Background to the Spanish-American War, 1898

On February 15, 1898, one of America’s first battleships, the USS Maine, exploded in port outside of Havana.  260 servicemen were killed in the blast.  According to the subsequent investigation, the blast had been triggered by a mine.  The source of that mine was never established, but American popular opinion held the Spanish responsible.  On April 25, Congress declared war, retroactively by four days, leaving President McKinley to prosecute the war he had hoped to avoid.  As sudden as the immediate catalyst may have seemed, however, it was a conflict that was long in coming.

Once mighty, the Spanish Empire had collapsed upon itself in the nineteenth century.  Cuba and Puerto Rico were its sole possessions in the Western Hemisphere, and the Philippines and a few other Pacific islands completed its overseas domains.  Cuba was a most valuable part of this diminished empire, but it was a far from peaceful part.  As early as 1868, unrest became a feature of life in Cuba.  It had begun with slave revolts, but during the 1880’s, disaffection grew steadily among the creole whites, as well.  In 1895, a new revolt began, one that proved even more difficult to subdue than the 1868 rebellion that took ten years to quell.

America took an interest in the Cuban conflict for a variety of reasons.  Leading Americans had looked to Cuba as a potential acquisition since the days of the Revolution.  Expansionary sentiments at the end of the nineteenth century encouraged new attention, but it is also true that perennial American sympathy for anyone who might be considered oppressed played a major role.  The effects of these influences only intensified as the conflict dragged on.

American interest in Cuba had always been a mixture of ideology and self-interest.  In the Revolutionary period and for a generation thereafter, Cuba and the other islands of the Caribbean were seen as kindred colonies.  The Revolution itself had been intended as a movement of all of Britain’s colonies in the New World; this was made explicit in misbegotten invasions of Canada both in the Revolution and in the War of 1812, but British holdings in the Caribbean were also meant to be included, if possible.  While Cuba was a Spanish colony, the gaze of the early American Republic quickly extended to French and Spanish holdings after independence was assured.  The desirability of Cuba was only enhanced by the island’s agricultural wealth.

During the Civil War, the Confederacy also looked at the prospect of annexing Cuba, but nothing came of it, and the period after the Civil War opened up all of the opportunities that Americans could use in the expansion into the western frontier.  By the 1880’s, however, the frontier as it had been understood had vanished.  Americans with expansionary ambitions found new avenues overseas.

The development of iron navies powered by combustion engines instead of sails coincided with new naval expansionism among the European powers, as well, in part because voyages became shorter and more efficient.  In the case of America, these facts married themselves to the shift of the frontier spirit, and it should therefore be no great surprise that the most important exponent of the importance of a strong navy to exert a nation’s will overseas was an American, Alfred Thayer Mahan.

An active navy helped a nation to exert itself overseas, but it also became a reason to do the same thing.  The use of coal-burning engines instead of sails required access to coal when a ship’s reserves were down, and on long voyages, that meant the need of having friendly bases and ports where refueling could be accomplished.  The United States, no less than the European powers, busied itself with the effort to create refueling stations in the Atlantic and the Pacific alike.  The colonial holdings of the Caribbean ensured that American efforts there were largely frustrated.  In that context, the notion of a friendly, independent Cuba was almost as desirable as a Cuba drawn more closely into American orbit.

For these reasons, the American government took notice when a new rebellion broke out in Cuba in 1895.  At the same time, the government did not wish to give too much encouragement to the rebels, either.  An unstable successor government was even less useful to the United States than was a Spanish Cuba.  American journalists, however, were quick to seize upon stories guaranteed to arouse the sympathies of the public, and newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst in particular made this his special cause.  As the war became more brutal, the American public wanted more and more to get involved.

The 1895 revolt was more widespread than the earlier rebellions; not only former slaves, but also Cuban-born whites joined in this fight.  The revolution’s leaders were, if anything, more ruthless than those before: they embarked upon a scorched earth campaign to prevent the island’s wealth from benefiting the Spanish overlords.  Local Spanish leaders soon found themselves at a loss; they had an army large enough that it could have defeated the rebels, but a siege mentality asserted itself, and the Spanish position stagnated.

In 1896, the Spanish sent a new military leader, Captain-General Weyler.  Weyler was willing to be as ruthless as the rebels, and the brutality of the war escalated.  Among the provocations that Weyler created, from the American perspective, was the creation of concentration camps to intern suspect civilian populations.  Weyler was recalled at the end of 1897, but not before he had given sensationalistic journalists plenty of material.

Finally, there were a variety of incidents that served to exacerbate Washington’s relationship with Madrid.  Some of them were concrete, such as an incident in which a Spanish boat fired (with no effect) upon an American-flagged vessel, and another in which several Americans were among the crew of a boat captured as pirates.  Others were diplomatic, including a famous flap in which the Spanish ambassador was quoted in a leaked communique with observations critical of the newly-elected President McKinley.

It was in this atmosphere that the battleship Maine was deployed to South Carolina.  From there, it was close enough to get involved, if necessary.  McKinley’s advisers often recommended sending the Maine to Cuba itself on the pretext of a “courtesy call,” but for a time McKinley resisted.  Then, in January, rioting broke out in Havana.  The Maine was sent to Havana to offer support for Americans, and American interests, in the city.  It arrived on January 25; three weeks later, it exploded without warning.

The assumption that the Spanish must have been responsible led to Congressional condemnation as well as popular fury.  With war declared, it fell to President McKinley to prosecute the war as best he might; in the end, he had not only gained for the U.S. Spain’s last Caribbean holdings, but also the Philippines.  The consequences for the modern world are extensive, from the long and bruising Philippine Insurrection to the Cuban Missile Crisis, to the modern role of Puerto Rico in the United States and the new significance of the American base at Guantanamo.  These events flowed from more than the explosion of a battleship; the path to war was a long one.


Cowley, Robert and Geoffrey Parker, eds.  The Reader’s Companion to Military History.  Houghton Mifflin, 1996.

Matloff, Maurice ed.  American Military History Volume I: 1775-1902.  Combined Books, 1996.

Musicant, Ivan.  Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century.


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