Splendid Little War

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Precise beginnings to recognizable endings, that is how American wars are recorded and remembered. ‘The Shot Heard Round the World’ to Yorktown, Fort Sumter to Appomattox, Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima; all in sequential 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 approach has its limits, failing to consider the intricate causes, and lingering effects that set the stage for the next war. Here is an example from the past that isn’t commonly recalled—The Spanish American War (1898).

The island of Cuba blazed in revolt. Throughout the 1890’s local freedom fighters, including Jose Marti and Maximo Gomez, struggled to end 400 years of Spanish conquest. Alleging atrocities at the hands of their colonial oppressors, of burning villages and starving civilians, rebels monopolized banner headlines across America. Enterprising publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst mobilized their own forces, dispatching droves of journalists to the war-torn island.

Reporters soon filed embellished, sensationalized stories, and circulation quickly boomed. Hearst illustrator, Frederick Remington sailed to Havana, promptly cabling his boss that he had found no war. Hearst famously, and cynically countered, “you furnish the pictures, I’ll provide the war.”

The resulting flood of salacious, skewed features gave birth to the “Yellow Press,” of tabloid journalism. Facts didn’t trouble these news editors, they were too busy raking in profits. American newspaperman also found assistance in the Cuban rebels themselves. Ensuring that America would intervene in the struggle, Cuban insurgents torched acres and acres of American-owned cane fields. Absentee-American sugar planters, losing revenues, railed for war, accosting McKinley to act. 

As the last US President to have experienced battle, William McKinley hesitated to draw America into another armed conflict. But, in the face of fiery Cuba, the pressure grew fierce. Jingoists like Theodore Roosevelt, impatient to flex American muscle, demanded immediate action.

Still McKinley hesitated, understanding, what the young could not. A veteran of the Civil War, the President grasped the real cost of war, measured in blood, treasure, and humanity. Nonetheless, 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,” this conflict, contested at the dawn of the 20th Century, reaped endless bounty for mainland business interests.

The US annexed: Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, Guam, and the Philippine Islands in the Pacific.

To many, this step into world affairs proved worth every penny and every drop of American blood. The pace of American factories to produce goods far outstripped domestic consumption. Overseas markets quickly absorbed stockpiled goods, and in turn secured further demand. Besides, it was argued at the time, if America didn’t move quickly Great Britain, Russia, Japan, or France would gladly take over.

However, expansionist quickly faced an unexpected moral and legal dilemma. Were the native people living in these newly-American owned possessions protected by Constitutional law? Should the US government follow mainland custom, and promise eventual statehood for these far flung islands? Prior Indian policy provided no guideline, as islanders were in the majority, not residing in small, isolated pockets. 

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

In the aftermath, Pacific and Caribbean islands became US territories, but Cuba did not. After ‘liberating’ the island from Spain, decorum prevented an out and out American takeover. Still, the embattled island could not be set free–too much had been expended in the conflict, and Cuba was too valuable.

In 1898 the Teller Amendment established a US military installation at Guantanamo Bay, followed in 1901 with the Platt Amendment, authorizing extended American control of Cuban affairs.

In the far Pacific, the McKinley administration opted to annex the Philippine Islands, rather than granting Filipino independence. This decision backfired triggering a bloody, colonial uprising. American Marines hunted resolute guerrilla insurgents in sweltering Filipino jungles; both sides perpetrating horrific atrocities (six decades before a similar war in Vietnam). American businessmen had designs on nearby China, and the Philippines offered deep natural harbors for passing American Vessels. 

The US soon plunged into a world-wide race to carve up China. American business and political interests demanded an equal share of the Open Door to Chinese markets. By 1899 this multi national intrusion exploded into another bloody revolt, the Boxer Rebellion.

Young Chinese outraged by foreign exploitation; the trade in opium, the depletion of gold to pay for the opium, opium addiction, and western missionaries insisting on ‘saving’ the Chinese became too much. In the three year struggle 100,000 perished, foreign and Chinese.

In the end, there is no end. The hunger for colonies quickened into a global frenzy. An international arms race ensued, navies competing to outstrip their rivals for dominance. Countries with few colonies jumped into the fray scooping up whatever low fruit remained. Germany, Austro-Hungary, and Italy, relatively late on the imperial scene, headed into the Balkans and to 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 placing historic events, but with war there is only an endless sweeping pendulum.

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 Kindle.

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