The Spanish American War - One American's View

By Patrick McSherry 
The article below was written for the website entitled The Odyssey of Spain in the Overseas Provinces  at the request of its webmaster Francisco José Díaz Díaz.

The Spanish American War - One American's View

I have been asked by the webmaster of this site to contribute some information concerning the American view of the Spanish American War. This is a more complicated question than it first seems. We must look at the question from three viewpoints - that of the average American of 1998, that of the average American of 1898, and that of an American historian who studies the 1898 period.

The view of the average American of 1998:

Quite frankly, if you asked the average American of 1998 about the war, you would probably be met with a quizzical stare. The Spanish American War, in spite of its tremendous implications for the United States, Spain, Cuba, Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, and other places, is seldom mentioned in the popular media or brought to the attention of the public. Most may have heard the statement "Remember the MAINE," but with no understanding what the MAINE itself was. Few have any idea of the involvement of the U.S. in Cuba, and less so in the Philippines or Puerto Rico. Mandatory school American history classes generally gloss over the war as a silly, three-month lark taken by a group of over-eager men with no real gain. Of course, this goes against historical fact in many, but not all respects.

This situation may seem odd to other nations, on which the war had a tremendous affect. However, the war must be viewed in the historical perspective of the average American. The Spanish American War occurred in the interval between two conflicts that resulted in great death and anguish in the U.S., whereas the Spanish American War was relatively bloodless from the American perspective. The American Civil War (1861-1865) was a conflict of truly epic proportions for the country. More Americans died in the Civil War than the combined total number of American deaths in all other conflicts in which the U.S. has been involved, from the 1776 Revolution to the present. The loss was approximately three-quarters of a million men, whereas in the more populous America of 1898, only three thousand men were lost. Virtually every family had members serving in the Civil War. Towns sent entire military units. The terrible toll, recounted by relatives for years, burned this war into the collective consciousness, and it will never leave.

There are several obvious measures of a war's impact on the public's collective memory, and we can use them to gauge the Civil War's impact on the people of today. First, the average American bookstore will have a major portion of its history section devoted to the Civil War. Secondly, Hollywood continues to produce innumerable dramas of the Civil War, as it has for many years. Also, amazingly, re-enacting Civil War battles is a large hobby in the U.S., with about twenty thousand involved in the hobby nation-wide.

The Spanish American War was followed by U.S. involvement in World War One (1917-1918). This was also a war of shocking losses, with the U.S. losing 177,000 killed, wounded and missing in the one year of its involvement. In this war, again virtually every family had someone involved. For the first time, a tremendous number of American men - 1.2 million - were sent overseas, to be separated from their families for a long period of time. Though the war has not remained as strongly in the memory as does the Civil War, the terror and separation experienced is also burned into the collective mind. Using our gauges of the war's lasting effect, we can see that virtually all bookstores carry books on the war and its effects. Also, Hollywood continues to produce films about the period, with one very highly honored major production on the war recently.

Both of these conflicts, one a little over a generation before the Spanish American War, and the other a little less than a generation after the war were in great contrast to the Spanish American War itself. During the Spanish American War, few of the many American military units raised actually saw foreign service, with most remaining in training camps in the U.S. on a glorified camping trip. There were few of the heart-rending or exciting stories to bring back to the families. The majority of the families did not have the pangs of a long-term, worrisome separation. As a result, this war did not make it into the collective memory. Using the gauges of measurement of the lasting memory of the war, we learn that, until recently spurred by the centennial, few bookstores carried ANY works on the Spanish American War. Few new works were produced after World War I eclipsed the Spanish American War.  The number of films produced by Hollywood concerning the Spanish American War has been very few in number in the past one hundred years. The total number could probably be counted on one hand.

The Spanish American War, one of the conflicts with the greatest implications for Americans even today, has all but faded from the modern American mind. Its centennial was barely noticed.
 

The view of the American of 1898:

The American of 1898 was motivated by a variety of forces, some of which are not so apparent today. The most obvious and often discussed force was the "yellow press." The overall effect of the press should not be downplayed, though how much it really affected Americans outside of certain major cities, such as New York, is a subject for debate. The press continuously pointed out the problems of Spanish colonial rule in Cuba, with exaggerated or even fantastic stories of atrocities. By keeping these issues in the public eye, the pathway to war was kept clear. The loss of the battleship MAINE and the claims of Spanish treachery made by the newspapers (and not the U.S. government or the U.S. Navy) was the final catalyst allowing the generally isolationist American public to accept the war.

There were other forces. First, the American Civil War had been over for a little over a generation. By 1898 the terrors of the war were beginning to be forgotten, while the tremendous comradery and tales of glory continued to be passed down from the older generation, via family stories, veterans' reunions, printed histories of military units, etc. The adage that bad memories fade but the good memories remain proved to be true. This influence allowed, in the eyes of the younger generations, war to be thought of as glorious,  and not the realm of horror it truly was.

Also, as the end of the nineteenth century approached, the United States was beginning to look at itself as a force in the world for the first time. Strengthened by a strong belief in its own, now-proven, political system, and by the strong missionary Christian background, the American public felt a strong sense that it was on the righteous golden path. These same beliefs had a tendency toward what we consider today to be an ethnocentrist or even a racist view. Poverty and terrible conditions in other countries were looked upon as evidence that the people beset by these problems could not govern themselves, or were in some way lacking in intelligence, resourcefulness and ambition. For instance, though Americans were attracted to Cuba partially because a desire to help a people reported to be facing very dire conditions, these same conditions made the American public believe that they themselves were superior.

These were the times of colonialism worldwide. The colonialism exhibited by Europe had been going on for several hundred years, with Spain, Portugal and Great Britain leading the way, to be followed up by Germany, Belgium, Japan, France and Austria. The time of empire-building was at its crescendo. According to the colonial powers, this movement was thought to be not only a means of making a profit but a way to improve the lives of those in the colonies. This was the era of what was considered "the white man's burden," or the colonial powers' responsibility to "civilize" the peoples whose lifestyle they considered to be inferior to their own. Sometimes these dual concepts of profit and social improvement were proven correct in practice, but much more often, neither were proven to be true.

In the United States, there had previously been a strong isolationist attitude. This was because of its own experience as a colony and because the United States had been able to look internally for all of the expansion it needed. By the 1890's, this was no longer true. The country had now spanned the continent and was feeling confined for the first time in its history. Many in the United States resisted the urge to join in the colonialist tendencies of the European powers and Japan, however, many others considered it to be the right, or even the duty, of the United States to join in the movement. It eventually did, partially by accident, partially by design. In most cases, the ease with which the country gained an empire was surprise to the citizens, including those in the government and in the military. In 1898, few Americans had heard of Manila Bay, but suddenly the United States claimed not only the harbor, but also the entire Philippine archipelago!

The view of the U.S. towards Spain in the 1890's must also be addressed. The United States and Spain generally had amicable relations for most of their history. Spain had aided the United States in its Revolution, but it was a fact generally overlooked in the history books. It was only the recent actions in Cuba that had begun to drive a wedge between the countries, with the loss of the MAINE completing the splitting of relations in the view of the American public. The taking of what remained of the dwindling Spanish empire by the Americans was justified with a view of Spain's own past. Spain's long history of colonialism, and the atrocities committed in centuries past were appended to  many of the histories of the Spanish American War that were being produced in the U.S. during and just after  the war. Basically stated, Spain was known to have been an imperialistic nation for centuries. The U.S. put an end to Spain's empire, replacing it with its own system which was, in reality, only an empire by another same. The United States thought it was instituting a better system for itself as well as the civilian population in the newly-acquired colonies. The common U.S. citizen was not aware before the war that the highly-vaunted Spanish military was in such terrible shape. The Spanish Empire was teetering on the brink, and the United States gave it a shove.
 

The View of one American historian of 1898:

One thing that all good historians realize early in their work is that history cannot be changed. Those people in the present are not responsible for events, good or bad, which have occurred in the past. With this in mind, there is no reason why debate over the Spanish American War cannot be carried on in a serious, but friendly, manner between the citizens of all of the nations involved, either directly or indirectly. Name-calling or inflammatory comments that cannot be backed by the historical record serve no purpose other to inflame old wounds and create new ones. These actions do not aid in creating international understanding, or points for discussion.

Of course, the major question that may be asked of an American by a Spaniard in particular would be if the American regrets that the war occurred. The obvious answer is "yes," but not possibly for the reasons expected. Some caveats must be added.

As an American, of course I regret, from a human standpoint, that the Spanish American War, which caused the deaths of thousands on all sides, occurred. This war, like all wars, had a very human side. Each of those individuals lost through disease or injury had a future and a family. It is their families who suffered an uncontrollable grief that cannot even be expressed except by those who have passed through it. All sides, no matter what the culture, feel this loss. I believe, and hope, that all people understand this and regret any war. To not do so is to be inhuman.

Also, I do regret that the United States was involved in a war that was purely imperialistic. The U.S. needed coaling bases for its navy to allow the nation to become a world power. This is an unavoidable truth.  Some of those in power in the U.S. set out with this goal in mind, and, almost accidentally, the U.S. became an empire. The U.S. had been involved in only one other purely imperialistic war in its history (the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-1848). In spite of this regret, however, I recognize that the U.S. was not acting in a manner that was different from any of the major colonial powers of the time. One only needs to look at the events occurring in China or Africa for simultaneous examples.

American historians acknowledge that the reasons that drove the U.S. into war with Spain were less than appropriate, looking back on the event and insulated by one hundred years. First, Spain was not responsible for the loss of the MAINE. However, Spain's actions in Cuba and the atrocities that occurred may have called for intervention even in today's world. The atrocities, however, were not as great as were reported in the U.S. Lastly, considering some of the later U.S. actions in Philippines, where the Americans instituted tactics similar to Weyler's policy of Reconcentration,  the U.S. has little grounds to speak on this issue.

Beyond that, Americans can not regret the outcome, as it was the beginning of the U.S. becoming a world power, a position that all citizens of the country, and many non-citizens have benefited.

It must be noted that Spain was a colonial power and had been involved in many colonial wars in its past. For Spain to look down upon the U.S. for its own colonial effort is to forget Spain's own past. Still, this is easily understandable. Any nation that is the victim in imperial expansion sees the victimization, not its own past. The present is always somehow different from the past.

As we proceed into the future, Spain, the U.S., Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico must all advance with the understanding that none of  us today are responsible for the events of the past, for these things cannot be changed. We are responsible to learn from the past, and to use the past as a guide to the future. We, as historians, must all strive to show to the world that people on all sides of the conflict were people, not nameless, faceless bodies. Understanding comes through knowledge and relating that knowledge to oneself. Reading the accounts of two men on opposing sides of a battlefield, writing of the same feelings of fear, exhilaration, and possibly love for country and family helps us to realize that we, who stupidly act as enemies, are really of one people. To kill one another other is to commit fratracide.

To accomplish this level of understanding, the period must be reported on by all sides very objectively. This is, of course, very difficult to do, but it is possible. Two very large issues that are frequently misreported overseas are the still unresolved cause of the MAINE's explosion, and the U.S. rapid descent into the war.

On the first issue, the cause of the MAINE's explosion will probably never be known. The widely held "coal bunker fire" theory has some problems that may nullify it. The possibility of a mine, albeit a small mine that was probably not intended to sink the vessel but only create an incident, is still viable. Both theories have been tested using modern computerized explosion modeling techniques and have been shown to be capable of causing the damage found. Of course, neither possibility implicates Spain.

The United States, for many years, has acknowledged that Spain was not involved in the loss of the MAINE, and though international law required her to protect the vessel while in her port, Spain was no more able to protect the vessel against a possible terrorist incident than she could against an internal accident. Even at the time, the great efforts of the Spanish navy to save injured and drowning MAINE crewmen were acknowledged. The U.S. has often pointed out the lies of the American "yellow journalists" and their placing of blame on Spain. These basic issues speak directly to the reasons for the war, and reflect a level of honesty that is often unappreciated.

Comments from overseas frequently seem to lack the component of accurate reporting required for proper understanding. For example, there are frequently claims that the U.S. blew up the MAINE on its own to cause a war and gain territory. This is a theory that is as unlikely as Spain being responsible for her loss (In fact, it is not even logical - for a country to destroy its sixth largest vessel and the majority of her trained crew on the eve of war is not logical. If the desire was to create an incident, would not a more unimportant vessel been used?). It is claimed that the MAINE was not a viable fighting vessel. Again this is untrue. In that time of worldwide naval experimentation, many vessels of unusual configuration were developed. The experimental MAINE, though somewhat less successful than other vessels, was still more powerful than any of the vessels in Admiral Dewey's victorious Asiatic Squadron. Additionally, aspersions are cast on the crew of the MAINE. It is frequently stated that the vessel's officers survived because they were all in Havana at a party, leaving the vessel unofficered. Again, this is completely untrue. Their survival had to do with the location of the explosion, which was forward, below the crew's quarters, and not aft, where the officers were quartered. Capt. Sigsbee, for instance, was actively in command both before and immediately after the explosion. Two of the officers were lost in the blast.

The belief that the U.S. raced to war is also false. If the U.S. were waiting for the MAINE explosion to declare war, why would the nation wait over two months - from February 15 to April 25 - to declare war? If the U.S. wanted to use the MAINE as a pretext for war, war would have come immediately, and the country would have been better prepared for it when it did come. President McKinley, a veteran of the American Civil War himself, worked hard to avert a war. In the end, he was unable to avoid it.

To summarize, the war was a terrible action, as were all wars. Losses of soldiers and civilians is always a terrible tragedy. The United States was victorious, and that victory was very important in making the nation what it is today. In retrospect, the justification for attacking Spain was not there, though few in the country realized this at the time.

The most important aspect for all to have learned is that Americans and Spaniards of today are no more responsible for the Spanish American War than they are for the Spanish Inquisition. However, it is the duty of all involved to study the war objectively, and learn what the past has to tell us, so that we can look to a future of peace.


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