It’s History: The Spanish-American War

The “Splendid Little War”

The Spanish-American War (1898) was the result of decades of maneuvering in U.S. foreign policy. It was an extension of the Manifest Destiny policy of the mid-1800s – that the U.S. was destined to expand across the North American continent, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. This policy also included at various points in time Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and Central America.

The main bone of contention in the Spanish-American War was Cuba. For much of the early history of the U.S., the American government was content to sit back and let Spain have the island, since it was preferable to letting it fall into the hands of a stronger power like England or France. The assumption was that once Spain weakened enough to loosen its grip on the island, the U.S. could swoop in and take over. This policy changed over the course of the nineteenth century, with the U.S. offering to buy Cuba from Spain and doing much maneuvering behind the scenes (like the Ostend Manifesto, which basically delved into the reasons the U.S. should have Cuba), neither of which impressed Spain. A rebellion broke out in Cuba in 1895, the Spanish response only increasing American criticism of Spain.

In 1898, a riot broke out in Havana, prompting the U.S. to send an American force to the island. The U.S. sent the USS Maine, which arrived on January 25, 1898. On February 15, the ship sunk due to an explosion. Two investigations – one Spanish, one American – were launched, with Spain concluding the cause of the explosion was internal, and the U.S. concluding it was external. Today, evidence suggests that the cause was, indeed, internal, though we don’t really know for sure what actually happened. At the time, though we were just agitating for war with Spain, and with a healthy amount of propaganda, that’s what happened.

The war was fought in two theaters, the Pacific and the Caribbean. In the Philippines, Commodore George Dewey defeated the Spanish forces at Manila Bay. Then the U.S. brought the exiled Emilio Aguinaldo from Hong Kong to lead the rebellion against Spain, backing it – at least until the U.S. took control of Manila and refused to let the Filipino forces into the city. Understandably, this caused much tension between the former collaborators.

In Guam, a U.S. fleet commanded by Captain Harry Glass met with the governor of the island (who was unaware that the U.S. and Spain were at war) to arrange for surrender of the island. 54 Spanish infantry were captured as prisoners of war.

In Cuba, the U.S. launched a disastrous campaign. Having raised a large army rather quickly, many men were sent unprepared, with little training, wool uniforms ill suited for Cuba’s humid climate, and obsolete weapons. There was also a lot of difficulty getting supplies to Cuba, and the camps were very unsanitary. More men died of disease than in combat.

The U.S. also launched an invasion of Puerto Rico, meeting the Spanish troops in battle multiple times. The Americans encountered much resistance, and after a few months (and several battles), military action was suspended.

Hostilities were halted August 12, 1898, with the Spanish suing for peace after defeats in Cuba and the Philippines. The formal peace treaty was signed in Paris December 10, 1898 and was ratified by the U.S. Senate on February 6, 1899. The U.S. took possession of most of Spain’s colonies, including the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Cuba was under the jurisdiction of the United States Military Government and gained independence in 1902, though there were still numerous restrictions imposed upon its government.


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