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The Democratic Peace II: War with Spain


Above: Battle at Manila, Spanish-American War, 1 May 1898, courtesy of National Museum of the U.S. Navy.

A previous essay tried to demonstrate the Mexican-American War as a contradiction to the assumptions and assertions of the “Democratic Peace” theory. This one will extend the point to the U.S. war against Spain, 1898 (“Spanish-American War”).

From the beginning, the settlers in British-North America had landed in a hostile country, where war, violence, and constant vigilance were necessary for survival. Warfare was rampant on the frontier, both against native Indian tribes and French, British, and Spanish armies, who quarreled incessantly with each other. Both the Pequot War in Connecticut (1630s) and the French and Indian War in both Canada and the colonies (1754-1763) were just two of the most vicious, but they were characteristic.

The American experience and dominant culture did not just come to an end with the triumph of political democracy. Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution were dependent on pacifism, while the subsequent settlement of the continent relied on force or its threat.

A mere list of the belligerents that the U.S. has faced since the beginning will suffice to demonstrate how the people of the nation were asked to defend, or at times, to extend their influence or jurisdiction. These were all “wars” by any definition, although the formal “declaration” of war was rarely invoked. At the very least, they were all “combats.”

They include, as follows (in no particular order): Great Britain (twice), Germany (twice), each other, Indian tribes (about four centuries), Austria, Hungary, Italy, China, Korea, Vietnam, Spain, Russia (intervention, 1918-20), Mexico (three times, 1847, 1914, 1916), Japan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Mediterranean pirates (early nineteenth century), The Philippines (1898-1902 and afterwards), interventions and occupations in the Caribbean and Central America (over 50 times), plus others since forgotten.

That’s an impressive list, which could easily be shortened to, “most of the world plus ourselves.” Not exactly an affirmation of the “democratic peace” theory. Even if most of them were foisted upon a reluctant democracy, there must be some in which the democracy was neither reluctant nor passive. Perhaps none of them were reluctant, a possibility that brings up another interpretation: the dangerous and aggressive democracy.

Without going into them all, given space and time, perhaps the Spanish-American War will do. Why did the U.S. declare war on Spain in 1898, a place 3,000 miles away with no particular ax to grind and long since kicked out of the area altogether (except Cuba)?

At first glance, “no particular reason” could be asserted. Within human conduct, it is not unknown for someone to “pick” a fight. The sociology or psychological cause of such behavior is beyond our task. Only the objective reality is needed (for now). Was the American culture ready to assert itself in 1898 to pick on a country that had to real means of defense? For the moment, we can leave the answer out and let the question alone. Instead, what were the reasons given?

The immediate cause was simple: the blowing up of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, 15 February, killing 250 sailors. This, indeed, was a “Pearl Harbor” of its time, but, unlike Pearl Harbor, it wasn’t obvious as to what happened.

A Court of Inquiry held in March concluded that a mine had caused the explosion but failed to indict whoever laid the mine. It didn’t have to, as the “yellow” press centered in New York concluded, arbitrarily, that it was Spain who had detonated the mine. The press, led by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, controlled opinion to such an extent that they created a war-fever hysteria to rally against Spain.

Spain had controlled Cuba for centuries but was facing an insurrection that found willing sympathy in America for the rebels. Spain’s cruel and sweeping atrocities against the insurrectos aroused further condemnation in the U.S. and fed the movement to rid the area of colonialization once and for all.

Why would Spain, thousands of miles away and facing an insurrection, blow up an American warship? On its face, it is illogical. Pulitzer himself, responsible for much of the hysteria, privately noted that “nobody outside a lunatic asylum” would find Spain responsible. It was pure “theater,” many times stronger than what we today observe in the media frenzy against President Trump. Hearst once told a reporter assigned to Cuba, “you furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

Subsequent inquiries, as late as 1974 by the Navy and 1999, by National Geographic, concluded the mostly obvious: that an internal explosion blew up the Maine. No matter, the 1898 generation acted on emotion, reinforced by the national expression, “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain.”

Congress declared war on April 25. In his war message, President McKinley never mentioned the Maine, but demanded that Spain “…relinquish its authority and government in the island of Cuba.”

The war lasted ten weeks, in Theodore Roosevelt’s expression a “splendid, little war.” At the same time that the U.S. was relieving Spain of its remaining possessions in the Caribbean, the American Navy was taking over Spain’s authority in The Philippines, a country that had been Spain’s since 1565.

The Spanish-American War was a watershed in U.S. history and saw the American flag begin its long trajectory into first, a two-ocean power and eventually, a world superpower. At home, democracy continued to flourish; overseas, it was a great idea, and an American mission, off and on, from the beginning.