Front Door to Cuba

The War for Cuban Independence

by Jerry A. Sierra

Intro | Before The War | The War Begins | U.S. Intervention | After The War | Sidebars | References

NOTE: By the time the U.S. entered the war against Spain in 1898, Cuban revolutionaries had been fighting vigorously for almost 3 years in what was meant to be Cuba's final war of independence.

3. U.S. Intervention

U.S.S. Maine in Habana harbor

It's been suggested that a major reason for the U.S. war against Spain was the fierce competition emerging between Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. Their increasing circulation was based on what we now call "yellow journalism" and marks the darkest, most shameful hour for the profession of journalism. Others argue that the main reason the U.S. entered the war was a failed secret attempt, in 1896, to purchase Cuba from a weaker, war-depleted Spain.

From the beginning of the war, Hearst reported the exploits of the "courageous freedom fighters," an opinion not shared by the State Department. Pulitzer had originally opposed U.S. involvement, but had a change of heart. [Years later he admitted that the only reason he changed his mind was the opportunity to increase circulation.] Their combined coverage of the war was nothing but an imaginative competition of exaggerations and outright lies.

"Upon the already biased reports from Cuba," wrote Joseph E. Wisan in an essay titled "The Cuban Crisis As Reflected In The New York Press," published in American Imperialism in 1898, "the home offices of the newspapers built further. Artists far removed from the Cuban scene illustrated reports vividly but inaccurately; cartoonists magnified atrocities; feature writers, Sunday supplement writers, even contributors to women's pages added their prejudiced efforts. With so much information and misinformation from which to choose, editorial writers knew no bounds."

"In the opinion of the writer," Wisan states elsewhere in the essay, " the Spanish-American War would not have occurred had not the appearance of Hearst in New York journalism precipitated a bitter battle for newspaper circulation."

Writing in New York's Saturday Review, Winston Churchill expressed reluctant concern at the fact that "two-thirds of the Cuban rebels were black," adding that it would be beneficial to U.S. interests if Spain kept control of the island. Faced with a revved up, war-ready population, and all the editorial encouragement the two competitors could muster, the U.S. jumped at the opportunity to get involved and showcase its new steam-powered Navy.

On January 24 1898, President William McKinley sent the USS Maine to Havana to "protect American lives and property." At 9:40 p.m. on February 15, while sitting on the harbor at Havana, a freak accident, or an act of sabotage, caused an explosion that sent 260 sailors to their deaths and the battleship Maine to the ocean floor.

The Maine was among the first ship of her type built for the new U.S. Navy, a new line of steel-hulled, steam-powered battleships. At 324 feet long, she was the largest warship built in the U.S. at the time. [In 1974 Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover conducted a study that concluded the explosion had started by spontaneous combustion in some accumulated coal dust in one of the ship's coal storage bunkers. The heat from this fire, Rickover says, ignited the ammunition magazine and blew up the ship.]

By the time the U.S. entered the war in 1898, Spain was running for cover, and a Cuban victory was certain. The Spanish troops had been forced back into the urban areas, making them easy targets. The rebels controlled the countryside, and the Spaniards found it impossible to retreat.

Remember the Maine

Three days after the explosion, William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal became the first newspaper in history to sell over one million copies. Inspired by Pulitzer and Hearst's official war slogan Remember The Maine, the U.S. decided it was time to enter the war.

On April 19 the U.S. Congress (by a vote of 311 to 6 in the House and 42 to 35 in the Senate) adopted the Joint Resolution for War with Spain, which included the Teller Amendment, named after Colorado Senator Henry Moore Teller. The amendment disclaimed any intention on the part of the U.S. to exercise jurisdiction or control over Cuba for other than pacification reasons, and confirmed that the armed forces would be removed once the war is over. The amendment, pushed through at the last minute by anti-imperialists in the Senate, made no mention of the Philippines, Guam, or Puerto Rico. The U.S. congress formally declared war on April 25.

Teddy Roosevelt, who eventually became a U.S. president, was so eager to make a name for himself that he resigned his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in order to join the war and claim his "chance at glory." In a mad rush for notoriety, Roosevelt personally financed the expedition and outfitted his troops. It was Roosevelt's "Rough Riders" that took San Juan Hill away from the depleted Spanish defenders. Legend tells how Roosevelt, with a saber in one hand and a pistol in the other, led his Rough Riders and the Ninth Cavalry, an African American regiment, to the sounds of "Charge!"

The Battle of Santiago Bay, between the Spanish and U.S. naval forces, ended centuries of Spanish power in the Western hemisphere. 1,800 Spaniards died in the battle, in contrast to one American. The Spanish ships were beached, burning or sinking, and two weeks later the Spanish forces in Santiago surrendered.

In the Pacific, the aging Spanish fleet was no match for the new steam-powered American navy, and the war didn't last long.

On August 11 Spain accepted the peace terms, in which the U.S. received control of 4 new territories: Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. The U.S. had also recently annexed Hawaii, Samoa and Wake Island. Although the treaty officially granted Cuba's independence, it was the U.S. flag, not the Cuban flag, that was raised over Havana, and during the surrender ceremonies in Santiago de Cuba, U.S. General William R. Shafter refused to allow Cuban General Calixto García and his rebel forces to participate.

Spain received payment of $20-million for Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

A total of 274,000 U.S. soldiers were sent to Cuba. Of the 5,462 who died, only 379 were killed in battle. The others died from tropical disease and unspecified "other causes," including malaria, yellow fever, and dysentery, most of which can be attributed to 500,000 pounds of beef purchased by the U.S. Army from Armour & Co. Meatpackers. (The very same shipment of meat had been sent to Liverpool a year earlier, but was rejected.)

Contrary to popular perceptions and many current books on U.S. history, the Spanish-Cuban-American War, dubbed "a splendid little war" by Secretary of State John Hay, was fought largely by African-American men. Of the Americans who died, most were African-American.

Next: After The War

Read the text of The Platt Amendment

Return to Timetable - 1895 | Return to Timetable - 1898