The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | Articles | United States/Foreign Policy | US Intervention in Cuba, 1898

Email to a friend
Printer friendly

US Intervention in Cuba, 1898

Cuban-Spanish-American War

The effort to throw the Spanish out was a long struggle. There were constant conspiracies on the part of Cubans to free themselves of Spain. The effort called the Ten Years' War (1868-78) had failed but a new war for independence began in 1895. From New York, Tomás Estrada Palma, José Marti (who would be martyred), and others landed in Cuba to join compatriots who had already begun to fight the Spanish. By necessity, the insurrectionists had to use guerrilla tactics, for the Spanish army, reinforced from the mother country, was too strong. Through hit-and-run tactics, sabotage, selective murders, and persistence, they hoped to wear the Spanish down and cause them to give up. the Spanish, under the leadership of General Valierano Weyler fought the guerrillas by trying to isolate them and cut off their support. Using a tactic which would used by the United States in the Vietnam War, he tried to pacify the countryside by moving populations out of a sector so that only guerrillas and their supporters would be left and then the army could defeat them. The populations were reconcentrated into camps. US citizens had little interest in Cuba until the Cuban Civil War began in 1895. The Spanish concentration camps aroused attention. In them, disease was rampant and many died. The US tends to have sympathy for the underdog. Moreover, it had traditional anti-Spanish views inherited from the English. The "Yellow Journalists" (the sensationalist press led by Hearst and Pulitzer) fed the anti-Spanish, pro-interventionist sentiment.


When revolt began in 1895, President Grover Cleveland declared US neutrality but he faced a clique of Henry Cabot Lodge, Theodore Roosevelt, Whitelaw Reid of the New York Tribune and Albert Shaw of the Review of Reviews who wanted to intervene Cuba and annex Hawaii. In 1896, Congress passed a resolution recognizing belligerency. Richard Olney, Secretary of State, made it clear to Spain that the US considered its interests in Cuba jeopardized by continuance of war. There were also economic and strategic groups in the US who had an interest in Cuba. Besides, the Navy was getting to the point of being able to fight the Spanish. The naval appropriations bills in 1870s and 1880s showed the buildup in strength.

US economic interests were not much even by the standards of the day. In 1895, US-Cuban trade was about $100 million a year. US investment in Cuba was about $50 million, mostly in sugar and iron but some in mining and tobacco. Some thought only $30 million. Neither was high enough to justify intervention (except, of course, if it were your money). The US business community was generally opposed the intervention. But Pulitzer's World and Hearst's Journal pounded away at the US citizenry until the latter began demanding that the US intervene to save the Cubans from the dirty, nasty Spaniards, ignoring the fact that the Cubans were committing at least as many atrocities.

The Spanish ambassador to the United States, de Lome, sent a private letter to his friend, the editor of the Madrid Herald, who was visiting Cuba, in which he wrote "McKinley [is] weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd." He made other derogatory comments, most of which McKinley's opposition would have agreed with. The letter was stolen by a clerk in the Havana post office and sent to rebels who then sent it to the Journal. The newspaper published it in February, 1898, not pointing out that the letter was private and stolen and not Spanish policy. Instead, the Journal was trying to inflame passions, which it did. De Lome resigned before publication but that did not stop the newspaper. His resignation removed from the scene the patient, skilful, and tireless de Lome.

On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine blew up Havana harbor. It had been there for 3 weeks, having been sent in case US citizens had to be rescued and as an act of intimidation towards the Spanish government. Unfortunately, 266 died in the explosion. The Spanish government expressed regret at the accident. Investigations indicated that the Spanish government was not responsible and common sense said that it would not be so stupid as to have done it. The rebels gained from the explosion but the best evidence suggests that it was an accident caused by one or more US sailors. The US press, however, said it was an act of treachery on the part of Spain.

The governments of Spain and the United States were not so easily swayed and had continued to seek a diplomatic solution. By March 27th, one day before the report on the Maine explosion was made public, the US minister to Spain was asked to find out (1) if Spain would grant a six months armistice to the rebels, (2) whether Spain would revoke the reconcentration order at once, allow Cubans to go home, and work with the US to supply them until they could get back on their feet, and (3) whether Spain would allow the US to be the final arbiter if peace were not achieved by October 1st. Spain agreed to revoke the reconcentration order and, on April 9th, agreed to suspend hostilities. In essence, the US demands had been met. That should have ended the matter.

Congress, however, wanted war, and, on April 11, 1898, McKinley accommodated. On April 19, Congress declared Cuba independent, demanded that Spain withdraw, and and directed and empowered the US president to fight a war if Spain refused to fold. The declaration of war was softened by the Teller Amendment which promised that the US would not annex any territory gained from the war. By April 25th, Congress declared that a state of war existed.

The war did not last the year. The US attacked the Spanish Philippines and then Cuba. The Spanish fleet was defeated and Spanish ground troops on the island had to give up. Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico became US protectorates. The Cuban generals who had been fighting the war for independence were shoved aside.