The Spanish-American War of 1898: a Spanish View
by Jaime de Ojeda
The Napoleonic invasion of Spain, and the Peninsular war that followed (1808-1814) completely destroyed the economic, social, and political texture of Spain. The war against the French invaders and the intensity of subsequent political strife bred an unusual violence in Spanish politics. After the war neither the old social order nor its culture would survive. The immense void that it left in its aftermath, on both sides of the Atlantic, in Spain and in Spanish America, started an agonized search for a new identity during the entire 19th century, which is the key to the political instability of the whole Spanish-speaking world until today. Upon the return of King Fernando VII to the throne in 1814, there ensued a bitter civil strife between absolutists and "liberals," a term that originated in Spain, used by partisans of freedom and democracy. In Spanish America the liberals won and 16 new republics gained their independence by 1824. Only Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and the Pacific Island chains of the Carolines, the Marianas, and the Marshalls remained of the once-great Spanish empire.
Cuba had been the gate and keystone of the empire and was, thus, more closely linked to the mother country. Also, a large number of Spanish loyalists fled their newly-independent homelands to take refuge on the island. Nevertheless, independence would probably have come sooner or later, had the United States not preferred Spanish sovereignty for political and strategic reasons. Yet, this remnant of Spain's empire may not have broken so completely from Spain had the liberals not been confronted in the mother country by the absolutists in three prolonged dynastic wars which led to a period of political uncertainty and military regimes. In the end, the revolution of 1868 in Spain and the confusion that followed allowed the Cubans to initiate the first war of independence. Dissent was as fiercely supressed in Cuba as in Spain, unwittingly creating heroes and martyrs of Cuban independence. The slave-holding economy of sugar and tobacco plantations added fuel to the movement for independence and, as in the South of the United States, resistence against the abolition that it would entail.
After order was restored in Spain in 1876, the Cuban insurrection also came to an end, but the Spanish governments that followed were not able to implement the reforms that had been promised in 1878 and in particular an autonomy that was the only viable alternative to independence. Although the constitutional reign of Alfonso XII (1871-1885) meant the end of the political confusion of the preceding period and the beginning of the new Spain, political life was still under considerable strain. The "Carlists" (so named after the absolutist pretender to the throne, Don Carlos) had not given up and took advantage of the deep religious and cultural divide of the century. The republicans also opposed the liberal dynasty. The military had become accustomed to censoring political life. The democratic parties, liberals and conservatives, had yet to develop grass roots support. In this uncertain environment, Spanish governments found it difficult to make concessions to the Cubans or to accept the growing intervention of the United States.
The status of Cuba, a mere ninety miles away, was becoming increasingly important to the United States. Already during the first insurrection of 1868-78, U.S. President Grant felt that Cuban independence and the emancipation of slaves in the island would have been the last chapter of the American Civil War and the full implementation of the Monroe doctrine after the expulsion of the French from Mexico. Public opinion in the United States was very sympathetic to Cuban independence and the Congress passed joint resolutions in its favor. The fragile peace of 1878 stymied the movement in favor of intervention in Cuban affairs until the second insurrection of 1895. In that year, growing U.S. economic and commercial interests in the island and the new social and political climate in the United States, focused constant attention on the situation in Cuba. That interest was fanned considerably by important Cuban groups that had emigrated to Florida and New York, in a way peculiarly similar to the present role of similar groups.
In 1895 Spain looked to General Arsenio Martínez Campos to find a solution to the Cuban situation. He had all the right credentials: he had soundly defeated the Carlists once and for all; he and Prime Minister Cánovas del Castillo had restored King Alfonso XII to the throne in 1876 by installing a civilian-led constitutional system that would last until 1931; he had pacified Cuba in 1878 with his military skill and political sensitivity. He was sent back to Cuba to try again in 1895. Soon he realized that the situation was very different and that the insurrection had increased in strength and moral support throughout the whole island. He realized it was beyond military suppression and perhaps even beyond a political solution. Prime Minister Cánovas too knew Cuba well, as he had been Minister for Colonial Affairs in a previous government. At that time he had suggested political reforms that were never implemented.
In 1895, however, Cánovas opposed Martínez Campos. He was convinced that neither the new democratic regime nor the national treasury could afford political concessions in Cuba. He allowed the General to lead a new government, believing that he would soon learn the political limitations he faced. As Cánovas had predicted, Martínez Campos soon discovered that his plans were not politically feasible. Cánovas returned to power and decided to try the military option. He sent an army hardliner, General Valeriano Weyler, with instructions to stamp out the insurrection. Cánovas was convinced that a quick solution would avoid an intervention by U.S. troops, while Weyler was sure he could achieve the desired result within two years.
Immediately upon his arrival in Cuba, he decreed the "reconcentration" of the rural population in fortified towns and the destruction of the land from which the insurrectionists derived their sustenance and support; while they continued to burn the sugar and tobacco plantations to deprive the government of its resources. Thus, while both sides proceeded to destroy the economy of the island systematically, the "reconcentrados" suffered terribly from disease and hunger. Although General Weyler refused to acknowledge it, his policy had failed. The hostilities continued with all the horrors of a civil war; the news incensed public opinion in the United States. Although the "yellow" press of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst greatly exaggerated the situation by inventing stories to fit their point of view, and used the new journalistic techniques of illustrations, photographs and interviews, the plain truth was bad enough. The moderate press, as well as the new Republican administration of President McKinley found it more and more difficult to oppose the idea of U.S. intervention.
Cánovas' decision to follow such a destructive course in Cuba despite his personal knowledge of the situation was motivated by domestic politics. The armed forces would have attacked him severely if he had made political concessions to the Cubans, and that criticism would have been used by the Ultras, the Carlists and the Republicans against the new democratic regime in Spain, greatly weakened by the death of Alfonso XII in 1885 leaving the throne to a posthumous child, the future Alfonso XIII, under the care of the Queen Regent, Maria Cristina. Moreover, the Conservative Party had important connections with the powerful commercial lobbies that would have opposed such political concessions. Ironically, it seems that Cánovas was just beginning to realize the seriousness of the situation in Cuba when an anarchist assassinated him in August 1897, only four years before U.S. President McKinley would suffer the same fate.
The leader of the Liberal Party, Práxedes Mateo Sagasta, succeeded Cánovas. Liberals found it even harder than Conservatives to make concessions to the Cubans. Since they were already suspect by the conservative elements in Spanish society and by the armed forces in particular, the Liberals had to demonstrate a "patriotism" that Conservatives took for granted. Spanish liberalism generally was in a defensive position. Its ideas had been discredited during the political disorder in Spain between 1868 and 1876. The failure of federalism first, and "cantonal" insurrections later in several cities, inspired deep fears of what liberalism could mean for the unity and strength of the Spanish nation. Consequently, the Liberals with so much to prove had much less room to maneuver on the Cuba front than the Conservatives.
The Spanish political scene was further complicated by ultraconservatives, both at home and in Cuba, Carlists, and Republicans seeking political influence under the guise of patriotism. The Spanish press, in just as irresponsible a way as the "yellow" press in the United States, was whipping up patriotic and anti-U.S. sentiments in Spain. Public opinion was led to believe that people in the United States only knew how to make money, were motivated only by greed, were just a motley group of immigrants lacking national cohesion, shamelessly wanting to snatch away Spanish possessions, and that the United States armed forces could not defeat the glorious military tradition of Spain. The Spanish press did not report on the comparative military strength of the two nations, which in so many ways favored the United States, especially with regard to the navy.
Sagasta found himself unable either to counter public opinion or to prevent its domination by Ultraconservatives, Absolutists and Republicans against Liberal concessions. Although Sagasta recalled General Weyler in October 1897, permitting the "reconcentrados" to return home, he was not strong enough to implement the benevolent policies of General Ramón Blanco who succeeded Weyler, nor could he assuage the insurrectionists, who were by now convinced that with American support independence was just a question of time.
From this moment, Premier Sagasta formulated policies in response to U.S. pressures. He could only initiate concessions in Cuba by justifying them in terms of the greater goal of preventing an intervention by U.S. forces, which almost everyone wanted to avoid. As pressure from the United States mounted, Sagasta was able to announce the granting of autonomy to Cuba in November 1897. President McKinley reported this announcement to Congress as a way to delay U.S. intervention; but he too was helpless given that the plan for autonomy was so limited, that the Cuban insurrectionists had rejected it, and that ultra-conservative supporters of General Weyler demonstrated against it in Havana on January 12, 1898.
Following these protests, the U.S.S. Maine was sent to Cuba on a "courtesy" visit. The Spanish government had to accept this veiled threat, and sent the destroyer Vizcaya to New York in formal reciprocity. In the meantime, Sagasta also had to accept the distribution in Cuba of the $50,000 that President McKinley obtained from Congress to help U.S. citizens affected by the "reconcentrado" policy (most of whom were nationalized Cubans). This was the first step to United States intervention in Cuban affairs.
Shortly after that, fate intervened twice. The Spanish Minister in Washington wrote a letter which, intercepted by the Cubans and published by Hearst's Journal on February 9, 1898, incited a furor in American public opinion. The Spanish Minister, Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, not only described President McKinley disparagingly, but also questioned the validity of the plan for autonomy. Only a few days later, on February 15, the battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor. Although the Spanish government was not responsible for the explosion in any way (proved decisively by Admiral Rickover in 1975), U.S. public opinion at the time naturally believed the explosion had been deliberately caused by the Spanish. When this impression, already exaggerated out of proportion by the press, seemed to be confirmed by the findings of the naval commission of inquiry, war became inevitable. The Spanish government first proposed a joint investigation of the explosion, and when this was refused, carried out its own. Its conclusion, that it had been an internal explosion, however, was irrelevant in the face of a tremendous surge of popular indignation in the United States and the battle cry of "Remember the Maine!".
When President McKinley signed the Joint Resolution passed by Congress on April 19, 1898, demanding Spanish withdrawal from Cuba, Spain understood it as a declaration of war. The Spanish fleet was caught wholly unprepared in Manila and was destroyed by Admiral Dewey's fleet in Cavite on May 1. Admiral Pascual Cervera sailed towards the Caribbean all the while recognizing that his mission was hopeless. The Spanish government, however, felt that it had to fight a war to protect against a military revolt or a Carlist putsch that would have toppled the royal dynasty and the new constitutional system. General Blanco ordered Cervera s fleet to sail out of Santiago de Cuba, in the mistaken belief that the fleet could perhaps escape having to surrender to the United States without a fight. It was sunk in only a few hours on July 3. The land battle was not so spectacular and much more difficult. The battles of El Caney and San Juan caused great losses and wounded on both sides. Spanish troops defended Santiago mightily, but since they were cut off from supplies and reinforcements, they decided to capitulate on July 17 in the belief that further resistance would be useless. By this time, everyone in Spain had to accept defeat. The Conservatives, naturally, were only too glad to have the Liberals sign the armistice on August 12, and the Treaty of Peace in Paris, on December 10, by which Spain had to accept each and every demand of the United States. Even the Spanish request for a new and impartial investigation of the U.S.S. Maine's destruction was denied.
The war had completely transformed the United States, which became a recognized world power with extended interests in the Pacific and later on in Europe in the 20th century. But it also transformed Spain. It is true that the movement of national regeneration known as the "Generation of 1898" had started well before that date, during the period of peace and the constitutional monarchy of 1876; but it is also true that the "disaster" -- as it became known in Spain -- acted as a definitive catalyst of that movement of regeneration in the politics, the society, and the arts and sciences of Spain. The war freed Spain from the shackles of imperial ideology and allowed it to look into the future for the first time and consider, on their own merits, the understanding of its historical being and its development in the modern world. In this sense, then, the war of 1898 liberated Spain as well.