The war in Cuba
Each of the foregoing reasons for disputing the purported Remington-Hearst exchange will be reviewed in some detail. But first, it is vital to consider the context in which the exchange supposedly took place. Briefly, Hearst in late 1896 hired Remington and Davis to travel to Cuba to spend time with the rebel forces,12 whose insurrection by then had spread across much of the island.13 Spain had responded to the rebellion by sending to Cuba 200,000 soldiers. Their commander in 1896 and 1897 was Captain General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, who insisted that "war should be answered with war."14
Perhaps the most severe and controversial of Weyler's tactics was ordering much of Cuba's rural population into "reconcentration camps" in an attempt to deny the insurgents support from the countryside. Tens of thousands of Cuban non-combatants were thus crowded into the urban camps and many of them died from disease and malnutrition.15 Beyond the camps, the conflict produced horrors of its own.16 Reports of atrocities on both sides were not uncommon and not always exaggerated. By late 1896, the war had left "a stillness ... over vast expenses of the Cuban countryside.17" A stalemate had thus taken hold by the time Remington and Davis set out for Cuba: The Spanish controlled the cities, the insurgents ruled the countryside.
The plans were for Remington and Davis to travel from Key West to Cuba aboard Hearst's yacht, the Vamoose, and make their way surreptitiously to the camp of one of the insurgency's commanding general, Máximo Gómez. "We will stay a month with him[,] the yacht calling for copy and sketches once a week and finally for us in a month," Davis wrote in a letter to his mother.18 Reaching Cuba proved frustratingly difficult, however. Inclement weather, the yacht's suspect seaworthiness, and the crew's reluctance to attempt a landing in Cuba all conspired to keep Remington and Davis in Key West for three weeks.
Davis fumed about the delay. "The Vamoose is the fastest thing afloat and the slowest thing to get started I ever saw," he wrote in a letter to his family on Christmas Day 1896. "In fact, the engineer wanted to spend Christmas on shore so he is delaying the game for that."19 Waiting, Davis wrote 2 January 1897, "is all we do and that's my life at Key West. I get up and half dress and take a plunge in the bay and then dress fully and have a greasy breakfast and then light a huge Key West cigar . . . and sit on the hotel porch . . . . Nothing happens after that except getting one's boots polished."20 Short-circuiting the assignment and returning to New York was considered, but rejected. Remington was inclined but, Davis wrote, "gave up the idea of returning as soon as he found I would not do so."21
Finally, they booked passage on a
passenger steamer to Havana, arriving 9 January 1897.22 The next day they met Weyler, the Spanish military leader in Cuba,
who granted "permission to travel over the island."23
By 15 January 1897, Remington had parted with Davis and was on his
way back to New York. On 24 January, the Journal began publishing
his sketches and brief descriptions about the Cuban rebellion. Davis'
reports trickled in later.
Creelman, the anecdote's sole source, was in Europe
in early 1897
The first account of the purported telegraphic exchange appeared more than four years later in Creelman's On the Great Highway, published in 1901. Creelman does not in that account, nor in the version he wrote for Pearson's magazine in 1906,24 describe how or when he learned about the supposed Remington-Hearst exchange. In any case, it had to have been second-hand because Creelman was in Europe in early 1897, as the Journal's "special commissioner" on the Continent.25 He reported in the winter of 1897 from Madrid on Spain's struggling and increasingly costly effort to prosecute the war in Cuba. Creelman also reported from Paris and Rome.
Creelman's dispatches often contained little or no attribution and few named sources -- not unlike those of many of his contemporaries, and not unlike his account of the purported exchange of telegrams.26 Creelman's reports, moreover, were characterized by an extravagant, breathless quality. Extraordinary conspiracies figured in his dispatches to the Journal in early 1897. In one, he described a "hidden deal" between the outgoing administration of President Grover Cleveland and Spanish authorities to help thwart the Cuban insurgency. "It has taken me many days to trace out the astounding dealings of President Cleveland and his Administration with the Spanish monarchy, but I am now in a position to give the American public some light on the subject," Creelman asserted in a dispatch published in the Journal on New Year's Day 1897.27 At the heart of this supposed conspiracy was the Cleveland Administration's refusal "to recognize the Independence of the Cuban Government or the belligerency of its arms, and at the same time calmly absolv[ing] Spain from all its responsibility for the protection of American property in the island," Creelman wrote.28
Later that winter, he reported from Paris that he had uncovered plans by Spain and other European powers to array themselves against the United States.29 "Within an hour," he wrote in February 1897, "I have learned impressive details of the Spanish conspiracy to form a league of European governments against the United States." Needless to say, such a "league" never took shape. Nor could it have, given the diverse interests among the European powers, their reluctance to "risk the wrath of the United States," and Spain's pursuit of a foreign policy that had generally ignored the rest of Europe.30
Creelman's fondness for hyperbole, his reluctance or disinclination to cite sources, and his failure to explain how he learned about the purported Remington-Hearst exchange all serve to undercut the believability of his account about the telegrams.31
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12 For other accounts of the Remington-Davis assignment, see Charles H. Brown, The Correspondents' War: Journalists in the Spanish-American War (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1967), 76-82; Lubow, The Reporter Who Would Be King, 137-142, and Milton, The Yellow Kids, 140-142.
13 See Louis A. Pérez Jr., Cuba Between Empires, 1878-1902 (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983), 43-52, and Louis A. Pérez Jr., Cuba Between Revolution and Reform, 2d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 157.
14 Cited in Pérez, Cuba Between Empires, 54.
15 Pérez, Cuba Between Empires, 55-56.
16 A favored tactic of the insurgents was to set fire to sugarcane fields, in keeping with their decree for a moratorium on economic activity on the island. See Pérez, Cuba Between Reform and Revolution, 162-163.
17 Pérez, Cuba Between Reform and Revolution, 166
18 Richard Harding Davis, letter to Rebecca Harding Davis, 19 December ; Richard Harding Davis Collection, Alderman Library of American Literature, University of Virginia. That the assignment was to last one month contradicts and undercuts Creelman's claim that Remington "was instructed to remain [in Cuba] until the war began." Creelman, On the Great Highway, 177.
19 Davis, letter to his family, 25 December 1896; Alderman Library, Davis Collection.
20 Davis, letter to his family, 2 January 1897; Alderman Library, Davis Collection.
21 Davis, letter to his family, 2 January 1897.
22 See, Davis letter to Rebecca Harding Davis, 9 January 1897; Alderman Library, Davis Collection.
23 Davis letter to Rebecca Harding Davis, 10 January 1897; Alderman Library, Davis Collection.
24 James Creelman, "The Real Mr. Hearst," Pearson's (September 1906): 259.
25 Some historians have mistakenly placed Creelman with Remington in Cuba at the time of the purported exchange. See Lundberg, Imperial Hearst, 68. Hiley H. Ward stated Creelman "could have been present when" Remington "had the exchange with Hearst." See Ward, Mainstreams of American Media History: A Narrative and Intellectual History (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997), 279.
26 Milton wrote: "Creelman specialized in interviewing the greatest men and women of the day. And since he considered himself the conscience of the fourth estate, he normally did as much talking as listening." Milton, The Yellow Kids, 93. Creelman was not reluctant to recall for readers his past interviewing coups, either. In a report from Rome in February 1897, he said of Pope Leo XIII: "The Pope's voice ringing vigorously over the heads of the kneeling multitude in the Sistine chapel this morning was the best answer to the declaration that the august 'Prisoner of the Vatican' is dying. I watched him for an hour this morning . . . and his eye was as bright and his tones as clear and sonorous as when I interviewed him in the Throne room seven years ago." Creelman, "Leo Strong in Body and Mind," New York Journal (9 February 1897): 1.
27 James Creelman, "Cleveland Strikes Cuba A Secret Blow," New York Journal (1 January 1897): 1.
28 Creelman, "Cleveland Strikes Cuba A Secret Blow," 1.
29 James Creelman, "Will Europe Try to Coerce Us?" New York Journal (21 February 1897): 1.
30 See David F. Trask, The War With Spain in 1898 (New York: MacMillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1981), 474.
31 Hearst appears to have overlooked the flaws and hyperbole in Creelman's reporting and to have valued him for his eagerness as well as his ability to land interviews with important personalities. Willis J, Abbot quoted Hearst as saying: "The beauty about Creelman is the fact that whatever you give him to do instantly becomes in his mind the most important assignment ever given any writer. Of course, it's a form of egotism. He thinks that the very fact of the job being given to him means that it's a task of surpassing importance, else it would not have been given to so great a man as he." Abbot, Watching the World Go By, 208.