Birth of a World Power
The Spanish-American War
April 21, 2014 by Mark Dye
Theodore Roosevelt (sitting, third from right) and his Rough Riders became famous for their charge up San Juan hill during the Spanish-American War.
The Spanish American War is one most people know very little about, partially due to its short time frame (from April to December of 1898) and lack of massive casualties (90% of fatalities were actually caused by infection). With the exception of Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders storming San Juan Hill in Cuba, there wasn’t much about the conflict that captures our modern attentions.
In reality, the war was a crucial moment in our nation’s history that helped shift the balance of world power.
Before the war, the U.S. was still a young nation—barely 100 years old—that had just been ravaged by a bloody civil war. At the same time, Cubans were resisting Spanish rule and fighting for independence, with Spain’s leaders crushing all of those efforts without mercy. This led to a great deal of sympathy for the rebellion in the U.S.
When rioting broke out in Havana in early 1898, the decision was made to protect American citizens and assets in Cuba, which included sending the U.S. battleship Maine to Havana harbor.
Then, on 15 Feb. 1898, the Maine was sunk. While there was never any hard and fast proof the Spanish were responsible, the American media sensationalized the event and the phrase “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!” became a rallying cry for war.
It wasn’t long after that the U.S. Congress passed a resolution condemning Spain and its actions in Cuba, while also noting that the U.S. had no desire to annex the island. Spain responded with a formal declaration of war 24 April, 1898, and Congress followed suit the next day (though they made it retroactive to 21 April).
To say the war was one-sided would be a gross understatement. The U.S. Navy was able to destroy the once-proud Spanish fleet, including a naval battle in the Philippines so lopsided that only seven American seamen were wounded. The American military also had tens of thousands of troops at the ready, whereas Spain hadn’t expected conflict and, thus, wasn’t able to mount much of a defense.
By December, the Treaty of Paris was signed. It gave the U.S. Guam and Puerto Rico, as well as sovereignty over the Philippines (which cost the U.S. $20 million), while Cuba remained independent. The war also helped strengthen the political career of Teddy Roosevelt, who would go on to serve as governor of New York from 1899 to 1900, Vice President from 1900 to 1901, and President from 1901 (after then-President McKinley was shot and killed) until 1909.
It might not be the most famous war in American history, but it proved that America could stand on its own against one of the world’s early superpowers and forced other nations to respect its power and reach.