A HUNDRED years ago The Atlantic Monthly published "The Decadence of Spain," by the historian Henry Charles Lea. In ten pages Lea traced the collapse of the world's first global empire, explaining it as essentially the result of "pride, conservatism, and clericalism." These national characteristics had led Spaniards to despise useful labor, ignore the development of industrial technology, and stifle intellectual and political liberty. As a result, their country had lost most of its vast conquests and now stood to lose the rest: "Spain has made of her colonies the buried talent, and the fulfillment of the parable must come to pass."
At the time this was published, in July of 1898, the United States had been at war with Spain for about two months, and the U.S. Navy had already destroyed the enemy's entire Pacific fleet. America's victory was imminent -- Spain sued for peace on July 26. So although "The Decadence of Spain" included no mention of the author's own country, circumstances clearly invited a comparison. The United States had the largest manufacturing industry in the world, and a tradition of political and religious freedom. In the terms of Lea's article it was inevitable that Old World decadence would yield to New World virtue.
Yet it had not been inevitable that the two nations would go to war, or that the United States would become a colonial power as a result. The process by which these things occurred is the subject of Ivan Musicant's Empire by Default, one of several books on the Spanish-American War scheduled for publication in this centennial year. As his title suggests, Musicant argues that the United States acquired its empire not as the goal of a deliberate policy but virtually by accident. Driven to war by popular support for a humanitarian cause, initially reluctant leaders found themselves with the victors' spoils -- and soon discovered strong reasons for keeping them.
The origins of the conflict lay in Cuba, one of Spain's oldest colonies. A major export market for the mother country, the island was no less important as a source of national pride, a physical link to the grand imperial past. Early in the nineteenth century, when Spain's continental possessions from Mexico to Argentina won their independence, Cuba stayed loyal -- largely because its whites feared that revolution would inspire a Haiti-style rebellion by their many black slaves. Thus Spaniards called it "the ever faithful isle."
Yet in 1868, after centuries of political domination by a Spanish-born ruling class and onerous taxation by Madrid, an alliance of free Cuban blacks and island-born whites revolted against the empire. Their insurrection lasted ten years, and was finally put down by a combination of force and promises of reform -- promises soon broken. Following the revolt, some Cubans formed a movement to seek self-rule under the Spanish crown. Others concluded that the only hope for freedom lay in separatism.
After the Ten Years' War, Cuba began to form stronger ties to the United States. Americans bought many of the sugar plantations that had been ruined during the fighting, and sugar exports to the north rapidly increased, as did Cuba's economic dependence on the United States. A number of defeated rebels emigrated to the United States after 1878, and in 1892 the exiled poet and journalist José Martí founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party in New York. There he planned a new war of liberation, to be financed largely by Cuban tobacco workers in Florida.
Once fighting began, in 1895, Martí left for his homeland, where he was killed in battle almost immediately. His colleagues who remained in the United States worked to shape public opinion and official policy there. Labor unions endorsed their cause; newspapers reprinted their stories of Spanish atrocities, which came to include the herding of peasants into fortified "reconcentration" camps, where tens of thousands died of starvation or disease; and sympathetic members of Congress introduced resolutions recognizing the rebel government.
Americans were disposed to respond passionately. After all, their own nation's beginnings lay in a colonized people who fought off European tyranny. And lately they had shown a heightened sensitivity to events beyond their borders, when members of the clergy called for military action to stop the massacre of Armenians by the Turks. Now outraged citizens -- notably including patriotic veterans' groups and Protestant churches unsympathetic to "Pope-ridden Spain" -- demonstrated in support of "Cuba Libre." Not all support for the cause was disinterested: proponents of America's territorial expansion encouraged war as part of what the Republican senator Henry Cabot Lodge would later call "the large policy."
The executive branch resisted these demands of voters and politicians. Musicant writes,
In dealing with the Cuban crisis prior to the war, both Grover Cleveland and William McKinley initially held a single purpose uppermost: to avert any international tangles that could upset the flow of the nation's business, still emerging from the depression of 1893. The Democrat Cleveland spurned calls to recognize the insurgents and insisted on punishing Americans caught running guns to them. Yet he also grew exasperated with Madrid's refusal to negotiate with the rebels, and warned that the United States might eventually intervene.
William McKinley, the Republican who succeeded Cleveland in 1897, appointed an outspoken young expansionist named Theodore Roosevelt as his assistant secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt's work in that post would favorably affect the Battle of Manila Bay, one of the two most celebrated U.S. victories of 1898. (As lieutenant colonel of the volunteer cavalry regiment known as the Rough Riders, he would distinguish himself in the other famous victory, the taking of the San Juan heights in Cuba.) While TR and his ideological allies pressed for war, McKinley sought a diplomatic solution. Hinting at military intervention to satisfy the jingoes in Congress, the President appealed to Spain for liberal reforms that might bring peace to Cuba.