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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·American Foreign Relations (1865-98) · American Policies in the Philippines and the Orient·»

Cuba and the Spanish War

Early American Relations with Cuba.—The year that brought Hawaii finally under the American flag likewise drew to a conclusion another long controversy over a similar outpost in the Atlantic, one of the last remnants of the once glorious Spanish empire—the island of Cuba.

For a century the Department of State had kept an anxious eye upon this base of power, knowing full well that both France and England, already well established in the West Indies, had their attention also fixed upon Cuba. In the administration of President Fillmore they had united in proposing to the United States a tripartite treaty guaranteeing Spain in her none too certain ownership. This proposal, squarely rejected, furnished the occasion for a statement of American policy which stood the test of all the years that followed; namely, that the affair was one between Spain and the United States alone.

A Sight Too Bad

In that long contest in the United States for the balance of power between the North and South, leaders in the latter section often thought of bringing Cuba into the union to offset the free states. An opportunity to announce their purposes publicly was afforded in 1854 by a controversy over the seizure of an American ship by Cuban authorities. On that occasion three American ministers abroad, stationed at Madrid, Paris, and London respectively, held a conference and issued the celebrated “Ostend Manifesto.” They united in declaring that Cuba, by her geographical position, formed a part of the United States, that possession by a foreign power was inimical to American interests, and that an effort should be made to purchase the island from Spain. In case the owner refused to sell, they concluded, with a menacing flourish, “by every law, human and divine, we shall be justified in wresting it from Spain if we possess the power.” This startling proclamation to the world was promptly disowned by the United States government.

Revolutions in Cuba.—For nearly twenty years afterwards the Cuban question rested. Then it was revived in another form during President Grant’s administrations, when the natives became engaged in a destructive revolt against Spanish officials. For ten years—1868-78—a guerrilla warfare raged in the island. American citizens, by virtue of their ancient traditions of democracy, naturally sympathized with a war for independence and self-government. Expeditions to help the insurgents were fitted out secretly in American ports. Arms and supplies were smuggled into Cuba. American soldiers of fortune joined their ranks. The enforcement of neutrality against the friends of Cuban independence, no pleasing task for a sympathetic President, the protection of American lives and property in the revolutionary area, and similar matters kept our government busy with Cuba for a whole decade.

A brief lull in Cuban disorders was followed in 1895 by a renewal of the revolutionary movement. The contest between the rebels and the Spanish troops, marked by extreme cruelty and a total disregard for life and property, exceeded all bounds of decency, and once more raised the old questions that had tormented Grant’s administration. Gomez, the leader of the revolt, intent upon provoking American interference, laid waste the land with fire and sword. By a proclamation of November 6, 1895, he ordered the destruction of sugar plantations and railway connections and the closure of all sugar factories. The work of ruin was completed by the ruthless Spanish general, Weyler, who concentrated the inhabitants from rural regions into military camps, where they died by the hundreds of disease and starvation. Stories of the atrocities, bad enough in simple form, became lurid when transmuted into American news and deeply moved the sympathies of the American people. Sermons were preached about Spanish misdeeds; orators demanded that the Cubans be sustained “in their heroic struggle for independence”; newspapers, scouting the ordinary forms of diplomatic negotiation, spurned mediation and demanded intervention and war if necessary.

Underwood and Underwood, N.Y.
Cuban Revolutionists

President Cleveland’s Policy.—Cleveland chose the way of peace. He ordered the observance of the rule of neutrality. He declined to act on a resolution of Congress in favor of giving to the Cubans the rights of belligerents. Anxious to bring order to the distracted island, he tendered to Spain the good offices of the United States as mediator in the contest—a tender rejected by the Spanish government with the broad hint that President Cleveland might be more vigorous in putting a stop to the unlawful aid in money, arms, and supplies, afforded to the insurgents by American sympathizers. Thereupon the President returned to the course he had marked out for himself, leaving “the public nuisance” to his successor, President McKinley.

Republican Policies.—The Republicans in 1897 found themselves in a position to employ that “firm, vigorous, and dignified” foreign policy which they had approved in their platform. They had declared: “The government of Spain having lost control of Cuba and being unable to protect the property or lives of resident American citizens or to comply with its treaty obligations, we believe that the government of the United States should actively use its influence and good offices to restore peace and give independence to the island.” The American property in Cuba to which the Republicans referred in their platform amounted by this time to more than fifty million dollars; the commerce with the island reached more than one hundred millions annually; and the claims of American citizens against Spain for property destroyed totaled sixteen millions. To the pleas of humanity which made such an effective appeal to the hearts of the American people, there were thus added practical considerations of great weight.

President McKinley Negotiates.—In the face of the swelling tide of popular opinion in favor of quick, drastic, and positive action, McKinley chose first the way of diplomacy. A short time after his inauguration he lodged with the Spanish government a dignified protest against its policies in Cuba, thus opening a game of thrust and parry with the suave ministers at Madrid. The results of the exchange of notes were the recall of the obnoxious General Weyler, the appointment of a governor-general less bloodthirsty in his methods, a change in the policy of concentrating civilians in military camps, and finally a promise of “home rule” for Cuba. There is no doubt that the Spanish government was eager to avoid a war that could have but one outcome. The American minister at Madrid, General Woodford, was convinced that firm and patient pressure would have resulted in the final surrender of Cuba by the Spanish government.

The De Lome and the Maine Incidents.—Such a policy was defeated by events. In February, 1898, a private letter written by Señor de Lome, the Spanish ambassador at Washington, expressing contempt for the President of the United States, was filched from the mails and passed into the hands of a journalist, William R. Hearst, who published it to the world. In the excited state of American opinion, few gave heed to the grave breach of diplomatic courtesy committed by breaking open private correspondence. The Spanish government was compelled to recall De Lome, thus officially condemning his conduct.

At this point a far more serious crisis put the pacific relations of the two negotiating countries in dire peril. On February 15, the battleship Maine, riding in the harbor of Havana, was blown up and sunk, carrying to death two officers and two hundred and fifty-eight members of the crew. This tragedy, ascribed by the American public to the malevolence of Spanish officials, profoundly stirred an already furious nation. When, on March 21, a commission of inquiry reported that the ill-fated ship had been blown up by a submarine mine which had in turn set off some of the ship’s magazines, the worst suspicions seemed confirmed. If any one was inclined to be indifferent to the Cuban war for independence, he was now met by the vehement cry: “Remember the Maine!”

Spanish Concessions.—Still the State Department, under McKinley’s steady hand, pursued the path of negotiation, Spain proving more pliable and more ready with promises of reform in the island. Early in April, however, there came a decided change in the tenor of American diplomacy. On the 4th, McKinley, evidently convinced that promises did not mean performances, instructed our minister at Madrid to warn the Spanish government that as no effective armistice had been offered to the Cubans, he would lay the whole matter before Congress. This decision, every one knew, from the temper of Congress, meant war—a prospect which excited all the European powers. The Pope took an active interest in the crisis. France and Germany, foreseeing from long experience in world politics an increase of American power and prestige through war, sought to prevent it. Spain, hopeless and conscious of her weakness, at last dispatched to the President a note promising to suspend hostilities, to call a Cuban parliament, and to grant all the autonomy that could be reasonably asked.

President McKinley Calls for War.—For reasons of his own—reasons which have never yet been fully explained—McKinley ignored the final program of concessions presented by Spain. At the very moment when his patient negotiations seemed to bear full fruit, he veered sharply from his course and launched the country into the war by sending to Congress his militant message of April 11, 1898. Without making public the last note he had received from Spain, he declared that he was brought to the end of his effort and the cause was in the hands of Congress. Humanity, the protection of American citizens and property, the injuries to American commerce and business, the inability of Spain to bring about permanent peace in the island—these were the grounds for action that induced him to ask for authority to employ military and naval forces in establishing a stable government in Cuba. They were sufficient for a public already straining at the leash.

The Resolution of Congress.—There was no doubt of the outcome when the issue was withdrawn from diplomacy and placed in charge of Congress. Resolutions were soon introduced into the House of Representatives authorizing the President to employ armed force in securing peace and order in the island and “establishing by the free action of the people thereof a stable and independent government of their own.” To the form and spirit of this proposal the Democrats and Populists took exception. In the Senate, where they were stronger, their position had to be reckoned with by the narrow Republican majority. As the resolution finally read, the independence of Cuba was recognized; Spain was called upon to relinquish her authority and withdraw from the island; and the President was empowered to use force to the extent necessary to carry the resolutions into effect. Furthermore the United States disclaimed “any disposition or intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over said island except for the pacification thereof.” Final action was taken by Congress on April 19, 1898, and approved by the President on the following day.

War and Victory.—Startling events then followed in swift succession. The navy, as a result in no small measure of the alertness of Theodore Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Department, was ready for the trial by battle. On May 1, Commodore Dewey at Manila Bay shattered the Spanish fleet, marking the doom of Spanish dominion in the Philippines. On July 3, the Spanish fleet under Admiral Cervera, in attempting to escape from Havana, was utterly destroyed by American forces under Commodore Schley. On July 17, Santiago, invested by American troops under General Shafter and shelled by the American ships, gave up the struggle. On July 25 General Miles landed in Porto Rico. On August 13, General Merritt and Admiral Dewey carried Manila by storm. The war was over.

The Peace Protocol.—Spain had already taken cognizance of stern facts. As early as July 26, 1898, acting through the French ambassador, M. Cambon, the Madrid government approached President McKinley for a statement of the terms on which hostilities could be brought to a close. After some skirmishing Spain yielded reluctantly to the ultimatum. On August 12, the preliminary peace protocol was signed, stipulating that Cuba should be free, Porto Rico ceded to the United States, and Manila occupied by American troops pending the formal treaty of peace. On October 1, the commissioners of the two countries met at Paris to bring about the final settlement.

Peace Negotiations.—When the day for the first session of the conference arrived, the government at Washington apparently had not made up its mind on the final disposition of the Philippines. Perhaps, before the battle of Manila Bay, not ten thousand people in the United States knew or cared where the Philippines were. Certainly there was in the autumn of 1898 no decided opinion as to what should be done with the fruits of Dewey’s victory. President McKinley doubtless voiced the sentiment of the people when he stated to the peace commissioners on the eve of their departure that there had originally been no thought of conquest in the Pacific.

The march of events, he added, had imposed new duties on the country. “Incidental to our tenure in the Philippines,” he said, “is the commercial opportunity to which American statesmanship cannot be indifferent. It is just to use every legitimate means for the enlargement of American trade.” On this ground he directed the commissioners to accept not less than the cession of the island of Luzon, the chief of the Philippine group, with its harbor of Manila. It was not until the latter part of October that he definitely instructed them to demand the entire archipelago, on the theory that the occupation of Luzon alone could not be justified “on political, commercial, or humanitarian grounds.” This departure from the letter of the peace protocol was bitterly resented by the Spanish agents. It was with heaviness of heart that they surrendered the last sign of Spain’s ancient dominion in the far Pacific.

The Final Terms of Peace.—The treaty of peace, as finally agreed upon, embraced the following terms: the independence of Cuba; the cession of Porto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States; the settlement of claims filed by the citizens of both countries; the payment of twenty million dollars to Spain by the United States for the Philippines; and the determination of the status of the inhabitants of the ceded territories by Congress. The great decision had been made. Its issue was in the hands of the Senate where the Democrats and the Populists held the balance of power under the requirement of the two-thirds vote for ratification.

The Contest in America over the Treaty of Peace.—The publication of the treaty committing the United States to the administration of distant colonies directed the shifting tides of public opinion into two distinct channels: support of the policy and opposition to it. The trend in Republican leadership, long in the direction marked out by the treaty, now came into the open. Perhaps a majority of the men highest in the councils of that party had undergone the change of heart reflected in the letters of John Hay, Secretary of State. In August of 1898 he had hinted, in a friendly letter to Andrew Carnegie, that he sympathized with the latter’s opposition to “imperialism”; but he had added quickly: “The only question in my mind is how far it is now possible for us to withdraw from the Philippines.” In November of the same year he wrote to Whitelaw Reid, one of the peace commissioners at Paris: “There is a wild and frantic attack now going on in the press against the whole Philippine transaction. Andrew Carnegie really seems to be off his head.... But all this confusion of tongues will go its way. The country will applaud the resolution that has been reached and you will return in the rôle of conquering heroes with your ’brows bound with oak.'”

Senator Beveridge of Indiana and Senator Platt of Connecticut, accepting the verdict of history as the proof of manifest destiny, called for unquestioning support of the administration in its final step. “Every expansion of our territory,” said the latter, “has been in accordance with the irresistible law of growth. We could no more resist the successive expansions by which we have grown to be the strongest nation on earth than a tree can resist its growth. The history of territorial expansion is the history of our nation’s progress and glory. It is a matter to be proud of, not to lament. We should rejoice that Providence has given us the opportunity to extend our influence, our institutions, and our civilization into regions hitherto closed to us, rather than contrive how we can thwart its designs.”

This doctrine was savagely attacked by opponents of McKinley’s policy, many a stanch Republican joining with the majority of Democrats in denouncing the treaty as a departure from the ideals of the republic. Senator Vest introduced in the Senate a resolution that “under the Constitution of the United States, no power is given to the federal Government to acquire territory to be held and governed permanently as colonies.” Senator Hoar, of Massachusetts, whose long and honorable career gave weight to his lightest words, inveighed against the whole procedure and to the end of his days believed that the new drift into rivalry with European nations as a colonial power was fraught with genuine danger. “Our imperialistic friends,” he said, “seem to have forgotten the use of the vocabulary of liberty. They talk about giving good government. ’We shall give them such a government as we think they are fitted for.' ’We shall give them a better government than they had before.' Why, Mr. President, that one phrase conveys to a free man and a free people the most stinging of insults. In that little phrase, as in a seed, is contained the germ of all despotism and of all tyranny. Government is not a gift. Free government is not to be given by all the blended powers of earth and heaven. It is a birthright. It belongs, as our fathers said, and as their children said, as Jefferson said, and as President McKinley said, to human nature itself.”

The Senate, more conservative on the question of annexation than the House of Representatives composed of men freshly elected in the stirring campaign of 1896, was deliberate about ratification of the treaty. The Democrats and Populists were especially recalcitrant. Mr. Bryan hurried to Washington and brought his personal influence to bear in favor of speedy action. Patriotism required ratification, it was said in one quarter. The country desires peace and the Senate ought not to delay, it was urged in another. Finally, on February 6, 1899, the requisite majority of two-thirds was mustered, many a Senator who voted for the treaty, however, sharing the misgivings of Senator Hoar as to the “dangers of imperialism.” Indeed at the time, the Senators passed a resolution declaring that the policy to be adopted in the Philippines was still an open question, leaving to the future, in this way, the possibility of retracing their steps.

The Attitude of England.—The Spanish war, while accomplishing the simple objects of those who launched the nation on that course, like all other wars, produced results wholly unforeseen. In the first place, it exercised a profound influence on the drift of opinion among European powers. In England, sympathy with the United States was from the first positive and outspoken. “The state of feeling here,” wrote Mr. Hay, then ambassador in London, “is the best I have ever known. From every quarter the evidences of it come to me. The royal family by habit and tradition are most careful not to break the rules of strict neutrality, but even among them I find nothing but hearty kindness and—so far as is consistent with propriety—sympathy. Among the political leaders on both sides I find not only sympathy but a somewhat eager desire that ’the other fellows’ shall not seem more friendly.”

Joseph Chamberlain, the distinguished Liberal statesman, thinking no doubt of the continental situation, said in a political address at the very opening of the war that the next duty of Englishmen “is to establish and maintain bonds of permanent unity with our kinsmen across the Atlantic.... I even go so far as to say that, terrible as war may be, even war would be cheaply purchased if, in a great and noble cause, the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack should wave together over an Anglo-Saxon alliance.” To the American ambassador he added significantly that he did not “care a hang what they say about it on the continent,” which was another way of expressing the hope that the warning to Germany and France was sufficient. This friendly English opinion, so useful to the United States when a combination of powers to support Spain was more than possible, removed all fears as to the consequences of the war. Henry Adams, recalling days of humiliation in London during the Civil War, when his father was the American ambassador, coolly remarked that it was “the sudden appearance of Germany as the grizzly terror” that “frightened England into America’s arms”; but the net result in keeping the field free for an easy triumph of American arms was none the less appreciated in Washington where, despite outward calm, fears of European complications were never absent.

«·American Foreign Relations (1865-98) · American Policies in the Philippines and the Orient·»