On April 21, 1898 the Spanish-American War started, eventually leading to the decline of Spanish colonial rule in the western Pacific and Latin America, as well as US expansionism in the region.
How did the conflict begin and what was the role of the US press in fanning the war?
Troubles started brewing for the Spanish Empire in the 1860s with the upsurge in the Cuban rebellion. The Cuban War of Independence of 1895 became the last of three liberation wars that Cuba fought against Spain. The US intervention determined the outcome of the conflict.
Historians disagree on to what extent the US leadership was interested in stepping into the conflict and argue that then-US President William McKinley wanted to preserve peace with Spain and tried to avoid a direct confrontation at all costs. Some observers suggest that, apparently, the president was forced to intervene by the US press that was vigorously fanning the flames of anti-Spanish sentiment at the time. However, historical facts show that the press was playing into the hands of the US foreign policy elites, who had long been harboring expansionist plans.
How US Yellow Journalism Fanned Flames of War
The US leadership was interested in ousting the declining Spanish Empire from the region and establishing its own control over it within the framework of the Monroe Doctrine, formulated by then-President James Monroe on December 2, 1823. At the time, most Spanish colonies in the Americas had either achieved or were close to independence, and the US started to see the region largely as its own backyard, opposing Europe’s further interference in Latin America’s affairs. US historians admit that the drive for US overseas expansion had been gaining strength since the 1880s, with influential figures such as Theodore Roosevelt spearheading the trend.
Following the beginning of the Cuban War of Independence of 1895, major US news outlets, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, placed special emphasis on the nobility of the Cuban revolutionaries and painted Spanish rule exceptionally as black.
Remarkably, it was the 1890s that the term “yellow journalism” was coined. It stemmed from the rivalry over the New York City newspaper market between major newspaper publishers: Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. Initially, yellow journalism derived from a popular cartoon of “The Yellow Kid” drawn by Richard F. Outcault and published in color by Pulitzer’s New York World. The cartoon played a role in the dramatic increase in sales of the newspaper.
Apparently, therefore, Hearst hired Outcault, taking him away from Pulitzer, to steal the thunder from his competitor, which led to a fierce battle between the two over The Yellow Kid. The term “yellow journalism” was later extended to their sensationalist style of covering the Cuban rebellion.
The apogee of this biased narrative was the story of the USS Maine’s explosion on February 15, 1898 that killed over 260 sailors. The US battleship had been sent to Havana a month earlier to protect American interests and civilians there. An initial report by the colonial government of Cuba read that the explosion had occurred on board, but Hearst and Pulitzer published uncorroborated rumors of a Spanish plot to sink the ship. The Spanish government offered to conduct an impartial investigation into the matter. However, the US public, already riled up by Hearst and Pulitzer’s coverage, was eager to hold Madrid responsible: “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!” Americans chanted.
The demand for intervention became insistent, especially given that days before the mysterious destruction of the USS Maine, the New York Journal leaked a private letter from the Spanish ambassador to Washington, Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, describing President McKinley as “weak and a popularity-hunter.” Both Democrat and Republican lawmakers urged McKinley to intervene and assist the noble cause of the Cubans.
Apparently, this played into McKinley’s hands: in March 1898, the US president gave an ultimatum to Spain with conditions Madrid could hardly meet. First, he demanded that Spain declare an armistice, and accept US mediation in peace talks with the Cuban insurgents. Then, in a separate note, McKinley made it clear that the US would only accept Cuban independence, no more, no less.
McKinley’s ultimatum put Spain between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand, the European nation was not ready to fight the US; on the other hand, the secession of Cuba meant the loss of international prestige and a potential revolt at home. Madrid called on its sympathizers in Europe to help mediate in the conflict with the US.
On April 6, 1898, representatives of Germany, Austria, France, Great Britain, Italy, and Russia called on McKinley to refrain from armed intervention in Cuba. However, McKinley responded to them by saying that the potential US intervention would be “in the interest of humanity” and did not lend a sympathetic ear to the pleas of Pope Leo XIII, either. Nearly simultaneously, the New York Journal printed one million copies dedicated to the war in Cuba and called for a US entry into war with Spain.
Spain tried to calm tensions and said that it would consider US demands except for Cuba’s independence. On April 10, 1898, Spanish Governor General Blanco in Cuba suspended hostilities in the war. (Prior to that, on January 1, 1898, Spain granted limited autonomy to the island.)
However, on April 11, McKinley requested authorization from the US Congress to intervene in the conflict on the Caribbean island. On April 19, the US Congress adopted the Joint Resolution for war with Spain, which was considered by Madrid as a declaration of war. The US officially declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898, but made the declaration retroactive to April 21.
Did Cuba Gain Independence Demanded by McKinley?
The US outnumbered the Spanish land and navy forces, and the warring parties signed the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898 on terms favorable to the US. Under the treaty, Spain ceded ownership of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the US, and granted the latter “temporary control” of Cuba.
Did Cuba gain independence – something what McKinley demanded of Spain – in the wake of the war? Alas, following the war, US forces occupied Cuba until 1902. Prior to allowing a new Cuban government to take control of the state’s affairs, the US forced the Caribbean nation to grant the US a continuing right to intervene on the island under the Platt Amendment.
Even though the amendment was repealed in 1934, Washington continued to maintain both political and economic control over the island through the backing of Cuban military dictator Fulgencio Batista, who rose to power as part of the 1933 Revolt of the Sergeants. Eventually, Batista was ousted in 1959 in the course of the Cuban Revolution and guerilla war led by Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz. After Fidel’s victory, the US lost its ground and grip on the island of liberty.
How US Government and Press Start Wars
Observers admit that the US press has unquestionably played a huge role in forcing the US public into accepting and hailing wars sought by US presidents and their foreign policy advisors. The trick has since become a modus operandi for the US foreign policy establishment.
The coverage of the Spanish-American War was also filled with myths. For instance, the story of the Rough Riders led by future President Theodore Roosevelt was not as picturesque as it was described at the time. The riders did not actually “ride” during the decisive Battle of San Juan Hill, but fought on foot. Yellow fever and typhoid claimed more lives on both sides than battles. And when US troops landed on Guam on June 20, 1898, the island’s Spanish Marines did not resist them, as they had no idea that war had broken out between the US and Spain two months earlier.
The mysterious case of the USS Maine, which became the de facto “casus belli” for the Spanish-American War, has often been compared to Washington’s later “false flags” used for the justification of the nation’s overseas campaigns. Each time, the US mainstream press has eagerly exaggerated the stories to manipulate the public into supporting a new US invasion.
One of them was the Gulf of Tonkin false flag used by then-US President Lyndon B. Johnson to drag the US into the costly Vietnam War. Another one was George W. Bush’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) hoax in Iraq, eagerly fanned by the US press and eventually leading to years-long wars in the Middle East. Yet another false flag, in Syria’s Khan Sheikhoun, helped the Trump administration justify the April 6, 2017 US cruise missile strike on Syrian government forces’ al-Shayat air base. Each time, Washington refused to carry out independent investigations into the matter, leaping to conclusions and resorting to military action. And each time, the subservient US press ran pro-government narratives while muting inconvenient truths and damning questions.