The War With Spain, and After
IN the summary of his chapter on Spanish civilization, Mr. Buckle wrote:
“ A people who regard the past with too wistful an eye will never bestir themselves to help the onward progress ; they will hardly believe that progress is possible. To them antiquity is synonymous with wisdom, and every improvement is a dangerous innovation. In this state Europe lingered for many centuries; in this state Spain still lingers. . . . Content with what has been bequeathed, they [the Spaniards] are excluded from that great European movement, which, first clearly perceptible in the sixteenth century, has ever since been steadily advancing, unsettling old opinions, destroying old follies, reforming and improving on every side, influencing even such barbarous countries as Russia and Turkey, but leaving Spain untouched. . . . While Europe is ringing with the noise of intellectual achievements, with which even despotic governments affect to sympathize, in order that they may divert them from their natural course, and use them as new instruments whereby to oppress yet more the liberties of the people ; while, amidst this general din and excitement, the public mind, swayed to and fro, is tossed and agitated, — Spain sleeps on, untroubled, unheeding, impassive, receiving no impressions from the rest of the world, and making no impressions upon it. There she lies, at the furthest extremity of the continent, a huge and torpid mass, the sole representative now remaining of the feelings and knowledge of the Middle Ages. And what is the worst symptom of all, she is satisfied with her own condition. Though she is the most backward country in Europe, she believes herself to be the foremost.”
In President Eliot’s summary of the most important contributions that the United States has made to civilization, he says : —
“ These five contributions to civilization — peace - keeping, religious toleration, the development of manhood suffrage, the welcoming of newcomers, and the diffusion of well-being — I hold to have been eminently characteristic of our country, and so important that, in spite of the qualifications and deductions which every candid citizen would admit with regard to them, they will ever be held in the grateful remembrance of mankind. They are reasonable grounds for a steady, glowing patriotism. They have had much to do, both as causes and as effects, with the material prosperity of the United States ; but they are all five essentially moral contributions, being triumphs of reason, enterprise, courage, faith, and justice, over passion, selfishness, inertness, timidity, and distrust. Beneath each one of these developments there lies a strong ethical sentiment, a strenuous moral and social purpose. It is for such work that multitudinous democracies are fit.”
In the fertile but devastated island that is the pathetic remnant of Spain’s dominion in the New World, these New World virtues have never thriven. As for the diffusion of well-being, Spanish rule has been a rule of colonial oppression and of open plunder even in times of nominal peace. As for religious toleration, and confidence in manhood suffrage, and a welcome to newcomers, men do not think of these things when they say either ” Cuba ” or “ Spain.” As for peace-keeping, not to recall the rebellion of 1823 and subsequent disturbances, an organized revolt was begun in 1868, which, though formally ended in 1878 by the characteristic Spanish method of bribing the rebel leaders, has never really ceased ; for the present revolt, which has gone on since 1895, is only a continuation of the old struggle. By the persistence of the insurgents, and by the exterminating method of General Weyler, one of the richest islands in the world has been brought to starvation. A large Spanish army has perished, and a large population has died of hunger. In the history of barbarities it would be hard to find a parallel to the misery of the colony. Spain has not been able either to govern it respectably or to keep the peace.1
Here, then, if Mr. Buckle’s and Mr. Eliot’s summaries of the two civilizations be accurate, is an irreconcilable difference of civilizations, — a difference that lies deeper than the difference between any other two “ Christian ” civilizations that are brought close together anywhere in the world. If irreconcilable civilizations are brought close together, there will be a clash ; and since Cuba is within a hundred miles of our coast, at a time when all the earth is become one community in the bonds of commerce, a clash of ideals and of interests has been unavoidable.
It is no wonder, then, that we have had a Cuban question for more than ninety years. At times it has disappeared from our politics, but it has always reappeared. Once we thought it wise to prevent the island from winning its independence from Spain, and thereby, perhaps, we entered into moral bonds to make sure that Spain governed it decently. Whether we definitely contracted such an obligation or not, the Cuban question has never ceased to annoy us. The controversies about it make a long series of chapters in one continuous story of diplomatic trouble. Many of our ablest statesmen have had to deal with it as secretaries of state and as ministers to Spain, and not one of them has been able to settle it. One President after another has taken it up, and every one has transmitted it to his successor. It has at various times been a “ plank” in the platforms of all our political parties, — as it was in both the party platforms of 1896, — and it has been the subject of messages of nearly all our Presidents, as it was of President Cleveland’s message in December, 1896, in which he distinctly expressed the opinion that the United States might feel forced to recognize “ higher obligations ” than neutrality to Spain. In spite of periods of apparent quiet, the old trouble has always reappeared in an acute form, and it has never been settled ; nor has there recently been any strong reason for hope that it could be settled merely by diplomatic negotiation with Spain. Our diplomats have long had an experience with Spanish character and methods such as the public can better understand since war has been in progress. The pathetic inefficiency and the continual indirection of the Spanish character are now apparent to the world ; they were long ago apparent to those who have had our diplomatic duties to do.
Thus the negotiations dragged on. We were put to trouble and expense to prevent filibustering, and filibustering continued in spite of us. More than once heretofore has there been danger of international conflict, as for instance when American sailors on the Virginius were executed in Cuba in 1873. Propositions have been made to buy the island, and plans have been formed to annex it. All the while there have been American interests in Cuba. Our citizens have owned property and made investments there, and done much to develop its fertility. They have paid tribute, unlawful as well as lawful, both to insurgents and to Spanish officials. They have lost property, for much of which no indemnity has been paid. All the while we have had a trade with the island, important during periods of quiet, irritating during periods of unrest.
The Cuban trouble is, therefore, not a new trouble even in an acute form. It had been moving toward a crisis for a long time. Still, while our government suffered these diplomatic vexations, and our citizens these losses, and our merchants these annoyances, the mass of the American people gave little serious thought to it. The newspapers kept us reminded of an opera-bouffe war that was going on, and now and then there came information of delicate and troublesome diplomatic duties for our minister to Spain. If Cuba were within a hundred miles of the coast of one of our populous states and near one of our great ports, periods of acute interest in its condition would doubtless have come earlier and oftener, and we should long ago have had to deal with a crisis by warlike measures. Or if the insurgents had commanded respect instead of mere pity, we should have paid heed to their struggle sooner; for it is almost an American maxim that a people cannot govern itself till it can win its own independence.
When it began to be known that Weyler’s method of extermination was producing want in the island, and when appeals were made to American charity, we became more interested. President Cleveland found increasing difficulty with the problem. Our Department of State was again obliged to give it increasingly serious attention, and a resolute determination was reached by the administration that this scandal to civilization should cease, — we yet supposed peacefully, — and Spain was informed of our resolution. When Mr. McKinley came to the presidency, the people, conscious of a Cuban problem, were yet not greatly aroused about it. Indeed, a prediction of war made a year or even six months ago would have seemed wild and foolish. Most persons still gave little thought to Cuba, and there seemed a likelihood that they would go on indefinitely without giving serious thought to it; for neither the insurgents, nor the Cuban Junta, nor the Cuban party in the United States, if there was such a party, commanded respect.
The American public was in this mood when the battleship Maine was blown up in the harbor of Havana. The masses think in events, and not in syllogisms, and this was an event. This event provoked suspicions in the public mind. The thought of the whole nation was instantly directed to Cuba. The fate of the sailors on the Virginius, twentyfive years ago, was recalled. The public curiosity about everything Cuban and Spanish became intense. The Weyler method of warfare became more generally known. The story of our long diplomatic trouble with Spain was recalled. Diplomacy was obliged to proceed with doors less securely shut. The country watched for news from Washington and from Madrid with eagerness. It happened to be a singularly quiet and even dull time in our own political life, — a time favorable for the concentration of public attention on any subject that prominently presented itself. The better the condition of Cuba was understood, the more deplorable it was seen to be; the more the government of the island was examined, the wider seemed the divergence between Spain’s methods and our own ; the more the diplomatic history of the case was considered, the plainer became Spain’s purpose to brook no interference, whether in the name of humanity or in the name of friendly commercial interests. The calm report of the naval court of inquiry on the blowing up of the Maine and Senator Proctor’s report of the condition of Cuba put the whole people in a very serious mood.
There is no need to discuss minor and accidental causes that hastened the rush of events; but such causes were not lacking either in number or in influence. Newspapers conducted by lost souls that make merchandise of all things that inflame men’s worst passions, a Congress with no attractive political programme for the next election, and a spirit of unrest among those classes of the people who had not wholly recovered from the riot in false hopes that inspired the followers of Mr. Bryan in 1896.—these and more made their contributions to the rapidly rising excitement. But all these together could not have driven us to war if we had not been willing to be driven, — if the conviction had not become firm in the minds of the people that Spanish rule in Cuba was a blot on civilization that had now begun to bring reproach to us ; and when the President, who favored peace, declared it “ intolerable.” the people were ready to accept his judgment.
It is always a most difficult art to discern, in so large a country as ours, when a tide of public opinion is rising; and it is an art at which men who are most contentedly engaged with their own affairs, or who think much of other lands or of things in other times, are not likely to excel. The undercurrents of public opinion sometimes find accurate expression in the newspapers and in Congress, and sometimes they do not; but there are moods when the public temper shows itself in ways all its own, sweeping slowly and strongly like an undertow beneath the customary forms of expression ; and it moves not always logically, but from event to event. Now, there can no longer be doubt that after the blowing up of the Maine public opinion moved forward instinctively to a strong pitch of indignation, impelled not only by lesser causes, but by the institutional differences laid down by Mr. Buckle and Mr. Eliot. It felt its way toward the conviction that tlie republic does stand for something, — for fair play, for humanity, and for direct dealing, — and that these things do put obligations on us; and the delays and indirections of diplomacy became annoying. We rushed into war almost before we knew it, not because we desired war, but because we desired something to be done with the old problem that should be direct and definite and final. Let us end it once for all.
Congress, it is true, in quiet times, is likely to represent the shallows and the passing excitements of our life rather than its deeper moods, but there is among the members of Congress a considerable body of conservative men ; and the vote for war was practically unanimous, and public opinion sustained it. Among the people during the period when war seemed inevitable, but had not yet been declared, — a period during which the Powers of Europe found time and mind to express a hope for peace, — hardly a peace meeting was held by influential men. The President and his cabinet were known to wish longer to try diplomatic means of averting war, but no organized peace party came into existence. Except expressions of the hope of peace made by commercial and ecclesiastical organizations, no protest was heard against the approaching action of Congress. Many thought that war could have been postponed, if not prevented, but the popular mood was at least acquiescent, if not insistent, and it has since become unmistakably approving.
Not only is there in the United States an unmistakable popular approval of war as the only effective means of restoring civilization in Cuba, but the judgment of the English people promptly approved it, — giving evidence of an instinctive race and institutional sympathy. If AngloSaxon institutions and methods stand for anything, the institutions and methods of Spanish rule in Cuba are an abomination and a reproach. And English sympathy is not more significant as an evidence of the necessity of the war and as a good omen for the future of free institutions than the equally instinctive sympathy with Spain that has been expressed by some of the decadent influences on the Continent; indeed, the real meaning of American civilization and ideals will henceforth be somewhat more clearly understood in several quarters of the world.
American character will be still better understood when the whole world clearly perceives that, the purpose of the war is only to remove from our very doors this cruel and inefficient piece of mediævalism which is one of the two great scandals of the closing years of the century ; for it is not a war of conquest. There is a strong and definite sentiment against the annexation of Cuba, and against our responsibility for its government further than we are now bound to be responsible. Once free, let it govern itself ; and it ought to govern itself at least as well as other Spanish-American countries have governed themselves since they achieved their independence.
The problems that seem likely to follow the war are graver than those that have led up to it; and if it be too late to ask whether we entered into it without sufficient deliberation, it is not too soon to make sure of every step that we now take. The inspiring unanimity of the people in following their leaders proves to be as earnest and strong as it ever was under any form of government; and this popular acquiescence in war puts a new responsibility on those leaders, and may put our institutions and our people themselves to a new test. A change in our national policy may change our very character; and we are now playing with the great forces that may shape the future of the world — almost before we know it.
Yesterday we were going about the prosaic tasks of peace, content with our own problems of administration and finance, a nation to ourselves, — “ commercials,” as our enemies call us in derision. Today we are face to face with the sort of problems that have grown up in the management of world-empires, and the policies of other nations are of intimate concern to us. Shall we still be content with peaceful industry, or does there yet lurk in us the adventurous spirit of our Anglo-Saxon forefathers ? And have we come to a time when, no more great enterprises awaiting us at home, we shall be tempted to seek them abroad?
The race from which we are sprung is a race that for a thousand years has done the adventurous and outdoor tasks of the world. The English have been explorers, colonizers, conquerors of continents, founders of states. We ourselves, every generation since we came to America, have had great practical enterprises to engage us, — the fighting with Indians, the clearing of forests, the war for independence, the construction of a government, the extension of our territory, the pushing backward of the frontier, the development of an El Dorado (which the Spaniards owned, but never found), the long internal conflict about slavery, a great civil war, the building of railroads, and the compact unification of a continental domain. These have been as great enterprises and as exciting, coming in rapid succession, as any race of men has ever had to engage it, — as great enterprises for the play of the love of adventure in the blood as our kinsmen over the sea have had in the extension and the management of their world-empire. The old outdoor spirit of the Anglo - Saxon has till lately found wider scope in our own history than we are apt to remember.
But, now a generation has come to manhood that has had no part in any great adventure. In politics we have had difficult and important tasks, indeed, but they have not been exciting, — the reform of the civil service and of the system of currency, and the improvement of municipal government. These are chiefly administrative. In a sense they are not new nor positive tasks, but the correction of past errors. In some communities polities has fallen into the hands of petty brigands, and in others into those of second-rate men, partly because it has offered little constructive work to do. Its duties have been routine, regulative duties ; its prizes, only a commonplace distinction to honest men, and the vulgar spoil of office to dishonest ones. The decline in the character of our public life has been a natural result of the lack of large constructive opportunities. The best equipped men of this generation have abstained from it, and sought careers by criticism of the public servants who owe their power to the practical inactivity of the very men who criticise them. In literature as well we have well-nigh lost the art of constructive writing, for we work too much on indoor problems, and content ourselves with adventures in criticism. It is note worthy that the three books which have found most readers, and had perhaps the widest influence on the masses of this generation, are books of Utopian social programmes (mingled with very different proportions of truth), by whose fantastic philosophy, thanks to the dullness of the times, men have tried seriously to shape our national conduct, — Progress and Poverty, Looking Backward, and Coin’s Financial School. Apostolic fervor, romantic dreaming, and blatant misinformation have each captivated the idleminded masses, because their imaginations were not duly exercised in their routine toil. It has been a time of social reforms, of the “ emancipation ” of women, of national organizations of children, of societies for the prevention of minor vices and for the encouragement of minor virtues, of the study of genealogy, of the rise of morbid fiction, of journals for “ ladies,” of literature for babes, of melodrama on the stage because we have had melodrama in life also,—of criticism and reform rather than of thought and action. These things all denote a lack of adventurous opportunities, an indoor life such as we have never before had a chance to enjoy; and there are many indications that a life of quiet may have become irksome, and may not yet be natural to us. Greater facts than these denote a period also of peace and such well-being as men of our race never before enjoyed, — sanitary improvements, the multiplication and the development of universities, the establishment of hospitals, and the application of benevolence to the whole circle of human life, — such a growth of good will as we had come to think had surely made war impossible.
Is this dream true ? Or is it true that with a thousand years of adventure behind us we are unable to endure a life of occupations that do not feed the imagination ? After all, it is temperament that tells, and not schemes of national policy, whether laid down in Farewell Addresses or in Utopian books. No national character was ever shaped by formula or by philosophy; for greater forces than these lie behind it, — the forces of inheritance and of events. Are we, by virtue of our surroundings and institutions, become a different people from our ancestors, or are we yet the same race of Anglo-Saxons, whose restless energy in colonization, in conquest, in trade, in “the spread of civilization,” has carried their speech into every part of the world, and planted their habits everywhere ?
Within a week such a question, which we had hitherto hardly thought seriously to ask during our whole national existence, has been put before us by the first foreign war that we have had since we became firmly established as a nation. Before we knew the meaning of foreign possessions in a world ever growing more jealous, we have found ourselves the captors of islands in both great oceans ; and from our home-staying policy of yesterday we are brought face to face with world-wide forces in Asia as well as in Europe, which seem to be working, by the opening of the Orient, for one of the greatest changes in human history. Until a little while ago our latest war dispatches came from Appomattox. Now our latest dispatches (when this is written) come from Manila. The news from Appomattox concerned us only. The news from Manila sets every statesman and soldier in the world to thinking new thoughts about us, and to asking new questions. And to nobody has the change come more unexpectedly than to ourselves. Has it come without our knowing the meaning of it ? The very swiftness of these events and the ease with which they have come to pass are matter for more serious thought than the unjust rule of Spain in Cuba, or than any tasks that have engaged us since we rose to commanding physical power.
The removal of the scandal of Spain’s control of its last American colony is as just and merciful as it is pathetic, — a necessary act of surgery for the health of civilization. Of the two disgraceful scandals of modern misgovernment, the one which lay within our correction will no longer deface the world. But when we have removed it, let us make sure that we stop; for the Old World’s troubles are not our troubles, nor its tasks our tasks, and we should not become sharers in its jealousies and entanglements. The continued progress of the race in the equalization of opportunity and in well-being depends on democratic institutions, of which we, under God, are yet, in spite of all our shortcomings, the chief beneficiaries and custodians. Our greatest victory will not be over Spain, but over ourselves, — to show once more that even in its righteous wrath the republic has the virtue of self-restraint. At every great emergency in our history we have had men equal to the duties that faced us. The men of the Revolution were the giants of their generation. Our civil war brought forward the most striking personality of the century. As during a period of peace we did not forget our courage and efficiency in war, so, we believe, during a period of routine domestic politics we have not lost our capacity for the largest statesmanship. The great merit of democracy is that, out of its multitudes, who have all had a chance for natural development, there arise, when occasion demands, stronger and wiser men than any class - governed societies have ever bred.
- In summing up the narrative of the loss of Spain’s other colonies in the New World, Justin Winsor says, in The Narrative and Critical History of America (vol. viii. p. 341) : “The Spanish colonies commenced their independent careers under every possible disadvantage. All important posts, both in church and state, had almost invariably been given to Spaniards. Out of six hundred and seventy-two viceroys, captains-general, and governors who had ruled in America since its discovery, only eighteen had been Americans; and there had been one hundred and five native bishops out of a total of seven hundred and six. The same system of exclusion existed in the appointments of the presidents and judges of the Audiencias. This injustice not only gave rise to bitter complaints, but it was permanently injurious to the colonists, because it deprived them of a trained governing class when the need arose. Their exclusion from intercourse with the rest of the world had been still more injurious, and had thrown them back both as regards material prosperity and educational facilities.”↩