If the yellow journals did not bring on the Spanish-American War—and the case is quite persuasive that they were not to blame—what, then, were its causes? The fundamental explanation lies in Spain’s long misrule of Cuba and its harsh attempts to put down the island-wide rebellion. Spain’s counter-insurgency measures were quite distasteful to Americans who were almost reflexively anti-colonial. “They opposed military tyranny and cheered on an oppressed minority seeking self-rule,” historian John L. Offner has written. “They were shocked by the loss of innocent lives and human misery and were disgusted by deliberate property destruction, all of which confirmed their prejudices against the Spanish.”32 Spain had ruled Cuba for more than three hundred years and regarded it as the “ever faithful isle,” as an extension of Spain itself.33 Spanish-born residents of Cuba dominated the island, politically and economically.34 The armed insurrection that began in 1895 was in some respects the renewal of prior rebellions, notably the Ten Years’ War of 1868–1878, which failed in part because of the divided aims of the Cuban rebels. Some sought independence; others wanted greater autonomy under Spanish suzerainty.35 No such prominent split characterized the Cubans who took up arms against Spain in 1895. Political independence was the unwavering goal as the Cuban insurgents pursued a low-intensity campaign of attrition, turning the island (especially its eastern provinces) into a theater of guerrilla war.


The Cuban insurgents were loosely organized into small, roving bands that generally avoided pitched battles. In response to the guerrilla tactics, Spain imposed a controversial and ill-advised policy. It sought to deprive the insurgents of supplies and logistical support from the countryside by ordering Cuban non-combatants into garrison towns. The policy—enacted by the Spanish Governor-General, Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, in February 1896—was known as “reconcentration.” It became a humanitarian and public relations disaster. The reconcentrados , the Cuban non-combatants, were badly cared for and suffered greatly. Tens of thousands of them fell ill and died. The plight of the reconcentrados were thoroughly—and at times extravagantly—reported in American newspapers, many of which took to calling Weyler “the Butcher.” One historian has perceptively written that the mistreatment of the Cubans may have done more to bring about war with Spain “than anything else the Spanish could have done.”36


Despite the controversies and abuses produced by Spain’s policy, the situation in Cuba did not command the unbroken attention of the American public until the first four months of 1898. By that time, the insurrection in Cuba had settled into a destructive stalemate. The rebels held sway over the countryside, especially in eastern Cuba, and the Spanish forces controlled nearly all the important towns and cities. 37 Spain had also instituted a set of modest reforms that included the grant of limited political autonomy to Cuba. The autonomy plan took effect on 1 January 1898.


Beginning in mid-January 1898, six decisive events took place in fairly rapid succession. Together, these events that solidified U.S. public opinion about going to war to liberate Cuba from Spanish rule and finally end the appalling conditions on an island so close to American mainland. Some American officials in early 1898—including the U.S. consul-general in Havana, Fitzhugh Lee—believed that it was only a matter of time before Cuba would be annexed by United States. But an expansionist urge was not the principal or even a secondary reason the United States went to war in April 1898.


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32. John L. Offner, An Unwanted War: The Diplomacy of the United States and Spain Over Cuba, 1895–1898 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 228–229.

33. See Ivan Musicant, Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century (New York: Henry Holt, 1998), 38.

34. Musicant, Empire by Default , 39.

35. See Musicant, Empire by Default , 39–40.

36. Musicant, Empire by Default, 69.

37. See Thomas R. Dawley Jr., “Some Truths About Cuba,” Self Culture 6 (November 1897): 107.