Why Was the Spanish American War Fought?

By Patrick McSherry

General:

One of the frequent questions asked is why was the Spanish American War fought? Some will say it was because the Battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor, but that is a far from complete answer. The true reasons for the conflict are much more complex. Below are the six main reasons for the warWar.

Six Reasons Why the War Was Fought

First, it is important to keep in mind that virtually all wars are fought for one of two reasons –  religion or access to resources. In the case of Spanish American War, access to resources, was a major factor. That resource was coal. The United States had been an isolationist nation, and still was in the years leading up to the Spanish American War. Economically, isolationism worked as the nation had the ability to expand economically within its own borders or within limited distances from its coasts. As the nineteenth century was reaching its closure many in the United States realized that to continue the expansion, the country had to expand overseas economically.

Overseas economic expansion had certain requirements. One was a commercial fleet. The United States did not have a commercial fleet, mainly for one reason. What kept commercial vessels from falling prey to foreign forces in ways ranging from piracy to harassment in certain markets was a navy that could defend their interests. Without a navy to back it up, shipping companies were unwilling to have their ships flagged as American vessels. To have a worldwide commercial fleet required a worldwide navy – or a navy that could travel anywhere in the world to defend its commerce. The government had the foresight to begin to provide the naval vessels with this capability – the country’s first true battleships - the Indiana Class battleships: U.S.S. Indiana, U.S.S. Massachusetts and the U.S.S Oregon. To satisfy the isolationists in congress, they had to be called “Seagoing Coast Line Battleships,” to indicate that they were to be defensive instead of offensive weapons, but they had the capacity to cross an ocean. However, in times of war, access of the nation’s warships to coal, the absolutely necessary lifeblood of the ship, could be denied under neutrality laws as they had to purchase coal from foreign nations. To be a true worldwide navy, the country had to have coaling stations around the world that were under its undisputed control and where warships could recoal without having to retire to the United States itself in times of war.

Earlier in the 1890’s the U.S. Navy studied where coaling stations would be needed, and suggested places such as the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico, among others. Many of these areas were part of Spain’s colonial empire. The navy developed battle plans in case war with Spain would occur to secure these resources. By the time of the Spanish American War, these plans had existed for several years.

A second major factor were the conditions in Cuba and the treatment of its citizens going back twenty years or more. Starting with Cuban Ten Years War and the Virginius affair and up through the beginning of the Cuban Revolution and the Reconcentration Policy under Governor General Weyler, conditions in Cuba were often brought to the attention of the American public.  Actions against Cuban civilians – real, exaggerated and false - received coverage in the American “Yellow Press.” These reports mainly impacted public opinion in urban centers where the Yellow Press was most prevalent with some trickle-down impact on the remainder of the rural nation. When the Cuban Revolution broke out in 1895, many Americans took the side of the Cuban underdogs against Spain, to the extent that an arms trade developed with arms being shipped by private entities (not the U.S. government) to the Cuban forces. Cuban leaders such as Jose Marti and Tomas Palma came to the U.S. and promoted the cause of “Cuba Libre.“ These conditions, combined with the country’s policies related to the Monroe Doctrine, kept the issue of Spanish control of the island in the nation’s mindset for many years.

Press on Cuba

Typical covereage in the American press - "Columbia" representing the U.S. sits asleep while the
ghosts of Lafayette and Von Steuben attempt to wake. She holds document about the Spanish repression in Cuba.
In the background, a Spanish soldier beats a Cuban woman with the butt of a rifle (source: Library of Congress).

Third, there were efforts on the side of the Cubans to draw the Americans into the conflict on the side of the Cuban revolutionaries, a stated goal of Cuban leader Maximo Gomez. There was substantial American private investment in the island’s sugar industry. American plantations were damaged or destroyed by Cuban forces with the belief that the American government would be prodded by wealthy and influential plantation owners to react to stem the losses.

Fourth, there was the issue of the aftermath of the American Civil War. The war was brutal, and horrible as are all wars. The Civil War, however, directly impacted almost every family in the country. The men who served in the war formed strong bonds with the men that they served with. The bonds formed under fire were often as strong as family bonds. In the ensuing years, the veterans formed organizations with their comrades, often promoting the glorious actions of their regiments and regaling in their comradeship. As with most horrible events, the horror has a tendency to fade, but the glorious actions and the comradeship remained. As the Spanish American War approached thirty years later, a new generation had grown up in the stories of the glorious actions of their fathers. To them war was less a horror, and more of an opportunity to share in the glory and comradeship experienced by their fathers. The truth of this became apparent when the Spanish American War broke out and the call went out for volunteers. More volunteers were received than were needed. It got to the point that the federal government refused to accept additional volunteer regiments from the states, so the states responded by enlarging the already accepted regiments from nine to twelve companies, adding about three hundred unwanted men to each regiment! Competition to get a position in even the expanded regiments was so strong that very, very few underage soldiers were accepted, contrary to many family legends. As companies raised were local, underage men were usually “ratted out” by those who knew them and removed from the company to allow for someone who met the qualifications to join.

Fifth, there was the issue of Manifest Destiny lingering in the U.S. as it had for the previous fifty years. This belief was that the U.S. was endowed by Divine Providence with a mission to bring its forms of government and religious beliefs to other peoples to improve their lives, or, in some cases, to “bring them civilization.” This belief meant that some felt it was the duty of the U.S. to bring its beliefs to other, less developed nations.

Sixth, Spain was a declining power. Its armed forces, though well-led and as brave as any other, were not keeping up with other nations. Many naval vessels had been designed to maintain it colonies, not to go head-to-head with other nations. Spain had severe economic issues, and funding for its armed forces was significantly decreased. In fact, live-fire practice was seldom done, and with this lack of target practice, the ability of its military to perform in war was significantly decreased. Though many still considered Spain a strong world power, and expected the U.S. to lose the conflict, those in power knew the true conditions.

Entering into all of the this was the sudden explosion of the Battleship Maine in Havana harbor. This brought the voices of everyone promoting above to beliefs to a fever pitch. The 1898 "Sampson Board" investigation into the loss of the Maine indicated that it was lost to a mine that triggered the greater explosion of an ammunition magazine, dooming the ship. It is noteworthy that the investigation did not fix blame on who planted the mine with much discussion being focusing not on the Spanish government possibly setting the mine, but on its failure under international law to protect the foreign vessel in its port. It is also noteworthy that the U.S. has never changed its official view that the ship was sunk by a mine. A second official inquiry was held in 1911 ("Vreeland Board") and reached the same conclusion. A third private (unofficial) study (Rickover) was done in the 1970’s blaming the blast on a coal bunker fire, but the evidence for this was lacking.

Many saw the opportunities presented by the situation in Cuba on the aftermath of the loss of the Maine. Those pushing or any or all of the reasons above pressed for war. The U.S. mulled the idea over. The Maine was sunk on February 15. The U.S. did not declare war until April 25, over two month later. The declaration of war did not mention the Maine, as that was not truly the issue, but the independence of the Cuban people. Removing Spanish control from Cuba, and other locations was the true goal, allowing for all of the forces listed above to be unleashed.
 


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