you probably cannot say colony. No, the word colony does not have sexual undertones—at least, not that I know of—but it is still a troubling word for a formerly rebellious colony founded upon Enlightenment ideals of self-determination and personal liberty. What, the United States an empire?

Even Thomas Jefferson admitted it was—though he called it an “empire of liberty” that would expand westward and check the growth of the British menace, beginning with the 1803 purchase of Louisiana from the French. Jefferson wrote to James Madison: “I am persuaded no constitution was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire and self-government.” He saw no irony in defending, in the same breath, the right of self-government alongside the right to empire. In fact, he (like many today) believed that America’s democratic history, transparent legal system, and free market economy made it especially suited to transform the world for good and fight barbarism: American exceptionalism.

Out-of-copyright map of the American frontier.
Out-of-copyright map of the American frontier.

In the resulting growth of (mostly white) settlements across the North American continent, the word “empire” was avoided. These were “territories” along America’s “frontier”—territories on their way to statehood, a distinction that was not granted to later acquisitions. According to Frederick Jackson Turner, the frontier helped preserve liberty and egalitarianism through free access to land (by taking it from Indigenous Americans) and preventing a landed aristocracy from developing (Gilded Age, anyone?). Out on the frontier, any (white) man could make something of himself, as long as he survived.

(If none of this sounds truly democratic, you’re right. You’re not the first modern reader to notice, trust me. As even Mark Twain wrote in 1901: “The Blessings of Civilization are all right, and a good commercial property; there could not be a better, in a dim light.” [Emphasis mine.] Don’t look too closely, in other words.)

Back to our discussion of “territories.” In the Treaty of Paris ending the Spanish-American War in December 1898, the United States purchased the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam from Spain. While the western frontier had expanded slowly enough to look like natural growth, this acquisition came in one fell swoop. What makes a piece of land a colony for Spain and not a colony when purchased from Spain by America? Good question.

Illustration (and featured image above) from an 1898 E. E. Strauss advertisement. Notice the spelling errors?!

Imperialists wanted a new word: insular. Geographer Scott Kirsch commented that the choice insular reflected “novel anxieties over America’s new place at the seat of an interconnected global empire.” It fit for three reasons:

First, these new possessions were islands, and the primary definition of insular is “of or pertaining to islands.” What a great way to differentiate the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam from the continental territories. Interestingly, though, Hawaii will not become an insular territory, despite being a cluster of islands. Instead, in the midst of the Spanish-American War, Hawaii had been enthusiastically annexed by Congress, an about-face since the country had rejected that opportunity only five years previously. A lot had happened in those five years, as you can read here. And if Hawaii didn’t count as insular, there had to be more to the word than just geography.

A second meaning of insular is “Detached or standing out by itself like an island; insulated.” This is where the word becomes perfect for how America wants to see its new acquisitions, particularly as relates to the Philippines. In the “scramble for the Pacific,” America had found itself left out of China. Secretary of State John Hay would address this particular issue in the Open Door memos, asserting the right of all nations to trade freely and equally in China. But the truth was that the US did not want to get too involved in China. It wanted the benefit of a Pacific entrepôt without being too Sinified.

Manila had been the Spanish answer to cashing in on China while simultaneously insulating themselves from China, and the Americans thought it a brilliant idea. In a 1902 National Geographic article by the Honorable O. P. Austin, the Chief of the Bureau of Statistics of the Treasury Department, Manila would become the channel through which all of this wealth would pass, an off-shore customs and clearinghouse for goods bound for the United States. With the 1902 extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act—extended now to exclude Chinese from the Philippines, too—our new insular possessions would not be a conduit for people, just money. According to Scott Kirsch, this “coupled the virtues of proximity to Asia with a distinctive sense of separation from it.”

The insular plan of O. P. Austin.

Because, really, America wanted to be insulated from their own empire. This is the third reason the term insular fits so well. The definition of a colony is “a body of people who settle in a new locality, forming a community subject to or connected with their parent state.” This implies spreading both people and ideas to the new lands. Americans were willing to do the latter. In fact, President William McKinley asserted the idea of “benevolent assimilation”—that “we come not as invaders or conquerors, but as friends, to protect the natives in their homes, in their employments, and in their personal and religious rights.” Americans spread their language, their pedagogical ideals (see posts on Thomasites and pensionados), their sanitation principles, their political administration, and their products (Spam, anyone?) to the Philippines with gusto.

1899 Judge cartoon of Uncle Sam to Filipinos: "You're next."
1899 Judge cartoon of Uncle Sam to Filipinos: “You’re next.”

But most Americans did not intend to settle in the Philippines permanently, which meant that it was not a colony in the true sense of the word. They meant to fashion Filipinos as Americans and leave, hence the emphasis on shaping the educational system with an eye toward self-replication. Even anti-imperialists like William Jennings Bryan, the failed 1900 Democratic candidate for president, felt this way. He wanted to close the door to Asian immigration, and during the debate about Chinese exclusion, he wrote:

“Let us educate the Chinese who desire to learn of American institutions; let us offer courtesy and protection to those who come here to travel and investigate, but it will not be of permanent benefit to either the Chinese or to us to invite them to become citizens or to permit them to labor here and carry the proceeds of their toil back to their own country.”

He felt the same about the Japanese and all other Asian races. His article is a defense of exclusion and intolerance: “It is not necessary nor even wise that the family environment should be broken up or that all who desire entrance should be admitted to the family circle. In a larger sense a nation is a family.” Bryan’s English and Irish ancestors had immigrated two hundred years earlier, so you can pardon him for forgetting that he was an immigrant, too. But he was typical in wanting to turn off the tap, and a colony would not have permitted that insularity as easily.

The San Francisco Call announces the extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act in April 1902.

This was not just about race, though. Americans wanted the Philippines to remain politically and economically separate. Eventually, one had to ask as the United States grew bigger: does the Constitution follow the flag? If the people of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam are living under American government, should they have the rights of American citizens? A longer treatment of this topic is handled here, but the short answer for the Philippines was no. The Insular Cases in the United States Supreme Court maintained that the Philippines was an unincorporated territory, and while its citizens had natural rights, such as religion and property, they did not have full political rights, nor citizenship. This was an easier line to skirt when the government ruling the Philippines was part of the Bureau of Insular Affairs in the War Department, not a Colonial Office. Labels do matter.

And strangely William Jennings Bryan, no friend of the Asian immigrant in general, actually pointed out the inconsistency of Americans flooding the Philippines while not allowing the same in return:

“If…the Filipinos are prohibited from coming here (if a republic can prohibit the inhabitants of one part from visiting another part of the republic), will it not excite a just protest on the part of the Filipinos? How can we excuse ourselves if we insist upon opening the Philippine islands to the invasion of American capital, American speculators, and American task-masters, and yet close our doors to those Filipinos who, driven from home, may seek an asylum here?”

Bryan’s solution was immediate independence for the Philippines, but the Supreme Court had a different solution: the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam were not a part of our republic. Insular was not inside. The justices bent over backward to draw the distinction that Americans wanted, even if they essentially made up law to do it. Since both imperialists and anti-imperialists both agreed, in the words of Andrew Carnegie, that “Americans cannot be grown [in the Philippines],” no one complained that the court had exceeded its mandate. The insular designation stuck.

Escolta, the business district of Manila, on July 4, 1899.

Another benefit of insular territories was that free trade need not be extended right away—especially if there were concerns that the islands might compete too well in certain key industries, like sugar and tobacco. It was favorable for American producers to keep them out. While American goods could enter the Philippines freely—because Americans in the Insular Government set Philippine trade policy—Filipino goods were taxed both leaving the Philippines and entering the United States because the U.S. Congress set American trade policy. That was the beauty of the insular cases.

December 1898 Puck cartoon shows Uncle Sam welcoming world trade in his off-shore entrepôt.

When I teach my course on America in the Philippines, students who have at least read the course description know that the United States had its own empire—but surprisingly few adults do. They might know about Guam or Puerto Rico, and they might even call these “territories,” but if you ask them the difference between a colony and a territory, they do not have a good answer. And I do not blame them because America’s “insular” language has left its citizens deliberately insulated from clarity.

I do not think Filipinos are confused, though. They easily call the years between 1898 and 1934 the American Colonial Period, and many would also include the 1934 to 1946 Commonwealth Period (not counting the Japanese occupation of 1941-1945).

Unfortunately, if we Americans do not take a hard look at our history, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes and therefore reinforce the (mis)perceptions others have of us. One of my goals in writing the Sugar Sun series was to bring this history to a general public—along with some sex, drugs, and violence to really sell it. I love romance, so it was my medium of choice, but the Philippine setting, diverse characters, and political undertones are all part of my historical mission.

The Person Sitting in Darkness is almost sure to say: “There is something curious about this–curious and unaccountable. There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.”

— Mark Twain, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” 1901

Featured image of “The man behind the gun will settle this war,” from Puck.

Lessons of Empire in 30 Minutes or Less…Guaranteed!*

In French, the word histoire can mean either a chronicle of the past or a fresh fictional tale—and, as a historical romance author, I love that flexibility. No matter whether I am writing my Sugar Sun series or the actual history of the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars, I embrace the story behind the events.

There is good reason for this. My day job for the last twenty years has been teaching history to intelligent, discriminating teenagers. (Yes, such a beast exists, I am happy to report!) Like any good teacher, I strive to keep my presentation lively, informative, and seasoned with humor. Sometimes that humor comes in the shape of snark, but so it goes.

And thanks to the indulgence of my employer, I am lucky enough to teach one of the few courses in the United States—at any level—devoted to just this era: American colonial rule in the Philippines. (It may be the only one. I don’t actually know.) And if I can teach this history to seventeen year olds, people, I can teach it to you.

The Americans in Manila, an early 20th century photograph.

Therefore, my next venture is to take this show on the road. I have put together a 30 minute presentation, complete with illustrations, on the history of American rule in the Philippines:

  • I will tell you why Americans came to the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century, and how this endeavor fundamentally changed our role in the world—and launched some of our best known political and military figures, to boot.
  • I will tell you the good, bad, and ugly how of the Americans ruled—and why, despite it all, the Filipino-American friendship is still so strong today.
  • I will tell you why this matters to you in the twenty-first century, particularly as the two countries renew their strategic (read: military) partnership in Asia.
  • Finally, I’ll give you a few stories of my own in the fabulous Philippines, and how these experiences have shaped what and how I write.
  • Did I mention I have pictures? A whole slide show, in fact.

If you live in the New England area, I hope to bring this talk to a library or historical society near you! The best part is that I will do it for FREE. Please feel free to get your librarian in touch with me. I have PowerPoint and will travel (within reason), and I am available starting August 2016.

What do I get out of it? The author in me hopes to expand my readership by getting my books in the public eye. Duh. But the teacher in me wants you to know about this pivotal period in American history, one that for too long has gotten only a terse mention in your textbooks. The American in me wants you to see how this period shaped the American Century to come, while the long-time-resident-of-the-Philippines in me wants you to know how intertwined our fates still are.

Mr. Hallock and I in a tricycle after a 26-hour bus ride from Samar. That little sidecar felt spacious, if that tells you anything about the bus.

As to my credentials: I am an award-winning teacher with two decades of experience here and abroad, including the Philippines (obviously), Lebanon, and Thailand. I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in international affairs from Georgetown University, with a focus in Asian Studies. I have authored articles in several peer-reviewed journals, as well as fact-checked and edited others. I speak barely intelligible snippets of all sorts of languages, which means I mostly get by on my smile and other people’s indulgence.

Most importantly, I write the Sugar Sun series, inclusive historical romance “for those who love their romance with a little more plot” (Carla de Guzman for Spot.ph). Laura Fahey of the Historical Novel Society said of my debut novel, Under the Sugar Sun: “Intensely absorbing…the charged political climate of the day is drawn with refreshing nuance.” She added that the series promised to be a “groundbreaking fictional treatment.”

So, you know, call me. (Ahem, not really.) In the interests of limiting spam, please comment below if you are interested in bringing me to your library or historical society. I will get in touch with you via email.

Thank you for letting me spread the histoire!

My Border Collie, Grover, on our farm in Cavite. Our dogs have one up on Magellan—they really have circumnavigated the globe. In baggage class, Grover would like to point out, but nevertheless…world travelers!

Featured image at the top of this post is G. W. Peter’s illustration, “An Evening Concert on the Luneta,” which was published in Harper’s Weekly as the centerfold on 25 November 1899. I color-corrected a high resolution image I found to bring out the American soldiers on the right side.

*My timing is not really guaranteed. But, on the plus side, neither do I charge for this presentation, so there’s that.

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. The entire United States Army was was 27% smaller than today’s New York City Police Department, according to author Max Boot. 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 one.)

This 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 possible that Japan or Germany might have seen an opportunity there.)

Was not America the best country on earth, asked Lt. Col. Teddy Roosevelt, hero of San Juan Hill? 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 almost 4200 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. That is one-tenth of the population of the islands. Financially, it was costly for everyone. The US would spend $400 million fighting the war, out of a total government outlay of $2 billion. That means that the initial stages of the war from 1899-1902 would cost Americans one-fifth, or twenty percent, of their total government spending in that period.

spending-comparison-philippine-american-war
Spending on the Philippine-American War was $400 million of a $2 billion total government budget, or one-fifth of total spending. And this only counts the period of official fighting, which lasted from February 1899 to July 1902. The war would not really be over until 1913. (In comparison, the total nuclear program in the Cold War was only eleven percent of government spending, according to public records.)

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. Two of these are the backdrop for Sugar Moon: the Balangiga incident and the Pulahan War.)

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 (or might not) 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. For example, Puerto Ricans, who are American nationals, do not have the right to vote in US congressional and presidential elections until they reside in the US. 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. Puerto Rico has 3.2 million Americans.

In the Philippines, things were moving more full circle. After kicking American military forces out of naval and air bases on Luzon in 1992, the Filipinos invited the U.S. back as guests on their own bases. This was both to fight Islamist terrorism in the southern islands and to bolster naval defense against the Chinese presence in the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. Bilateral relations have grown more complicated since, but it is sort of like a family dispute, where disagreements today are affected by the baggage of shared history. With 350,000 US citizens living in the Philippines and over four million Americans of Filipino ancestry in the United States, connections span the Pacific. What better genre to talk about enduring family love than romance?

Sionna-Fox-kicking-feels-Sugar-Moon

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. Yes, these ambassadors did meet at the request of the American secretary of state, but keep in mind that diplomatic posts back then were given to adventurers not known for their actual diplomacy. The plan leaked, and the northern states grew alarmed that this might be a back-door plot to expand slavery. The whole thing was quickly scuttled. 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.

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

The Cuban revolution flared up again in 1895. It was an ugly war on both sides. Guerrilla war always is. The Spanish general Weyler was criticized in the American press for his reconcentrados: “protected zones” that cut civilians off from the rebels they supported. Conditions in these concentration-camp towns were abysmal, and anyone outside of one could be shot on sight. (American outrage over the reconcentrados would have been more laudatory if the US had not repeated the tactic in the Philippines in 1901—a truth that would be 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:

[US President William] 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 legislature. Puerto Rico was in the process of putting together its new 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 democracy. Americans “saved” Puerto Rico from the Spanish, yet the Spanish were actually giving that island MORE representation 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 almost certainly 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. 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 the US 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 him 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 (1) Ivy League boys (seasonal hunters who knew how to ride horses and fire guns); and (2) white cowboys (who could also ride horses and fire guns, maybe better than the Harvard boys, and they were so much more manly in Roosevelt’s eyes). 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.” 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. He had suffered from very bad asthma as a child, but he still pushed himself to become a college athlete and active rancher. Roosevelt believed that peace itself was a weakness.

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.

To prove he was 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. Or so the carefully cultivated legend goes, aided by the press that Roosevelt brought with him. In fact, Mr. Charles McKinley Saltzman, a white graduate of West Point and a veteran of the Cuba campaign, praised the Ninth and Tenth Cavalries and 24th Infantry—all African American regiments—for charging San Juan Hill in support of Roosevelt. Saltzman said that these units “did much to save the Rough Riders from being cut to pieces.”

Roosevelt tried to convince the nation that the Black soldiers were only helpful because they were “dependent upon their white officers,” and that he had to force some runaways back to the front line by point of a pistol. According to the New York State Military Museum, a former Sergeant in the 10th Cavalry said that “Roosevelt actually stopped four soldiers on their way to pick up ammunition from a supply point.” If you are looking for a little schadenfreude, Roosevelt lobbied the War Department hard for the Congressional Medal of Honor for his efforts, but they did not give it to him in his lifetime. He was finally granted that honor during the last days of the Bill Clinton administration in 2001. (In contrast, five African American cavalry soldiers and one naval fireman won Medals of Honor for their part in the battle for Santiago, Cuba.)

The war that Roosevelt fought in Cuba was the one that American volunteers thought they were signing 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. Later, American troops were sent from the Philippines 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.