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Imperialism, The Spanish-American War: Cuba and the Philippines

Commodore George Dewey, Platt Amendment, San Juan Hill, splendid little war, Cuban independence

United States involvement in Cuba began in 1895 when the Cubans rebelled against Spanish rule. The Cuban revolution of 1895 was savage on both sides. Americans learned of Spanish atrocities through sensational press reports as well as from Cuban exiles who supported the rebels. Humanitarians urged the United States to intervene in the revolution, and U.S. businesses voiced concern about their large investments on the island. However, President Cleveland sought to avoid entanglement in Cuba, as did President McKinley, at first.

A well-publicized incident drew the United States into the conflict. On February 15, 1898, an American battleship, the Maine, exploded in Havana harbor, killing 266 people. Most Americans blamed the Spanish, and “Remember the Maine” became a call to arms. McKinley began negotiations with Spain for a settlement with Cuba. McKinley then sent a message to Congress, which adopted a resolution recognizing Cuban independence and renouncing any intent to annex the island, but Spain refused to withdraw. In April 1898 Congress declared war on Spain, and the Spanish-American War began.

The four-month war ended in August with a victory for the United States. The first action occurred thousands of miles away from Cuba in the Philippines, another Spanish colony. There Commodore George Dewey surprised the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay and sank every vessel in it.

Next, the United States sent an expeditionary force to Cuba. The U.S. Navy blockaded the Spanish fleet, and the Americans landed unopposed. After a bloody battle, in which a regiment of soldiers called Rough Riders were led by Theodore Roosevelt, the Americans captured San Juan Hill outside the strategic city of Santiago de Cuba, and Spanish land forces surrendered. American troops also occupied Puerto Rico and Manila Harbor. In August 1898 the United States signed an armistice, and later that year, a peace settlement.

The Senate narrowly ratified the peace treaty with Spain in February 1899. The treaty provided that Spain would cede the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam to the United States; the United States would pay Spain $20 million. In addition, Spain would surrender all claims to Cuba and assume Cuba’s debt. No wonder the Spanish-American War struck Secretary of State John Hay as a “splendid little war.” In a few months, the United States had become a major world power with an overseas empire.

But the story of the “splendid little war” was not yet complete. In February 1899 the Filipinos, led by Emilio Aguinaldo, declared themselves independent and began a three-year struggle against 120,000 U.S. troops. About 20,000 Filipinos were killed in combat. However, more than 200,000 Filipinos died during the insurrection primarily due to a cholera outbreak from 1897 to 1903. Barbarities and atrocities occurred on both sides before the United States captured Aguinaldo and suppressed the insurrection.

The U.S. Army remained in Cuba until 1901, when the Cubans adopted a constitution that included the Platt Amendment. The amendment pledged Cubans to allow the United States to intervene in Cuban affairs when events threatened property, liberty, or Cuban independence. Cuba accepted the amendment and became in effect a protectorate of the United States. In the election of 1900, William Jennings Bryan again challenged McKinley, this time on an unsuccessful anti-imperialist platform.

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