The Spanish-American War 1898

Described by future US Secretary of State John Hay as a “splendid little war” the Spanish-American War ended Spain’s history as an imperial power in the western hemisphere, leaving it with only a scattered handful of overseas territories. Meanwhile the US to asserted its dominance as a colonial power in both the Caribbean and Pacific.

Between 1895–98 Cuban revolutionaries fought to gain independence from colonial Spain. Despite Spanish attempts to suppress the uprising a guerrilla insurgency continued, threatening US business interests in Cuban tobacco and sugar. The US was opposed to European colonists operating in its sphere of interest and the American public was increasingly antagonized by Spain’s brutal repression of the insurgents. The USS Maine was sent to Havana Harbour to safeguard American citizens on the island and, in February 1898, it sank after a massive explosion. The cause has never been determined, but jingoistic journalism blamed the Spanish, provoking public outrage. President McKinley recognized the independence of Cuba and issued an ultimatum to Spain demanding their withdrawal from the island. The US immediately implemented a naval blockade of Cuba on 22 April and Spain declared war on the US; the US reciprocated three days later.

On 1 May 1898, the US Asiatic squadron, led by Commodore Dewey, decimated the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay in the first battle of the Spanish-American War. US Commodore Dewey was instructed to destroy the elderly Spanish Pacific fleet, stationed in the Spanish Philippines. Dewey attacked the unsuspecting Spanish at 5.40 am. After two hours of fire most of the Spanish fleet was destroyed, and went on to surrender at midday, despite several US ships withdrawing at 7.35 due to shortage of ammunition.

Hostilities also occurred in the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico. On 10 June US troops landed at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and between 22 and 24 June further troops landed near the port of Santiago. An American-Cuban force besieged the city, while the Spanish fleet was largely destroyed trying to escape its harbour. With Spain’s Philippines fleet also destroyed, and American forces wracked by yellow fever, both sides were ready for peace. On 13 August, the US again lay siege to Manila, this time by land. A near bloodless battle ensued, ending in a Spanish surrender.

On 10 December the Spanish and Americans signed the Treaty of Paris (ratified by the US Senate on 6 February 1899). The independence of Cuba was guaranteed, and Spain ceded Guam and Puerto Rico to the US. Spain also agreed to sell the Philippines to the US for $20 million. The Americans used the war as a pretext to annex the independent state of Hawaii, which was seen as a strategic base that would protect America’s growing interests in the Pacific.

The war provoked heated debate within the US. Anti-imperialists argued that the war had been fought to free Cuba from colonial rule, not as a means of acquiring an American empire, and they were further incensed when Filipino rebels, under the leadership of Emilio Aguinaldo, conducted a three-year insurrection against their colonial masters, costing 4,000 US lives. For many others the war marked the emergence of the US onto the world stage; for the first time the US saw itself as a defender of democracy, a role that it would embrace to dramatic effect in the following century.