Splendid Little War


Precise beginnings to distinct endings, that is how wars are remembered. ‘The Shot Heard Round the World’ to Yorktown, Fort Sumter to Appomattox, Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima; all in explicit order from the opening salvos, to the tense calm of ceasefire. And this arrangement has worked well for classrooms, historical fiction, television documentaries, and films. Still this practice has its limits, failing to consider intricate causes, and lingering effects that set the table for the next war. Here is an obscure example from the past that isn’t fully understood—The Spanish American War (1898).

Cuba was in revolt. Through the 1890’s freedom fighters such as Jose Marti and Maximo Gomez struggled against 400 years of Spanish occupation. Alleging atrocities at the hands of their colonial oppressors, of burning villages and starving civilians, rebels captured headlines across America. Enterprising publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst took action dispatching droves of reporters to the war-torn island. Reporters filed even more sensational stories and readership mushroomed. Hearst illustrator, Frederick Remington, dispatched to Havana, cabled his boss reporting he found no war. Hearst famously, and tersely replied, “you furnish the pictures, I’ll provide the war.” A flood of salacious, skewed stories gave birth to the “Yellow Press,” of tabloid journalism. Facts didn’t bother these editors, they were busy raking in profits. Questionable newspaperman found help too, from the Cuban rebels themselves. To make sure America would intervene, insurgents torched acres of American-owned sugar cane fields. Absentee American sugar planters, losing their investments railed for war, pressing McKinley to act. 

As the last US President to have fought in the Civil War, William McKinley hesitated to draw America into armed conflict. But, in the face of fiery Cuba, the pressure grew fierce. A noisy, war-hungry faction of the GOP called “Jingoists” clamored as well for war against Spain. Young Republicans, like Theodore Roosevelt, impatient to flex American muscle, demanded action. Still McKinley held fast, understanding, what the young could not, the real cost of war in morality, blood and treasure. But following the sinking of the US gunboat “Maine,” moored in Havana harbor, the President relented, and the Spanish American War began. In the years that followed, the President’s worst fears were more than realized.

Characterized as a “Splendid Little War,” the Spanish American War reaped huge rewards for mainland business interests. Annexing former Spanish-held islands from Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, to Guam and the Philippine Islands in the Pacific, the US gained ready access to resources and markets for American-made goods. To many this step into world affairs proved worth every penny and every drop of American blood. The ability of American businesses to produce goods far outstripped purchasing power stateside. Overseas markets quickly absorbed stockpiled goods, and demanded more. Besides, it was argued at the time, if America didn’t shake a leg Great Britain, Russia, Japan, or France would gladly take over.

Unexpectedly, policy makers encountered a moral and legal dilemma. Were the people living in these newly-controlled possessions protected by Constitutional law? Should the US government follow custom and promise eventual statehood for these far flung islands? Prior Indian policy shed no light on the situation, these populations were the majority, not small, isolated pockets of nomadic people. 

The Supreme Court soon obliged and settled this legal quandary. In a series of Supreme Court opinions beginning in 1901, the Insular Cases established a principle that despite America’s governing authority over island possessions, the people could expect no civic protections. Essentially the Court ruled that “Rights don’t follow the Flag.” 

Consequently Pacific and Caribbean islands became US territories, but Cuba did not. After ‘liberating’ the island from Spain, optics prevented an out and out American takeover. Still, the embattled island could not be permitted full independence, Cuba was too valuable to the US. In 1898 the Teller Amendment established a military installation at Guantanamo, followed in 1901 with the Platt Amendment codifying continued American oversight.

Further, the McKinley administration opted to annex the Philippine Islands in 1900, rather than granting expected Filipino independence. This decision triggered a bloody, colonial uprising that resulted in the death of thousands. American Marines battled determined guerrilla insurgents in sweltering jungles; both sides committing horrific atrocities (six decades before a similar war in Vietnam). Businessmen salivated for nearby Chinese markets, and the Philippines offered deep natural harbors for passing American Vessels. 

But that’s not all the unexpected outcomes springing from the “Splendid Little War.” The US plunged into a world-wide race to carve up China. American business interests demanded a fair share of the Open Door to Chinese markets. By 1899 this multi national intrusion exploded in the bloody Boxer Rebellion. Young Chinese nationalists outraged by naked exploitation; the trade in opium, the depletion of gold to pay for the opium, the national bane of addiction, and overbearing western missionaries who insisted on ‘saving’ the Chinese from their pagan beliefs. Approximately 100,000 Chinese civilians died in the fighting that lasted three years.

In the end, there was no end. The frenzy for colonies quickened into a global mania. An arms race ensued, naval building reaching breakneck speed, nations vying to outstrip their rivals for dominance. Countries with few colonies jumped into the fray scooping up whatever lands remained open for the taking. Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Italy, relatively late on the imperial scene, headed into the Balkans and Africa. By 1914 the strain of fierce rivalry reached critical mass, engulfing, first Europe, and then America into the horror of the First World War.

Beginnings and ends work in delineating historic events, but with war there are no such limits.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two part memoir, River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Amazon.com.


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