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What Were the Effects of the Spanish American War?

By Patrick McSherry

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The Spanish American War had a major impact on American ad world history. After the war, the United States was transformed into a world power. Its new far-flung colonies allowed for it to have a worldwide navy allowing for the nation to become a worldwide economic power. This set the stage for what would become known as the “American Century.” More specifically, the effects of the Spanish American War are summarized in the following article.

The Article:

Part One - Immediate Major Effects of the Spanish American War

#1  Emergence of the United States as recognized world military power:

The most significant outcome of the Spanish American War was that the United States became a world naval power, seemingly (but not actually) overnight, a position it has never relinquished. In this time period, power was defined by naval power and the ability to “project,” or deploy, that power wherever needed. In the period leading up to the Spanish American War, the United States had not been a major power. The reason mainly had to do with coal, or more properly coaling stations, which were places where coal was stockpiled and where there was the infrastructure for loading it aboard a ship.

Coal was the lifeblood of a naval vessel. Without a place to re-coal, a ship’s range was severely limited because in times of war, neutrality laws only allowed neutral nations a limited ability to resupply a nation at war. Therefore a nation’s naval power was strictly limited by where it had coaling stations under its control from which it could resupply with coal and possibly ammunition in times of war. Otherwise, a naval vessel would find itself in the same predicament that Commodore George Dewey experienced aboard the OLYMPIA. With a full supply of coal aboard ship (which he did not), the ship, with careful control over its speed, and cruising at a speed of 10 knots, the OLYMPIA could cruise 6,000 miles. If things did not go as hoped at Manila Bay, Dewey would have found himself 7,000 miles from an American base to resupply. A navy subject to these sorts of constraints could not project power.

Following the war, the U.S. gained the Philippines, Guam, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and assured that Hawaii would also remain in its control. With coaling stations in all of these locations, the U.S. extended its navy’s range worldwide. This was something few countries in the world could claim. The ability to project naval power and to use it wherever it was needed to in the world, made the U.S. a true world power.

A naval crew works to load coal aboard ship
A naval crew works to load coal aboard their ship from a barge. A sack of coal can be seen being lifted aboard with other crewmen waiting for similar sacks to be loaded to then be lifted aboard ship. Once aboard ship, the coal was placed in coal bunkers aboard ship. Without coal, the ship would be without motive power and would be worthless. A ship range was limited by its access to coal at a coaling station.

#2   Emergence of the United States as recognized world economic power:

Closely tied with becoming a world naval power, the Spanish American War resulted in the U.S. becoming worldwide economic power, able to extend its commercial reach while under naval protection. This was very closely tied to item#1, above. Prior to the war, the U.S. had no commercial fleet of which to speak. The reason was quite simple. A ship owner would avoid having his ship registered in the United States because, outside of some select areas, the ship would be subject to the whims and plunder of other nations since the U.S. could not defend the ship or project any power to influence foreign nations. Once the U.S. became a world naval power, trade and economic growth was extensive as the U.S. was now in a position to defend its commercial fleet. U.S. companies could now extend their reach overseas with the confidence that their interests would be defended.

#3   The United States gained international respect:

The United States gained international respect. After the American Civil War, the U.S. went into Isolation, and the U.S. Navy virtually went out of existence. The navy did not advance much technologically. For many years, it consisted of old sailing vessels and an aging riverine and littoral fleet of ironclads. By the 1870’s, eighty percent (80%) of the U.S. naval crews consisted of non-U.S. citizens, including many Scandinavians. Irish, etc. There was even concern that if the U.S. got into a tussle with a nation such as Norway, where would the loyalties of these navy crewmen lay? Countries such as Brazil had larger navies than the U.S. and could have been a threat to the country. Given its weakness, and its isolation, there was little respect for the U.S. internationally. Since the 1880’s the U.S. navy had been in a period of modernization, but the extent was lost on many nations. Even Great Britain expected that, for instance, the Asiatic Squadron would be defeated by Spain. When the U.S. emerged almost unscathed in a war that brought down an historic colonial power, the U.S. gained sudden respect.

#4   Proving the need for a canal across Central America:

The need for a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans became obvious to allow for defense of both coasts of the U.S. Though this had been discussed, this issue was made clear by the voyage of the Battleship OREGON. At the outbreak of the Spanish American War, the OREGON was on the west coast. It was needed on the east coast. The vessel had to go on a 16,000 mile trip down the west coast of the U.S., Central America and South America, through the treacherous Strait of Magellan, and then up the east coast of South America and across the Gulf of Mexico. Because of excellence of the vessel, its crew and its commander, Capt. Charles Clark, the vessel made it, and to everyone’s surprise, the vessel arrived in condition to go into battle. A shorter route was needed unless the country wanted to build two navies, one to defend each coast. The solution was a canal across central America the approaches to which could be defended by the new U.S. outposts of Cuba, Puerto Rico and even Hawaii. Eventually the Panama Canal was built, being completed in 1914.

#5   Proved the need to reorganize the U.S. Army:

The U.S. Army was reorganized as a result of the Spanish American War. Unlike the U.S. Navy which had been modernizing for nearly two decades, the Spanish American War caught the U.S. Army unprepared. The army had been serving in the role of dealing with the American west. Army regiments were frequently broken up and serving piecemeal in different garrisons. Seldom was a regiment all together for training as a regiment, let alone as a battalion, division or corps. The war showed that the army needed to be reorganized and expanded to meet its new role. The western frontier was moving into the past. The new army had to be reorganized to face a role on the international stage.

#6   The Philippine American War:

A direct outcome of the Spanish American War was the next conflict – the Philippine American War. During the Spanish American War, the Filipinos were de-facto allies of the U.S. The Filipino forces worked in loose cooperation with the U.S. The U.S. negotiated with the Filipinos, but, at that time, the policy toward the former Spanish colony was not yet determined, and the U.S. did not even know if it would keep any more than just a coaling station. By the end of the Spanish American War, the decision was made to keep the archipelago. As these plans changed, so did the relationship with the Filipinos. The Filipino forces thought that the U.S. would grant the Spanish colony independence. After the war ended, the tension between the two allies became more and more strained. The Spanish American War ended on December 10, 1898 and the U.S. purchased the Philippines from Spain as part of the Treaty of Paris. About two months later, on February 4, 1899, open conflict erupted between the American and Filipino forces. This was a separate conflict from the Spanish American War (Spain was no longer involved, the action was localized to the Philippines, and the action was between two former allies), and lasted officially until 1902 though fighting actually continued into 1906. Often mistakenly termed the Philippine Insurrection, the action was truly the Philippine American War. For it to have been an insurrection, by definition, the U.S. would have had to have been in full control of the archipelago. In actuality the U.S. only actually controlled Manila and Cavite. The war had acts of brutality on both sides. Many more U.S. soldiers, and many more Filipinos, died in this war than in the Spanish American War.

#7 Gaining Hawaii, a key of U.S. defense:

Though it was not gained from Spain, with the conclusion of the Spanish American War the United States’ control of
Hawaii was assured. This allowed for the defense of the United States’ west coast to begin three thousand miles out into the Pacific Ocean. This is a strategic defense system that has continued up to the present time.

Part Two – Longer Term Effects (effects that were not immediate or not immediately apparent, but would have a long-lasting impact on the United States

#1   The impact of the new-found American colonies:

The U.S. became a nation with far-flung colonies. This meant that the nation would need to invest more in ships, infrastructure in the colonies, and increase the size of the military all at great monetary cost. This situation meant that now that the U.S. was a world power in the same sense as Great Britain, and as Spain itself had been. This situation meant that now that the U.S. was a world power in the same sense as Great Britain, and as Spain itself had been. This meant that the nation would need to invest more in ships, infrastructure in the colonies, and increase the size of the military all at great monetary cost. In ten years, the U.S. would send a new battle fleet of sixteen battleships on an unprecedented world tour, a feat that has never been repeated by any nation showing the extent of of its naval power.

The U.S. as a Colonial Power

As it became a colonial power as a result of the Spanish American War, the United States lost its ability to criticize other nations involved in colonial activities, as was indicated in this cartoon from Puck Magazine (Source: Library of Congress)

#2   The control of the Caribbean:

Control of the Caribbean – With control of
Puerto Rico, a naval base in Cuba, as well is bases on the U.S. Gulf Coast, the United States could now control the Caribbean if desired. This was quite significant for the defense of the United States, and its future Panama Canal.

#3 The rise of Theodore Roosevelt:

Of all of the personalities involved in the Spanish American War, the most memorable is that of Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt had already risen rapidly, serving as a New York state assemblyman, New York City police commissioner, civil service commissioner and assistant secretary of the navy. However, his role in helping to raise and eventually lead the colorful “Rough Riders” cemented his image in the minds of the American public. After the war, his fame led him to become the governor of New York, and then vice president of the United States under President McKinley. McKinley’s assassination brought Roosevelt to the highest office in the nation.

Today most historians rate Theodore Roosevelt as being one of the top five presidents in American history. His role as an author, statesman, explorer, military hero, deal-maker and far-sighted naturalist helped to define the “American Century.” He changed the course of the country and worked to ensure that the foreign gains won in the Spanish American War were not lost. Roosevelt became the icon for many around the world when they thought of the typical American.

Roosevelt’s role as a conservationist, starting the American national park system, negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War, working to curb big business, etc. had a profound impact on the history of the nation. Without his Spanish American War fame, he likely would not have had this impact on the country and the world.

#4   The forgotten war:

Though the war redefined the role of the United States in the world, the war is a nearly forgotten event in American history. The main reason is the cost of the war in American lives. Quite frankly, from the American point of view the war was nearly a bloodless event – between disease and enemy action the U.S. lost about 3,000 men. This loss was greatly overshadowed by the loss of 750,000 men in the American Civil War a generation earlier and the loss of 116,000 men in World War one generation later. The financial cost was also quite low. In 2010 dollars, the Spanish American War (combined with the Philippine American War) cost about $9 billion whereas the Civil War cost $60 billion and World War One cost $338 billion. Also the Spanish American War was very brief unlike the other wars. Of course, the war was not so easily forgotten by Spain which suffered high losses in personnel, the loss of its empire, and high financial costs. From Spain’s point of view, the Spanish American War was the culmination of a long series of war defending its empire and is well-remembered in Spain.

#5   The relationship between the U.S. and Great Britain:

The Spanish American War cemented the relationship between the United States and Great Britain. Great Britain supported the United States during war where it worked to stop the movement of Admiral Camara’s relief squadron from traversing the Suez Canal to retake the Philippines and defeat the U.S. Asiatic Squadron. Also, during the final taking of Manila, the British warships strategically placed themselves between the American squadron and the German squadron that was present. Great Britain believed that the U.S. occupying places like the Philippines would  keep these places from falling into German hands, which Great Britain considered a threat. This relationship paved the way for cooperation in World Wars One and Two and beyond.

#6   Partial healing of the North and South:

A source of unity – The Spanish American War and the patriotism it helped to bring the North and South together and did much to end animosities that still existed from the American Civil War. The sons of men who fought against each other now served side-by-side fighting for a common goal under a common flag. Troops from the North trained in the South. That said, the war did very little to resolve the ongoing issues of race.

#7  Eventual independence of Cuba and the Philippine Islands:

In accordance with the Teller Amendment, Cuba was granted nominal independence in 1902, though the U.S.kept its perpetual lease of the Guantanamo Bay naval base. An independent Cuba had far-reaching ramifications for the U.S. The United States intervened in Cuba on several occasions, and also had strong economic ties until the rise of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. The existence of Communist Cuba has had a significant impact on the United States that goes beyond the scope of this article. 

After serving as a major U.S. outpost in the Pacific, the Philippines were granted independence in 1946, though, again the United States retained a naval base at Subic Bay. Eventually the base was abandoned and returned to the Philippines. The United States and the Philippines have retained fairly good relations though there have been some difficult periods.

Other notable impacts of the Spanish American War

#1 The “death tax” instituted:

To finance the Spanish American War, the U.S. took a number of steps in increased taxation. One of those taxes was the progressive inheritance tax, sometimes called the “death tax.” The tax continues to be used today.

#2 Fall of the last major Catholic colonial power:

Spain was the last Catholic colonial power. With the fall of the Spanish empire, one the major forces in Catholic evangelization was greatly diminished. Other nations, such as the United States, Great Britain and Prussia-dominated Germany were predominately protestant nations.

Spain’s loss:

Though this list concentrates on the impacts from a U.S. perspective, the impact on Spain must be noted.  Spain lost much of its empire in the war. For Spain, this was shattering as for the first time in centuries it was not in control of a large empire. However, defending that empire was one of the reasons why the country was bordering on bankruptcy. The loss led to a period of introspection and to a flowering of culture. The loss of the colonies did result in a loss of income, but also resulted in considerable savings in not having to defend its empire. However, the loss of life that Spain experienced in its repeated wars in Cuba, the battles of the Spanish American War brought a horrible loss of life the effects of which can never be measured. Untold sadness was brought to many a Spanish family.

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