The Spanish-American War redefined America’s global position and reach in 1898, conforming to Roosevelt’s view of Americanism.
America’s most popular war helped heal old Civil War wounds and unify a nation, but it also opened new doors that tested the sincerity of freedom-loving people. The Spanish-American War represented efforts of men like Theodore Roosevelt whose vision of “Americanism” included a global reach guaranteed by a modern navy and brought to fruition with bold action.
The Coming of the Spanish American War
Although the destruction of the USS Maine in Havana harbor in February 1898 elicited widespread patriotism and revenge aimed at Spain and the long misrule of Cuba, business interests eventually supported war while America’s Protestant churches seized an opportunity to pursue the Gospel “Great Commission” in “far flung” places like the Philippines.
William McKinley’s election victory in 1896 occurred amidst growing anxiety over Cuba and Spain’s response to the latest outbreak of rebellion on the island. Republican victory also furthered the career ambitions of Teddy Roosevelt, whose appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy enabled him to actively pursue a war agenda tied to a wider, long-term vision of American imperialism.
Roosevelt’s Preparedness and Motivation
Throughout 1897, Roosevelt helped to prepare the nation for a war that he believed was both inevitable and needed. Every letter and speech was used to promote the necessity of war with Spain as well as the need for an American global reach supported by a strong navy, ideals taken from Admiral Alfred Mahan’s book The Influence of Sea Power on History. Roosevelt’s circle of influential friends like Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts helped spread the message of war with Spain.
Ordinary Americans were influenced by the “sensational” press, newspapers and magazines eager to sell issues supported by exaggerated and often outrageous headlines. Prominent publisher William Randolph Hearst, for example, spared no expense drumming up war fever in his presses.
By the time the Maine exploded in Havana, the truth behind the disaster didn’t matter. Despite a formal inquiry that resulted in no firm conclusions, most Americans, including Roosevelt, blamed Spain. By early 1898, Roosevelt had positioned the navy on a path to initiate hostilities against Spain: in Hong Kong, for example, the Pacific Asiatic Squadron under the command of Commodore Dewey, a Roosevelt appointee, was ready to destroy the Spanish fleet in Manila.
Other Reasons for War with Spain in 1898
President McKinley, a devout Methodist, was not unfamiliar with the ravages of war. The last president of the 19th Century had participated in the bloody battle of Antietam and recalled the terrible conflict separating the nation a generation earlier. Some historians point out that Roosevelt was also influenced by the Civil War, haunted by the fact that his father had avoided military service by paying for substitutes. Others note that party unification was also a motive in 1898. Roosevelt and Lodge, for example, reviled William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” vision for America as much as they did Spain’s colonialism.
America’s ambassador to Great Britain, John Hay, called it the “splendid little war.” The consequences, however, were enormous. The defeat of Spain following the short conflict and low casualty count resulted in American acquisition of Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. The war also helped promote the image of Roosevelt who resigned his position in government to lead the “Rough Riders” as second in command.
The war put Roosevelt on a political path leading to the vice presidency in 1900 and, following the assassination of McKinley in 1901, the presidency. The Spanish American War also changed American global perceptions, turning the nation into an imperialist power. Unlike most everyday Americans, however, Roosevelt and those he influenced viewed the war and its consequences as part of a greater twentieth century vision.
Roosevelt’s Vision Shapes America’s Future
Roosevelt’s vision of “Americanism” gave a global foundation to foreign policy realities not fully comprehended until decades after he died. The notion that America has a duty to promote and defend freedom and justice is still motivation in the twenty-first century. In many respects, America’s most popular war, fought in 1898 for all of the wrong reasons, charted long-term foreign policy ambitions for the next hundred years.
- Ivan Musicant, Empire By Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century (Henry Holt and Company, 1998)
- Evan Thomas, The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898 (Little, Brown and Company, 2010)
- Page Smith, The Rise of Industrial America: A People’s History of the Post-Reconstruction Era, Volume 6 (Penguin, 1984)
- Dale L. Walker, The Boys of ’98: Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders (Forge, 1998)