The United States started as a string of British colonies, and the oppression of the colonies eventually led to an intense resentment towards the system of mercantilism. However, centuries of time, the end of the frontier, and a slew of new books promoting an expanded manifest destiny led to changes in the American ethos. Industry required new sources of raw materials and new markets to sell in, and so as the nation moved closer to the 20th century, the demand for America to acquire her own colonies grew.
A central feature of imperialism is ethnocentrism, the belief that one’s culture is inherently superior to others. Working from this assumption, various intellectuals created diverse moral justifications for the oppression and subjugation of foreign peoples. Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History insisted that powerful navies had decided the European power struggles for the previous two centuries. His well-read book advocated a modern navy with battleships at its core to protect a strong merchant marine that would trade with colonies. Josiah Strong, in Our Country, argued that it was America’s Christian duty to expand our American Protestant ideals to the rest of the world. Lewis Henry Morgan described in Ancient Society a social ladder consisting of savagery, barbarism, and civilization. Western Europe and US reigned supreme at the highest level, and Morgan posited that members of the lower rungs could be ethically subjugated and their moral precepts replaced with ours.
While America now yearned for colonies of her own, an inconvenient situation presented itself in that all of the islands worth claiming had already been taken by European powers. America needed to wrestle an existing colony from an empire but it could not, as a free nation, initiate a war for such purposes. The solution was to simply hijack another war. Cuban insurgents had been fighting for independence from Spain for years. America could easily “liberate” Cuba and claim new territories.
Cuban rebels blended in with the civilian populace and fought the stronger Spanish forces using guerrilla tactics. The Spaniards could not possibly kill everyone while maintaining respectability and so, to separate the rebels from the people, Spanish General Weyler established reconcentration camps in Cuba for all civilians. Anyone outside would be considered a rebel and would be killed. The conditions inside the camps were crowded, unsanitary, rife with contagious diseases. Innocent civilians who, for various reasons remained outside, were murdered along with the rebels. American yellow journalists William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer competed with each other to find—or create—the worst reports of Spanish atrocities. These stories inflamed the public who saw Weyler as a “butcher.”
Furious at the Spanish Empire, Americans eagerly awaited further news. In a letter intercepted by the Cuban rebels and published by the American press, Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, Spanish ambassador to the US, wrote that President McKinley was “weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd.” Then, on February 15, 1898, the USS Maine, anchored in Havana harbor, exploded. Fueled by a steady stream of ill-informed reports from yellow journalists, the bloodthirsty public immediately blamed Spain as saboteur. McKinley demanded, among other things, that Spain immediately end the fighting and reconcentration camps. Spain promised reforms but ignored his other two demands: mediation by McKinley and Cuban independence. McKinley told Congress “the war in Cuba must stop” Congress responded by declaring a de facto war on Spain. To appease rightfully-held fears of imperialism, Congress included the Teller Amendment stating that the US did not intend to annex Cuba. Spain had no choice but to declare war on America and thus the Spanish–American War officially began.
Before the drama in Congress, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt cabled George Dewey, commander of the Pacific Fleet, to destroy the Spanish fleet at Manila, if we went to war with them. Following the declarations of war, Dewey easily defeated the much smaller Spanish fleet, becoming a war hero in the process. Abetted by Dewey’s quick victory in the Philippines, McKinley pushed a joint resolution through both houses of Congress that annexed Hawaii. American sugar planters had deposed the Hawaiian queen, Lili’Uokalani five years earlier and sought annexation but anti-imperialist senators had blocked it.
Americans finally landed on the shores of Cuba, though haphazardly. It took many hours to unload the men and supplies, including the horse of Theodore Roosevelt, who with his Rough Riders took Kettle Hill. Though won at great cost, the attack cleared the way for the successful assaults on San Juan Hill and San Juan Heights, two hills overlooking Santiago harbor. The Spanish fleet in the harbor tried to flee but the American fleet sunk or ran aground all of the Spanish ships killing 323 but losing only one American. Perched atop Santiago, Americans forced the Spanish surrender after only two weeks. Another week later, America took Puerto Rico and quickly followed with an uncontested seizure of Guam. When American troops arrived in the Philippines, the Spanish surrendered immediately. Our “splendid little war” concluded in less than four months.
In December of 1898, after months of negotiations that failed to include the Cubans or Filipinos, Spain and the US signed the Treaty of Paris. The treaty freed Cuba, gave Puerto Rico and Guam to the United States and sold the Philippines for $20 million. Unlike previous treaties, the newly acquired territories were given no promise of future statehood or the rights of citizens. The inhabitants were considered inferior people incapable of self-governance. America became a colonial empire, the exact thing it had once despised and fought against.