February 15, 1898: Explosion of Battleship Maine, the Spanish-American War and American Foreign Policy
In late January 1898, President William McKinley dispatched the U.S.S. Maine to Cuban waters to protect American citizens and business investments during ongoing tensions between Spain and its colony, Cuba. The event eventually sparked a war that dramatically culminated a century of expansion and led Americans to debate the purposes of American foreign policy at the dawn of the twentieth century.
Events only ninety miles from American shores were increasingly involving the United States in Cuban affairs during the late 1890s.
Cuban revolutionaries had fought a guerrilla war against imperialist Spain starting in 1895, and Spain had responded by brutally suppressing the insurgency. General Valeriano Weyler, nicknamed “the butcher,” forced Cubans into relocation camps to deny the countryside to the rebels. Tens of thousands perished, and Cuba became a cause célèbre for many Americans.
Moreover, William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer, and other newspaper moguls publicized the atrocities committed by Spain’s military and encouraged sympathy for the Cuban people. Hearst knew the power he held over public opinion, telling one of his photographers, “You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.”
During the evening of February 15, all was quiet as the Maine sat at anchor in Havana harbor. At 9:40 p.m., an explosion shattered the silence and tore the ship open, killing 266 sailors and Marines aboard. Giant gouts of flames and smoke flew hundreds of feet into the air. The press immediately blamed Spain and called for war with the sensationalist style of reporting called “yellow journalism.” The shocked public clamored for war with the popular cry, “Remember the Maine!” Hearst had also recently printed an insulting private letter from the Spanish ambassador to the United States, Don Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, that called McKinley “weak.”
President McKinley had sought alternatives to war for years and continued to seek a diplomatic solution despite the war fervor. However, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt repositioned naval warships close to Cuba and ordered Commodore George Dewey to attack the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in the Philippines. Roosevelt thought McKinley had “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.” Despite McKinley’s best efforts, Congress declared war on April 25. Roosevelt quickly resigned and received approval to raise a cavalry regiment, nicknamed the “Rough Riders.”
Roosevelt felt it was his patriotic duty to serve his country. “It does not seem to me that it would be honorable for a man who has consistently advocated a warlike policy not to be willing himself to bear the brunt of carrying out that policy.” Moreover, Roosevelt praised “the soldierly virtues” and sought the strenuous life for himself and the country, which he believed had gone soft with the decadence of the Gilded Age. He wanted to test himself in battle and win glory.
Roosevelt went to Texas to train the eclectic First Volunteer Cavalry regiment of tough western cowboys and American Indians and Patriotic Ivy League athletes. Commander Roosevelt felt comfortable with both groups of men because he had attended Harvard and owned a North Dakota ranch. His regiment trained in the dusty heat of San Antonio, in the shadow of the Alamo, under him and Congressional Medal of Honor winner Colonel Leonard Wood.
The regiment loaded their horses and boarded trains bound for the embarkation point at Tampa, Florida. On June 22, the Rough Riders and thousands of other American troops landed unopposed at Daiquirí on the southern coast of Cuba. Many Rough Riders were without their horses and started marching toward the Spanish army at the capital of Santiago.
The Rough Riders and other U.S. troops were suffering from the tropical heat and forbidding jungle terrain. On June 24, hidden Spanish troops ambushed the Americans near Las Guasimas village. After a brief exchange resulting in some casualties on both sides, the Spanish withdrew to their fortified positions on the hills in front of Santiago. By June 30 the Americans had made it to the base of Kettle Hill, where the Spanish were entrenched and had their guns sighted on the surrounding plains.
American artillery was brought forward to bombard Kettle Hill, and Spanish guns answered. Several Rough Riders and men from other units were cut down by flying shrapnel. Roosevelt himself was wounded slightly in the arm. He and the entire army grew impatient as they awaited orders to attack.
When the order finally came, a mounted Roosevelt led the assault. The Rough Riders were flanked on either side by the African American “Buffalo Soldiers” of the regular Ninth and Tenth cavalry regiments, commanded by white officer John “Black Jack” Pershing. The American troops charged up the incline while firing at the enemy. Roosevelt had dismounted and led the charge on foot. The Spanish fired into American ranks and killed and wounded dozens. Soon, they were driven off. When Spaniards atop adjacent San Juan Hill fired on the Rough Riders, Roosevelt prepared his men to attack that hill as well.
After much confusion in the initial charge, Roosevelt rallied his troops. Finally, he jumped over a fence and again led the charge with the support of rattling American Gatling guns. The Rough Riders and other regiments successfully drove the Spaniards off the hill and gave a great cheer. They dug into their positions and collapsed, exhausted after a day of strenuous fighting. The Americans took Santiago relatively easily, forcing the Spanish fleet to take to sea where it was destroyed by U.S. warships. The Spanish capitulated on August 12.
Roosevelt became a national hero and used the fame to catapult his way to become governor of New York, vice-president, and president after McKinley was assassinated in 1901. Although the 1898 Teller Amendment guaranteed Cuban sovereignty and independence, the United States gained significant control over Cuban affairs with the Platt Amendment in 1901 and Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in 1904. The United States also built the Panama Canal for trade and national security.
In the Philippines, Admiral Dewey sailed into Manila Bay and wiped out the Spanish fleet there on May 1, 1898. However, the Filipinos, led by Emilio Aguinaldo, rebelled against the American control just as they had against the Spanish. The insurrection resulted in the loss of thousands of American and Filipino lives. Americans established control there after suppressing the revolt in 1902.
The Spanish-American War was a turning point in history because the nation assumed global responsibilities for a growing empire that included Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam (as well as Hawaii separately). The Spanish-American War sparked a sharp debate between imperialists and anti-imperialists in the United States over the course of American foreign policy and global power. The debate continued throughout the twentieth century known as the “American Century” due to its power and influence around the world.
Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.
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