NEWSROOM
Commentary Articles
In The News
News Releases
Experts



Media Inquiries

Kim Cloidt
Director of Marketing & Communications
(510) 632-1366 x116
(202) 725-7722 (cell)
Send Email

Robert Ade
Communications Manager
(510) 632-1366 x114
Send Email


Subscribe



Commentary
Facebook Facebook Facebook Facebook

Contribute
Your participation will advance liberty. Join us as an Independent Institute member.



Contact Us
The Independent Institute
100 Swan Way
Oakland, CA 94621-1428

510-632-1366 Phone
510-568-6040 Fax
Send us email


Interested in working with us?  Click here for more information.

Commentary

The Spanish-American War: The Leap into Overseas Empire


     
 Print 

The Spanish-American War, whose centennial we observe this year [1998], was a short war, a popular war, and a rather cheap war, both in lives and money. It was, as John Hay, soon to be secretary of state, put it, “a splendid little war.” It was, however, fraught with long-range consequences. As an easy, successful war fought by professional soldiers and volunteers (not by conscripts), the war quickly entered the history books as a sort of youthful fling, an exuberant expression of a young America waking up to its potential as a world power and to its (alleged) global responsibilities. One immediate result of the war was the American-Philippine War (or as the United States called it, the Philippine “Insurrection”), which was much less happy and which disappeared from national memory until the ill-fated Vietnam War, to which it bore a certain resemblance.

The forces behind the Spanish-American War were numerous. The Panic of 1893 and the ensuing economic depression energized populist and socialist critics of the existing order. In turn, the critics alarmed northeastern business interests who, remembering the Paris Commune of 1870, saw their corn-fed or working-class opponents as harbingers of revolution. But an alternative to the radical farmers’ and workers’ solutions for the country’s perceived problems had been coming together for some time before 1893. From the 1880s, politicians, businessmen, academics, and missionaries began formulating a new global “Manifest Destiny,” a doctrine of the necessity and goodness of the assertion of American power in the wider world.

One might think that having put down so many forces in the 1800s—Mexicans, Confederates, Mormons, and Indians—within its vast continental domain, the American government would have been content merely to oversee this vast realm and to allow the forces of its (internally) free market to generate prosperity for the citizenry. Such a policy had insufficient appeal for many well-placed people who perhaps found it too peaceful, too boring, too bourgeois, too economic.

Would-be geostrategists such as Captain Alfred Mahan argued that no nation had ever been great without superior naval power, although he did not explain why Americans needed to be great in that sense. Mahan and other “navalists” demanded—and were beginning to get—a proper modern “blue water“ navy. Missionaries wanted American power available to promote their overseas activities. Fashionable theorists combined self-satisfaction with Darwinism to prove that Anglo-Saxons—the Americans and the British—were uniquely qualified to dominate and uplift the whole planet. (The Americans had to learn their part, however.)

Another justification for what came to be called “expansionism” rested on faulty or self-interested economic analysis. This was the notion that the U.S. economy was suffering from “overproduction” (and possibly its evil twin “underconsumption”), and that only foreign markets could provide a cure. The American government would have to apply political and military power and pressure abroad to guarantee access for American goods and investment capital in all possible markets.

Allied to this analysis was Frederick Jackson Turner‘s thesis that republican liberty and individualism had somehow depended on the existence of a moving frontier into contiguous land. With the “disappearance[ of the frontier in the 1890s, a substitute frontier had become necessary to preserve the American way of life. Those who wanted government to find and protect markets combined Turner’s argument with their own, defining the substitute frontier as consisting of foreign markets.

Ohio governor William McKinley emerged as the leader of a sophisticated group of Republican statesmen who backed an integrated program of neomercantilism to restore and sustain prosperity. This program included reciprocity treaties to buy entry into specific foreign markets (rather than wholesale sacrifice of the protective tariffs so dear to the Republican soul); shipping subsidies; greater naval power; an isthmian canal to be built in Nicaragua or Panama; and whatever else might foster U.S. economic penetration of new markets, especially those of Asia, and above all, China. Key Republican leaders such as McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, and John Hay agreed on this “large policy.”

In the election of 1896, McKinley easily defeated populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan, who called for unlimited, inflationary coinage of silver and for tariff reduction. As it took office, the new administration confronted the popular Cuban revolution against Spanish rule, which had broken out in 1895. This rebellion disrupted trade and threatened American investments (and even lives) in Cuba. It was a problem and an opportunity. McKinley and his advisors wanted to settle the Cuban problem so as to get on with state-supported trade expansion. At the same time, a successful war with Spain could lead to cession by Spain to the United States of key properties in the Pacific Ocean, especially the Philippine Islands, which would make ideal jumping-off points—coaling stations and military outposts—to the markets of East Asia. This possibility was not lost on the administration.

Spanish forces in Cuba resorted to counterinsurgency warfare in an attempt to retain control, herding the civil population into centers of reconcentración to keep them from supporting the rebels. Thousands died. Cuban propagandists understandably exploited real Spanish atrocities while “yellow journalists“ in the American press made others up. Popular and congressional outcry put pressure on the administration to intervene for Cuban independence.

McKinley had his own timetable, however, and conducted negotiations with Spain in which new demands followed every Spanish concession, until Spain was left with the choice of either granting complete independence to Cuba or fighting the Americans over the difference between Cuban “autonomy” and “independence.” The DeLôme Letter (the Spanish ambassador’s private criticisms of McKinley—intercepted and published by pro-Cubans) and the spontaneous explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor worsened relations. In early April 1898, with Spain still reluctant to quit Cuba, McKinley asked Congress for a declaration of war. The war itself was brief and sometimes comic.

Army regulars, volunteers, and mismatched supplies piled up at Port Tampa. The troops sought recreation in Tampa‘s nightspots and the officers drank at Henry B. Plant’s hotel. The War Department began fidgeting about getting the army to Cuba while it was still fit to fight. In the Far East, Commodore George Dewey, set on course by a telegram from the overeager undersecretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, engaged the antiquated Spanish fleet at Manila on May 1, destroying it with little effort. Closer to home, U.S. forces landed in Cuba on June 22. They kept the Cuban rebels at arm’s length and conducted a purely American war against the Spanish forces, effectively hijacking the cause of Cuban independence. On July 17, Spanish surrender ended the fighting in Cuba.

After the land battle of Manila on August 13 (fought - like the Battle of New Orleans—after the warring powers agreed to an armistice), United States forces eyed their sometime “allies,” the Philippine insurgents, warily across the lines. (As in Cuba, Spain had a rebellion on its hands in the Philippines before the Americans came on the scene.) In the meantime, the United States had annexed the Hawaiian Islands by a subconstitutional dodge—the congressional joint resolution (which gave us Texan annexation in 1845 and, more recently, the NAFTA “agreement”)—and seized Guam and the Ladrones (Marianas) from Spain. McKinley told his peace commissioners that the United States must have Manila and its harbor, but by mid November he was insisting on all the Philippine Islands.

In the end, the United States took Guam, the Marianas, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, and gave Spain $20 million for the lot. Cuba became an American protectorate—and the working model of informal imperial control. The president had to use all his leverage to get the Senate to ratify the final treaty (on December 10) over the protests of those who did not want the new burden of overseas possessions—possessions not exactly contemplated by the original Constitution. As many said at the time, the United States now had its “India.” Rudyard Kipling, the great fount of pro-imperialist crambo, even wrote a poem on “the White Man‘s Burden” to welcome the United States to the club of real powers.

In February 1899, uneasy relations between U.S. forces and the Filipino insurgents turned into actual fighting. America was now to learn the sorrows of empire along with its joys. Rallying under the slogan “No hay derecho a vender un pueblo como se vende un saco de patatas” (“There is no right to sell a nation like a sack of potatoes”), Filipinos flocked to the forces of Aguinaldo and Mabini to oppose the new colonial masters.

In short order, the Americans found themselves running a counterinsurgency every bit as brutal as anything the Spaniards had done in Cuba. (McKinley, of course, did not make this analogy.) Regular army soldiers, many of them veterans of America’s Indian wars, undertook “marked severities“ (as one termed it) against these new “Indians.“ One officer wrote: “We must have no scruples about exterminating this other race standing in the way of progress, if it is necessary.“ As of July 1902, when the United States declared the Philippine Insurrection over, 200,000 to 220,000 Filipinos had died, of whom only 15,000 were actual combatants, which suggests that U.S. forces consciously made war on the enemy’s entire society (i.e., had waged total war).

In the meantime, critics of expansionism began to speak up. Some simply did not want foreign dependencies. Others, perhaps seeing more deeply into things, warned that ruling overseas dependencies violated the premises of republican government and the values of classical liberalism. Running again as McKinley’s opponent in the presidential election of 1900, William Jennings Bryan made little use of imperialism as a campaign issue; as a result, the election did not provide a clear mandate for or against overseas empire.

Opponents of empire more fervent than Bryan organized the Anti-Imperialist League in Boston to oppose the Philippine War and colonialism. Erving Winslow, Edward Atkinson, Moorfield Storey, William James, Andrew Carnegie, and former President Cleveland added their voices to the anti-imperialist chorus (as did the English liberal Goldwin Smith, writing from the relative safety of Ontario). Perhaps because of their narrow upper-class social base, the “antis” were unable to generate much support for their views. (A few years later, V.I. Lenin derided them as “the last of the Mohicans of bourgeois democracy.”) After all, the economy was going again, the war had been a great success, and—at the time, at least—obtaining overseas possessions seemed just the thing that grown-up nations were supposed to do. One newspaper editor commented that it was “a sinful extravagance to waste our civilizing influence upon the unappreciative Filipinos when it is so badly needed right here in Arkansas.” Such comments were out of step with the times.

Nonetheless, there was a price for having “greatness thrust upon” us (as one historian puts it). McKinley]s assassination in September 1901 brought to the White House an even more strident expansionist, Theodore Roosevelt, who proceeded to detach Panama from Colombia, build the isthmian canal, and intervene in Latin America at the drop of a hat.

While the Philippine experience soured American policymakers on colonial empire, they did not give up using American political and military power to push American commerce into foreign markets, often before businessmen themselves had any real interest in them. The China market was always a snare and a delusion, except for a few businessmen who actually made money on it and policymakers who made careers out of it. That the whole overproduction-underconsumption theory was faulty does not need demonstrating here. America had plenty of markets, mainly in developed, European countries, and could have had others elsewhere, had those in power been willing to adopt free trade.

In pursuit of the mistaken or self-interested political engrossment of overseas markets, American policymakers committed themselves to an “open door” in China and to the protection of the territorial integrity of China. This sounded good on paper but was not exactly self-enforcing. If other powers stood in the way of U.S. entry into—and eventual dominance of—the fabled China market, only war could sustain the policy. To make matters worse, Teddy Roosevelt, who viewed tzarist Russia as the chief threat to U.S. China policy, deliberately favored the rising power of Japan as a counterweight. When, in the 1930s, the Japanese declined to be the stalking horse for the Americans’ Open Door, Franklin Roosevelt must have regretted his cousin’s line of attack.

Already in the late 18th century, the great Anglo-American classical liberal Thom-as Paine had characterized the futility of such ventures when he wrote: “The most unprofitable of all commerce is that connected with foreign dominion. To a few individuals it may be beneficial, merely because it is commerce; but to the nation it is a loss. The expense of maintaining dominion more than absorbs the profit of any trade.” Or as Adam Smith wrote (oddly enough in 1776):

    “To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers, may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers. Such statesmen, and such statesmen only, are capable of fancying that they will find some advantage in employing the blood and treasure of their fellow citizens, to found and maintain such an empire.”

The Spanish-American War launched the United States on just such a path: that of a modern nonaristocratic empire founded on state power but oriented towards commercial gain for well-connected friends and associates. By expanding the horizons of U.S. foreign policy in the pursuit of export markets through formal empire (the Philippines) and informal empire (Latin America and, eventually, everywhere), the Spanish-American War enhanced the role of government in American life and the role of the presidency in American government. The classical liberal sociologist William Graham Sumner, a strong anti-imperialist, had this to say, not long after the war:

    “We were told that we needed Hawaii in order to secure California. What shall we now take in order to secure the Philippines? No wonder that some expansionists do not want to ‘scuttle out of China.’ We shall need to take China, Japan, and the East Indies, according to the doctrine, in order to ‘secure’ what we have. Of course this means that, on the doctrine, we must take the whole earth in order to be safe on any part of it, and the fallacy stands exposed. If, then, safety and prosperity do not lie in this direction, the place to look for them is in the other direction: in domestic development, peace, industry, free trade with everybody, low taxes, industrial power.”

Sumner’s intended reductio ad absurdum explains actual U.S. foreign policy in the 20th century far better than a stack of books and pamphlets from the Council on Foreign Relations.

Sumner remarked in 1900 that “the political history of the United States for the next 50 years will date from the Spanish war of 1898.” Indeed. That splendid little war was a turning point. One hundred years later, we need to get on with turning away from its legacy.


Joseph R. Stromberg is an independent historian and a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute.

Reprinted with permission from the Future of Freedom Foundation. © Copyright, 1998.






Home | About Us | Blogs | Issues | Newsroom | Multimedia | Events | Publications | Centers | Students | Store | Donate

Product Catalog | RSS | Jobs | Course Adoption | Links | Privacy Policy | Site Map
Facebook Facebook Facebook Facebook
Copyright 2014 The Independent Institute