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The Spanish American War

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

The Spanish-American War

You take the Spanish-American War. . . . That was Mr. Kane’s war. We didn’t really have anything to fight about. But do you think if it hadn’t been for that war of Mr. Kane’s we’d have the Panama Canal?

In 1941, a muckraking biography of William Randolph Hearst opened on American movie screens. Titled Citizen Kane, this splendid film gives news- paper editor and owner Charles Foster Kane (a thinly disguised stand-in for Hearst) credit for having deliberately provoked the Spanish-American War with the inflammatory headlines in his newspapers. This was no exaggeration on the part of the filmmakers.

Born in 1863 to millionaire parents, Hearst owned major newspapers across the United States. Hearst thought like a businessman rather than like a journalist; his goal was to sell as many papers as possible, not necessarily to give the public accurate information. He had no objection to exaggerating or inventing facts in order to create sensational stories. This “yellow journalism” became the New York Journal’s trademark. With what one historian later referred to as the “acme of ruthless, truthless newspaper jingoism,” Hearst used the Journal to push the United States into a war with Spain.

In 1896, Cuba was trying to win its independence from Spain. Knowing that the dramatic events of the rebellion would interest his readers, Hearst encouraged his reporters to exaggerate the facts and stir up American resentment against Spain. Many Americans sympathized with the Cuban revolutionaries, who were fighting a tyrant just as the Americans themselves had once fought Great Britain. Journal stories deliberately played on this sympathy, actively pressuring the U.S. government to declare war on Spain. President McKinley resisted the pressure.

The spark that set off the war was the sudden explosion of the American battleship Maine, anchored off the Cuban coast in case its crew should be needed to protect American property or lives. What caused the ship to blow up is still unknown; independent investigations at the time suggested that it might have been either accident or an underwater mine. Few people seriously believed that it was an act of war on Spain’s part, since Spanish diplomats had been working hard to avoid an all-out war with the United States. Ignoring the facts, Hearst put the story of the Maine on the front page for several days, with headlines such as:

  • THE WARSHIP MAINE WAS SPLIT IN TWO BY AN ENEMY’S SECRET INFERNAL MACHINE.
  • THE WHOLE COUNTRY THRILLS WITH THE WAR FEVER
  • HOW THE MAINE ACTUALLY LOOKS AS IT LIES, WRECKED BY SPANISH TREACHERY, IN HAVANA BAY

With the people clamoring for action, McKinley felt that he had no choice but to reject Spain’s request for a peace agreement. On April 25, 1898, Congress declared war. It would be fought on three fronts: in Cuba, in Puerto Rico, and in the Philippines, which served at the time as a Spanish naval base.

Commodore George Dewey led a fleet of American warships from the coast of Hong Kong to the Philippines a few days after Congress declared war. The American ships easily overpowered the Spanish fleet guarding the Manila harbor. The Filipinos had been rebelling against Spanish rule for two years and were easily enlisted to help the Americans conquer Manila. The war in the Philippines ended in August 1898.

Unlike the navy, which had covered itself with glory in the Philippines, the army was not adequately prepared for a land war in Cuba. The United States did not maintain a large standing army in peacetime, and the only uniforms the soldiers were supplied with were made of heavy wool—highly unsuitable for the tropical climate of Cuba.

Theodore Roosevelt had joined the army, which placed him in command of a cavalry unit nicknamed the Rough Riders, whose goal was to capture the high ground above the city of Santiago. The Rough Riders charged up San Juan Hill under a hail of Spanish bullets, and had control of the high ground by night- fall. The U.S. Navy sank the entire Spanish fleet off the coast of Cuba, and the war ended two weeks later when Spain surrendered. Fighting in Puerto Rico had already ended. The United States agreed to pay Spain $20 million for the Philippines, Cuba gained its independence from Spain, and Spain ceded Guam to the United States.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at: The US Becomes a World Power Practice Test

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