The 1896 presidential election, in which Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan faced Republican candidate William McKinley, focused on economic issues. Bryan, nominated at the Democratic Convention with his rousing Golden Cross speech, called for free minting of silver and the elimination of GOP-backed protective tariffs. Republicans supported maintaining protectionism and the gold standard. Hidden under each party’s policy statements on tariffs and monetary policy were similar positions on the foreign policy issue, Cuba. In 1895, Cuban rebels attempted to seize control of the island from Spain and create an independent Cuba. In their 1896 election programs, both parties expressed their support for the “heroic” struggle of the insurgents.
William McKinley became president in 1896. He hoped to focus on domestic issues as president, but the Cuban uprising demanded a lot of his attention. President McKinley offered to mediate between Cuba and Spain in 1897, but was refused by both sides. Spain hoped to stave off its international decline, while Cuban rebels feared that the ceasefire, followed by extended negotiations, would drag on and on. They wondered if their rebel army would disintegrate if left idle for too long.
Meanwhile, American public sentiment about the war was growing, fueled by the “yellow journalism” of the era. The two largest newspaper organizations in the country, owned by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, entered into a bitter struggle for circulation. They fought for sales with sinister stories and sensational headlines. When Hirst sent artist Frederic Remington to Cuba to provide drawings of Spanish brutality and oppression, Remington politely told his employer, “There is no war here.” Hirst allegedly replied, “You make pictures and I’ll make war.”
Spain provided Hurst with a lot of ammunition. Spain ordered Cubans to move into camps known as reconcentrados to control the Cuban countryside. The camps suffered from poor nutrition, disease and unsanitary conditions. Countless Cubans starved to death in the camps. The reconcentrado program horrified Americans. The yellow journalists portrayed the Cubans as heroic figures who only wanted freedom. Instead, they argued, Spanish butchers were starving the Cuban people.
Then two events beyond his control spurred McKinley into war. February 9, 1898 Hearst in New York Magazine published a letter written by Spanish Ambassador to the United States Enrique de Lome accusing McKinley of being “weak” in catering to the public. This insult outraged the American public. Just six days later, the USS USS Maine, in the harbor of Havana, the capital of Cuba, exploded and sank. The disaster claimed the lives of 268 American sailors, more than two-thirds Maine‘screw. Sensational headlines accused Spain of a military attack on a US ship. A naval investigation concluded that the ship likely sank due to an external explosion, but Spain was not blamed in the report. Most naval historians now believe that the explosion was internal, caused by a coal storage fire. (For more on the debate, see U.S. Naval Institute report on shipwreck Maine1989).
On March 26, 1898, McKinley sent an ultimatum to Spain, although he avoided that particular word. McKinley wanted a truce before October 1, after which negotiations and the cancellation of the reconcentrado program followed. If an agreement is not reached by October 1, Spain and Cuba will file for arbitration. When Spain did not respond to McKinley’s ultimatum in a manner acceptable to him, he sent a message to Congress asking for military intervention in Cuba, a move that everyone knew would inevitably lead to war.
What made McKinley take this step?
The simple answer is usually the best, but not in the case of the Spanish-American War. The answer is simple: Spain blew up MaineThe United States invaded Cuba in retaliation and defeated Spain in what Secretary of State John Hay called “a great little war.” Most historians would not deny that the sinking Maine played a role, but few would call it defining. They have some evidence to support them. In his message to Congress, President McKinley provided four justifications for US intervention in Cuba, none of which mention Maine.
First, McKinley said, “the cause of mankind” justifies US intervention to end Spain’s barbaric rule. He then argued that the intervention was necessary to protect the lives and property of American citizens in Cuba. Third, McKinley argued that Spanish control of Cuba threatened US business interests in the region. Finally, he argued that the threat persisted, citing Maine the explosion as evidence that Spain cannot provide the order and stability necessary to eliminate the threat to American citizens, property, and commercial interests. However, he Notcite the explosion as a specific justification for US intervention.
Historians have cited several reasons for McKinley’s decision to intervene in Cuba. Each scientist singles out one or two reasons among others. Some cite congressional partisan politics as a driving factor. Republicans in Congress were concerned that the Democrats might use the situation in Cuba to their advantage in the 1898 congressional elections, so they pressured McKinley to act more forcefully. Others have argued that commercial and business interests were the primary reason for McKinley’s position. Some Americans believed that the Panic of 1893 began because of an oversupply of manufactured goods. They saw expansion in the Caribbean and the Pacific as a way to deal with the glut. Historian Nick Kapoor argues that McKinley’s thoughts determined personal values such as his belief in arbitration, his Methodist faith, and his distaste for war due to the horrors he witnessed during the Civil War.
The Historians’ Debate is a learning opportunity for high school students. Primary sources on the TAH website and other sites raise questions that allow students to practice history as professionals do. Students can explore the internal context prior to the war, McKinley’s reasons for calling to arms, and infer why they think he chose war.
Or teachers can focus on the aftermath of the war. The US-Philippine War sparked a heated debate about US imperialism. Students must consider the balance between America’s economic and strategic interests and its belief in the principles of natural rights and the consent of the governed. If you are interested in helping your students make sense of these issues, we encourage you to explore the second volume of our collection of key papers and debates, where you will find a debate on American involvement in the Philippines in the Progressive Era.
Ray Tyler was a 2014 James Madison Scholar for South Carolina and a 2016 Ashland University graduate. MA in American History and Government. Ray is a former director of education at TAH and is a frequent blogger.