The Spanish-American War

The Spanish American War, political cartoon showing Uncle Sam bidding goodbye to Spain after conquering Cuba, from Puck, 1900

The Spanish-American War was the culmination of centuries of Anglo-American efforts to drive Spain out of the Western Hemisphere. Even after most of Spain’s provinces had become independent, the United States continued to expand territorially at Mexico’s expense and constantly undermined the remnants of Spanish culture in Latin America which centered on the Catholic Church. The U.S. invariably backed anticlerical movements all across Latin America that sought to further confiscate Church property and persecute its clergy.

With Spain’s military defeat in 1898 and the taking of its last significant possessions in the Americas – Cuba and Puerto Rico – and, more importantly for U.S. imperialists at the time, the seizure of the Philippines and Guam, America was transformed, almost overnight into a world power.

While Cuba and Puerto Rico came into the U.S. orbit, the real objective, the capture of the Philippines, had nothing to do with the supposed cause of the war – the blowing up of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor. “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!’ was coined by warmongering American jingoists demanding action against Spain.

American imperialists had long sought to establish a coaling station for the refueling of ships and a military base in the Far East which was to gain access to Chinese markets and become a player in Asian political affairs. After the conquest of the Philippines, the U.S. became involved in putting down the nationalist uprising in China – the Boxer Rebellion. Worse, the American presence in the Far East would facilitate its participation in WWII, as the Roosevelt administration pursued a “back door” policy of belligerency with the Japanese, which led to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.


From their founding, the American colonies which would become the United States and Spain’s New World possessions were different cultures. Latin America was Catholic while the British colonies were nominally Protestant, although its political leadership was largely Deist and Masonic. The American state had no established religion, and its Constitution made no reference to the Christian God.

In fact, the philosophical foundations which the country was founded upon rested on the ideals of religious liberty and religious pluralism. Catholicism was, therefore, like any other Christian denomination or non-Christian cult. The state treated all religions the same. While all faiths were tolerated, what was not permitted was for one church to be recognized as the true Church of God or, more dangerously for the State, to have any church superior to it in any social sphere. The U.S. government was the supreme authority of American society.

The discovery of the New World was funded and developed under the august reign of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, who pope Alexander VI called Los Reyes Católicos“The Catholic Monarchs.” The Spanish monarchy was responsible for the development of the continent and, while the exploitation of the new lands was part of the Crown’s rule, the evangelization, conversion and education of the indigenous peoples were an integral part of what became the Spanish Empire.

The religions of the two civilizations shaped their respective customs, morés, institutions, languages, and laws. Thus, the two cultures were fundamentally at odds, which meant that there would be conflict especially as Americans moved westward.

A one-sided war between Mexico and the U.S. (1846-48) resulted in the acquisition of vast amounts of territory for the latter. Despite the land grab, the U.S. continued to meddle in Latin American affairs, backing anti-Catholic movements and strongmen who would build little of their own, but only plundered and looted what the Church and Spain had previously created.

The antipathy for Spain and Catholicism continued throughout the 19th century and came to a boiling point in 1898. America’s attitude toward Latin America, which was, surprisingly, held by many American Catholic churchmen at the time, has been aptly described by G.J.A. O’Toole:

The grievances set forth in our own Declaration of Independence were still able to quicken the pulse and arouse indignation against colonial monarchies across the seas. Republican government was still considered something of a radical new departure from the status quo. . . . [M]ost of the nations of Europe were still ruled by crowed heads. More than any other European power, Spain represented the medieval despotism of the Old World. Catholic Spain – the land of the Inquisition and the Armada, the ancient nemesis of Anglo-Saxon, Protestant liberalism, the home of the conquistadors who raped and plundered from Mexico to Peru – this was the image that fueled popular sentiment in the United States.(2)


Up until the War for Southern Independence, the U.S. followed, at least overseas, a non-interventionist foreign policy. Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson warned against entangling alliances. Even as the U.S. expanded across the continent (a lot of which came at the expense of Spanish and later Mexican territory), the nation was “isolationist” in regard to world affairs.

The defeat of the Confederacy saw the beginning of the end of the ideas of Jefferson and those of the Antifederalists which stood for limited government both at home and abroad. The philosophy of Alexander Hamilton, which was carried on by the Whigs, and later Abe Lincoln and the Republican Party, would eventually come to dominate America’s political scene by the end of the 19th century. The Democratic Party, too, would abandon the ideals of Jefferson, John Calhoun and Andrew Jackson and become little different than their rival, as the two leading political parties would become indistinguishable on the major issues and would remain so till today.

America’s westward expansion was justified, in part, by the concept of Manifest Destiny, which held that it was divinely inspired to become the great force not only in North America but also throughout the hemisphere. The religious overtones in Manifest Destiny elevated the country’s settlement of the West and later overseas expeditions beyond merely settlement and development, but a “missionary” one to bring American-style democracy to peoples throughout the world.

In the conquest of the Philippines politicians and religious leaders sought to justify their actions as somehow doing the work of Providence. “God was invoked,” states G.J.A. O’Toole, “literally by many Protestant clergyman who saw a divinely imposed national duty to Christianize the Filipinos.” (3)

In a speech to a delegation of Methodist churchmen, President Wilson McKinley expressed his pietistic mindset:

The truth is I didn’t want the Philippines and, when they came to us as a gift from the gods, I did not know what to do about them. . . . I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed to Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. . . . [T]here was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died.(4)

The Christianization that McKinley so pridefully spoke of was really a “de-Catholicization” of a country that had been “Christianized” and civilized for over four centuries and, by all accounts, was populated by some of the most fervent Catholics of all the Asian peoples.


The declaration by the Census Bureau in 1890 that the frontier was officially closed with no apparent tracts of land without settlers had a profound psychological impact on the country’s intelligentsia, especially those who had pushed the idea of Manifest Destiny. The importance of the frontier and the development on American democracy and institutions gave rise to an entire school of thought with the publication of Frederick Jackson Turner’s influential essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.”(5) For the more zealous adherents of the New Manifest Destiny, the nation had to look overseas to advance its notions of American self-government and its way of life, whether foreigners wanted it or not.

There was financial aspect in the push for overseas expansion – the securing of foreign markets. This mostly came from the growing interconnected class of Bis Business, politicos, and financial elites who supported the erroneous idea of “surplus production” of goods. The supposed problem of “overproduction” would be greatly eased if businesses could export their unsold goods to overseas markets.

Of course, nothing stopped entrepreneurs from engaging in such practices if such a problem actually existed. This is how trade was previously conducted. American producers traded on their own, making deals risking their own capital. If their goods sold and found markets, they rightly received profits. If they did not or were expropriated by foreign governments, it was their loss. The U.S. taxpayer was not in the hook for it.

The new ideas on trade were actually a reformulation of Hamilton’s views which, in fact, were based on the British mercantilist policy of the 18th century, which caused so much opposition within the colonies and was a catalyst for the American Revolution. The neo-mercantilism of the late 19th century would have the U.S. government take the lead and “negotiate” with foreign governments, guaranteeing their business favorites monopoly privileges and subsidies while the state would gain influence in the politics of foreign lands. The cozy relationship between mercantilist firms and the burgeoning American imperial apparatus would lead to political intervention in the affairs of countless countries.

Another powerful factor in the creation of the American imperial state was the publication of U.S. Naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, which appeared in 1890. The book provided more ammunition for those who argued for the New Manifest Destiny, and also fit in nicely with neo-mercantilism. In an article, Mahan prophesied the “inevitability” of the nation taking a role in world affairs, despite the opposition of domestic recalcitrants: “Whether they like it or not, Americans must now look outward. The growing production of the country demands it. An increasing volume of public sentiment demands it.”(6)


One would think that American Catholics, especially the hierarchy, would have opposed the war. Instead of outrage at the naked aggression, there was little protest from either the laity or hierarchy. In fact, some members of the American church’s hierarchy enthusiastically backed intervention.

Bishop Denis O’Connell

A revealing and shocking letter sent by Bishop Denis O’Connell, the first rector of the North American College in Rome, to Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minnesota, expressed what a top American prelate and, apparently, his fellow bishop thought of the war:

For me this is not simply a question of Cuba. If it were, it were no question or a poor question. Then let the ‘greasers’ eat one another up and save the lives of our dear boys. But for me it is a question of much more moment – it is a question of two civilizations. It is the question of all that is old and vile and mean and rotten and cruel and false in Europe against all that is free and noble and open and true and humane in America.(7)

To Bishop O’Connell, once Spain – and with it the remnants of Christian Europe – was liquidated, a brave new world would be ushered in based on liberal democracy with America as the instrument of bringing about the New Age even if it meant violence and bloodshed:

When Spain is swept off the seas much of the meanness and narrowness of old Europe goes with it to be replaced by freedom and openness of America.(8)

Warmongers typically invoke Providence to justify their grandiose schemes. Bishop O’Connell was no different. As a Catholic churchman the degree that he pleaded for his vision was, to say the least, quite disturbing. In his mind, America’s conquest of Cuba and the Philippines was part of the divine will:

This is God’s way of developing the world. . . . Now God passes the banner to the hands of America, to bear it – in the cause of humanity – and it is your office to make its destiny known to America and become its grand chaplain.(9)

Once chosen, the country must fulfill its divinely imposed duty:

. . . America cannot certainly with honor, or fortune, evade its great share in it. Go to America and say, thus saith the Lord! Then you will live in history as God’s Apostle in modern times to Church and to Society.(10)

That Bishop O’Connell could operate unhindered in Rome with such an attitude showed how far Catholicism had come into line with the modern world.


With the ideological factors in place, much of the nation’s financial elites on board, and little opposition from a religious constituency that may have stood against U.S. aggression, American imperialists turned their sights on the last remnants of the Spanish Empire. As Spanish-Cuban relations on the island continued to deteriorate, and with the American press fanning the flames of the “atrocities” committed by the Spanish government, all that was needed was an “incident” to mobilize public opinion for intervention. The sinking of the Maine provided the casus belli.

From the perspective of America’s empire builders and much of the public at large, the defeat of Spain in the Carribean was wildly successful, as the war accomplished its objectives with little loss of life or national treasure. The “victory” was aptly summed up by John Hay, U.S. ambassador to Great Britain: “It has been a splendid little war; begun with the highest motives, carried on with magnificent intelligence and spirit, favored by that fortune which loves the brave.”(11)

Since one of the arguments for the war was to free Cuba from Spanish domination, the U.S. could not outright make the island a possession. Instead, it passed the Platt Amendment which provided the requirements for U.S. troop withdrawal after the war’s conclusion. The provisions of the amendment were incorporated into the Cuban-American Treaty of Relations in 1903. The severe restrictions made the island a virtual colony. Some of the draconian points included:

  • Unilateral right of the U.S. to militarily intervene on the island;
  • Setting aside of land to lease for U.S. naval bases;
  • Limitations on the treaty-making ability of the Cuban government; and
  • Grants of monopoly privileges to U.S. firms.

The passage of the treaty provided cover for America’s second occupation of the island from


The war against Spain in the Pacific, which was quickly forgotten by the politicos and the press, was a far different and less successful undertaking than the takeover of Cuba. From the start, the U.S.’s occupation of the Philippines was rife with difficulties and was to become the first, and certainly not the last, instance of American foreign policy duplicity and its brutality in dealing with indigenous peoples. “The war’s bloody sequel,” writes Joseph Stromberg, “the savage counterinsurgency campaign necessary to secure U.S. colonial power in the Philippines, disappeared into an Orwellian memory hole not to be heard from again until the Vietnam war, to which it bore a certain resemblance.”(12)

The capture of the Philippines was squarely on the minds of the McKinley administration jingoists, most notably Assistant Secretary of the Navy and later President Theodore Roosevelt. Before war was even declared, Roosevelt ordered Commodore George Dewey to make plans for an attack on Spain’s Pacific fleet. A day before (April 24, 1898) Congress authorized military action in Cuba “to empower the president to take measures to secure a full and final termination of hostilities between the government of Spain and the people of Cuba and to leave the government and control of the island to its people,” Secretary of the Navy John D. Long ordered Dewey to begin operations in Asia.(13) So much for the supposed noble goal of solely liberating the Cuban people from Spanish bondage.

While the U.S. had achieved its military goal in the Far East, securing a peace or, more accurately, the pacification of its new subject people who sought independence, proved to be highly problematic. The unjustified aggression against Spain was now escalated to a murderous degree by the world’s newest imperial power against its Filipino subjects.

At first the Filipino revolutionaries, who had fought against Spain, were praiseworthy of the United States. One rebel leader exclaimed:

Compatriots! Divine Providence is about to place independence within our reach, and in a way the most free and independent nation could hardly wish for. The Americans, not from mercenary motives, but for the sake of humanity and the lamentations of so many persecuted people, have considered it opportune to extend their protecting mantle to our beloved country.(14)

Such naiveté was quickly squashed under the boot of the fledging imperial power. It would not take long for a number of the revolutionaries, and certainly the general public, to long for the days of “Spanish tyranny.”

As the ravenous American expansionists secured more and more concessions from Spain and eventually total control of the islands, the indigenous independence movement began to see the handwriting on the wall. U.S. officials also realized that pacification of the country would require bloodshed and the dispersal of the subject population.

On February 4, 1899, less than two months after the Treaty of Paris ended hostilities, fighting broke out between Filipino rebels and American forces. The colonial war, which became known as the “Philippine Insurrection,” ended “officially” on July 4, 1902, although resistance in some areas continued for years afterwards.

The war cost 4,200 American lives with 2,800 wounded while 20,000 Filipino freedom fighters were killed. Some 220,000 Filipino civilians died of “gunfire, starvation and the effects of concentration camps.”(15) The conquest of the islands and the pacification of the insurgency cost U.S. taxpayers $600 million – nearly triple the money spent on the Caribbean campaign.

The war adversely affected the Philippine society as it would those nations that had the misfortune of encouraging the United States Empire in the coming century:

American rule in the Philippines led to massive acquisition of Philippine resources by U.S. companies by political means. U.S. rule reinforced the power of local feudal elements, landlords, and bureaucrat-capitalists. Political instability, dictatorship, and revolutionary outbreaks characterized the American-trained Philippine nation after independence following World War II.(16)

U.S. suzerainty over the islands was achieved in the most brutal of fashion, as its military duplicated many of the same measures that the Union Army committed against the South during the Civil War. The stern measures that were employed against the American Indians were also openly spoken about by the officials:

If we decide to stay, we must bury all qualms and scruples . . . the consent of the governed etc., and stay. We exterminated the American Indians and, I guess, most of us are proud of it or, at least, believe the end justified the means; and we must have no scruples about exterminating this other race standing in the way of progress and enlightenment, if it is necessary.(17)

An officer stated:

Our men have been relentless, have killed to exterminate men, women and children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people, from lads of 10 up, an idea prevailing that the Filipino was little better than a dog.(18)

The pro-war press buried most of these accounts and attempted to justify them on the grounds that the Filipino insurgents had likewise committed atrocities against American military personnel. Due to the immense distance, and because of the success in Cuba, the public was mostly kept in the dark about American military actions in the Far East. The Republicans suffered little backlash at the polls despite the formation of anti-war groups and prominent personalities such as famed American novelist Mark Twain criticizing the country’s rise from republic to empire.


While many look to U.S. intervention in World War I as the beginning of its worldwide empire, the Spanish-American War is more accurately its genesis. The United States may have entered World War I had it not fought Spain a generation earlier, but its victory and acquisition of overseas possessions almost guaranteed that it would be a participant in the human slaughter that took place in Europe from 1914-1918.

While war may have been avoided the factors that led to U.S. participation in it, most importantly, the changes in national ideology, would have pushed the nation to seek another situation to exploit to assuage its imperialistic ambitions. Tragically, the Spanish-American War instigated over a century of warmaking and interventionist escapades, transforming the nation into a murderous and destructive world empire.


(1) The classic analysis of intellectuals and the state can be found in F.A. Hayek’s “The Intellectual and Socialism.” Originally published in The University of Chicago Law Review (Spring 1949), a PDF can be found at

(2) G.J.A. O’Toole, The Spanish War: An American Epic – 1898, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984, p. 59.

(3) O’Toole, The Spanish War, p. 384.

(4) Quoted in O’Toole, The Spanish War, p. 386.

(5) Turner first read his paper in 1893 at the meeting of the American Historical Association.

(6) Quoted in Stromberg, “The Spanish-American War,” p. 171.

(7) Quoted in Thomas T. McAvoy, C.S.C., The Americanist Heresy in Roman Catholicism, 1895-1900, University of Notre Dame, IN.: Notre Dame Press, 1963, p. 163.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid., pp. 163, 165.

(10) Ibid., p. 165.

(11) Quoted in Joseph R. Stromberg, “The Spanish-American War as Trial Run, or Empire as its Own Justification,” in John V. Denson, ed., The Costs of War: America’s Pyrrhic Victories, Second Expanded Edition. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2001, 1999, p. 169.

(12) Ibid.

(13) Ibid., p. 181.

(14) Quoted in Stromberg, “The Spanish-American War as Trial Run,” p. 184.

(15) Ibid., p. 194.

(16) Ibid.

(17) Ibid., p. 188.

(18) Ibid.

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