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.
Madrid did not consider itself free to make such concessions. The Bourbon dynasty had been twice deposed in the nineteenth century -- once by Napoleon, once by its own army -- and twice restored, each time weaker than before. Challenged by a broad and growing array of parties (including absolute monarchists, republicans, socialists, and anarchists), the ministers of the constitutional monarchy dared not show weakness in handling Cuba. Such a mistake could topple not just a particular government but the regime itself.
In any case, the Cuban insurgents were not looking to negotiate; they sought not autonomy but independence, and growing U.S. support only encouraged them to hold out for it. The leaders of the United States and Spain found themselves pushed toward a war that neither side wanted.
ON February 15, 1898, the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana harbor, killing 266 of the 354 men aboard. The cause remains a mystery: the latest study (based on computer modeling, and published by National Geographic last February) concludes that it could have been either a spontaneous coal fire inside the ship or an underwater mine outside it. If it was the latter, the culprits may have been Spaniards, or else Cuban insurgents seeking to provoke war.
Whatever the cause of the disaster, its consequences are well established. On March 28 McKinley sent to Congress a U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry report blaming the Spanish authorities, not for planting the putative mine but for failing to stop whoever had done so. Public clamor for war grew, and turned into anger toward the cautious McKinley; in early April some Coloradans hanged him in effigy. Lodge warned that if the President did not act, he risked losing Congress to the Democrats in the fall. After a final attempt to arbitrate a settlement, which foundered on Spain's unwillingness to allow for the possibility of Cuban independence, on April 25 McKinley asked Congress for a declaration of war, which he received the same day.
The President and Congress explicitly disavowed any intention of annexing the island. As Musicant puts it, "War with monarchical, Catholic Spain had no original aim but to kick the withered Spaniard, after four hundred years, out of the Western Hemisphere." That aim would begin to change after only a week, when America won its first victory 10,000 miles from Cuba.
On May 1, in a battle lasting only seven hours and with no loss of American life, the U.S. Navy's Asiatic Squadron, under Commodore George Dewey, destroyed Spain's entire Pacific fleet at Manila Bay, in the Spanish colony of the Philippines. Dewey's phlegmatic order to his skipper ("You may fire when you are ready, Gridley") became the second most famous phrase from the war (after "Remember the Maine!"), and seemed to sum up the self-possession and self-confidence of a nation coming of age. The commodore, quickly promoted to admiral, became the subject of popular songs and was even proposed as a candidate for President.
Dewey's attack had been intended to push Spain toward surrender in Cuba -- not to acquire territory in the South Pacific. Even a month after the victory McKinley was apparently planning to keep nothing more than the city of Manila, as a naval base. Yet the year's events had left the President especially sensitive to popular opinion. That fall, stumping for Republican House candidates in the midterm elections, McKinley made some vague statements that seemed to favor annexation, others that hinted the opposite. A stenographer stood by to register the levels of applause, which resounded in favor of keeping the archipelago. Voters had discovered an appetite for empire.
The voice of God seconded that of the people. As McKinley later told it, having gone "down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night," he finally realized that the Spanish were not fit to rule the Filipinos, nor were the Filipinos fit to rule themselves, and that it would be "bad business and discreditable" to hand the archipelago over to "our commercial rivals in the orient," France and Germany. Accordingly, "there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and Christianize them." (This notwithstanding that after more than three centuries of Spanish rule most Filipinos were already Roman Catholics.)
In addition to the Philippines, the war yielded to the United States the islands of Puerto Rico and Guam; and in the expansive mood of 1898 Congress finally annexed Hawaii, as American residents of those islands had proposed five years before. This was the new empire, which, according to Musicant, the American people and their leaders subsequently justified in three major ways: altruistically, as a means to "uplift and Christianize" benighted natives; economically, as an expanded market for American crops and manufactures; and strategically, as the sites for a system of naval bases. This last rationale was especially dear to the expansionists, who held to the doctrine of the naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan that a nation's only secure defense lay in control of the sea. Puerto Rico and Hawaii would eventually prove their strategic value by defending the approaches to the Panama Canal. But the Philippines would turn out to be less of an asset, because distance made for tenuous supply lines; in 1941 the Japanese cut off Manila in a single day.
Musicant lays out all these ramifications clearly, and with a concision that is unfortunately not typical of his book. Empire by Default retraces the paths to Havana and Manila with a thoroughness that is sometimes admirable but often wearisome. We learn the gauge and make of seemingly every gun fired in the war, but little about the men who fired the guns. The text runs a third longer than David Trask's The War With Spain in 1898, which remains the scholarly standard; yet Musicant adds little in the way of personal characterization, an element essential to successful popular history.
MUCH more readable, and no less well researched, is Elmore Leonard's novel Cuba Libre. The story of Ben Tyler, an American cowboy running guns to the Cuban insurgents, it parallels the experience of America itself, as Tyler gets far more deeply involved in the island's affairs than he ever intended. Arriving in Havana three days after the sinking of the Maine, Tyler meets a representative cast of characters through whom he learns about, or with whom he experiences firsthand, the major events of the war. Among them are a sharpshooting U.S. Marine, who survives the Maine explosion to take part in the raid on Guantánamo; a Chicago newspaper reporter, who keeps everyone (including the reader) abreast of wider political and military developments; a rich American planter, more concerned with his business than with taking sides in the conflict; the planter's dull-witted bodyguard, whose past as a New Orleans strikebreaker reminds us of the turbulent social background to 1898; the planter's factotum, a mulatto named Victor Fuentes, who is secretly fighting on the side of the rebels; and the cruel Major Tavalera, of the Civil Guard, the main Spanish character.
The most representative American is Amelia Brown, the planter's mistress, whose observations of Cuban suffering have led her to espouse the rebel cause, and who offers to stage her own kidnapping in a scheme to raise money for the insurgency. Fuentes interprets her support for the rebels unsentimentally: "She wants to be famous." As it turns out, she aims to keep the ransom for herself, and tells Tyler that this was her plan all along: "I came here seeking my fortune, the same as you." Yet her motives are not simply mercenary. She speaks wistfully of a long-abandoned plan to work in a leper colony, and before the end of the novel she gets her wish. A mixture of idealism and opportunism, Amelia epitomizes the character of her country as borne out by the events of 1898.
THE loss of its empire had a profound effect on Spain, where it was long known simply as "the Disaster." Deprived of the Cuban market for its textiles, Catalonia suffered an economic crisis that aggravated the region's long-standing separatist tendencies. The military pursued conquests in Morocco in a futile and costly attempt to reclaim the glories of empire. Intellectuals of the "Generation of '98" questioned the established political, cultural, and social orders from both the right and the left. All these developments undermined the constitutional monarchy, which finally fell in 1931. The tumultuous Second Republic, civil war, and more than thirty-five years of military dictatorship followed. Generalísimo Francisco Franco, who was five years old in 1898, later recalled, "When we began our life ... we saw our childhood dominated by the contemptible incompetence of those men who abandoned half of the fatherland's territory to foreigners." According to his biographer, Franco "would see his greatest achievement as wiping out the shame of 1898."
For the United States, that year inaugurated at least one century as a great power, but less than half a century as a significant colonial power, ending with the independence of the Philippines in 1946. Following America's victory in a war billed as a struggle against tyranny, colonies were no longer politically defensible. The mercantilist model of captive markets did not fit with the free-trade policies that the United States followed after the Second World War. Air power and nuclear weapons had rendered Mahanian ideas of naval primacy obsolete. The age of empires was past.
Francis X. Rocca, a former Fulbright fellow in Spain, is the managing editor of He has written for The Wall Street Journal and The Times Literary Supplement.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1998; How McKinley Begot Franco; Volume 281, No. 6; pages 106-112.