In a conflict lasting only six weeks, the United States defeated Spain and became an empire. 

Overview

  • The Cuban movement for independence from Spain in 1895 garnered considerable American support. When the USS Maine sank, the United States believed the tragedy was the result of Spanish sabotage and declared war on Spain.
  • The Spanish-American War lasted only six weeks and resulted in a decisive victory for the United States. Future US president Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt rose to national prominence due to his role in the conflict.
  • Although the United States promised it would not annex Cuba after victory, it did require Cuba to permit significant American intervention in Cuban affairs.
  • As a result of the war, the United States acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines as territories.

The conflict between empire and democracy

In the late nineteenth century, the nations of Europe were competing for overseas colonies in Africa and Asia. Many Americans thought that the United States should enter this game of empires and demonstrate its growing power in the world.start superscript, 1, end superscript
But the United States had not forgotten its own colonial past. When the American colonies had risen in revolt against the British, their frustration at obeying a government across an ocean had helped to define the American vision of representative democracy. Taking on the role of a distant overlord seemed like an essential violation of those principles.start superscript, 2, end superscript
At first, it looked as though the United States would not cave into the temptations of empire. When, in 1893, American sugar plantation owners engineered a coup to dethrone Hawaii's Queen Lili'uokalani and annex the Hawaiian Islands, the United States refused to cooperate with the underhanded scheme. But would these scruples last?

Trouble in Cuba

Not long after the Hawaiian coup, disturbing news came from Cuba. In 1895, Cubans rose in rebellion against Spain, which had been in control of the island since the 1500s.
In an attempt to quell the uprising, the Spanish rounded up Cubans and forced them into reconcentration camps, where poor sanitation and disease killed thousands. American newspapers, eager to sell copies, whipped the public into a frenzy against the Spanish by reporting sensational stories (both true and untrue) in a practice known as yellow journalism. The oppressed Cubans, they claimed, were suffering at the hands of European tyrants just as the United States had done before the American Revolution.start superscript, 3, end superscript
In order to protect Americans and their assets in Cuba during the chaos, the United States sent the warship USS Maine into Havana harbor. Just nine days after its arrival, the Maine exploded, killing 260 American sailors. The Spanish claimed, correctly, that the explosion had been the result of a malfunction aboard the ship, but Americans were convinced that the Maine had been destroyed by Spanish sabotage.start superscript, 4, end superscript
Painting depicting the sinking of the USS Maine.
Painting depicting the sinking of the USS Maine. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
After a few abortive attempts at mediating the dispute, the United States declared war against Spain on April 11, 1898. In order to prevent the possibility of US annexation of Cuba, Congress passed the Teller Amendment, which proclaimed that the United States would help the Cuban people gain their freedom from Spain but would not annex the island after victory.

A splendid little war

The tired remnants of Spain's New World empire were no match for brand-new American warships. On the seas, US forces quickly dispatched the Spanish fleet. The Spanish were surprised when the Americans captured the Philippines, a Pacific outpost of the empire whose citizens were also rebelling against Spanish rule.start superscript, 5, end superscript
On land, the contest was not quite so easy. The American military force was composed mainly of volunteers who were ill-equipped for an expedition in the tropics. Future president Teddy Roosevelt, who had assembled a volunteer cavalry regiment known as the Rough Riders, garnered fame for a charge that would have had little success were it not for the support of seasoned African American soldiers serving in segregated infantry and cavalry units.start superscript, 6, end superscript
Victorious American forces in Cuba. Note Theodore Roosevelt, at center beneath flag, and African American 10th US Cavalry at right. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Nevertheless, in six weeks' time, US forces were in control of the two major remaining Spanish possessions overseas, Cuba and the Philippines. Fearful that Japan might attempt to take control of Hawaii while the United States was distracted by Spain, President William McKinley also signed a resolution formally annexing Hawaii on July 7, 1898.
Weary of war, Spain signed an armistice on August 12, 1898. Fewer than four hundred Americans had died, leading Secretary of State John Hay to declare the conflict a "splendid little war." Less splendid but rarely mentioned were the more than 5000 American deaths from diseases like malaria and yellow fever.start superscript, 7, end superscript

Consequences of the Spanish-American War

In the fall and winter of 1898, diplomats representing Spain and the United States met to hash out the terms of peace. In the Treaty of Paris, Spain agreed to free Cuba, and to cede the islands Guam and Puerto Rico to the United States. In addition, the United States agreed to pay Spain $20 million for the Philippines (which the Spanish wanted back as the Americans had captured Manila after the August 12 armistice, due to delayed communications). The United States had become an empire.
Tellingly, neither Cuban nor Filipino representatives were permitted to participate in the negotiations. Would the United States uphold its commitment to Cuba's freedom, or would it take Spain's place as a distant oppressor? The answer was a little bit of both: although the United States did not annex Cuba outright, it did force Cubans to recognize American control in their new Constitution. In the Platt Amendment, Cuba agreed to permit American diplomatic, economic, and military intervention and to lease Guantánamo Bay for American use.start superscript, 8, end superscript
For Filipinos, who had allied with US forces to oust Spain, the outcome of the war was a cruel joke. Although the Americans were unwilling to allow the Philippines to remain in the hands of the Spanish, they were also unwilling to give Filipinos their freedom. US politicians believed that their "little brown brothers" (as future American president William H. Taft called them) were incapable of self-government.start superscript, 9, end superscript
The Filipinos quickly realized they had traded one imperial power for another, and turned their rebellion against the United States. For two years, the United States fought to put down the Filipino insurrection, ironically resorting to the same tactics that the Spanish had used against the Cubans. In 1901, the United States defeated the rebels, and the Philippines became an American territory.start superscript, 10, end superscript
What did it mean to be an American territory? It wasn't quite clear; before the Spanish-American War, the United States had never annexed territory without the expectation that it would achieve eventual statehood. For Puerto Ricans, it meant they had American citizenship (eventually) but not self-rule. For Filipinos, it meant neither citizenship nor independence.
One thing was certain: after the Spanish-American War, the United States would never be the same. It had survived for over a hundred years as an isolationist nation, an ocean away from European powers, and emerged as an industrial behemoth in the wake of the Civil War. With its decisive rout of Spain and the acquisition of a far-reaching empire, the United States had arrived as a major player on the world stage.

What do you think?

Why did the United States go to war against Spain? Do you think the United States was looking for a reason to go to war?
Did the United States keep its promise in the Teller Amendment? Why or why not?
Why do you think that the United States annexed Puerto Rico and the Philippines as territories, not states?
Article written by Dr. Kimberly Kutz Elliott. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. On American imperialism at the turn of the twentieth century, see George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 299-377.
  2. For more on the relationship between empire and democracy, see Richard H. Immerman, Empire for Liberty: A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012.
  3. For more on yellow journalism, see W. Joseph Campbell, The Year that Defined American Journalism: 1897 and the Clash of Paradigms (New York: Routledge, 2006).
  4. See Edward J. Marolda, ed. Theodore Roosevelt, the US Navy and the Spanish-American War (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001).
  5. On the Spanish fleet compared to the American fleet, see "The Philippines," Digital History, 2016.
  6. See Frank N. Schubert, Black Valor: Buffalo Soldiers and the Medal of Valor, 1870-1898 (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997), 133-173.
  7. Hay quoted in Walter Mills, The Martial Spirit (New York: Arno Press, 1979), 340; on deaths from disease see The American Pageant: A History of the American People, 15th (AP) edition (Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2013), 616.
  8. On the Platt Amendment, see Louis A. Perez, Jr., Cuba Under the Platt Amendment, 1902-1934 (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986).
  9. Taft quoted in Kennedy and Cohen, The American Pageant, 623.
  10. For more on the war in the Philippines, see David J. Silbey, A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899-1902 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2007).