"We want no wars of conquest; we must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression. War should never be entered upon until every agency of peace has failed; peace is preferable to war in almost every contingency. (President McKinley in his 1897 Inaugural Address)
The assurances of the U.S. President aside, events in Cuba were making war with Spain an eventuality that was destined to occur.
Lying just 90 miles south of the tip of Florida, the sugar-rich island of Cuba was sometimes called the Pearl of the Antilles. Along with the neighboring island of Puerto Rico, Cuba was among the last holdings of the aging Spanish empire. Between the islands lay the independent Republic of Haiti (freed from French rule in 1804) and the Dominical Republic, which declared independence from Haiti in 1844. The people of Cuba likewise sought independent rule, leading to a quarter-century of unrest. A short distance away the people of the United States watched events in the Caribbean unfold with great interest.
In 1823 Secretary of State John Quincy Adams noted, "The apple severed from the tree must fall to the ground. Cuba severed from Spain, and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only toward the North American Union (United States), which by the same law of nature cannot cast her off from its bosom." That the United States was interested in acquiring the Caribbean island with its natural port at Havana was no secret. In 1848 President James K. Polk offered Spain $100 million for Cuba, an offer that was quickly and curtly rejected. Six years later the American ministers to France, Spain and England joined in writing a confidential memorandum to Washington (known as the Ostend Manifesto) urging President Franklin Pierce to either purchase Cuba or forcefully wrest control of the island from Spain.
In the years following the American Civil War, interest in acquiring Cuba as an annexation to the United States waned, to be replaced by cries for Cuban independence. During Cuba's Ten Years' War for independence (1868-78), American sympathies lay with the Cuban insurgents who struggled to throw off the last remnants of the Spanish global empire that dated back to Christopher Columbus. Clandestine support for the Cuban rebels was common, particularly in the South where Filibusters...military expeditions by private adventurers...were encouraged and supported by the American citizenry. Leaders in the revolt like Jose Marti often operated on American soil as they plotted the overthrow of Spanish rule. But, after the devastating Civil War, the American populace was not ready to become involved in another war themselves.
In 1873 the Cuban ship Virginius, a vessel of the Filibusters, was captured by the Spanish while fraudulently flying the American flag as it ferried arms to the Cuban insurgents. Captain Joseph Fry and 52 of his crew and passengers were executed, among them several American and British citizens. In other times, such an incident might have led to immediate war but, after the devastating Civil War, the US populace was not ready to become involved in another conflict...yet. Civil War hero Daniel Edgar Sickles, now the US Minister to Spain, was infuriated and might have rendered any negotiations futile. But Secretary of State Hamilton Fish took negotiations out of Sickles' hand, settling the matter peaceably with Spain which paid an $80,000 indemnity to the families of those Americans executed.
When the Ten Years' War ended in 1878, the Cuban bid for independence had been crushed and Spain continued to tenuously hold its Caribbean asset. The sad loss could not, however, diminish the desire the Cuban patriots held for independence. Within 20 years it rose again, with a renewed fervor. Meanwhile attitudes in the United States were becoming more and more imperialistic and the American people were taking a new view of their nation in the affairs of a world that advances in technology had made much smaller. Even as rebellion broke out anew in Cuba in 1895, the United States was taking a more active role in events in the western hemisphere. While intervening in a dispute between Venezuela and Great Britain, Secretary of State Richard Olney echoed the growing American sentiment:
"The United States is practically sovereign upon this continent, and its fiat is law upon subjects to which it confines its interposition."
In April 1895 the bid for independence in Cuba was renewed in earnest. Patriots, willing to expend every energy and even their own lives to oust the Spanish, began arming themselves and conducting bloody campaigns against their oppressors. In response, the Spanish government sent General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau to pacify the island in 1896. General Weyler responded by identifying districts that posed the greatest trouble to maintaining control over Cuba, then herded the civilian populations in those districts to detention camps near military headquarters. It was a policy he called reconcentrado. As a result of this action, more than 100,000 Cubans starved or died of disease before General Weyler was recalled in October, 1897.
The heavy-handed tactics of General Weyler made for sensational reporting in the media of the yellow press. He became known as the "Butcher", and sensational stories of his brutality ran under blazing headlines that read: "Spanish Cannibalism", "Inhuman Torture", and worse. In the traditions of David and Goliath, Cuban patriots were portrayed as heroically defending their homeland against a brutal and aggressive enemy with no conscience. The truth of the news didn't matter as much as the ability of a headline to capture attention..."Amazon Warriors Fight for Rebels"...or the potential of a story to incite the emotions of the reader for more.
The Spanish recall of General Weyler on October 31, 1897 might have otherwise robbed the media of the prime subject of their inflammatory stories were it not for the continued unrest in Cuba. Building on stories already written and widely known, and with a battery of reporters and artists that included the likes of William Remington, the media survived. Two years earlier a 25-year old author inspired a nation by reliving the sacrifice and glory of Civil War service with the release of his second novel, The Red Badge of Courage. Now Stephen Crane joined the battery of writers chronicling the valiant struggle for freedom in Cuba. Even with the absence of Weyler, tensions mounted and Spain was portrayed as a poor ruler about to leap from the frying pan into the fire of Cuba.
Meanwhile the American consul in Havana, Fitzhugh Lee, was becoming increasingly concerned for the safety of American citizens in Cuba. (A Confederate general in the Civil War and nephew of Robert E. Lee, "Fitz" Lee is often confused by historians of these events with Fitzhugh Henry Lee, the son of Robert E. Lee and also a Confederate general.) On January 1, 1898 Spain demonstrated its desire to avoid war in the Caribbean when it instituted a limited political autonomy in Cuba. It was too little, too late for the ardent revolutionaries who would settle for nothing less than full independence. Meanwhile, the Spanish government had supporters of its own in Cuba, an opposing force of citizens who had supported General Weyler and who now opposed the limited autonomy afforded the island's inhabitants. On January 12th these Spanish loyalists rioted, prompting new concerns for the safety of American citizens in Cuba. Five days later Consul Lee requested the President to dispatch an American vessel in a show of American presence in the region of increasingly violent civil unrest. On January 24th, after clearing such a visit with the reluctant and nervous government in Madrid, the second class battleship U.S.S. Maine was dispatched from Key West, Florida. The impressive American battleship arrived in Havana the following day.
In the weeks that followed Consul Lee reported to Washington that the presence of the Maine had a calming effect on the unrest in Cuba. He requested that the Navy prepare to send another battleship to Havana when it came time to relieve the Maine. It almost appeared that the situation in Cuba might settle down. Spain didn't want war...its aging fleet would be no match for the might of the United States Navy. President McKinley had repeatedly called for negotiations, and in this new year at the close of the century, Spain had provided a limited political autonomy to the people of Cuba. Then came the first attack.
One might say that the first attack of the Spanish-American War was not made with bullets, but with words. Back in Washington, D.C. the Spanish Minister Enrique de Lome wrote a letter to a Spanish editor who was traveling in the United States. The communication was stolen by a Cuban official in the Havana Post office and passed on to the New York Journal, which printed it on February 9th. In that letter the Spanish Minister expressed his adverse personal reaction to the U.S. President's message to Congress in December of the previous year. The undiplomatic diplomat stated in his letter that President McKinley was "weak and a bidder for admiration of the crowd...(that he was) a would-be politician who tries to leave a door open behind himself while keeping on good terms with the jingoes of his party."
In fact, President McKinley had been one of the cooler heads in government where the subject of war with Spain was becoming increasingly hawkish. An American public already incensed by the yellow press, was becoming more and more ardent in their calls for American intervention in Cuba. Now the citizenry saw the attack by a Spanish diplomat on the US President as the ultimate proof of Spain's disrespect and arrogance towards the United States and events in neighboring Cuba. De Lome's resignation, and even a reluctant apology from Spain, could not assuage the anger of the American people or the sensational reporting on the incident in the media.
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