"Let’s Make War: Emotions, Interests, and Mission in the United States Entering the War in 1898" by Zoltán Peterecz
Zoltán Peterecz is a Ph.D student at the American Studies Department of ELTE, Budapest, Hungary. E-mail:
Under republican government, newspapers form and express public
opinion. They suggest and control legislation. They declare wars.
W. R. Hearst, owner of the New York Journal – September 25, 1898 (Linderman, 165-6).
1. American Expansionist Ideology
When in 1895 a rebellion broke out against the Spanish in Cuba, it was understandable that the American people felt sympathy toward the Cubans. After all, Americans had fought for their independence against a more powerful nation that was trying to hold them in what they interpreted as despot tyranny. Based upon the way the nation was born, their value system in ideology was ruled by the idea of self-government and free trade. Also, the suspicion against the Spanish empire was already well-established in the American mind, since the only source they learned about other nations was their school books. In those books, Spaniards were characterized with brutal and negative features (Linderman, 120). This is not surprising in light of the fact that Spain was the biggest colonizer in the Americas with far-reaching effects, which did not fit the Anglo-Saxon traditions: Spanish-ruled countries were anything but fledgling democracies and lacked the artistic and intellectual background that was accepted as high culture in the United States. On the other hand, the United States watched with suspicion every move on the side of European powers that might have signaled their desire to take over countries or territories in the new world.
The most characteristic thesis concerning American foreign policy has always been the Monroe doctrine in 1823, which declared that the United States had no intention to interfere in Europeans affairs, but the American continents were for the American nations and could not be subject to further European colonization. This unilateral proclamation was by and large heeded by European powers. Spain’s presence in Cuba, so close to the United States, challenged this assertion. Throughout the nineteenth century, this doctrine joined forces with other ideologies to create a fertile ground for a new American role in world affairs.
One of them was Manifest Destiny. This thesis, originating from 1839 by John O’Sullivan, predicted that by necessity the nation will take over the land, reach the Pacific Ocean, and populate the territories between the shores (O’Sullivan, 427-30). The war against Mexico (1846-48) was a success and the United States gained huge tracts of land in the west, a result of which was that the nation had indeed reached the Pacific Ocean. With the consummation of the goal of spreading all over the continent but with the borders fixed in the north and the south, expansionism came to a halt and an ideological crisis seemed plausible as to what the next step could and should be. Toward the end of the century the answer arrived in a new wave of thinking that was an assertion in the mission, duty, and possibility of the American nation.
In the 1880s, Social Darwinism appeared in the philosophy of many leading persons who can best be described as expansionists. Darwin himself laid down the premise when he wrote: “There is apparently much truth in the belief that the wonderful progress of the United States, as well as the character of the people, is the results of natural selection” (Darwin, 142). The historian John Fiske’s essay in 1885, which bore the title “Manifest Destiny,” predicted that 4/5 of the world would speak English (Pratt, 4-5). Frederick Turner’s Frontier theory in 1893 claimed that Americans had become an always more perfect democratic nation on account of their pushing the limits of the frontier. Turner found a need for expansionism at the root of the American culture:
For nearly three centuries the dominant fact in American life has been expansion. With the settlement of the Pacific coast and the occupation of the free lands, this movement has come to a check. That these energies of expansion will no longer operate would be a rash prediction; and the demands for a vigorous foreign policy, for an interoceanic canal, for our revival of our power on the seas, and for the extension of American influence to outlying islands and adjoining countries, are indications that the movement will continue. (Turner, 219)
John W. Burgess, a leading professor at the time, declared that the Teutonic nations must be seen “as the political nations par excellence, and [this will] authorize them, in the economy of the world to assume the leadership in the establishment and administration of states” (Burgess, 39). This aggressive belief about the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon nations met with the duty that it entailed: “Indifference on the part of Teutonic states to the political civilization of the rest of the world is, then, not only mistaken policy, but disregard of duty and mistaken policy because disregard of duty” (Ibid., 48).
However well-received these thoughts were in the country, a realistic view of the world presented a United States, which was though an emerging country, but still a far cry from a power that could live up to these lofty political expectations. The United States was not ready militarily to perform such ideological expectations. Although it had proved to be supreme against enemies on the continent, outside the country it could not have much hope of shaping things effectively. To cover thousands of miles of ocean, the first thing that was needed was a strong navy.
The most defining person whose work tried to bridge this impractical gap was Alfred Thayer Mahan. The United States Navy captain’s book in 1890, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, made the assertion that without a powerful navy, there was no chance for a country to make its will matter. Geographical laws thwarted schemes that lacked the means of transportation. Mahan saw the importance of the navy in securing the trade shipping of the country and thus accumulating power. He was a proponent of securing coaling stations far from the United States for the logical reason that
without foreign establishments, either colonial or military, the ships of war of the United States, in war, will be like land birds, unable to fly far from their own shores. To provide resting places for them, where they can repair, would be one of the first duties of a government proposing to itself the development of the power of the nation at sea. (Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 83)
It was clear that in present conditions the United States did not possess the all-important strategic points in the world.
Mahan also saw clearly that such a direction could not be undertaken without the agreement of the nation: “At present the positions of the Caribbean are occupied by foreign powers, nor may we, however disposed to acquisition, obtain them by means other than righteous; but a distinct advance will have been made when public opinion is convinced that we need them” (Mahan, The Interest 102-103). Mahan’s works are more significant than others, because he was often referred to in Congress by senators and representatives of the same expansionist creed, and his arguments found their way into printed reports of Congressional committees (Cong. Rec., 53rd Cong., 2nd Session, House, 1844-1849, Senate, 1856; 3rd Session, Senate, 3082-3084, 3111, 3113). Theodore Roosevelt was influenced in particular and the two kept up a correspondence in which they often discussed annexation of islands, mainly Hawaii (Pratt, 21). Thus an ideological background had been laid down on which many members of Congress thrived. They carried the sentiment and belief that this ideology should be put into practice if an opportunity revealed itself. The “America-is-more-and-needs-more” philosophy, in general, influenced the citizens a great deal. Those who favored such a role did not have to wait long.
2. The Media as a Force
Cuba, being very close, was a logical first step in testing whether the United States could achieve its will. The Spanish presence violated the Monroe doctrine in addition to the Spanish rule that many Cubans and Americans found cruel. The general sentiment in the United States was that Spain represented sheer oppression of the freedom-yearning Cuban population. One answer as to the intense feelings on the part of the United States was the fact that for some fifty years, Cuba had been a coveted piece for America. There had been attempts by various US governments to secure the island, but such schemes had never come through.1
As the war got protracted on the island, more and more voices in the United States were impatient of some kind of conclusion to it, though no consensus prevailed as to what the nation should really do. America urged the Spanish government to stop the war and introduce reforms on the island (Offner, 25). Spain, also a nationalist country proud of its glorious past, did not want to acquiesce. They tried to plead with other European powers to help them and put pressure on the U.S. in a memorandum on July 28, 1896 by Secretary of State, Carlos O’Donnell, Duke of Tetuan, but Great Britain, France, Russia, and Germany were unwilling to offer help (Ibid., 29). The United States had become powerful enough not to displease her, and the problems on the continent and on colonies gave enough headache to these countries. Spain remained alone, but was determined not to give in to American demands. With failure in understanding each others’ motives and arriving at any mutual agreement between the two countries, certain elements of the American media took on the task of both educating the people about the Spanish atrocities against a nation striving for freedom and creating a widespread mood in which the public would feel bellicose.
The media in those years meant newspapers and the only source from the outside world arrived on their columns. Since after 1897, the majority of the newspapers were members of the Associated Press and got their information from there, it led to mainly homogenous news throughout the country. By the same time, another significant force came into being, first of all in New York City: yellow journalism. This type of journalism that thrived on sensational news, many times regardless of its authenticity, was a popular outlet and had a huge influence in shaping people’s thinking. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal were the leading papers. Their circulation had grown and by early 1898 both had exceeded 800,000 sold issues a day (Wilkerson, 7). These papers were aggressively campaigning against Spain and, trying to outdo each other, reported every little episode that could further tarnish Spain out of proportion.
From 1895 on, when the first tension between the U.S. and Spain materialized in the Allianca affair2, these newspapers were instrumental in whipping up the emotions of the readers. The distorted news of the American ship being fired upon by the Spanish got headlines such as “Our Flag Fired On” (Wilkerson, 19). In 1897, Pulitzer’s World’s front page informed those willing to listen: “The Worst Has Not Been Told; Even Little Children Are Slain by the Spanish; Bodies Sometimes Shamefully Mutilated” (World, June 5, 1897). The truth is that reporters were not familiar with the facts, because the Spanish military did not let them close to the actual fightings. They often relied on the Junta for information, a Cuban organization in the United States, which promoted the revolution through appeals, meetings, financial campaigns, press releases, political lobbying, outfitting filibustering expeditions, in which volunteers sailed to Cuba to join the rebellion, and feeding news to the always hungry reporters (Offner, 6; Wilkerson, 9). But reporters were not shy to come up with stories on their own and they claimed that everything they reported was substantial and based on accounts of reliable eye witnesses.
The Ruiz case in February 1895 was an exemplary news event of the typically sensational category. A neutralized American was arrested in Havana and died in prison. Although his farewell note could have been interpreted in two ways, the newspapers picked up the “murder case” and provided the readers with this version (Offner, 35; Linderman, 158; Wilkerson, 83-84). An even more aggressive case was the Cisneros case in the summer of 1897. When the niece of the Cuban President, Salvador Cisneros y Betancourt, was imprisoned on charges of assaulting a Spanish officer, the Journal started a campaign to set her free. The paper informed the readers about a very beautiful lady who was a “martyr to Spanish brutality” in circumstances where the “truth is too black to be hidden” (Journal, August 24-31, 1897). As a crowning of their efforts to free the woman, a Journal correspondent, Karl Decker, had managed to smuggle her out of prison disguised as a boy and put on aboard of a vessel (Wilkerson, 90). The paper’s influence is well proved by the fact that they succeeded in organizing a meeting between President McKinley and Evangelina Cisneros in Washington, and a large front-page picture of the Journal showed the two shaking hands (Ibid., 91). This stunt on the side of the Journal is a good example how influential the newspapers were not only on readers but on politicians as well.
In a mood undeniably hostile toward Spain and friendly toward the Cuban rebels, the political sphere of the American society proved just as willing to listen to the newspapers’ stories and editorials and to make conclusions as to where popular opinion was. Since newspapers had substantial resources in gathering information, however contorted they may have been, it is not surprising that politicians often accepted their stories as facts (Linderman, 162). After a sensational editorial that read “How long shall the United States sit idle and indifferent within sound and hearing of rapine and murder? How long?”, Congress responded with a bill (Wilkerson, 62). On February 28 the Senate approved a resolution, recognizing the state of war between Cuba and Spain, but demanding strict neutrality from the US (Cong. Rec., 54th Congress, 1st Session, Senate, 2256). Three days later the House followed suit (Ibid., House, 2359). It was a clear expression how the Congress felt, but the outgoing President Cleveland ignored it.
A telling sign of how intertwined press releases and Congressional reaction was is the record that between the second half of 1896 and the first half of 1897, a period when more atrocities were reported in the newspapers, more resolutions were introduced on Cuba in the Congress, about 25 (Wilkerson, 64). Leading newspapers often polled members of Congress and governors and published the favorable answers, thus trying to strengthen the image that high officials as a whole were in favor of intervening in Cuba (Ibid., 64-65, 75). The press, especially the sensational newspapers, evidently influenced not only the public but also the political sphere as has been shown. It is a further issue whether the President was or could have been influenced, and what relationship he had with the press in general.
3. McKinley and Public Opinion
President McKinley came into the White House on a Republican ticket, a party whose platform in 1896 declared:
Our foreign policy should be at all times firm, vigorous, and dignified, and all our interests in the Western Hemisphere should be carefully watched and guarded…We reassert the Monroe Doctrine in its full extent, and we reaffirm the right of the United States to give the doctrine effect by responding to the appeal of any American state for friendly intervention in case of European encroachment…The peace and security of the Republic and the maintenance of its rightful influence among the nations of the world demand a naval power commensurate with its position and responsibilities. We, therefore, favor the continued enlargement of the navy, and complete system of harbor and sea-coast defenses. (Porter and Johnson, 108-109)
It is easy to establish that the writers of this document had Cuba and Spain in mind. Although foreign policy was not a hot issue during the campaign, and McKinley hardly mentioned it in his “front-porch” addresses, it still bears the significance, because it points into the direction of later events.
As a person who fought in the Civil War and saw up close what sufferings it entailed, McKinley was principally opposed to war. In his inaugural speech he declared: “We have cherished the policy of noninterference with affairs of foreign governments wisely inaugurated by Washington,…We want no wars of conquest; we must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression. War should never be entered upon until every agency of peace has failed; peace is preferable to war in almost every contingency” (Hunt, 285). But he was in favor of expanding American markets overseas and clearly, he was a staunch supporter of the Monroe doctrine (Gould, 3, 9). He shared the ideology of his countrymen that a more powerful United States would be a benefit for mankind (Ibid., 11). He also supported the annexation of Hawaii, a construction of an American-owned canal in Nicaragua, the expansion of the merchant marine, and a greater foreign trade (Offner, 38). How he thought the two, expansion in all fields and avoidance of war, could be reconcilable is a mystery.
McKinley’s notion about the highest office in the nation was strictly defined as serving the people. He was absolutely tuned in to public opinion. Senator Chauncey Depew said about him: “[His] faith in the public intelligence and conscience was supreme. He believed that people knew more than any man. He never tried to lead but studied so constantly public opinion that he became almost infallible in its interpretation” (Linderman, 27). The man to whom McKinley could probably thank the most in reaching the White House was Mark Hanna, who said this about McKinley in relation to public opinion: “The one absorbing purpose in William McKinley’s political career was to keep closely in touch with the people” (Washington Post, September 28, 1901). Mahan said about him: “I have had occasion to see the President somewhat from the inside…He waits on popular opinion, which is wise;” (Puleston, 199). These opinions were not without basis. Since he valued public so high and public opinion meant so much to him, McKinley needed to deal with the press.
By the time William McKinley entered the White House, technology had developed to the level that the administration, and the president in particular, could not leave its possible influence out of sight. A newly created post, the secretary of the president, was filled by John Addison Porter, whose job was, among other tasks, to meet the Washington newspapermen on a daily basis and give them press briefing and have question-and-answer sessions (Hilderbrand, 10). This method obviously gave a distinct leverage in the President’s hand and he was somewhat able to practice influence over the press. Such an innovation was not accident: McKinley had learned too well the importance of the newspapers when he served as a member of the House from 1877 to 1891. When he moved into the White House, many correspondents working there had a good relationship with him. He read several newspapers a day and, in addition, news items from all over the country (Ibid., 12). He felt that this was the best way to learn where public stood or needed to be persuaded about certain issues. He did not care much for the yellow press; he did not read it because he despised it. In many ways he saw it as a hindrance to his political agenda, but doubtlessly, he knew that Pulitzer’s and Hearst’s papers had a big influence on the public.
And thus the circle had been established. The press, getting information from the White House and its own unreliable sources, fed the people with news that created a public mood, which with the progress of time and events leaned more and more toward belligerency. The citizens let their representatives and senators know about it through letters, who, in turn, were representative of the expansionist creed. McKinley followed and wanted to serve public opinion. He admitted that it was a force and believed that it was his constitutional duty: “Your voice, when constitutionally expressed, is commanding and conclusive. It is the mandate of law. It is the law to Congress and to the Executive” (Linderman, 184). As far as Congress is concerned, McKinley felt safe that they would not dominate him and he conducted his foreign policy relatively according to his taste.
Obviously, Congress, which was more hawkish than full of doves, and had gotten used to having a bigger say in foreign policy issues since the end of the Civil War, was using the press and its influence on people to exert pressure on the President. It was a usual occurrence that members of Congress, while debating resolutions concerning the Cuban issue, referred to newspaper articles that told of atrocities or cited causes for the US to recognize the Cuban government (Cong. Rec., 54th Cong., 2nd Session, Senate, 1157; 55th Cong., 2nd Session, Senate, 1574, 1578, 1875). Such was the mood in the public and political sphere when a serious incident happened.
4. The de Lôme Letter
In the intense atmosphere that characterized the relations between Spain and the United States, clearly not much was needed to push things into war. Although McKinley seems to have made up his mind that war might still be avoidable, he must have clearly seen that both Congress and the public, in general, were leaning toward intervention. At this precarious juncture, a private letter of the Spanish minister to Washington, Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, was published and from that point on, emotions could not be held back. Interestingly enough, Dupuy himself warned in January that “the change of sentiment has been so abrupt [after the January 12 riots in Havana], and our enemies, influenced by it, so numerous that any sensational occurrence might produce a change and disturb the situation” (Morgan, 353). A strange twist of fate that this keen understanding of the situation did not meet with its observer’s precaution to avoid such a condition. On February 9, 1898, Hearst’s Journal published on the front page what has come to be known as the de Lôme letter.
This personal correspondence is important for both what it contained and the aftermath it caused. The letter was written not long after McKinley’s annual address on December 6, to Jose Canalejas, the editor of the Madrid Heraldo.3 Since it was a private letter, Dupuy’s style was unguarded, honest, and quite arrogant. He discussed a number of topics, mainly the political questions of the Cuban issue.4 He saw the solution in concluding the problem of insurgency satisfactorily, which meant quick and final victory: “The situation here remains the same. Everything depends on the political and military outcome in Cuba” (Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States 1898, 1007). The main incentive for him to write this was that public opinion in the United States was behind the rebels’ cause and it might swing the government in the path of declaring war on Spain: “…without a military end of the matter nothing will be accomplished in Cuba, and without a military and political settlement there will always be the danger of encouragement being given to the insurgents by a part of the public opinion if not by the government” (Ibid., 1008). He suggested carrying out pseudo negotiations concerning commerce between the two countries: “It would be very advantageous to take up, even if only for effect, the question of commercial relations” (Ibid., 1008). His keen understanding of how power functioned in America is clear in his recommendation to Canalejas: “…have a man of some prominence sent hither in order that I may make use of him here to carry on a propaganda among the Senators and others in opposition to the junta and to try to win over the refugees” (Ibid., 1008). This sentence conveyed the technique he wanted to apply: using careful and effective propaganda in the United States. Such a method challenged what most Americans, mainly the public sphere, held as fair conduct. He even attacked England for her selfish disposition. The revealing part of the letter as far as Spanish policy was concerned was the fact that Spain should try to play for time hoping for a concluding military success, which in light of the past three years was very unlikely. All these comments would have insured scandal, but the true bombshell lied in another paragraph.
The most indiscreet part of the letter, and what produced utmost public fury, was Dupuy’s sentences about the President. He wrote that
besides the ingrained and inevitable bluntness with which is repeated all that the press and public opinion in Spain have said about Weyler5, it once more shows what McKinley is, weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd, besides being a would-be politician who tries to leave a door open behind himself while keeping on good terms with the jingoes of his party. (PRFU 1898, 1007)
McKinley was, in fact, trying to follow public opinion and he could not afford not to listen to the Republican side of the Congress. The way, however, Dupuy articulated his insight was bitter and vile. This insult against the President was sure to whip up even the feelings of anti-interventionists against Spain.
Dupuy de Lôme wrote the letter to Canalejas, who was not only an editor but also a politician carrying out informal negotiations with the Junta in New York City. He was frequently mentioned in the New York press before he traveled to Cuba. When he went back to Havana, keeping the letter with him, he hired a secretary, Gustavo Escoto, who sympathized with the rebels.6 When Escoto came across the letter, he immediately realized that it contained information that might be useful for the Cuban cause and he personally transmitted it to Tomas Estrada Palma, head of the Junta. Estrada, deciding that it was better if he did not implicate himself, assigned the task of publicizing the letter to Horatio Rubens, a New York lawyer, functioning as legal counsel for the Junta. Rubens made an English translation in which he made the insulting comments seem sharper and offered the prize for newspapers. He used “a pothouse politician, catering to the rabble” while the official translation was “weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd besides being a would-be politician” (Rubens, 289). Though in the Journal it appeared as “weak and catering to the rabble and, besides, a low politician” (Journal, February 9).
Also, Rubens would have liked to have it printed in a more conservative paper to give the incident the most possible credibility. The New York Herald refused to print the letter until Dupuy had admitted its authenticity. Actually, this was how Dupuy first learned about his letter being stolen and about to be published. He quickly made the inevitable conclusions and asked Madrid for his recall. Naturally, Hearst’s Journal was not as picky and, with Rubens’ permission, although he denied the paper exclusive rights, printed the facsimile of the original letter.
Not surprisingly, the letter caused a sensation that ruled the nation for days. The Journal set the tone for the whole country with its headline: “The Worst Insult To The United States In Its History” (Journal, February 9). The newspaper also dug up a book that Dupuy had published earlier under the title From Madrid to Madrid in 1876 and printed brief excerpts that illustrated the diplomat’s contempt for American customs officials, women, and the country’s concept of liberty. The most infuriating of that writing was the author’s prediction that the United States would be partitioned into three nations: East, North, and South (Ibid., February 9). The Hearst paper accused Dupuy with “the greatest offence of which a diplomatic officer can be accused” (Ibid., February 9). As proof that the public was smelling blood, the Journal reported that when a minister referred to the letter in a church, the congregation responded: “Let us get at the Spaniards! Let there be war! Down with the woman slayers!” (Ibid., February 14). The World did not want to fall behind its rival and reminded readers that the Spanish ambassador had angered American opinion by criticizing the Senate when that body adopted a belligerence resolution in 1896 (World, February 12). They also cried out against Dupuy’s book, especially his criticism against American women (Ibid., February 10). The newspaper quoted a Cuban militant as saying: “The De Lôme letter is a great thing for us” (Ibid., February 15).
The other newspapers also took up the hot issue. The Sun compared the incident to the Genêt affair7 (Sun, February 13). The Mail and Express wrote: “He has made of the Spanish legation at Washington a center of espionage, bribery, and questionable propaganda” (Mail and Express, February 9). Even the restrained papers admitted that the case was extremely serious. The Evening Post wrote that the incident “cannot well be other than to increase the tension, already serious” (Evening Post, February 10). The Journal of Commerce saw Dupuy’s deed as “really serious and calculated to arouse much resentment in this country” (Journal of Commerce, February 14). Without exception, every newspaper demanded the diplomat’s resignation.8 As Wilkerson notes, the Indianapolis Journal commented that “it is not probable that the De Lôme incident will lead to war with Spain but it is possible” (Indianapolis Journal, February 11). This is important, because it summarizes adequately the general feeling. Every newspaper, sensational and factual alike, cried out against Dupuy and demanded his resignation, but no war fever swept across the country.
The letter irrefutably demonstrated that no autonomy would be achieved for the Cubans if it was left to Spain. In people’s eyes, Spain proved once again what had already been a consensus among most Americans: the European country tried to cling to its immoral suppression in Cuba through any action whatsoever that helped this cause, and if it meant being dishonest, Spain was willing to go ahead. According to a leading Chicago newspaper, Dupuy had “exposed the machiavelian [sic] hypocrisy of Spain in her intercourse with other countries” (Chicago Times-Herald, February 11). The letter made it clear in the eyes of the Americans that Spain was an unreliable country and its minister’s opinion about McKinley reinforced the already existing suspicion and dislike. Spain would never grant Cubans autonomy and would use every imaginable method to placate the public, while hoping that the American government would be patient enough and Spain would manage to suppress the rebellion. Only a few days before the incident, Stewart Woodford, the American minister to Madrid, cabled that the Spanish government was likely to conclude a reciprocity treaty with Cuba (Morgan, “The De Lôme Letter” 46). The fact that Dupuy showed his true colors, and his country’s stance, persuaded the still hesitant minority that the United States should affirm her superior moral and military stance against Spain.
Initially, there was some disbelief on the part of the administration as to whether the letter was real. When Rubens on February 9 called on the State Department and showed the original letter, Alvey A. Adee, Assistant Secretary of State, first compared the signature with a document bearing Dupuy’s signature and only then declared the letter genuine. Assistant Secretary of State William R. Day took the original to Dupuy to confront him with it. According to the French ambassador in Washington, Jules Cambon, the conversation between the two transpired like this9: When asked whether he had written the letter, Dupuy retorted that he was not obliged to answer such a question, because he was a diplomat. But the letter being private in every sense, he admitted writing it and asked Day to give his regards to McKinley. He denounced Ruben’s translation, which appeared in the Journal, and claimed that he would have never taken advantage of such a stolen private document. He also harshly criticized the American public for its thirst for sensationalism. Finally, he let Day know that he had already asked for his resignation. This was not absolutely true: he informed Madrid about the situation and left it to the Spanish government to decide about his recall. Pío Gullôn, Spanish minister for foreign affairs, quickly made the most of it and recalled Dupuy before Washington could have demanded it through Woodford (Offner, 119).
Understandably, McKinley was aggrieved by the incident, but he did not want to rush into any decision and his pipe dream was still a conclusion without war. He was irritated not only with Dupuy for the obvious insult, but also with Rubens, who had created the sensation. McKinley met with his cabinet and decided that they demanded Dupuy’s recall, which had effectively taken place, and asked Spain to disavow the minister’s statements and express regret over the incident to the president and the American people (Offner, 118). He also demanded an apology: “Expression of pained surprise and regret at the Minister’s reprehensible allusions to the President and the American people, which it is needless to say the Govt. of His Majesty does not share, and promptly disavows” (Morgan, 358). Through Woodford’s talks with Segismundo Moret, Minister of Colonies, an apology was created in which the Spanish government tried to reassert its commitment to political reforms in Cuba.
McKinley was satisfied with such a reply and wanted to consider the affair as concluded. He had good reason for this. Since the official Spanish apology did not materialize till February 17, the President already found himself in the next and more serious crisis (PRFU 1898, 1015-16). He went out of his way not to let the incident worsen the tensions: “If a rupture between the two countries must come, it should not be upon any such personal and comparatively unimportant event” (Morgan, 359). Secretary of Navy John Long referred to the de Lôme letter as “an unfortunate occurrence” and “an exceeding folly,” and characterized Dupuy as “a man of a good deal of ability [who] seems to have conducted himself remarkably well” (Mayo, 162). The administration, led by McKinley, tried to calm the waters. Indeed, on February 18, Day cabled to Woodford that the incident is officially closed (PRFU 1898, 1016).
Congressional response to the Cuban issue had been very intense. The previous day to the publication of the letter three senators introduced resolutions on the issue. The Mason resolution favored intervention in case the war did not cease; the Allen resolution wanted recognition of Cuban belligerency and demanded strict American neutrality; the Cannon resolution wished to warn Spain to end the war before March 4 or the US would recognize Cuba and “within ninety days thereafter assert the independence of the Republic of Cuba” (Cong. Rec., 55th Cong., 2nd Session, Senate, 1533-35, 1574-85). A resolution was introduced in the House to give Dupuy his passports (Ibid., House, 1605). The letter, naturally, was oil on the fire. On February 14, a resolution, originally introduced by Senator Morgan of Alabama, had unanimous support in the Foreign Affairs Committee, and it requested the administration to send to the Senate all consular information on the reconcentrados10 and the status of autonomy that the State Department had received since March 4, 1897 (Ibid., Senate, 1679-80). The House acted in the same vein and asked for information as well (Ibid., House, 1681-82). It was evident that these reports would provide detailed reports about the inhumane circumstances rampant in Cuba. The mood in Congress was bellicose.
The President seems to have tried to put off war as long as possible. He did not look for confrontation. On the contrary, he wanted to smooth the ruffled situation. However, with his sensitive radar on public and the legislative branch in favor of war, McKinley cannot have come to any different conclusion than that the United States must intervene in Cuba.
The de Lôme letter occupied the newspapers and politicians alike for a week. Due to the administration’s careful tactics not to let the incident chase the country into war, the affair seemed to taper off. McKinley was perhaps the most satisfied with this result, since he hung on to the belief that war might be still avoidable. In that case, he just did not seem to realize that the circumstances, which he had partly created, did not let that happen. Although he genuinely believed that armed conflict should be substituted to Spain giving autonomy to Cubans, his reliance on both public opinion and his party put him on a path that offered at this time no escape. Still, when the Spanish minister’s letter was published, war, though seemed imminent, was still circumvented. Nevertheless, it generated a common sentiment that was bellicose enough to explode. Indeed, that is what happened when a real explosion took place.
5. The Closing Accords to the War
The USS Maine, a 10-year-old battleship, was ordered to sail from Key West to Havana harbor on January 24. The basic idea was that its sheer presence would give effective safety for the American citizens in Cuba, a concern which had been on the administration’s mind for a long time, but especially since the January 12 riots in Havana. The ship had been a regular and prominent feature in newspapers since the riots (Wisan, 384). McKinley also thought that a visit by the Maine would show that the United States was friendly with Spain. The Spanish government, though not happy with the Maine’s visit, still saw it as a sign of a possible improvement. As protocol demanded, they returned the dubious courtesy and sent their own ship, the Vizcaya, to Washington (Offner, 99). The Maine arrived on January 25, and provoked no anti-American protests. However, on February 15, just when the de Lôme affair seemed to die down, the ship blew up killing 264 enlisted men and two officers.
The tragedy shocked the whole nation. Although Consul General Fitzhugh Lee in Havana was ready to deduce that it was an accident and the ship’s captain, Charles Sigsbee, advised that “public opinion should be suspended until further report,” the newspapers started a vicious campaign against Spain (Offner, 122, Wisan, 389, Sigsbee, 76-77). The Journal, usually the leading voice in the frenzy, had the headline “The Whole Country Thrills With War Fever” (Journal, February 18). Despite its sensational style and warmongering articles, the Journal reflected fairly what most people thought. The White House tried to do everything to calm the press and through it the public (Offner, 124). McKinley thought it was an accident, but the majority of Congress was convinced that the Spanish were at fault.11 The President still tried to hold on to his basic antiwar principles: “I have been through one war…I have seen the dead piled up, and I do not want to see another” (Morgan, 362). The Senate Foreign Relations Committee had a special closed day session that lasted all day long, and after which several members of the committee said that Spain had to prove its innocence to the American people (Offner, 123). According to the Journal’s poll on both Houses, there prevailed an “overwhelming sentiment in favor of immediate intervention” (Journal, February 18). The World quoted Democratic Leader Joseph W. Bailey as saying that the nation was “on the verge of war” (World, March 7).
The American government refused Spain’s idea of a joint investigation and, not surprisingly, the separate panels reached different conclusions: the American result asserted an external cause, while the Spanish verdict gave spontaneous combustion as the reason. With suspending final decision till the reports came out, the administration, once again, managed to avoid facing what was now unavoidable: war with Spain. Henry Cabot Lodge concluded that
it was this public sentiment that drove Congress forward to meet the popular will, which members and senators very well knew could be fulfilled by war and in no other way…the American people had made up their mind that the only real and possible solution was the end of Spanish rule in Cuba. (Lodge, 32-33)
This observation was accurate.
In the wake of the Maine disaster, although on the surface both governments handled the crisis well, they were preparing for war, which now was evident. The relationship had worsened beyond the point of reconciliation. The suspicion with which both the average and official American looked at Spain proved too much to avert it in effect. Spain had revealed through the de Lôme letter that it would never grant autonomy to Cuba and Spanish national feelings made it impossible for Spain to give up their last true gem of an earlier great empire. On March 8, both chambers of Congress passed an appropriation bill, which provided $50 million for national defense (Cong. Rec., 55th Cong., 2nd Session, House, 2602-21, Senate, 2631-32). Before the naval court could have completed its report on the Maine, a new episode happened. This interlude did not include treachery and sly machinations on the part of Spain. Still, in many ways, it proved to be a final blow for the chance for peace, exactly for its factual nature.
The Proctor speech was the last element in the structure of intervention. Senator Redfield Proctor, a Vermont Republican, interrupted a Senate debate on March 17 to summarize his Cuban tour, which he had just completed.12 His half-hour speech tried to be balanced and without bias. He had no contacts with the Junta and he was not swept away by the wave that the Maine’s explosion had caused. His words carried great weight. He only described what he had seen. Outside Havana, he saw “desolation and distress, misery and starvation” (Cong. Rec., 55th Cong., 2nd Session, Senate, 2916). When his focus fell on the victims of reconcentration, he said: “Little children are still walking about with arms and chest terribly emaciated, eyes swollen, and abdomen bloated to three times the natural size. The physicians say these cases are hopeless” (Ibid., 2917). With regard to the conditions of hospitals, he simply could not find words: “It is not within the narrow limits of my vocabulary to portray it” (Ibid., 2917). Analyzing the political situation in the end, he also tried to be unbiased: “I am not in favor of annexation… I merely speak of the symptoms as I saw them, but do not undertake to prescribe. Such remedial steps as may be required may safely be left to an American President and the American people” (Ibid., 2919).
The speech had a great influence on every segment of the American society: the Senate and the House accepted it as a correct summary and justification why Cuba must be freed from Spanish oppression; the public, already bellicose, saw further proof that basic public feeling was right about Spain; the often emphasized “humanitarian” question by McKinley also seemed to be verified. The business community, so far not sympathetic to war, had been impressed:
Senator Proctor’s speech converted a great many people on Wall Street, who have heretofore taken the ground that the United States had no business to interfere in a revolution on Spanish soil. These men had been among the most prominent in deploring the whole Cuban matter, but there was no question about the accuracy of Senator Proctor’s statements and as many of them expressed it, they made the blood boil. (Wall Street Journal, March 19)
This is significant, because business interests had gotten more and more powerful from the 1870s. Huge trusts were born and their relationship with politicians and parties was close. Not surprisingly, many have been of the opinion that these forces were responsible for the war. After all, it is a well-established belief that in wake of the marines always comes the dollar, or sometimes in the reverse order. However, the huge capital that had been cumulated in the hands of business people and bankers in the United States was only on the verge of spreading Latin America and the Far East in earnest. The final push came exactly in wake of the Spanish-American War: with the increased possibility and responsibility, Secretary of State Hay announced the Open Door policy, and soon enough the administration subscribed to “dollar diplomacy,” in effect encouraging business and money interests to penetrate other countries.
The general assumption though that business dictates war was not true in the case of the Spanish-American War. Business circles in the 1890s, especially after the 1893 financial crisis, were wary of an intervention, because they thought it would jeopardize stability. Understandably, those with business interests in Cuba, mainly sugar planters, were eager for an intervention. Due to the rebels’ tactics, whole plantations were set on fire or ruined, causing a lot of businessmen to abandon the island and face financial losses. On February 9 a group of them gave a petition to McKinley urging him to achieve peace on the island (Foner, 231-232). But McKinley had close friends in business circles, such as George Pullman, Mayron Terrick, J. P. Morgan, or Mark Hanna, and these men were against the war (May, Imperial Democracy 118). Also, the business journals, which must be considered the voice of the business community, were trying to counteract the war frenzy that had been going on since the de Lôme letter (Pratt, 235). After Proctor’s speech, however, even business people arrived at the conclusion that the United States must intervene.
From this moment on there was no return. The country became one voice in crying out against Spain. Immense public pressure, both on Congress and the administration, eroded the last hopes that might still have resided in the President’s mind. It cannot be said that McKinley did not try everything. On March 27 he sent a note through the State Department to Spain requesting three things as the means to avoid war: an armistice till October 1, the immediate stop of reconcentration, and the United States should be the final arbiter between Spain and Cuba (PRFU 1898, 704, 711-3). These words were tantamount to demanding Cuban independence (Ibid., 713). The Spanish answer four days later mirrored the public mood in that country: Spaniards felt hurt and their intense feeling of nationality made it impossible to accept humiliation from the United States. Accordingly, the reply, although offered possibilities to lessen the grave situation, did not respond to McKinley’s offer of arbitration (Ibid., 726-8). The president gave in and on April 11 he delivered his war message to Congress, which was really keen on getting it. In it he called the intervention “justifiable on rational grounds” (Cong. Rec., 55th Cong., 2nd Session, Senate, 3701). He listed business losses as one of the reasons: “The right to intervene may be justified by the very serious injury to the commerce, trade, and business of our people” (Ibid., 3701). Above everything, McKinley named humanity as the primary reason why the United States must intervene: “In the name of humanity, in the name of civilization, in behalf of endangered American interests which give us the right and the duty to speak and to act, the war in Cuba must stop” (Ibid., 3702). In closing, he asked Congress “to authorize and empower the President to take measures to secure a full and final termination of hostilities between the Government of Spain and the people of Cuba…and to use the military and naval forces of the United States as may be necessary” (Ibid., 3702). After a week-long series of debates in and between the House and Senate, on April 19 both chambers passed the war resolution, and McKinley signed it two days later.13
As far as the de Lôme letter is concerned, its role was clearly significant. In an already intense atmosphere, where newspapers in general, but yellow journalism in particular, were feeding the public with true and false Spanish atrocities, the document proved to be the first major step in leading to war. It weakened the possibility of a diplomatic solution, since with Dupuy’s recall there was no Spanish minister in Washington who could act during the escalating crisis ahead.14 The letter for many Americans was a further proof that Spain was not trustworthy and must be chased out of the Western hemisphere. The Maine disaster seemed to justify the same proposition and the death of many American sailors was judged as an overt and hostile act from Spain. Both the American public and Congress were highly emotional and bellicose. Those who succeeded in remaining calm despite these events were persuaded of the necessity of intervention when Senator Proctor gave a reliable account of the circumstances in Cuba. McKinley, who remained sober all throughout, had to face the harsh reality of his country’s feelings. The Cuban case was a perfect scenario when a deep sense of duty in the American mission was kindled with high emotions. None of these elements in itself could have been enough to make the United States go to war; with their culminating power and their happening soon after one another though served a perfect, and unavoidable, basis for McKinley to ask for a war resolution, which Congress was eager to give.
The war was an immense success for the United States. Spain was not able to muster real resistance and suffered defeat after defeat. With the annihilation of the Spanish fleet at Dewey’s hand in Southeast Asia and the relatively easy campaign on the island of Cuba, Spain soon sued for peace and had to give up the last vestiges of its once glorious empire. According to the peace treaty that was signed in Paris in December, the United States gained the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico, while Cuba became an American protectorate. With the immense gain came so far unknown responsibility and the United States learned the hard way what it was like to have “colonies,” even if Americans did not think of those regions that way. The spreading of American democracy and the belief in American exceptionalism were the main forces behind this kind of expansion. Most eloquently senator Albert Beveridge summed up what America thought (and still thinks) their duty and goal were in the world:
God has not been preparing the English-speaking and Teutonic peoples for a thousand years for nothing but vain and idle self-contemplation and self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns. He has given us the spirit of progress to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth. He has made us adepts in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for such a force as this the world would relapse into barbarism and night. And of all our race He has marked the American people as His chosen nation to finally lead in the regeneration of the world. This is the divine mission of America, and it holds for us all the profit, all the glory, all the happiness possible to man. We are the trustees of the world’s progress, guardians of its righteous peace. (Cong. Rec. 56th Congress, 1st Session. Senate 711)
That was the prevailing mindset in the United States at the very end of the nineteenth century. This strong belief in the mission of guiding the world toward American-style democracy, the high sensitivity to its being criticized or offended, and the increased business interests around the world joined forces when an opening was offered. The result was a new world power that soon became the strongest of all.
The text of the de Lôme letter:
My distinguished and Dear Friend: You have no reason to ask my excuses for not having written to me. I ought also to have written to you, but I have put off doing so because overwhelmed with work and nous sommes quittes.
The situation here remains the same. Everything depends on the political and military outcome in Cuba. The prologue of all this, in this second stage (phase) of the war, will end the day when the colonial cabinet shall be appointed and we shall be relieved in the eyes of this country of a part of the responsibility for what is happening in Cuba, while the Cubans, whom these people think so immaculate, will have to assume it.
Until then, nothing can be clearly seen, and I regard it as a waste of time and progress, by a wrong road, to be sending emissaries to the rebel camp, or to negotiate with the autonomists who have as yet no legal standing, or to try to ascertain the intentions and plans of this Government. The [Cuban] refugees will keep on returning one by one, and as they do so will make their way into the sheepfold, while the leaders in the field will gradually come back. Neither the one nor the other class had the courage to leave in a body and they will not be brave enough to return in a body.
The message has been a disillusionment to the insurgents, who expected something different, but I regard it as bad (for us).
Besides the ingrained and inevitable bluntness (groseria) with which is repeated all that the press and public opinion in Spain have said about Weyler, it once more shows what McKinley is, weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd, besides being a would-be politician (politicastro) who tries to leave a door open behind himself while keeping on good terms with the jingoes of his party.
Nevertheless, whether the practical results of it [the message] are to be injurious and adverse depends only upon ourselves.
I am entirely of your opinions; without a military end of the matter nothing will be accomplished in Cuba, and without a military and political settlement there will always be the danger of encouragement being given to the insurgents by a part of the public opinion if not by the Government.
I do not think sufficient attention has been paid to the part England is playing.
Nearly all the newspaper rabble that swarms in your hotels are Englishmen, and while writing for the Journal they are also correspondents of the most influential journals and reviews of London. It has been so ever since this thing began. As I look at it, England’s only object is that the Americans should amuse themselves with us and leave her alone, and if there should be a war, that would be the better stave off the conflict which she dreads but which will never come about.
It would be very advantageous to take up, even if only for effect, the question of commercial relations, and to have a man of some prominence sent hither in order that I may make use of him here to carry on a propaganda among the Senators and others in opposition to the junta and to try to win over the refugees.
So, Amblard is coming. I think he devotes himself too much to petty politics, and we have got to do something very big or we shall fail.
Adela returns your greeting, and we all trust that next year you may be a messenger of peace and take it as a Christmas gift to poor Spain.
Ever your attached friend and servant,
(Source: Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1898. Washington, D. C., Government Printing Office, 1901. 1007-8.)
1 The most famous, and most scandalous, of these attempts was the Ostend Manifesto in 1854, which proposed taking Cuba from Spain by force if it was not willing to sell the island. ↩
2 The Allianca, an American vessel, did not stop when the Spanish instructed her so within the 3-mile zone at the shores of Cuba. After a short chase the Spanish ship fired on the Allianca, but it got away. In the wake of the incident, newspapers gave a distorted version of what had happened. ↩
3 According to Lodge, it was written on December 25 (Lodge, 28). ↩
4 See Appendix for full version of the letter. ↩
5 Weyler was the infamous Spanish general, who in 1896 and 1897 had introduced concentration camps in Cuba first. ↩
6 This section is based on Rubens and Offner. ↩
7 This affair involved the French minister to the US, Edmond Charles Genêt, who tried every possible means to inflame Americans’ passion and induce them to take up arms against Spain and England, enemies of France at that time, 1793. The minister’s activities greatly violated America’s proclamation of neutrality in European affairs. The US government soon declared Genêt persona non grata. ↩
8 All these newspaper accounts are quoted in Wisan, 381-383. ↩
9 Based upon Offner. ↩
10 This was the Spanish term for the people in the concentration camps introduced under Weyler. ↩
11 The true cause of the explosion has never been satisfactorily established. It is very likely though that the ship blew up on account of internal causes and not a Spanish plot. ↩
12 The reaction to Proctor’s speech is in detail in Linderman, 37-54. ↩
13 In the Senate, the vote was 51:37, while in the House 311:6. ↩
14 The new minister, Polo de Barnabé, did not arrive in Washington till March 10. ↩
- United States. Congressional Record, 53rd Cong., 2nd Session, 1844-9, 1856, 3rd Session, 3082-4, 3111, 3113; 54th Congress, 1st Session, Senate, 2256, 2359, 54th Cong., 2nd Session, 1157; 55th Cong., 2nd Session, 1533-5, 1574-85, 1605, 1679-82, 2602-21, 2631-2, 2916-7, 2919, 3701-2; 56th Congress, 1st Session, Senate 711.
- Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, with the annual message of the president transmitted transmitted to Congress December 5, 1898 (1898). Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1901.
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- Rubens, Horatio S. Liberty: The Story of Cuba. New York: Brewer, Warren & Putman Inc., 1932.
- Sigsbee, Charles D. The “Maine”: An Account of Her Destruction in Havana Harbor. New York: The Century Co., 1899.
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- Wilkerson, Marcus M. Public Opinion and the Spanish-American War: A Study in War Propaganda. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1932.
- Wisan, Joseph A. The Cuban Crisis as Reflected in the New York Press (1895-1898). New York: Octagon Books, 1977.
- Morgan, H. Wayne, “The De Lome Letter: A New Appraisal.” Historian 26. (November 1963): 46.
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