The ‘Splendid Little War’

Exactly 120 years ago this month, the United States was gearing up to go to war. In April Congress would declare it, government in those days still adhering to the constitutional requirement that Congress declare the nation’s wars instead of presidents launching them on their own.

Against which country was the U.S. going to war in 1898? It was Spain. An average American’s knowledge of history being as slight as his attention span is short, it’s fair to surmise that a lot of folks today would be unaware that the U.S. ever waged war against Spain. Not that they would be troubled by their ignorance. (When are they ever?)

Visitors to this website, at least regular ones, aren’t average, else they wouldn’t be regulars, but even they may not appreciate the importance of the Spanish-American War. After all, it lasted but ten weeks and cost the lives of no more than 281 men killed in action and 3,000 dead of disease, mostly Yellow Fever. Considering how little was lost and how much the U.S. gained, John Hay, the U.S. ambassador in London at the time, hailed it as a “splendid little war.” (Hay had been Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary and we can measure the weight of his judgements by his having said of Lincoln that he was “the greatest character since Christ.” He ended his career as U.S. Secretary of State, dying in 1905.)

What was gained? All of Spain’s remaining overseas territories outside Africa: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines. Cuba became a U.S. protectorate, Puerto Rico and Guam were annexed as Territories (as they remain today), the Philippines were made a colony (as they would remain until 1946, though to keep them so the U.S. Army had to fight Filipino insurgents seeking independence).

The war had other results and we shall come to them in a few moments. First, a brief overview of the war itself. To begin, readers should know that even as Americans were led to believe that Saddam Hussein was somehow involved in the 9/11 attacks and were told he possessed weapons of mass destruction to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq, they were told a lie to justify the war against Spain. What happened: On the night of February 15, 1898, there was an explosion on board the U.S. heavy cruiser Maine, which was anchored in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, and she sank; 250 sailors died. The lie was that a Spanish mine sank her. (A 1974 investigation headed by Admiral Hyman Rickover, developer of the U.S. Navy’s first nuclear-powered submarine, concluded that an internal explosion sank the Maine.) As in the run up to Operation Freedom (the U.S. invasion of Iraq), news media were key in spreading and reinforcing the lie. “Remember the Maine!” shrieked a newspaper headline in New York City.

What was the Maine doing in Havana? It was a show of force. For some years independence-minded Cubans had been fighting a sporadic guerrilla-type insurgency against Spanish military forces garrisoned in the island. Since Spain regarded Cuba as a province, not a colony, Madrid saw these Cubans as rebels the same way Abraham Lincoln viewed Southerners who sought independence from the U.S. in 1861. Madrid did as had Lincoln: moved to crush the rebellion. U.S. public opinion generally favored the Cubans against the Spanish and the presence of the Maine, ostensibly to protect Americans residing in the island and U.S. business interests, was a demonstration of it. When the cruiser sank the situation escalated. The U.S. demanded that Spain withdraw its military forces from Cuba. Spain ignored the demand. War was declared.

It was fought in two theaters, in the Pacific as well as the Caribbean. The U.S. Army fought some battles on land in Cuba (most of them not much more than skirmishes) but the war was really a naval operation, a pretty effortless one. Madrid called home its best, most modern ships to defend the Spanish mainland ports. The squadrons left in Cuba and the Philippines were virtual sitting ducks for the U.S. Navy. As we said earlier, the whole thing was over in ten weeks.

What were the results? There was first, as already noted, the acquisition of new territory, which went some way toward satisfying an expansionist appetite not fully appeased even when the U.S. annexed half of Mexico (today’s Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California) at the end of our war against that country in 1846.

Another result: The chief land battle of the war, the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba, catapulted the wealthy young New York aristocrat Theodore Roosevelt into the position of national hero and got him elected Vice President of the U.S. so that he then became President when William McKinley was assassinated in 1900.

Further, the war against Spain is seen by historians as going some way to healing wounds remaining from the War Between the States as North and South united to fight a common foe. Indeed, four former Confederate generals served as U.S. generals in the Spanish-America War. Only one of them, Joseph Wheeler, saw action, and it is not certain that he was clear in his mind as to whom he was fighting. At the Battle of Las Guasimas he was heard to cry, “Let’s go boys! We’ve got the damn Yankees on the run.”

Above all, the Spanish-American War marked the entry of the United States onto the world stage. Kaiser Wilhelm II saw this, and foresaw the possible consequences. He called on other European powers to unite with Germany in support of Spain. His call was ignored. That brings us to another matter.

It was quite natural that Protestant churches in the U.S. enthusiastically supported war against Catholic Spain. However, also among the loudest cheerleaders for the war were U.S. Catholic bishops, and the loudest of all were leading members of the episcopate most closely associated with what Pope Leo XIII would condemn as the heresy of Americanism in his 1899 apostolic letter Testem benevolentiae. God willing, in a few weeks we shall talk about the connection between the “splendid little war” and the heresy of Americanism. We shall also remember that apart from Korea the Catholic interest has suffered in every foreign war waged by the U.S. right up to, and including, the current deployment of ground troops in Syria, of which most Americans seem blissfully unaware.

(To be continued)