Though the brief Spanish-American War of 1898 is often overshadowed in American public memory by the world wars that followed it, the impact of that earlier conflict reverberated far beyond the shores of its primary battlegrounds in Cuba and the Philippines. The peoples of those two nations on opposite sides of the world suffered the brunt of the war’s destructive effects, but the struggle also substantially altered how political leaders, strategists, and media outlets around the globe viewed the triumphant United States. The one-sided clash resulted in the United States becoming an imperial power, cemented Germany’s status as the greatest opponent of U.S. expansion in the Pacific until the outbreak of World War I, and laid the foundation for the U.S. Navy to become a global force in the twentieth century.
A NEW IMPERIAL NATION
In the decade before the Spanish-American War, many observers around the world considered the United States to be a different kind of great power. While other nations such as Great Britain, France, Spain, Germany, and Japan acquired or maintained overseas colonies won by military force, the United States had refrained from creating a territorial empire beyond its shores. Pacifists who decried the immorality of empire pointed to the United States as an example of a nation that enriched itself through trade, yet was free from the financial and moral burden of empire. Following President William McKinley’s decision to annex the Philippines, however, this image of a non-imperialistic United States became a casualty of the Spanish-American War.
Few contemporaries outside of Spain lamented the end of Spanish rule in the territories it lost in the peace settlement, but many liberal internationalists expressed disappointment as the United States embarked on its own imperial ventures in the Pacific.
Even after declaring war on Spain, Americans vigorously debated whether their nation should emulate Japan and the powers of the Old World by seizing colonies abroad or instead expand peacefully through trade. Advocates of empire in the United States cited European promoters of Social Darwinism who claimed that it was the duty of Europeans to rule over nonwhite peoples whom they considered to be less civilized and racially inferior.
To Americans who viewed the world as being in a constant state of competition among civilizations, empire was a necessary component of national power. In 1897, the prolific prophet of American sea power, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, declared in Harper’s
that “we stand at the opening of a period when the question is to be settled decisively…whether Eastern or Western civilization is to dominate throughout the earth and to control its future.” According to Mahan, only “great armies and the blind outward impulses of the European peoples” could guarantee the security of the “citadel of Christian civilization” in the face of foreign barbarism.
A number of American politicians shared Mahan’s fears about the tenuous supremacy of the western powers in a world rapidly shrinking thanks to the telegraph and steam-powered ships.
A report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March 1898 that advocated annexing the Hawaiian Islands predicted a “great coming struggle between the civilization and the awakening forces of the East and the civilization of the West.”
Still, many Americans opposed overseas empire building before and after the Spanish-American War.
President Grover Cleveland’s second administration (1893–1897) consistently opposed annexing Hawaii and an estimated thirty thousand Americans joined the Anti-Imperialist League which was founded in November 1898.
Mark Twain, one of the league’s most prominent members, declared that, “we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. We have gone there to conquer, not to redeem…. It should, it seems to me, be our pleasure and duty to make those people free, and let them deal with their own domestic questions in their own way. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land.”
Twain and his fellow anti-imperialists primarily based their arguments on moral, economic, and legal grounds, but their movement failed to deter America’s embrace of imperialism.
By the end of the Spanish-American War in December 1898, the United States government had annexed not only the Philippines but also Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, and Wake Island, in addition to acquiring a military base in Cuba. The subsequent war that the United States waged to defeat the Philippine independence movement from 1899 to 1901 cost the lives of an estimated 775,000 Filipinos, many of whom died from starvation in U.S.-run concentration camps. In the process, the conflict destroyed any remaining hope among foreign observers that the United States would be an enlightened colonial power.
Japanese author Takayama Rinjirō called 1898 a year of crimes and asserted that “imperialism has conquered America which has defeated Spain.”
A major factor in the US decision to abandon its moral objections to empire derived from the actions of other nations in East Asia. That same year, Germany compelled China to grant it control of the Chinese port of Kaichow, Russia did the same for Port Arthur, and Great Britain took the Chinese port of Weihaiwei. McKinley’s claims about ensuring “liberty and law, peace and progress” in the Philippines notwithstanding, a major rationale for the United States in seizing the islands stemmed from their perceived value as an entry point into the Chinese market.
Not only did McKinley and others plan to use the Philippines as a waystation for trade with China, but the president also sought to deny the archipelago to other nations that had obvious designs on them. He later explained to General James Rusling that he “could not turn them over to France or Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable.”
McKinley and other American leaders were well aware that the Spanish-American War had elicited a mixed response abroad and they took careful note of which nations supported their cause and which were jealous of U.S. acquisitions.
FOREIGN VIEWS OF THE WAR
The Spanish-American War exposed sharp divisions among the global community between nations that supported the United States’ seizure of Spanish colonies, and powers that objected to American expansion. Among the other imperial powers, Great Britain proved the greatest proponent of U.S. empire building. Not only did Great Britain permit the sale of a collier and provision ship to Admiral George Dewey’s fleet before it confronted the Spanish squadron in Manila Bay, but news of Dewey’s one-sided triumph was then dispatched to the United States via British undersea cables from Hong Kong.
Japan followed Great Britain’s lead in supporting the United States’ annexation of the Philippines. Having witnessed Germany, Great Britain, and Russia carve out major additions to their spheres of influence in China in 1898, Japan’s government felt a strong desire to maintain friendly relations with Britain and the United States. Japanese leaders were cognizant that their navy was still heavily dependent on British-built warships, and the Japanese government also wanted to curry favor with the United States after the two nations had clashed over Japanese immigrants in Hawaii just one year earlier.
Accordingly, Japan’s ambassador in Washington told his hosts that “the Japanese government would be highly gratified if the United States would occupy the [Philippine] islands,” especially because “it would not be as agreeable to the Japanese Government to have them turned over to some other power.”
Japanese public opinion, meanwhile, largely opposed the US seizure of the Philippines, especially because the islands’ close proximity to the Japanese colony of Taiwan made them an appealing area for future expansion.
In response to American annexation of the archipelago, Japan turned its own attention to increasing its influence in Manchuria and China, a decision which shortly thereafter led to the Russo-Japanese War in 1904.
Unlike Great Britain and Japan, Germany strongly opposed the U.S. annexation of the Philippines and made only a halfhearted attempt to conceal its own designs on Spain’s Pacific possessions.
Like all other major powers, Germany declared its neutrality upon the outbreak of hostilities. The German government, however, ordered its diplomats and naval units abroad “to leave unused no opportunity which may arise from the Spanish-American War to obtain maritime fulcra in East Asia.”
German Kaiser Wilhelm II especially coveted the strategically located Philippines.
The day after Dewey’s victory over the Spanish squadron in Manila Bay on 1 May 1898, foreign warships began arriving in the harbor to observe the results of the action and protect their nations’ citizens if necessary. While Great Britain sent three warships and France and Japan each dispatched a single vessel, the German force in Manila numbered five ships by 20 June. Moreover, the German squadron included a battleship, which made it far more powerful than any of the other navies represented, including Dewey’s own force of cruisers and gunboats.
Back in Germany, conservative newspapers accused the United States of waging war for selfish interests with no moral justification, and legal scholars argued that the United States was usurping the established law of nations.
Yet, Germany readily exploited the war for its own ends and concluded an agreement to purchase Spain’s remaining Pacific territories in the Caroline, Marshall, and Mariana Islands just two weeks after the Spanish government signed an armistice with the United States on 10 December.
Germany’s opposition to the war and its opportunistic acquisition of Spain’s remaining Pacific territories in its aftermath cost Germany a great deal of goodwill among the American public.
A GLOBAL U.S. NAVY
By the end of the Spanish-American War it was readily apparent to all that the United States Navy had won a dramatic and unexpectedly lopsided victory. Few contemporaries would have disagreed with German Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz who proclaimed that “the Spanish-American War has proved in a frightening manner the consequences for a nation which has important naval interests but no means to defend them.”
A naval arms race among the great powers had already been underway before the war, but the conflict’s outcome only reaffirmed that naval strength was the key determinant of security for a nation’s empire. The German newspaper Die Zukunft
editorialized that the war demonstrated “what a mercantile nation can accomplish in the field of old knights’ glory, if it is capable of putting technology to its service and is brave enough to fight for its own weltanschauung
The United States for its part celebrated its triumph by reaffirming its own robust battleship building program, which began a little more than a decade earlier when the U.S. Navy ordered the battleships Texas
The United States’ annexation of Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines offered the U.S. Navy the possibility of constructing permanent naval bases and maintaining a continuous presence in the Far East without being wholly dependent on the benevolence of other powers for the first time. Eager to take advantage of this opportunity, U.S. Navy leaders sought appropriations to expand support facilities in Hawaii and the Philippines and even looked for opportunities to acquire a naval base in China similar to other powers.
When Congress proved unwilling to grant money to develop fortifications in the Philippines, the Navy instead concentrated on developing base infrastructure on the West Coast and at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. At the same time, the Navy undertook the new mission of policing the recently-acquired American colonies and waging an anti-guerrilla campaign in the Philippines in support of the U.S. Army.
Even though many American imperialists saw the Philippines as opening the door to greater U.S. trade with China, the Navy’s primary lesson from the Spanish-American War was the need to construct a battleship force capable of defending U.S. interests against great power rivals. To support this fleet, the Navy pushed for the development of a global network of bases and coaling stations. The Spanish-American War also served as a kind of litmus test for Navy planners. Germany’s opposition to American expansion during the war, the fact that it snapped up Spain’s remaining Pacific possessions afterwards, and its announcement of a second massive naval construction bill in 1900 led U.S. Navy leaders to designate the Kaiser’s navy as their most likely future adversary. As a result, the United States continued to station the vast majority of its ships on the East Coast.
Similarly, Japan and Great Britain’s wartime support of the United States prompted American naval officers to conclude that neither of those nations posed a major threat to American interests or possessions. This conclusion explains why there was no alarm within the U.S. Navy when Japan and Great Britain signed their alliance in 1902. For its part, Japan did not view the United States as a likely threat to its security prior to the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.
While the U.S. Navy’s strongest units remained in the Atlantic Ocean following the Spanish-American War, the conflict dramatically expanded the United States’ commitment in the Pacific and led to a greater willingness to employ force in the region. The necessity of defending the Philippines and stationing larger numbers of ships in the Pacific renewed calls for a canal in Panama to reduce the time it took to transfer fleet units from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
Already in August 1898, Rear Admiral Montgomery Sicard proposed stationing a large body of troops and a strong naval force in Hawaii to act as a deterrent to both insurgents and foreign powers.
In 1902, just four years after the war ended, the United States deployed more than two thousand soldiers, sailors, and Marines to China as part of an international force to suppress the Boxer Rebellion.
That same year, the U.S. Navy redesignated its Asiatic Squadron as the U.S. Asiatic Fleet in recognition of the growing importance of the region. The expanded United States presence in the Pacific would not be a temporary aberration. For the next forty years, the United States maintained control over the Philippines, until the opening months of the Japanese offensive in the southwest Pacific during World War II.
Akira Iriye, Pacific Estrangement: Japanese and American Expansion, 1897–1911
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972), 26; Markus M. Hugo, “‘Uncle Sam I cannot Stand, for Spain I have No Sympathy’: An Analysis of Discourse about the Spanish-American War in Imperial Germany, 1898–1899,” in European Perceptions of the Spanish American War of 1898
, ed. Sylvia L. Hilton and Steve J. S. Ickringill (New York: Peter Lang, 1999), 90.
Mass protests occurred frequently in Spain after the war in protest of falling living conditions and increased taxation. There was also widespread resentment against the military for the defeats Spain suffered. See, Sebastian Balfour, “Riot, Regeneration and Reaction: Spain in the Aftermath of the 1898 Disaster,” The Historical Journal
38, no. 2 (June 1995): 409–10, 420.
David J. Sibley, The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China
(New York: Hill and Wang, 2012), 9.
Quoted in Iriye, Pacific Estrangement
Iriye, Pacific Estrangement
Senate Report No. 681, Annexation of Hawaii, at 31 (1898).
David F. Trask, The War With Spain in 1898
(New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1981), 53.
Iriye, Pacific Estrangement
Howard Zinn, The People Speak: American Voices, Some Famous, Some Little Known
(New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 27.
Stephen Huggins, America’s Use of Terror: From Colonial Times to the A-bomb
(Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2019), 172; Ludmila N. Popkova, “Russian Press Coverage of American Intervention in the Spanish-Cuban War,” in European Perceptions
, ed. Hilton and Ickringill, 129.
Quoted in Iriye, Pacific Estrangement
Quoted in John W. Dower, Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq
(New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 80. See also, Marilyn Blatt Young, The Rhetoric of Empire: American China Policy, 1895–1901
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 113.
Quoted in Aziz Rana, The Two Faces of American Freedom
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 274.
William R. Braisted, The United States Navy in the Pacific, 1897–1909
(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1958), 24.
Despite Japan’s wish to cultivate friendly relations with the United States, it declined to sell coal to Dewey’s fleet and declared its neutrality in the conflict. Braisted, United States Navy
Philip Zelikow, “Why Did America Cross the Pacific? Reconstructing the U.S. Decision to Take the Philippines, 1898–99,” Texas National Security Review
1, no. 1 (November 2017): 52.
Balfour, “Riot, Regeneration and Reaction,” 409.
Iriye, Pacific Estrangement
Akira Iriye, Across the Pacific: An Inner History of American–East Asian Relations
, rev. ed. (1967; repr., Chicago: Imprint Publications, 1992), 74.
Nearly a decade earlier in 1889, the United States and Germany almost came to blows over Samoa. The issue was not finally decided until December 1899 with the signing of the Tripartite Accord. See, Braisted, United States Navy
, 57, 62.
Quoted in Hugo, “Uncle Sam I Cannot Stand,” 84.
Volker Schult, “The Philippines and the Kaiser’s ‘World Politics,” Philippine Quarterly of Culture & Society
33 no. 1/2 (March/June 2005), 1.
Although German Admiral Otto von Diederichs later claimed that the large concentration of ships was a coincidence resulting from logistical considerations, tension soon developed in Manila Bay between U.S. and German commanders as the German officers declined to observe protocols that Dewey requested of all foreign ships entering the blockaded harbor. See Karl-Heinz Wionzek, ed., Germany, the Philippines, and the Spanish-American War: Four Accounts by Officers of the Imperial German Navy
(Manila, Philippines: National Historical Institute, 2000), xiv.
Terrell Dean Gottschall, “Germany and the Spanish-American War: A Case Study of Navalism and Imperialism, 1898” (PhD diss., Washington State University, 1981), 30; Hugo, “Uncle Sam I Cannot Stand,” 78–79.
Braisted, United States Navy
Hugo, “Uncle Sam I Cannot Stand,” 85.
Even before the Spanish-American War, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long instructed Dewey to investigate possible ports that the United States could acquire in China. The State Department consistently opposed the effort since it blatantly contradicted the publicly proclaimed Open Door Policy that the United States advocated in China beginning in 1899. See Iriye, Pacific Estrangement
, 55; Young, Rhetoric of Empire
The United States had still not installed permanent naval guns to defend Manila Bay by 1907 when it faced a war scare with Japan. Braisted, United States Navy
Braisted, United States Navy
Iriye, Pacific Estrangement
, 73, 74.
It had taken the battleship USS Oregon
79 days to steam from San Francisco to Florida in March 1898 immediately prior to the outbreak of the war. See Braisted, United States Navy
Sibley, Boxer Rebellion
, 172; Iriye, Pacific Estrangement