How the Spanish-American War Worked

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Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there, Candace. So today we have an email reply from a listener. And this one is from Andy Hartman. And he wanted to know something about the Spanish-American War, which I thought was a good excuse. It's always been one of those mysterious corners of American history that you skip over in history class. And I wanted to know more about it. So he asked about the dates regarding the Spanish-American War, because there's a monument in Sacramento, California that gives the dates as 1898-1902. But if you look at the dates in a history book, you'll notice that the Spanish surrendered in 1898.

Candace Gibson: So it was just four months long.

Jane McGrath: Exactly. It was.

Candace Gibson: It was quick. John Hay said it was a splendid little war. It was short and sweet.

Jane McGrath: And there are a couple of different answers, but before we go into that, we should talk a little bit about the war itself and things that led up to it.

Candace Gibson: Exactly. Give you guys some background. So what's significant about the Spanish-American War is that it was based on the United States' response to rebels in Cuba who had been oppressed under Spanish Colonial rule for a long time! There had been some uprisings before, but finally there was enough guerilla action going under their leadership of many people, but Jose Marti was very incendiary and got the forces fired up. And what else is significant is the United States didn't just lend a helping hand to Cuba, but by doing so established itself as one of the great imperial powers of the world. And in the United States there were anti-imperialists who were pretty ticked off about this. So we see that it leads to controversy, not just on the battlefield, but also in ideology and politics, too.

Jane McGrath: When you look back on the age of exploration, which is when Spain got all these territories in the first place, it was before the United States emerged. Obviously, the United States was a result of this age of exploration. So Spain was one of the first and most powerful countries to start colonizing place in the Americas in particular! So they got all these powers. And by the 19th century, they had lost a lot of these lands. Cuba was one of those places they still held onto although there was lots of unrest there. There was the Ten Years War between 1868-1878, where Cuba fought for independence and lost. And on the treaty, Spanish tried to promise, "We'll give you more powers and more autonomy." But it didn't work out the way they wanted. And by 1898 there was still violence breaking out.

Candace Gibson: And so Spain had control over Cuba and also had control over Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. And something interesting was happening at this time. If you think about these different island nations, you'll note that they're not all in the same corner of the sea, they're pretty disparate. And President McKinley actually had a military advisors named Alfred T. Mahan who was saying that your nation is only as strong as its navy is, so it's important to have different naval stations throughout the Caribbean and other parts of the oceans around the world. He even advocated for building a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, which eventually happened, but not quite yet. So the United States thought, "This is a pretty good idea." And in an auspicious turn of events, Cuba was asking for the United States' help in throwing off Spain's power and the United States was thinking, "How can we throw ourselves at island nations and increase our naval strength. So all of this came together in a perfect storm of the Spanish-American War!

Jane McGrath: Public sentiment was very geared toward getting Cuba free, and so a lot of people were arguing, "We should get involved." And nothing actually happened for real until the explosion of the Maine. Now the USS Maine was a United States ship that was sent toward Cuba to help look after U.S. interests there. So it mysteriously exploded one day, February 15, 1898. And it killed all the members on board - more than 250 U.S. soldiers, I believe. No one knows what happened. To this day, no one is exactly sure what happened with the explosion. At the time, it was assumed that Spain was responsible. And not everybody believed this. President McKinley launched an inquiry into what happened and nothing was conclusive. By the 1970's actually, they looked back on it and forensic evidence showed that it was probably a result of the coal bunker. There was a mistake there, and something went wrong and exploded.

Candace Gibson: But again, it's one of those cases where you get a big and tall and bold enough headline on a newspaper and you're going to get a lot of rallying support from the public. And when the public screams loudly enough, typically the President has to respond in some way. And what's interesting about press generated during the Spanish-American War, or actually right before the Spanish-American War, is that there were two competing n ewspapers at this time. And the men behind them, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, they wanted to get their copies sold. So you've probably heard of yellow journalism - and this comes from the idea of embellishing stories and creating untruths about what was going on in the world at that time. And Cuba was the perfect place to make splashy news like this. And so supposedly, Hearst even told one of this reporters, "You furnish the pictures and I will furnish the war." Because the newspapers were receiving pictures of Cubans who had been put into concentration camps and other outlets! They were being tortured supposedly by the Spanish, and they were awful images. But when he sent reporters over there, there wasn't actually a whole lot going on. There wasn't much of a story to write. We knew that there were injustices, but we couldn't exactly put our hands on what was happening and how the United States should help because it was so unclear. And so the newspapers were able to create the story themselves and get people involved. And shortly after the Maine and this cry of Remember the Maine, U.S. Congress drafted a Declaration of War against Spain.

Jane McGrath: And Hearst is interesting also because he not only made up these stories, he capitalized on this imminent war as much as he could. And Hearst actually made a card game called War with Spain, and he started a fun to build a Maine memorial dedicated to the USS Maine. He actually offered a $50,000 reward for anyone who could solve the mystery of the explosion.

Candace Gibson: Oh, nice.

Jane McGrath: Exactly. When war was all-out called, he actually referred to it as the journal's war, as if he started it himself.

Candace Gibson: Hubrous. I'll tell you. But it worked. It got a reluctant United States into war with Spain. I quoted John Hay earlier saying it was a splendid little war, it was just four months long - and really that's how it went. There were these U.S. troops who started getting shuffled out to different island nations that Spain still owned. And the Cuban campaign was one of the dirtiest and most awful, because the troops that got sent were so ill equipped to deal with the conditions there. They sent one of the first black infantries to Cuba to fight - this was shortly after the military had been somewhat desegregated. They were moving toward desegregation and they found that there was not adequate food. They were given heavy woolen uniforms and obviously it's way too hot in Cuba for that. And the fighting was just pretty bloody and the troops were outnumbered against the Spanish troops. So victory for them came on the seas, because the Spanish navy was very poor compared to the state of the art ships that the American troops had.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And adding to the food problem, there was also problems with the actual food. Soldiers were complaining about it. They said the beef tasted horrible and there was this scandal that broke out in the U.S. at the time that they were eating embalmed beef. And somebody said this word and it caught fire and people were like, "What the heck is that?" That turned out to be a rumor, I believe. But basically they think the heat of the Cuban summer made it so the meat did not last very well. And they were not eating very well over there in Cuba anyway.

Candace Gibson: And a lot of them contracted yellow fever and other diseases from being in Cuba and being exposed to these conditions. And numbers that I've heard range, but they approximate that 5400 died in the Cuban campaign. And of that, only about 380 of these deaths were actually due to battle and combat with the Spanish forces. So if you can imagine, that's what was going on. And one of the more interesting parts, to me at least - some people say they're overrated, but its fun to imagine Teddy Roosevelt on a horse as a Roughrider. The Roughriders came in, and this was a potpourri of men, everyone from artists to very wealthy men to politicians. And Roosevelt at that time felt that he had to do something to help out with the Cuban campaign. And so they all got together and rode on their horses. And the African American soldiers from the 9th Cavalry were very instrumental in helping to take the battle at Kettle Hill. And they were able to outmaneuver the Spanish again, even if they were outnumbered.

Jane McGrath: And that's partly what made this war so quick. One of the major we should mention, the first battle that happened in the war, happened not in or near Cuba - it happened in the Philippines in Manila Bay. And Admiral George Dewey - it was Teddy Roosevelt who was involved with the Roughriders. But before that, he was actually giving out orders for Admiral George Dewey to bring his squadron over to Hong Kong to get ready to go to the Philippines. And when Dewey actually got to the Philippines, it was basically hands down victory for the United States. And that set the tone for the war, I think.

Candace Gibson: It did. Because there was that chain of success! Once the United States had won enough victories in Cuba, and then once they started winning more victories in the Philippines, everyone was happy because they could see the beginning of the end. And a key figure from the Philippines was Emilio Aguinaldo. And he was very excited about the prospect of the Philippines gaining independence from Spain. And along with the Philippines, there were about 11,000 U.S. troops that came along to help out Aguinaldo. And he declared independence from Spain on behalf of the Philippines. And he was able to commission the U.S. troops to help him out. And once they were able to declare victory there, the United States moved on to Guam. But then things got messy when Spain eventually surrendered. They were like, "Okay, you've got us. You're in Guam now. We can easily see Puerto Rico is next and we're going to be losing all of our territories." So they agreed to sign a peace treaty. But then Aguinaldo got upset because now the United States was in a position where it could have control of the Philippine s. And he thought, "Well, who are these men I was fighting alongside?" And even the anti-imperialists in America were saying, "Who is America anymore? Our nation had been founded on the precept of freedom from tyranny and freedom from imperial powers. And now we've become one of them ourselves." So it was a big struggle that went up to the Supreme Court about how to disseminate this land the U.S. had gained.

Jane McGrath: And it's a controversial issue even to this day. You could make the argument, and they did at the time as well, that the countries that they just liberated from Spanish rule needed to get on their feet now. And are we going to just let them be and what would happen if an anarchy ensues? They don't have a very stable transition. Maybe we should stick around and try to make that work.

Candace Gibson: It sounds like a pretty familiar story, doesn't it?

Jane McGrath: Exactly. A lot of connections to today, of course!

Candace Gibson: So that was the ultimate question. What do we do with these territories? So the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately made a couple of decisions. Puerto Rico was incorporated. The Philippines remained unincorporated, and the Cubans were allowed to write their own constitution, but the United States was still allowed to send there and ultimately Cuba became a protectorate of the United States.

Jane McGrath: And this was principally because of something called the Teller Amendment, which was attached to the permission that Congress gave McKinley when they originally said, "Yes. Go ahead and use whatever you can to go protect Cuba and liberate them from the Spanish." They tacked on the Teller Amendment to say, "When you're done liberating the Cubans you need to leave them alone." And there were of course provisions that they could make sure it was stable, but by 1902 the U.S. mostly had left there and had relinquished their military government control over Cuba by that time.

Candace Gibson: So this brings us back to the question of the monument.

Jane McGrath: I found one book called Lies Across America by James W. Loewen. And he points to this idea that some monuments give the dates of the war from 1898-1902. And he claims this is because it's actually looping in the Philippine-American War where the Filipinos wanted to oust the Americans after the Americans ousted the Spanish. And that didn't settle or stabilize until 1902. I don't know if I agree with Loewen on this point, because you could also say that the monuments are looping in the idea that Cuba wasn't exactly left alone until 1902.

Candace Gibson: But at least it's an attempt at answering that question.

Jane McGrath: That's true. But either way, I think the monument is wrong.

Candace Gibson: Maybe we'll take up a collection and go out there and fix it. Anybody? Anybody at all?

Jane McGrath: I'd like to go to California.

Candace Gibson: I know. I could use it right now. It's sort of cloudy and gray in Atlanta these days. But I'm so glad that Andy wrote and asked that question because it gave us an opportunity to talk about an oft forgotten war. And I didn't know that much about it, so it was fun to explore. So if anyone else has any fun ideas or questions that they would like answered, be sure to email us at And in the interim, you can quench your thirst for history knowledge by visiting the website at

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