The Spanish American War - One Spaniard's View

By Francisco Jose Diaz Diaz

Translated into English by Luis Iriarte and Denise Quiñones
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The article below was written by the editor "The Odyssey of Spain in the Overseas Provinces," Francisco José Díaz Díaz.

The vision that exists in today's Spain of what happened 100 years ago during the Spanish American War is profoundly influenced by the consequences that were felt during the 20th century  as a result of the conflict.

To understand the Spanish posture before and during the conflict, it is necessary to give a brief historical introduction to Spain's internal political affairs, especially during the 19th century. It is also necessary to understand three other issues:

1- Spain's policy towards the Caribbean and Asiatic islands.
2- The vision of Spain's society in 1898.
3- The consequences of Spain's defeat.


Spain was unified as a nation during the 15th century. The political marriages of Spain's kings with other European dynasties and the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus threw Spain into a process of exaltation and expansion in Europe, America and the Pacific. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain was the pre-eminent European power that controlled Holland, Belgium, the south of Italy, Sicily and parts of Germany and Austria. The constant wars with excessive expense in men and money weakened f Spain's position in Europe, and in the year 1700, when Charles II, the last king of the Habsburg dynasty died, all of Spain's European possesions were lost except the peninsula, the Canary and Baleares Islands. Spain was no longer the first world power. Nevertheless, its extensive colonies in Hispanic America still made her an important power. Under the French Bourbon dynasty, Spain almost avoided all wars, except, for example, the American Revolution, were Spain took the side of the colonies. The relative tranquility and economic prosperity were broken with the French Revolution. The Napoleonic invasion of Spain with the substitution of the Bourbon dynasty for the French emperor's brother provoked an uprising of the people in May, 1808. With the legitimate king detained in France, a "Consejo de Regencia" (Governing Council) was placed in charge of the country. The liberal influences of the French Revolution created a constitutionalist movement that resulted in the "Cortes de Cadiz" of 1812 ("Cortes" is the name of the Spanish parliament). During these "Cortes" the liberal constitution that eliminated the privileges of the nobles and the clergy and established a liberal and democratic system, was aproved. At the end of the war against Napoleon (1808-14) the country was ruined and divided politically. The return to the throne of Fernando VII, who anulled the Constitution of 1812, opened a period of intermmitent fighting between absolutists and liberals. Simultaneously, in Spanish America the fight for independence began. After the death of Fernando VII in 1833, a real civil war started between the absolutist followers of Prince Don Carlos, Fernando VII's brother, called "Carlistas," and the liberal followers of Queen Isabel II, a minor daughter of Fernando VII,  who were called "Isabelinos."

The economy was paralyzed and the country ruined. After the victory of the liberals, a period of successive military coupe d'êtats commenced, some liberal and moderate, while others liberal and progressive. Each coupe caused changes of the constitution. Only after the coupe of General O'Donnell in 1854, did a stable democratic regime of conservative character get restored, bringing temporary order to the economy, the army and the navy. The navy, with the succesive construction of armored frigates, recuperated from the disaster of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and became the fifth best navy in the world. During these years, Spain threw herself into new colonial adventures that helped her to forget past penuries. In a few years, expeditions were sent to Mexico and Indochina to help England and France. Wars in the Pacific against Chile and Peru were won, and in Africa war against the Moroccans brought a similar result. The army and navy regained their capacity, and the country felt the false illusion of being still a world power.

Nevertheless, the political and economical crisis that burst in 1866 lead to the "Glorious Revolution of 1868," encouraged by progressive military men like General Serrano, Duke of la Torre, General Prim, Marquis of Los Castillejos, and Admiral Topete. Isabel II was overthrown and the Bourbon dynasty expelled from the throne. Six years of rapid and tragic changes in the life of the nation followed. First, the regency of General Serrano; then, successively the monarchy of Amadeo I, the First Republic and the dictatorship of General Serrano. Meanwhile, a new "Carlista" insurrection burst in an attempt to restore the absolute monarchy, simultaneously with the cantonalist revolts that defended a federal republic, the first war with Cuba and the conspiracies to restore the Bourbon in the figure of Prince Alfonso, son of Isabel II. Spain was in chaos.

The coup d'êtat of General Martinez Campos, Count of Llovera, in 1874 produced the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in the figure of the son of the dethroned Isabel II, Alfonso XII, who had lived six years in exile and was deeply in favor of social and political changes toward a liberal democracy. The country, fed up with wars and death, seconds him in his purpose. During his reign (1874-1885) the country prospered, the army stayed apart from politics, and political parties (conservatives and liberals) followed each other in a civilized way in the elections. The death of the 28 year-old king, from a disease while visiting a hospital, plunged the country in uncertainty. His wife, who was pregnant with the future King Alfonso XIII, assumed the regency. Some small republican uprisings without popular support were quickly crushed, but the country lived in relative calm, waiting the new king, yet unborn, who was expected to follow in the footsteps of his father, in order to regain the grandeur of the past. Until his coming of age in 1902, his mother, Maria Cristina of Habsburg, the second wife of Alfonso XII, acted act as regent. So by 1898, we find the country surviving fighting, disorganization, the illusion of being a world power, and revolts in Cuba and the Philippines.

This imperial illusion resulting from past memories of glories is in part the key to understanding Spain's posture at the beginning of the war with the United States.

Spain and its Colonies:

The Spanish colonization of American lands, like all colonization, has its lights and its shadows. It is neither as negative as it is described by the "black legend" extended in Europe in a time when Spain was the pre-eminent power, nor as positive as it was described in the Spain of the 19th and 20th centuries. From the moment of the colonization of America, the Spanish monarchy pretended to organize the new territories in the image of the metropolis. Municipal governments and universities were created; viceroyships similar to the ones existing at the peninsula and other European possessions were created; laws to govern the Indies were dictated, establishing norms to protect the native Americans and establishing limitations to the power of the viceroys who, at the end of their mandate were submitted to "Juicios de Residencia" (impeachment proccedings) to prove that they had not performed in an abusive way.

Nevertheless the difficulties of communication with the king over the great distance of the Atlantic Ocean had created a desire for self-government in the majority of the American provinces. The American Revolution enhanced the desire of self goverment in the Spanish colonies, a desire that will detonate the Spanish wars against the French between 1808 and 1814. The absence of Spain's legitimate monarchs, detained by Napoleon, forces every Spanish province, both peninsular and overseas, to create transitory governing bodies. It is precisely this experience of self government in the American provinces that originates the first outbreaks of resistence to Spanish authorities.

The return to the throne of absolute monarch, King Fernando VII ends this governing experience and turns the Hispanic American aristocracy and bourgeosie towards a quest for independence. Its promoters are not the native Americans or poor colonists, but the members of the economicaly powerful aristocracy and the military born in the colonies who had fought in the peninsula against the French. The list of counts and marquises in the separatist side was overwhelming. The declarations of independence spring far and wide  in Hispanic America, and Spanish troops are overthrown everywhere. After a twenty-year bloody fraticidal struggle of fathers against sons and brothers against brothers, some loyal to their king, others loyal to the idea of liberty, independence is proclamed in all of South and Central America. The internal situation of Spain, with the struggle between absolutists and liberals, contributed to the independence of the colonies. The deathblow to Spain's ability to keep her American colonies happened in 1820, when the troops, commanded by General Riego, prepared to go overseas, revolted in Cadiz (Spain) in favor of the Constitution of 1812, ending provisionally the absolutist regime.

Once the independence was obtained, only Cuba, Puerto Rico and the islands in the Pacific Ocean stayed loyal to Spain. The reason for this could be found in that the two islands of the Caribbean were the first colonized by Spain and had many Spaniards with strong economic ties to the metropolis. In the Philippines, the reasons were the geographic separation, and the fact that their ethnic groups were educated as Spaniards. An English traveller at the beginning of the 19th century was surprised that the Spaniards, "Mestizos" and "Tagalos" ate together and shared the same places.

Nevertheless, the reaction of Spanish authorities after the independence of the remainder of the American colonies was one of distrust. Except for three periods of time (from 1812 to 1814, 1820 to 1823 and 1868 to 1872) when the Caribbean islands sent representatives to parliament, the power of the Captain Generals, as representatives of the king, was practically absolute. A well-known Spanish politician said that Spanish kings were constitutional monarchs in Spain and absolute kings overseas. The inhabitants born in Cuba and Puerto Rico started to feel that, although they were Spanish, they did not enjoy the benefits of the Spanish constitution, which only covered the European territories. In both Caribbean islands followers of the ideals of autonomy appeared who wanted a self-governing system that was still related to the Spanish crown to be applied to the islands, similar to the regime held by Canada under the English sovereignty. The members of the peninsular aristocracy and bourgeosie who had important economic interests in both islands, opposed these ideas.

In Cuba, an important group of autonomists felt defrauded and pretended to desire either the independence of the Island or its annexation to the US as a new state. On the other hand, another important group of Cubans firmly wished to stay with Spain and recruited a great number of volunteers to fight with the Spaniards against the separatists. These two groups turned the Cuban War of Independence into a true civil war among Cubans.

Nevertheless, unfortunate politics, both administratative and economical, which were carried out by Spain, explain the frustration of Cubans and Puerto Ricans and their eargerness to change the situation. The administration of the islands was in the hands of "peninsulares" (those born in Spain) who in most cases were only interested in enriching themselves quickly and returning to Spain as soon as possible. Few Cubans or Puerto Ricans had any part in the administration, and the majority of the taxes collected in Puerto Rico and Cuba were not reinvested in the islands. In the last budget of the Spanish administration in Puerto Rico, before the granting of the autonomy, the quantity of funds dedicated to education was almost the same as the funds dedicated to the salary of the Captain General.

The situation in the islands of the Pacific was similar. Because of the distance with the metropolis, the administration was put in the hands of monks who had more power than the few Spanish officials stationed there. The abuses of the Catholic clergy were one of the fundamental causes for the Tagalog revolts. The other causes were the legitimate aspirations to match the Spaniards in the matter of political rights and the administration of the Philippines.

The Spanish Society in 1898:

When the MAINE exploded in Havana harbour, Spanish public opinion was not aware of the consequences that a war to retain the remains of the empire would bring upon the nation. At the beginning of 1898, Spanish cities were calm. Spain was flooded with bullfights, theater and "zarzuelas" (name for Spanish operettas) that were presented without interruption. People lived the events happening in Cuba and the Philippines as something distant but always supporting the Spanish presence in the Islands. It is not clear to them why the Cubans fought, nor did they understand the economical and political potential of the U.S. They still dreamed that all was as in the times of King Felipe II, when the sun never set on the empire . They ignored the troubled relations with the U.S.

The MAINE, after arriving unannounced, was still floating in the waters of Havana Bay, extending its initial intended stay. It had arrived in a courtesy visit and remained there to guarantee the life and belongings of American citizens who we supposedly menaced by the dissorders in Cuba. The explosion of the ship took place on February 15, 1898. The MAINE sunk while the empire was in its agonies.
The "yellow press" on both sides of the Atlantic cried for war. The World newspaper proclaimed: "The destruction of the MAINE is reason enough to order our fleet to move towards Havana, and demand indemnity in 24 hours under the threat of bombardment". The New York Journal asked for military intervention. In Spain, the press, mainly in the hands of well known bussinessmen and politicians, answered. The newspaper El Pais replied: "The Cuban problem will not be solved unless we send an army to the U.S.". The other Spanish newspapers, like El Correo Español, asked for war. They still did not realize the economic and military power of the U.S., and made fabulous comparisons between the naval forces of both countries, always favorable to Spain of course.

The U.S. government commissioned its ambassador in Madrid, Woodford, to negotiate with Spain on the basis on an armistice, the supression of the Cuban "reconcentrados" (A reconcentration of country people in the towns secured by Spain designed to deprive the rebels of food and support had been instituted. These towns became like prision camps.), and Cuban self-government. The majority of the Spanish population considered these requests an insult to Spanish sovereignty. The Spanish government ended the "reconcentrados" and proposed an armistice.

The American government, unsatisfied, proposed simply to buy Cuba. The rejection of this idea by the Spanish government left few available solutions. On March 21, the American commission that investigated the sinking of the MAINE, accepted the thesis of the planned explosion and the American public opinion, instigated by the "yellow press," increases the pressure on the government to fight in Cuba. Meanwhile, in Spain elections are celebrated and are won by the liberals. Aristocratic parties are filled with splendor and carnivals flood Spanish streets. There was still confidence in that there would be no war.

The Spanish government was forced by European powers accepts the armistice, but nothing else. The rebels reject this solution. On April 11, McKinley addressed the U.S. Congress. His speech ended with the petition that Congress authorize him to take measures to impose a stable government capable of maintaining order in Cuba, using, if necessary, the U.S. army and navy.

In Spain people turn out in the streets in in shows of patriotism shouting: "To New York!" to the sound of the "Marcha de Cadiz" (a well-known military march from the time of the war against Napoleon). The Minister (Secretary) of War proclaims that he wished that the American army would come to Spain in order to show them the heroism of the Spanish people. Such a patriotic stupidity is frenetically applauded by the newspapers in remembrance of the spirits of the old Spanish heroes of the middle ages, and forgetting that wars are not won with ghostly help. The people continued ignoring the power of the U. S., and though the government that knows the truth, keeps silent.

On April 18, the U.S. Congress aproves a joint resolution giving total war powers to McKinley. From this day Spain knows that war is innevitable. On the night of April 20-21, Woodford receives, via telegram, the text of the Congress resolution with orders to hand it to Spanish authorities as an ultimatum requiring the Spanish renunciation of Cuba in 3 days. Woodford decided to deliver this document in the morning of the 21st. When Woodford delivered the ultimatum, the Spanish government announced the breaking of diplomatic relations between the two countries. That same afternoon the American fleet, which was 10 miles from the Cuban coast, seized some Spanish merchant ships before the declaration of war. On the 23rd of April, the Regent Queen signs the Declaration of War that was previously approved by the Spanish "Cortes". The 25th of April, the U.S. Congress votes to declare war on Spain, retroactive to the 21st.

In Spain, people believe that God is with the Spaniards. In the pulpits the priests invoke Divine help, but God pays no attention to their pleas. The end of the empire had come.

What was narrated before, permits us to conclude the following:

1- As in the United States, the "yellow press" in Spain made aa strong effort of disinformation about the military capacities of the army and navy of the US, creating the illusion that the Spanish fleet was superior to the American fleet. Only the press of republican or socialist orientation alerted the public about the truth of the military power of the United States and the uselessness of the war.

2- The Spanish government, although conscious of the Spanish inferiority, did not avoid the war as a last resort. The reasons were basically two: First, the government was afraid that the abandoning of the islands without struggle could provoke a revolution that would end the reigning dinasty. The second reason was that the support of the European powers was expected in this dispute against the intrusion of the U.S. in a matter that concerned a European power. None of these hypotheses were proved true.

In the first case some modern historians in Spain have elaborated the theory that the Spanish government knew that the independence of Cuba was inexorable, but since the unilateral abandonment of Cuba could bring tensions in the army and the population, the loss had to be justified by being one through a military defeat. Besides this, we must consider the economic and military effort made by Spain in the Cuban War for independence. In 1898 the extraordinary budget for war in Cuba and the Philippines surpassed more than the ordinary budget of the state (1,875 millions of pesetas against 873 millions in 1898) and the public debt had reached unbearable limits. The prolonging of the war against the Cuban rebels would bring the state to bankruptcy. The drain of men was unbearable also (between 1895-98 more than 220,000 men were transported to Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines; about 60,000 of them died, most of them from sickness). While the conservative governments of Cánovas del Castillo advocated continuation of the war against the insurgents "to the last man and the last peseta", the liberal governments of Sagasta wanted to leave Cuba without giving the appearance of fleeing or a claudication, but did not find the occasion. The explosion of the MAINE and the intervention of the U.S. was the excuse that the government was waiting for to loose Cuba in a rapid war, knowing the inferiority of the Spanish navy. That the war was to be short and rapid was the cause for the absurd  orders given to the army in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, including the fleets of Cervera, Montojo and Camara. The liberal government of Sagasta, in compliance with this theory, justified the defeat by pointing out that Spanish honor was saved, even though everything else was lost. However, the loss of all of the overseas provinces did not produce a popular reaction against the dynasty.

In second place, none of the European powers supported Spain against the United States. During the 19th century, Spanish diplomacy had established a regulated principle for Spanish activity outside of Spain. Such principle stated: "Confronted with an external problem, if England and France agree, Spain would support the agreement; if no agreement existed, Spain should resist intervention". On this principle Spain abandoned normal colonial politics subjecting itself to the terms of France and England. It was expected that in just reciprocity, both France and England now would support Spain. The facts proved that such principle was false. Initially, they resisted intervention because they confided that the Spanish army in Cuba, superior to the total of the regular U.S. army, would defeat the Americans. Only at the end of the conflict, when an attack was feared against the Spanish coasts in Europe, did the European powers show concern that there would be a possible American intervention in Europe, and Spain was forced to accept the conditions imposed by the Paris Treaty. During the war there was, in fact, a diplomatic conflict with England, where the Spanish army reinforced the Strait of Gibraltar with coastal batteries expecting a menace from the American fleet. England considered that such conduct affected its colony of Gibraltar situated in the strait, and threatened Spain with the adoption of retaliation measures.

Consequences of the Defeat on Spain:

The end of the war had serious consequences on Spanish politics during the 20th century. The direct and immediate consequences were apparently of little importance but, with the passing of the years, the defeat affected the country seriously. At the end of the war, except for the bitterness of defeat, everything seemed to flow normally. Contrary to what the Spanish goverment thought, no reaction was produced against the monarchy because the country had not yet assumed the loss of the colonies. The people did not understand how a nation of great military tradition had crumbled before a country that neswspapers and politicians categorized as "shopkeepers who would run when faced with battle". However, in political circles, a real storm broke out against Prime Minister Sagasta and his government, and against the army and the navy. In various stormy sessions in Senate, the Count of Almenas blamed the defeat on the inept military command and asked that Courtmartials be held where "the belts of generals and admirals be passed from their waists to their necks". Few deputies and senators had the gallantry to recognizing that the cause of their defeat was the lack of foresight of consecutive governments and that the military, as a general rule, complied with the government's obligations, including going consciously into defeat, as did Admiral Cervera. No minister wanted to recognize that inefficient naval programs and incorrect operational plans had led to total defeat.

The public, deceived by newspapers and certain politicians, blamed the army and the navy for the loss. The repatriated soldiers were not received as heroes but with insults by those who had stayed in the peninsula without fighting.

After all, the defeat affected the collective memory of the Spaniards and even today when someone suffers a big setback, the expression "more was lost in the Cuban War" is used. As time passed the defeat brought basically three serious consequences. The confrontation between the political power and the army; the loss of trust in the country's capabilities by the Spaniards, and the discredit of the traditional political parties. This discredit would lead in the long run to the Second Republic (1931) and the Civil War (1936-39). On the other hand, the crisis of 1898 allied some of the most distinguished Spanish intellectuals in the so called "Generacion del 98" who analyzed critically the situation of Spain, creating a movement called "Regeneracionismo" that pushed the abandonment of fatalism and promoted a fight for the future. Its effects were not immediate. The turbulent years of the wars in Africa, the dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera, the breakdown of Monarchy,  the Second Republic, the Civil War, the dictatorship of General Franco and the restoration of Monarchy had to pass in order for Spain to start to recover from the fateful year of 1898.

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