The roots of the Spanish-American War can be traced to the fall and rise of two powers: The Spanish Empire and the United States. The once glorious and far-reaching Spanish empire had been in decline for many years. Many of its former possessions had gained their independence. By the 1890’s, Spain only held claims to a handful of islands in the Pacific Ocean, West Indies and Africa. The United States was a rising power. Spain became an easy target.
Public support for engaging Spain in military conflict came from many sources. None, however, were more vociferous than the newspaper publications of William Randolph Hearst. In an attempt to outdo fellow publisher Joseph Pulitzer, Hearst would fabricate or exaggerate accounts of happenings in Cuba. Hearst would portray the Spanish as barbarians who tortured helpless Cubans. Hearst’s accounts did much to stir up a cry for “interventions” among Americans. For some time, many Americans felt that the proximity of Cuba to the American mainland made Cuba theirs anyway.
The war started on February 15, 1898. After an explosion in Havana Harbor (off the coast of Cuba) sunk an American ship with 260 men, American public opinion, strongly influenced by Hearst’s publications (which condemned the explosion as a atrocious act of the Spanish), pressured president William McKinley to send soldiers to Cuba for the purposes of ending a civil war there. Incidentally, most experts now agree that the Spanish had nothing to do with the explosion. On April 11, 1898, Congress granted McKinley permission to send soldiers to Cuba, recognize Cuba as an independent nation, make demands that the Spanish evacuate Cuba, and use military force if necessary. As a result, the Spanish broke off all diplomatic ties with the United States.
The first battle of the war occurred on the other side of the world – in the Philippines, on May 1, 1898. Commodore George Dewey and U.S. naval forces routed a spanish squadron in Manila Bay. Philippine nationals promptly attacked the Spanish on land. Many Spanish soldiers were forced to surrender. After establishing a base in Guantanamo Bay Cuba, U.S. forces captured the island and the waterways around the island in July of 1898. Led by the Rough Riders, a group of militants under the command of future president Theodore Roosevelt, as well as pro-Cuban rebels, Spanish forces were defeated or promptly surrendered. The island of Puerto Rico was next taken later that month by U.S. forces.
Spain quickly realized that there was no point in continuing a war and called for a truce. On December 10, 1898, Spain and America signed the Treaty of Paris, in Paris, France. The treaty formally ended the war. As a result of the treaty, the United States gained virtually all of Spain’s possessions including Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. Cuba was granted independence, but the United States placed many restrictions on the island, including one which prevented them from forming alliances with other nations. A bloody war broke out when American forces occupied the Philippines. Although American forces quelled the insurrection, they evacuated in 1916 under the order of president Woodrow Wilson, and Philippines was granted full independence.
The Spanish American War was significant because it established the United States as a formidable world power. Furthermore, it helped to mend relations between the north and the south after the Civil War and Reconstruction.