Digital History

United States Becomes a World Power

The Spanish American War Previous Next
Digital History ID 3160



The debate over America's global role intensified when Cubans began to fight for their independence from Spain in 1895. Americans were sympathetic to Cuba's struggle for independence, but were divided about how to help. The Republican speaker of the House did not want "to spill American blood," unless American interests were directly threatened, whereas Theodore Roosevelt, the Republican assistant secretary of the Navy, pushed for war against Spain.

President William McKinley was deeply ambivalent about war against Spain. The last president to have served in the Civil War, McKinley said he had seen too much carnage at battles like Antietam to be enthusiastic about war with Spain. "I've been through one war. I have seen the dead piled up, and I do not want to see another."

Ultimately, however, the pressure of public opinion forced McKinley into the war that made the United States an international power. Newspaper publishers like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer worked up war fever among the public with reports of Spanish atrocities against Cuban rebels. Then, Hearst's New York Journal published a leaked letter in which the chief Spanish diplomat in Washington, Enrique Duby de Lome, described President McKinley as "weak" and a "petty politician." Hearst publicized the DeLome letter under the screaming headline: "WORST INSULT TO THE UNITED STATES IN ITS HISTORY."

Days later an explosion sank the U.S.S. Maine in Cuban's Havana harbor. A naval court of inquiry blamed the explosion on a mine, further inflaming public sentiment against Spain.

Then a respected U.S. Senator, Redfield Proctor, after returning from a visit to Cuba, announced that he had reversed his position from isolationism to intervention "because of the spectacle of a million and a half people, the entire native population of Cuba, struggling for freedom and deliverance."

After ten days of debate, Congress declared war, but only after adopting the Teller Amendment. The amendment made it clear that the United States did not harbor imperialist ambitions, and it announced that the United States would not acquire Cuba. European leaders were shocked by this declaration. Britain's Queen Victoria called on the European power to "unite...against such unheard [of] conduct," since the United States might in the future declare Ireland and other colonies independent.

But after the United States defeated Spain, it set up a military government on Cuba and made the soldiers' withdrawal contingent on the Cubans accepting the Platt Amendment. The amendment gave the United States the right to intervene in Cuba to protect "life, property, and individual liberties." The 144-day war also resulted in the United States taking control of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam.

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