The six events decisive in galvanizing American public opinion in early 1898 included the destruction of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana harbor. While profoundly shocking, the warship’s loss was neither the immediate nor the only reason the United States went to war. The six pivotal developments were:

  • The spasm of rioting in Havana on 12 January 1898, in which Spanish nationals and military officers attacked the offices of newspapers that supported Madrid’s plan to devolve a measure of political autonomy to Cuba. The autonomy plan also was opposed by the Cuban insurgents, whose leadership vowed to execute anyone who entered their camps to promote it. In at least one case, the insurgents had made good on that threat. Though short-lived, the Havana rioting signaled that Spain was incapable of reestablishing its authority in Cuba and that the autonomy plan had no chance of success.
  • The disclosure on 9 February 1898 of a private letter written by Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, Spain’s chief diplomat in the United States. In his letter, Dupuy de Lôme disparaged McKinley as “a low politician, who desires to leave a door open to me and to stand well with the jingoes of his party.”38 The letter’s contents, which were first reported by Hearst’s New York Journal, also suggested Spain’s insincerity in proposing a treaty on trading relations with the United States. Insulting the American head of state was a stunning faux pas and Dupuy de Lôme’s assignment to Washington became immediately untenable. He resigned before the United States could demand that Madrid bring him home.
  • The destruction on 15 February 1898 of the Maine, which the McKinley administration had ordered to Havana in the aftermath of the riots in January. The shock to public opinion produced by the Maine’s destruction has been likened to that of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the terrorist assaults on New York City and Pentagon in September 2001.39 Before the Maine’s destruction, “the problem of Cuba constituted only one of a number of public issues to which the American people and their leaders gave attention,” as one historian has written. After the battleship’s loss, however, “Cuban issues consumed the body politic, displacing all other concerns.”40
  • The widely reported speech on 17 March 1898 by U.S. Senator Redfield Proctor, a conservative Republican who had just returned from a fact-finding trip to Cuba. In measured and deliberately unemotional terms, Proctor described the appalling suffering he found in Cuba, where the abuses of Spain’s reconcentration policy were largely unabated. Proctor’s speech—read “with as little apparent feeling as if [the contents] constituted an agricultural report instead of a record of almost inconceivable horror”41—made more compelling the case for U.S. military intervention on humanitarian grounds.42
  • The report in late March 1898 of the U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry, headed by Admiral Sampson, that concluded the Maine had been destroyed by a submarine mine.43 The Court of Inquiry, however, said it could not fix responsibility for the battleship’s loss. But Lee, the U.S. consul-general who had developed an extensive intelligence-gathering network in Havana, said he believed rogue elements of the Spanish military in Cuba were responsible for the Maine’s destruction.
  • The release and publication in early April 1898 of the reports of Lee and other U.S. consular officers in Cuba. Their reports described in stark detail the widespread misery and unrelieved hardship created by Spain’s reconcentration policies. The reports also made clear that Madrid’s pledges to lift or ease the most severe aspects of reconcentration had not been fulfilled.44

None of those episodes was the work of the yellow press. True, the New York Journal disclosed Dupuy de Lôme’s private and ill-considered letter about McKinley. But the Journal did not forge the de Lôme letter. Indeed, it is quite significant, as one historian has observed, that the pivotal developments leading America to war in 1898 included two reports—Proctor’s speech and the Court of Inquiry’s findings—that were notable and persuasive not because they were sensational but because they were distinguished by an authoritative, decidedly unemotional quality.45


By mid-April 1898, it was evident that U.S. military intervention “was the only way to bring the Cuban-Spanish impasse to a quick end.”46 The humanitarian objective—that war was to be waged to end abuses associated with Spain’s misrule of Cuba—resonated widely in the U.S. press. “Our intervention in Cuba is impelled by civilization and humanity,” the Chicago Times-Herald said. “Higher grounds for intervention of a foreign country could not be conceived. If war comes it will not be a war of conquest; neither will it be a war for defense of our people or our territory from foreign aggression.”47 More succinctly, Hearst’s New York Evening Journal declared the war inspired by an “understanding that a weak people needed to be aided.”48 And the Independent magazine noted:


The moral position of the United States is very strong. We are not asking for Cuba for ourselves; we have no desire to annex the island; we are not clamoring for any material advantage whatever; we have no quarrel with Spain on other scores; we have no desire to fight for glory, or to fight at all, unless driven to; our desire is that the awful struggle in Cuba, with all its attendant horrors of death by starvation and disease among the innocent non-combatants, shall cease. The appeal is to our humanity, and our humanity compels us to act.49


After weeks of fruitless efforts to seek a diplomatic resolution to the Cuba question, McKinley told Congress on 11 April 1898 that only military intervention could end the crisis. Congress then debated a war resolution, focusing for days on whether to recognize insurgent Cuba as an independent republic. The resolution was approved by both houses of Congress on 20 April 1898, and Spain promptly broke diplomatic relations with the United States. McKinley then asked for a formal declaration of war, which Congress approved on 25 April 1898, retroactive to 21 April 1898. The war resolution did not recognize a Cuban republic and contained a much-debated, self-limiting clause in which the United States renounced any intention of annexing or acquiring Cuba.50



1 2 3 4< Previous Next> 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12


38. See “The Worst Insult to the United States in Its History,” New York Journal ( 9 February 1898): 1.
39. See Sam Tanenhaus, “Lest We Forget in the Face of Worse to Come,” Washington Post ( 15 September 2002): B1.
40. David F. Trask, The War With Spain in 1898 (New York: Macmillan, 1981), 28–29.
41. “Truth Told by Proctor,” Chicago Times-Herald ( 18 March 1898): 2. Proctor acknowledged that he had gone to Cuba “with a strong conviction that the picture [of devastation] had been overdrawn; that a few cases of starvation and suffering had inspired and stimulated the press correspondents, and they had given free play to a strong, natural, and highly cultivated imagination. What I saw I can not tell so that others can see it.” Proctor said the desperate conditions in Cuba “must be seen with one’s own eyes to be realized.” See “Senator Proctor on Cuba,” Public Opinion 24, 12 ( 24 March 1898): 358.
42. Trask, The War With Spain, 36. Trask wrote that Proctor in his Senate speech “developed a full-blown rationale for intervention based on ‘undiluted humanitarianism,’ in which the United States would act as an unselfish representative of the civilized world in behalf of the suffering Cubans, now crushed under the heel of the cruel Spaniard.”
43. The Naval Court of Inquiry’s finding was supported by a separate official U.S. investigation conducted in 1911 but challenged in a study by Rickover in 1976. See H. G. Rickover, How the Battleship Maine Was Destroyed (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1976). However, Rickover’s conclusion was challenged in a study commissioned by National Geographic magazine and published in 1998. That study, conducted by Advanced Marine Enterprises, concluded that “it appears more probable than was previously concluded that a mine caused the inward bent bottom structure” and the resulting explosion that sank the Maine. See Thomas B. Allen, ed. “Special Report: What Really Sank the Maine,” Naval History (March/April 1998): 38–39.
44. “ United States Consuls Report Starvation, Death and Political Anarchy in Cuba,” New York Journal ( 12 April 1898): 5.
45. Charles Campbell, The Transformation of American Foreign Relations 1865–1900 (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 250. See also, Musicant, Empire by Default, 165.
46. Offner, An Unwanted War, 233.
47. “What War Means to Us,” Chicago Times-Herald ( 17 April 1898): 28.
48. “The Broker’s Real Position,” New York Evening Journal ( 26 May 1898): 8.
49. Cited in “From a Moral Standpoint,” Washington Post ( 1 April 1898): 6.
50. For a detailed account of the deliberations that culminated in the American declaration of war, see Musicant, Empire by Default, 183–190.