The Road to World Power: The Spanish-American War

The Spanish-American War of 1898 was pivotal in launching the United States into recognition as a Great Power. Following the war, the United States accepted its role in the world as an agent, promoting stability in areas the United States felt were in need of assistance and where the U.S. had strategic worth. The Spanish-American War was the first significant international military conflict for the United States since its war against Mexico in 1846. Fueled by intense media coverage, the war, for all intents and purposes, sought to secure the rights of Cuban rebels in their fight for liberation from Spain. For the United States, it had far greater importance in the country’s growing desire to expand its global reach, which proved to be successful; by the end of the war, the United States acquired the territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippine islands.

Spain had controlled much of Central and South America since the late fifteenth century. However, by 1890, the only New World colonies that had not broken away from Spain and established their independence were Cuba and Puerto Rico. Prior to the Spanish-American War, Cuban independence fighters in the Cuba Libre movement headed by founder José Marti unsuccessfully tried to end Spanish control. In 1895, a similar revolt erupted in Cuba; again, Spanish forces came to suppress the uprising. Notably notorious was their policy of re-concentration, in which Spanish troops forced rebels into military-controlled camps, where many died from the terrible conditions there. Despite this harsh policy pursued by Spain, the conflict did not cease and the Cuban rebels did not quit.


American Spanish Cuba war
José Marti – Famous Cuban Revolutionary

American citizens sympathized with the Cuban rebels’ cause, especially since the Spanish response to the rebels was seen as unjustified and atrocious. Viewing the Cuban rebels’ fight for independence in the same light as their own conflict with the British during the American Revolution, Americans quickly backed the Cuban fight for freedom and began insisting on the government to intervene. Businessmen, particularly in the sugar industry, also supported American intervention in Cuba in order to protect their businesses in the area.

Interest in the cause increased, especially when José Martí established offices in New York and Florida in order to bring awareness to the American public about the situation in Cuba and gain further support for the rebels’ cause. Martí’s death in 1895 further galvanized support for US involvement. An article in The New York Times described his death as the loss of the “soul” of the rebellion, in order to highlight how devastating his death was to the rebels’ cause. Newspapers such as the New York Journal, led by William Randolph Hearst, and the New York World, published by Joseph Pulitzer, began publishing dramatized stories of Spanish cruelty in order to stir the emotions of the American public and lead them towards the cause.

However, despite the immense outcry for intervention, the President of the United States at the time, William McKinley, initially did not see a potential war with Spain as viable. Although McKinley disagreed with Spain’s actions against the rebels, he simply urged Spain to find a peaceful solution in Cuba in order to avoid an intervention. This inaction changed when rioting in Cuba once again began to increase.

In February 1898, McKinley ordered a navy battleship, the USS Maine, to drop anchor off the coast of Cuba in order to observe the situation and evacuate American citizens from Cuba if necessary. Just days after its arrival, on February 15th, an explosion destroyed the Maine, killing over 250 American sailors. Immediately, journalists claimed that the explosion was the result of a Spanish attack, caused by a mine that the Spanish purposely had implemented to sink the Maine. Headlines in the newspapers read, “Remember the Maine!” The headlines even offered a $50,000 bounty for anyone who could bring in the perpetrators responsible for building the mine. The newspapers called for justice, and so did the American citizens.

McKinley made one final effort to avoid war when he requested that Spain end its policy of placing the rebels in concentration camps in Cuba, and to formally recognize Cuba’s independence. Spain refused, which resulted in McKinley requesting a declaration of war from Congress. Congress received McKinley’s war message, and on April 19, 1898, Congress officially recognized Cuba’s independence and granted McKinley permission to use military force to remove Spain from the island. Congress also passed the Teller Amendment, which acted as a surety that the United States would not annex Cuba following the war.


To the surprise of the Spanish forces, which primarily saw the conflict as a clear war over Cuba, American military strategists prepared for it as a war for an empire. Beyond the liberation of Cuba and the protection of American interests in the Caribbean, military strategists sought to gain additional naval bases in the Pacific Ocean, reaching as far as mainland Asia. This strategy would also benefit American businessmen who sought to expand their business into Asia.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, ordered the navy to attack the Spanish fleet in the Spanish held Philippines. As a result, the first significant military confrontation took place not in Cuba, but halfway across the world in South East Asia. Admiral George Dewey led the U.S. Navy in a decisive victory, sinking all of the Spanish ships at the Battle of Manila Bay. Within a month, the U.S. Army landed a force to take the islands from Spain, which the U.S. succeeded in doing.

In June, 17,000 American troops landed in Cuba. Although they were initially met with little Spanish resistance, by early July, fierce battles ensued near the Spanish stronghold in Santiago. Most famously, Theodore Roosevelt led his Rough Riders, an all-volunteer cavalry unit, in a charge up Kettle Hill, which resulted in American forces surrounding Santiago. The victories of the Rough Riders were the best-known part of the battles.

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Teddy Roosevelt (Center) and the Rough Riders

At the time of the war’s outbreak, film was a new advancement in technology. Short films showed scenes abroad such as Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders in Cuba. Several African American regiments made up of veteran soldiers, called The Smoked Yankees, were instrumental to their success. The Spanish fleet made a last attempt to escape to the sea but was met by an American naval blockade that resulted in another victory for the United States forces. Lacking any naval support, Spain quickly lost control of Puerto Rico as well, offering almost no resistance to advancing American forces. By the end of July, the fighting had ended and the war was over. The short duration of the war resulted in Secretary of State John Hays calling it, “a splendid little war.”

As the war closed, Spanish and American diplomats made arrangements for a peace conference in Paris in October of 1898. The Spanish government wanted to regain control of the Philippine Islands, which they felt were unjustly taken in a war that was supposed to be about securing Cuban independence. While the Teller Amendment ensured independence for Cuba, President McKinley was reluctant to relinquish the Philippine Islands. McKinley certainly did not want to give the islands back to Spain, nor did he want another European power to take control of them. As the peace negotiations continued, Spain agreed to recognize Cuba’s independence, as well as recognize American control of Puerto Rico and Guam.

McKinley insisted that the United States maintain control over the Philippines Islands, and in return, he would make a $20 million payment to Spain. Although Spain was reluctant, they agreed to the proposition, and the two sides finalized the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898. With it came the international recognition that there was a new American empire that included the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam.

Despite previous support of the American public for intervention, the country was divided in its support of the treaty and in the idea of the United States building an empire. Many Americans who disagreed with the United States building an empire formed the Anti-Imperialist League. Opposing Americans held many different views: some felt that by possessing an empire, the United States would be going against the principles of democracy, while others worried about competition from foreign workers by involving itself with foreign powers. Still so, some claimed the United States would place itself in foreign disputes, and others felt that the assimilation of other races would hurt the country. One anti-imperialist stated,

The prospect of the consequences which would follow the admission of the Spanish creoles and the negroes of West India islands and of the Malays and Tagals of the Philippines to participate in the conduct of our government is so alarming that you instinctively pause before taking the step.”

On the other hand, those who supported empire building referred to as the Imperialists, saw the United States expanding its borders as an opportunity to increase the economy by expanding businesses and gaining more revenue. The Imperialists claimed that, “it was the United States’ moral obligation to ‘civilize’ the world.” One imperialist senator declared:

God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No!…He has made us adepts in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples…”

Thus, in the eyes of the Imperialists, it was up to the United States to help ailing countries. This division between the two factions was evident in the Senate when it came time to ratify the Treaty of Paris. However, this quickly changed when a rebel uprising occurred in the Philippine islands. In order to maintain American presence within the region and avoid another foreign power from invading the islands, the Senate ratified the treaty and went into the Philippine Islands.

Filipino rebels, led by Emilio Aguinaldo, fought back against American forces stationed on the islands in order to gain their own independence. This war lasted three years, with over four thousand American, twenty thousand Filipino deaths in battle, as well as countless numbers of Filipino civilian deaths. After a proposal made by William Howard Taft in 1901, President McKinley appointed William Howard Taft as the civil governor of the Philippines in an effort to stop the American military from direct confrontations with the Filipino people.


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William Howard Taft, the Governor of the Philippines and the future US President

Under Taft’s leadership, Americans built new ways of transportation, hospitals, and schools in an effort to win over the local population. The rebels quickly lost influence, and Aguinaldo was captured by the American forces and forced to swear allegiance to the United States. The Taft Commission, as it soon came to be known, continued to introduce reforms to modernize and improve daily life for the country despite the resistance that continued to through the spring of 1902.

Despite helping Cuba gain its independence, the United States still felt the need to maintain a military presence within Cuba to ensure that no other foreign powers were to establish their own influence in the region. However, the United States could not simply implement the policy in Cuba due to the conditions stated within the Teller Amendment.

To circumvent this issue, on February 25, 1901, Orville H. Platt proposed the Platt Amendment. This amendment allowed the United States to lease land on the island for military bases. It allowed the US to intervene unilaterally in Cuba’s affairs as well as stipulated that Cuba would not be able to negotiate with any other foreign powers without convening with the United States government first. The Senate and the Cuban Constitutional Convention within Cuba initially rejected the amendment in 1901 when many argued that it violated the terms in the Teller Amendment. However, the amendment would eventually be ratified in 1903. With its ratification also came the Cuban-American Treaty, which stated that the Cuban government would adhere to the requests made within the amendment, thus legally binding the countries.

The Spanish-American War was significant in establishing the United States’ dominance in international affairs. Although the war was a result of increased public pressure to aid the Cuban rebels’ in their fight for independence, it became a war fought for power and control. The United States emerged as an influential world power with its new overseas possessions and started on a path that would affect its role in international affairs throughout the twentieth century. Despite being labeled “a splendid little war,” the end of the war led to large consequences that would forever shape the future foreign policies of the US



Anthony Ruggiero

Anthony Ruggiero is a history teacher at the University Neighborhood High School, Manhattan, New York. His articles have previously been featured on History Is Now, Historic U.K, Tudor Life, Discover Britain, and the Culture-Exchange.

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