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The Breckenridge Memorandum

J.C. Breckenridge, U.S. Undersecretary of War in 1897, sent the following memo to the Commander of the U.S. Army, Lieutenant General Nelson A. Miles. The memo explains what is to be U.S. policy towards the Hawaiian islands, Puerto Rico and Cuba.


Department of War
Office of the Undersecretary
Washington D.C.

December 24, 1897

This department, in accordance with the departments of foreign trade and the Navy, feels obligated to complete the instructions on the military organization of the upcoming campaign in the Antilles with certain observations on the political mission that will fall to you as general in charge of our troops. Until now the annexation of territories to our Republic has been that of vast, sparsely populated regions, and such annexation has always been preceded by our immigrants’ peaceful settlement, so the absorption of the existing population has been simple and swift.

In relation to the Hawaiian Islands, the problem is more complex and dangerous, given the diversity of races and the fact that the Japanese interests there are on the same footing as ours. But taking into account their meager population, our flow of immigrants will render those problems illusory.

The Antillean problem has two aspects: one related to the island of Cuba and the other to Puerto Rico; as well, our aspirations and policies differ in each case.

Puerto Rico is a very fertile island, strategically located to the extreme east of the Antilles, and within reach for the nation that possesses it to rule over the most important communications route in the Gulf of Mexico, the day (which will not tarry, thanks to us) the opening is made in the Isthmus of Darien. This acquisition which we must make and preserve will be easy for us, because in my mind they have more to gain than to lose by changing their sovereignty since the interest there are more cosmopolitan than peninsular.

Conquest will only require relatively mild measures. Our occupation of the territory must be carried out with extreme care and respect for all the laws between civilized and Christian nations, only resorting in extreme cases to bombing certain of their strongholds.

In order to avoid conflict, the landing troops will take advantage of uninhabited points on the southern coast. Peace loving inhabitants will be rigorously respected, as will their properties.

I particularly recommend that you try to gain the sympathy of the colored race with the double objective of first obtaining its support for the annexation plebiscite, and second, furthering the main motive and goal of the U.S. expansion in the Antilles, which is to efficiently and rapidly solve our internal race conflict, a conflict which is escalating daily due to the growth of the black population. Given the well-known advantages that exist for them in the western islands, there is no doubt that once these fall into our hands they will be flooded by an overflow of black immigrants.

The island of Cuba, a larger territory, has a greater population density than Puerto Rico, although it is unevenly distributed. This population is made up of whites, blacks, Asians and people who are a mixture of these races. The inhabitants are generally indolent and apathetic. As for their learning, they range from the most refined to the most vulgar and abject. Its people are indifferent to religion, and the majority are therefore immoral and simultaneously they have strong passions and are very sensual. Since they only possess a vague notion of what is right and wrong, the people tend to seek pleasure not through work, but through violence. As a logical consequence of this lack of morality, there is a great disregard for life.

It is obvious that the immediate annexation of these disturbing elements into our own federation in such large numbers would be sheer madness, so before we do that we must clean up the country, even if this means using the methods Divine Providence used on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.

We must destroy everything within our cannons’ range of fire. We must impose a harsh blockade so that hunger and its constant companion, disease, undermine the peaceful population and decimate the Cuban army. The allied army must be constantly engaged in reconnaissance and vanguard actions so that the Cuban army is irreparably caught between two fronts and is forced to undertake dangerous and desperate measures.

The most convenient base of operations will be Santiago de Cuba and Oriente province, from which it will be possible to verify the slow invasion from Camagüey, occupying as quickly as possible the ports necessary for the refuge of our squadrons in cyclone season. Simultaneously, or rather once these plans are fully in effect, a large army will be sent to Pinar del Río province with the aim of completing the naval blockade of Havana by surrounding it on land; but its real mission will be to prevent the enemy from consolidating its occupation of the interior, dispersing operative columns against the invading army from the east. Given the impregnable character of Havana, its is pointless to expose ourselves to painful losses in attacking it.

The troops in the west will use the same methods as those in the east.

Once the Spanish regular troops are dominated and have withdrawn, there will be a phase of indeterminate duration, of partial pacification in which we will continue to occupy the country militarily, using our bayonets to assist the independent government that it constitutes, albeit informally, while it remains a minority in the country. Fear, on the other hand, and its own interests on the other, will oblige the minority to become stronger and balance their forces, making a minority of autonomists and Spaniards who remain in the country.

When this moment arrives, we must create conflicts for the independent government. That government will be faced with these difficulties, in addition to the lack of means to meet our demands and the commitments made to us, war expenses and the need to organize a new country. These difficulties must coincide with the unrest and violence among the aforementioned elements, to whom we must give our backing.

To sum up, our policy must always be to support the weaker against the stronger, until we have obtained the extermination of them both, in order to annex the Pearl of the Antilles.

The probable date of our campaign will be next October (1898), but we should tie up the slightest detail in order to be ready, in case we find ourselves in the need to precipitate events in order to cancel the development of the autonomist movement that could annihilate the separatist movement. Although the greater part of these instructions are based on the different meetings we have held, we would welcome from you any observations that experience and appropriate action might advise as a correction, always, in the meantime, following the agreed upon lines.

Sincerely yours,

J.C. Breckenridge


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