The myths concerning the Spanish-American War and the rise of American imperialism

Michael Parenti - Real History, Part 2

This is Michael Parenti for Real History, a series of talks by me about important events and things in history - the kind that have been buried or ignored or distorted by the powers that be. Those who control our vision of the past exercise control over how we see the present and the future, so to take back our reality we need real history, not the phony stuff that has been preached to us.

Today, I'm going to talk about The myths concerning the Spanish-American War and the rise of American imperialism.

The Spanish-American War was fought between the US and Spain in 1898. Now well before that war, American business interests had been growing overseas and enjoying the protection of the US Navy and Marines. But the war does mark a turning point in that process, that is a turning point in the use of American military power to ensure economic expansion.

In 1898 Cuba was still a Spanish colony - and, by the way, there already was a war underway, it had been going on for years. It was a war betwen the Cuban insurgents, the Cuban national liberation forces, against the Spanish colonial army.

Well, why did the US intervene in Cuba by sending the battleship Maine down there and doing a bunch of other things? Supposedly the Maine's visit was just a friendly visit. Supposedly McKinley was concerned about conducting American interests in Cuba.

But what were American interests in Cuba?

Supposedly Washington was at odds with Madrid because Spain was acting in a repressive way in Cuba. Indeed, Spain was acting in a repressive way : concentration camps, mass arrests, killing people, trying to repress the insurgency. In addition the rebellion in Cuba was said to be jeopardizing not only American lives and property on the island but also the national security of the United States itself. And what Spain was doing to the poor Cubans was a violation of the sentiments of humanity.

Well these denunciations of Spanish cruelty - and there were plenty of Spanish cruelties - they increased in frequency as the US decided it wanted to take over Spain's colonies. The US senate foreign relations committee in 1898 reported

“The duplicity, perfidy, and cruelty of the Spanish character ... this is something the Spaniards have always been and still continue to be in Cuba.”

Secretary of War Russell A. Alger talked about the inhuman cruelty of and the absolute barbarity perpetrated by the Spaniards against the Cuban people.

Well, a closer reading of history reveals that the US leaders were more interested in national gain than in humanitarian rescue. That is, they were more interested in Cuba than in the Cubans.

US leaders had long coveted Cuba. Cuba - which was called the pearl of the Antiles, you know - is one of world's largest Islands. It was endowed with fertile lands, natural resources, fine harbors. It was temptingly situated just ninety miles off the Florida coast, at the gateway of the Gulf of Mexico.

As early as 1823 Secretary of State John Quincy Adams noted

“It is scarcely possible to resist the conviction that the annexation of Cuba to our federal republic will be indispensible to the continuance and integrity of the Union itself.”

At about that same time an aging Thomas Jefferson wrote

“The Island [Cuba] will give itself to us when able to do so. Cuba's addition to our confederacy is exactly what is wanted to round our power as a nation to the point of its utmost interest.”

In 1848 Secretary of State James Buchanan anticipated the following

“Under our government Cuba would speedily be Americanized, as Louisiana has been.”

When Spain by way refused to accept the US offer of 100 million dollars to buy the island, Buchanan was unrelenting. He went on, and said

“We can't do without Cuba. And above all we must not suffer its transfer to Great Britain. We should acquire it by coup d'état at some propitious time.”

By the way, a lot of these leaders commented again and again about their fear that Great Britain might take Cuba from Spain, and we couldn't allow it. Up to that time the US leaders preferred to see Cuba remain as a Spanish possession.

In 1825 Secretary of State Henry Clay wrote

“We could not consent to the occupation of these islands [Cuba and Puerto Rico] by any other European power than Spain.”


When Mexico and Venezuela planned an expedition to Cuba to assist its independence struggle, the United States let it be known that it would block any such attempt to wrest the island from Spanish hands. So, rather than supporting Cuban independence, US leaders expressed a very strange partiallity to Spanish rule.

Until the very end of the century that is, until they were ready to take it over - to take over Cuba.

Actually that partiallity wasn't so strange, because Spain's weakness, as demonstrated by the rapid loss of its great New World colonies - almost all of Latin America. They just lost it in a few years - led to a belief in Washington that Madrid would never be able to retain hold of its few remaining dependencies.

Now, if Cuba were in the hands of a European power that was less feeble than Spain this would make future US domination much more problematic.

Likewise if Cuba was in the hands of a victorious and independent Cuban liberation army, or liberation force, of ordinary Cubans themselves - this, too, could prove very troublesome to US plans.

The historian Louis Perez Jr. writes

“Of all the possible alternatives to Spanish rule in Cuba, none aroused greater misgivings in Washington than Cuban independence. The spectre of Cuban independence was the anathema of all American policy-makers since Jefferson.”

It was worse even than seeing the British or French take it.

Now Cuba not only exported a good deal of sugar to the States but was becoming - despite Spanish restrictions, by the way - was becoming an important market for US manufactured goods. In addition, American business interests were developing substantial investments in Cuba, mostly in sugar and tobacco.

The US refused in 1825 and again in 1852 to go along with a Bristish proposal guaranteeing Cuba to Spain. The US were supposedly afraid the British were going to take over Cuba. The Bristish were - OK, we'll give guarantees we're not going to touch it if you don't touch it, and we will guarantee that Spain controls Cuba. US leaders refused to enter into that guarantee with the British.

They were not ready to accept guarantees of a 'hands off' policy from London if it meant that the US would have to commit itself to a similar restraint.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century American leaders made several offers to buy Cuba at bargain prices and the Spaniards refused to sell.

In 1875 it was clear in correspondence between Secretary of State Cushing [Fish?] and members of congress that there was open contemplation of war with Spain over Cuba. Again the US interest was not for the independence of the Cubans. Successive American administrations from Grant to Cleveland to McKinley refused to aid or officially recognize the island's independence movement. In fact the United States imposed an embargo on all private assistance to Cuban insurgents. The McKinley administration, like the ones before, maintained an energetic policy of interdicting private military expeditions to Cuba. They were called filibusters.

The insurgent general, Antonio Maceo, fighting for his people in the jungles against the Spaniards, observed that if the United States were really interested in helping the independence cause it would support - even if tacitly, even on the quiet - it would support a program of material aid including arms and ammunition for the insurrectos.

Two years later the Cuban military leader, Maximo Gomez, made a similar observation

“The Americanos continually fill their newspapers with sympathy for our cause ... but what do they do? They won't even give us a riflle.”

Gomez pointed out, however, that Spain was free to buy arms from the US, as much as they wanted. And they used those arms in Cuba. So much for the US policy of neutrality.

Despite all these obstacles, by the way, Cuban liberation forces were coming close to winning the war by 1898. Spain's army in Cuba, which numbered as high as 200,000, consisted mostly of youths between the ages of 15 and 18 years. These troops were sent out into the field immediately, without any opportunity to get acclimated to tropical severities, to build up any resistance. So they were poorly trained, underfed, improperly clad and sheltered, unacclimated, plagued by malnutrition, fatigue, heat-prostration, malaria, yellow-fever, dysentary, and a host of other diseases .... and they died like flies. in 1897 some 35,000 Spanish soldiers perished from illnesses contracted in Cuba. Another 5,000 were killed in action. In all, between 1895 and 1898 - about a three-and-a-half year period - Spain lost about 100,000 men. And that's only a nation of 18 million at that time. By January of 1898 the Spanish army wasn't even launching any winter offensive. They were just sitting in their garrisons and just barely holding on to a few cities and a few military posts. The Cuban insurrection was victorious.

By the way - this is what worried US leaders.


Many observers pointed out that Spain was exhausted but in fact Spain was more than exhausted, it was torn with grief and unrest over the losses sustained in Cuba. To make matters worse, by the way, another costly colonial rebellion had erupted in the Philippines, and that too was forcing Madrid to send additional thousands away and costing vast casualties. Spanish war-widows and orphans were dying slowly of starvation, reported the New York Times. Desertions increased. Thousands of Spaniards evaded conscription by going into hiding or emigrating. Army units mutinied outright. Some of them refused to board ships that were headed for Cuba or the Philippines. Food riots and anti-war protests erupted with increasing frequency. And the republican political organizations - republican with a small 'r', that is, those who were opposed to the monarchy - the republican political organizations were growing in strength.

The American minister in Madrid about that time pointed out that Spain was on the verge of collapse, maybe even revolution. He said

“... bread is rising in price, work is scarce, and there is certainly much popular discontent. The common people are tired of the Cuban and Philippine wars.”

And Madrid newspapers themselves were announcing that Spain had lost Cuba and shold negotiate the island's independence.

So while the American public was still being fed images of a ruthless, brutal, powerful Spain, brutalizing this defenseless little Cuba, US officials knew better. The US leaders, including many in McKinley's own cabinet, including his own Secratary of State and Assistant Secretary of State, and including McKinley himself, were of the opinion that Spain was exhausted financially and physically, that the Cuban rebels were stronger, that it was a matter of time before the insurgents took over the whole island. In the areas that the insurgents controlled they had their own schools, their own hospitals, they were running agricultural organizations, they were collecting taxes, they were the effective government.

Now Cuba was only part of the story behind the war that ensued. US political and economic leaders were casting hungry glances at more distant places. The president of the National Association of Manufacturers anounced

“Many of our manufacturers have outgrown or are outgrowing their home markets and the expansion of our foreign trade is their only promise of their relief.”

By 1894 the United States ranked first in the world in the value of its manufacturing. With this growing productivity, it needed new markets, it needed new areas of investment. Bankers, too, were beginning to see overseas investment as a means of putting their idle capital to work, either through direct loans to foreigners or by financing American companies abroad.

So it wasn't just some 'national restlessness' or 'America was coming of age', or America was getting its 'identity' or America got all jingo and egoistic or whatever else, that led to the war. There were no mass demonstrations in America for empire as such. But there was a real pressure for commercial and financial expansion abroad. And that pressure didn't come from the common people.

Increasingly, business people came to believe that the way to recovery from the stagnation left by the depression of 1893 might best be generated by expanding into other countries. American industry needed Asia's vast markets, cheap labor, its vital resources, and access to that could best be secured by a chain of annexations across the Pacific - including Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines. And Guam and the Philippines were both owned by Spain.

Iron interests, steel, oil, textile, cotton, flour interests along with a lot of exporting houses and railroad investors seeking concessions in China - they all pressured Washington to formulate a policy to move into the Far East to counter the German and Russian presence there.

Senator Albert Beverage said it very well

“Our largest trade henceforth must be with Asia ...”

- by the way, he was wrong, ther largest trade ended up being with Latin America and Europe, but they thought, they seriously thought it would have to be Asia, and that determined their policy -

“the Philippines give us a base at the door of all the East. The power that rules the Pacific is the power that rules the world and with the Philippines that power is and forever will be with the American republic.”


Well, I point out that political leaders like presidents Cleveland, and president McKinley, and other business leaders preferred not to go to war if they could get what they wanted by other means. And that's true today, too. So when they say 'We're not for war' it's true. If they could get the thing without war they'd much prefer it that way. War was to be considered only as a last resort, but it was never entirely ruled out. President Grover Cleveland :

“The United States is not a nation for which peace is a necessity.”

Sounds like George Bush - except he wouldn't say it, he just does it.

Now, as the conflict with Spain drew close, there were elements in the business community that opposed war. There were some Wall Street brokers that feared that a war would upset an already shaky stock market, there was the beat sugar trust that didn't want Cuban sugar coming in, there were others, too. But by 1897 the financial and manufacturing giants, the business people who count the most at crucial junctures were filled with war talks ... and I'm talking about the Rockefeller and Morgan associates, including William Rockefeller and JP Morgan himself, I'm talking about John Jacob Aster, I'm talking about August Belmont and Russle Sage and others of the Eastern monied establishment.

They began to pressure the White House to intervene. But when they thought about a war with Spain it was more with the Philippines in mind than with Cuba. Going to fight over Cuba - supposedly to liberate Cuba - would present the perfect opportunity to grab Spain's Pacific markets.

And it was no accident then, that the first battle of the Spanish-American War was fought, not in Cuba, but thousands of miles away in the Philippines in Manilla Bay.

Manilla also was a big attraction to the US Navy, by the way, because they could have their fueling bases and their bases of operations there, and that was important for them.

Now the usual scenario that we get, and that we got in school, and that everybody believes - right, left, or center - everybody in America believes the Spanish-American War went like this :

The Yellow Press, the jingoist and imperial press, led by William Randolph Hearst, created a popular hysteria and this hysteria pushed congress and a reluctant president McKinley into the war.

But the press cannot really create a policy. The press doesn't even create public opinion for the war, it creates an opinion-disabilty, it creates a pressure.

But, by the way, there were many newspapers that were against that war. The people of the country themselves were deeply divided. There were small farmers and populists who were not hungry for war, they were just hungry. There were labor leaders and unions who called for independence for the Cuban people but not for war. Even a conservative labor-leader like Samuel Gompers joined the anti-imperialists and was against the war.

The opinion in the black community was instructive. In an open letter to president McKinley the Colored National League made this statement.

They noted that when president McKinley appeared in the South he appeared before segregated audiences in Alabama, and they said to him

“We notice how you preach patience, industry, moderation to your long suffering black fellow citizens, and patriotism, jingoism, and imperialism to your white ones.”

They observed that it's odd that the US government says that there is no federal jurisdiction when it comes to trying to stop the murders and atrocities that were going on in South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas and a number of other states. The federal government had no jurisdiction and that was a matter for the states. Yet how impressively eager the federal government was to extend protection to American lives all across the globe, that the federal government had jurisdiction in Cuba, and would speak out against the crimes in Cuba but wouldn't speak out against the crimes in Georgia. And so the black community noticed this.

And there were other black newspapers that said

“Let Uncle Sam keep hands off other countries till he has learned to govern his own. Huamn life at home should be protected before reaching out to protect others.”

A Richmond black newspaper said

“People denied the right to vote should be excused from the duty to fight for their country.”

The Washington Bee in Washington DC said

“The Negro [in the United States] needs freedom as much as the Cubans.”

Aside from race there was some of the black press that even questioned the necessity and legitimacy of the war on its own grounds.

They thought it was oddly inconsistent that the US was apparently concerned about the Cubans and yet doing nothing for the Cuban independence fighters themselves. They said things like ... Why did not the McKinley administration recognize the Cuban revolutionary government, sell them supplies and munitions, and let them alone to win their own independence instead of having to enter directly into the war?


On the eve of the war, by the way, Spain acceded to all US demands on Cuba.

Now this created a problem. How could we grab Puerto Ricao, Guam, the Philippines, and Cuba if Spain denied us the cause for war by being so agreeable?

So McKinley took the concessions, ignored them, and went to war anyway.

And there were some newspapers in America, including those that had supported intervention, that began to ask what was the US going to war for?

Why were we more friendly with the rich Cubans and the rich Spaniards in the cities, and treating the Cuban insurrectos as peons?

Well partly it was because they were peons. They were poor mestizos and blacks - they represented not just the struggle for independence but a struggle for revolution. And this was anathema to McKinley and the class he represented.

McKinley went to Cuba to prevent a successful Cuban revolutionary war, a war for independence. Not to support the war as the American public had been led to believe.

And so it was with these imperialists. They used anti-imperialist sentiment - the widespread support among the American public for Cuban independence and the end of Spanish imperialism - they used that anti-imperialist feeling to advance the cause of American imperialism, playing on that sentiment to get us into a war that didn't liberate anyone, that imprisoned the Philippinos, that put the Cubans under US political and economic suzerainty - Cuba was given a formal independence by 1902 - so it was an empire with colonies, in the Philippines; and it was an empire without colonies - that is you didn't have to own Cuba, you just controlled all its industry, its ijmports, its exports, its land, and its farms, and its economy.

And so today, still, that same kind of thing goes on, they fabricate excuses to get into this or that country, in order to make the world safe for hypocrisy and for rich investors.

This is Michael Parenti with some Real History.