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Liverpool John Moores University

Rhetoric and the Spanish-American War

Michelle MuntonMichelle Munton examines the role of rhetoric, both by the press and by government, in gaining public support for the Spanish – American War. She examines the belief in America’s “manifest duty” to bring civilisation to the uncivilised world, and draws comparisons with the rhetoric used by the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq

Posted 17-Jul-2014

by Michelle Munton

Manifest destiny
The Monroe Doctrine
Rhetorical justifications for the war
Overseas expansion – the new frontier 
Diplomatic insults and the sinking of the “Maine”
The role of the “yellow press”
“A splendid little war" – rhetoric versus reality
"Benevolent assimilation"– racism by another name

War, as a concept, has many facets: aggression, brutality, courage and determination, to name just a few.  One important facet, however, is often overlooked; rhetoric.  Often, before a single shot is fired, nations will engage in an almost obligatory war of words. An effective waging of a war of words between two nations will always depend, to some degree, on rhetoric and it could be suggested that the more successful the rhetorical talents of a nation’s politicians and journalists, the more successful that nation will be in a physical conflict.  This stems from what rhetoric is and the effects it has on an audience.  Rhetoric is a double – edged sword.  On one side, it inspires the listener or reader; it highlights qualities and capabilities and instils pride in themselves, their country and their accomplishments.  On the other side, rhetoric as a skill of weaving spurious arguments, relies heavily on sophistry and therefore can be used to justify things that would not normally be justifiable.  Both features of rhetoric then, can mobilise the people of a nation into being far less apathetic than they may otherwise have been.  The Spanish – American War provides sterling examples of both of these aspects.  The causes, events and repercussions of a war which lasted less than a year, were steeped in rhetoric from both perspectives but, for the purposes of this article, I will concentrate on the American use of this literary device. 

American rhetoric has been similar throughout the nation’s history and, with a glance at their current foreign policy, it is clear that it is still very much in use.

 Since the birth of America as a nation, its citizens have had fixed ideas on the divinity of their country and its people, feeling that their country, as opposed to all others, had a reason for being and that God had a purpose in guiding them there.  As early as the 1600s, there were rhetorical speeches being made about the subject.  In 1616, a colonisation agent told an English audience about this wonderful land and ended, ‘What need wee then to feare, but to goe up at once as a peculiar people marked and chosen by the finger of God to possess it?’[1]

These ideas flourished in the new country and it was with regards to the question of America gaining control of Oregon from the British in 1845, that journalist John O’Sullivan declared that it was,

Manifest destiny

The right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole continent which providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self government.[2]

Manifest destiny became the basis for Americans to explain their superiority over other races and countries and agreeably dealt with the Indian question, suddenly making it completely acceptable to take their land, as it was the divine right of the Anglo-Saxons to do so.  It becomes clear then that rhetoric, and in particular, that of religious origin, can lend even the most infamous adventure a cloak of respectability and we see the same pattern repeated with the Spanish – American war, with the added dimension of new locations.  Carl Schurz , who had been Secretary of the Interior under Hayes in the late 1870s, summed up the revised purpose of Manifest Destiny in 1893 when he wrote that the concept was forever being declared to make any expansion of power appear unavoidable.  After a quiet period successive to the Civil War, ‘it was being revived now in the form of demands for territory no longer contiguous with the U.S., but far away.’[3]

The Monroe Doctrine
A very significant piece of foreign policy, borne from President Monroe’s seventh Annual message to Congress in 1823, was the Monroe Doctrine.  President Monroe stated that,

            ..the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers. . . ..We owe it, therefore, to candour and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.[4]

In the lead-up to the Spanish – American War, the Monroe Doctrine was cited as one of the reasons for American interference in what Spain saw as her affairs.  Spain argued that since Cuba was her colony, the island did not fall under American jurisdiction. 

He believed that the ‘transcendent right and duty to establish political and legal order everywhere’ gave rise to ‘a great world duty’ on the part of civilised nations.

Americans however, had a different view.  To the imperial mindset, 90 miles from the American coast was not far and therefore, America had every right to assert her authority, and besides, a precedent had been set.  In 1895, President Cleveland and his Secretary of State, Richard Olney, initiated a conflict with Britain over the boundary between Venezuela and British Guyana.  Olney informed London that America had a right to settle the issue because it was ‘practically sovereign on this continent.’[5]  This was not only an interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine but also sparked a pattern of behaviour intended to push away all the imperialist powers from the area surrounding America, including Spain.  Indeed, some expansionists claimed that Cuba had been created by silt from the Mississippi which had been carried out into the Caribbean as the river left New Orleans which meant it was actually American soil.[6]  President Cleveland even remarked during his time in the White House that ‘Cuba is so close to us as to be hardly separated from our territory.’[7]  There was also talk of Cuba ending up in the hands of one Spain’s allies, which of course would be a threat to American security and therefore, intervention in Cuba was justified.  For any who felt that this reasoning was not enough to justify American intervention in Cuba, Captain Alfred T. Mahan, a prominent figure in the Navy and leading intellectual on global navalism, was on hand with a suitable analogy.  He stated that if America was breaking international law to save Cuba, this was no different to the brave citizens who, before the Civil War, broke the law in order to help fugitive slaves to escape.[8]  Playing upon the emotive subjects of slavery and emancipation, Mahan hoped to persuade fellow Americans at least, that their current foreign policy was geared towards humanitarian goals.  Of course not everyone was convinced that the Monroe Doctrine covered American actions, least of all in the Philippines, which could never be justified as being under American jurisdiction as the islands where thousands of miles from the coastline of America.  At the time, the only explanation offered was that ‘the spirit of generosity expressed in the Monroe Doctrine vis-à-vis Latin America was now merely being extended.’[9]  In 1904 then, Theodore Roosevelt  came up with the ‘Roosevelt Corollary’ as a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.  In it he stated,

Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilised society may...ultimately require intervention by some civilised nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the U.S. to the Monroe Doctrine may force the U.S., however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.[10]

This completely excused American behaviour with a view to intervening in other countries’ affairs and sought to defend their actions until that point.

  The main justification the government gave for declaring war on Spain was humanitarian feeling towards the colonised peoples of Spain.  This in itself was suspiciously rhetorical and when government officials were asked to explain this further, rhetoric seemed to play more of a part in explanation than anything else.

   The notion of America bringing civilised ideas to a less developed part of the world was not an idea exclusive to the events surrounding the Spanish – American war but one which was gaining in popularity at the time.  Our Country, a fund-raiser for the Christian Home Missions, written by Rev. Josiah Strong was published in 1885.  It was enormously popular, suggesting that God had commanded the people of the U.S. to Christianise and civilise the world or face divine retribution.  Strong implied that God had been ‘training’ the Americans and that the ‘powerful race’ would now ‘move down upon Mexico, down upon Central and South America, out upon the islands of the sea, over upon Africa and beyond.’  The result of this would be ‘extinction for the inferior races’ through ‘vitality and civilisation.’  He felt Americans needed to become aware of their purpose as ‘God’s right arm in his battle with the world’s ignorance and oppression and sin.’[11]

  In introducing American political ideas to the English in 1880, historian and evolutionist John Fiske suggested that when undeveloped countries were finally ‘English in [their] political habits and traditions, and to a predominant extent in the blood of [their] people’, the eternal Sabbath of civilised peace will have begun.’[12] John Burgess, founder of political science at Columbia University and Theodore Roosevelt’s law teacher promoted the idea that ‘the civilised states have a claim upon the uncivilised populations, as well as a duty towards them, and that claim is that they shall become civilised.’  He believed that the ‘transcendent right and duty to establish political and legal order everywhere’ gave rise to ‘a great world duty’ on the part of civilised nations.[13]  In the middle of this century, an ex-president of the World Bank suggested that ‘Most Americans involved in foreign operations are to some degree missionaries.’[14]  These kinds of statements so long after these ideas were being widely circulated highlights how powerful this ideology was.  The Jim Crow laws had established segregation as proper and the ‘universities and churches overflowed with professors and preachers who calmly explained the scientific basis for believing in ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ races.’[15]  This served to fuel American’s self-belief in their superiority and rights over other races. 

Rhetorical justifications for the war

These being the prevailing ideas at the time, it is easy to see how the American people believed that it was indeed their duty to become involved in Cuban affairs; and so, the majority of people genuinely believed that ‘the Spanish – American conflict [was] a selfless war fought to uphold international morality.’[16]  The dominant view was that if the U.S. had not gone to war, more people would have been killed, children orphaned and land and property destroyed.  In 1895, U.S. citizens demanded that the government help the rebels in their fight for independence but this view had changed by 1898 when the country decided that they had to come to the aid of the Cuban loyalists who would undoubtedly be massacred if the rebels came to power.  In March, Senator Redfield Proctor, who had recently taken a tour of Cuba, spoke in Congress of the urgent need for America to assist the ‘million and half of people, the entire native population of Cuba, struggling for freedom and deliverance from the worst misgovernment of which I ever had knowledge.’[17]  This had a massive effect on Congress who began pressurising President McKinley even more to take action.  Indeed McKinley responded on April 11th stating, ‘The forcible intervention of the United States as a neutral to stop the war, according to the large dictates of humanity and following many historical precedents…is justifiable on rational grounds.’[18]  The intoxicating mixture of religion and humanity seemed to prompt McKinley’s explanation of taking the Philippines in the summer of 1898, when he stated that it was ‘divine inspiration’.  In other words, God had told him to do it.[19]

  Duty was an extremely important rhetorical theme surrounding the Spanish – American War and McKinley emphasized this when he stated that ‘duty determines destiny.’[20]  The idea of duty carried on from the themes that the likes of Fiske and Burgess were promoting and it was a convenient way for the government to illustrate the fact that they were attempting to rule other nations against their will, in the best possible way. The poem, The White Man’s Burden by Rudyard Kipling, appeared in McClure’s Magazine on February 12th 1899, at a crucial time in the situation surrounding the fate of Spain’s colonies.  The Philippine – American War had just begun and the ratification of the Treaty of Paris had recently brought an end to the Spanish – American War.  Written about these conflicts in particular, Kipling’s poem was a mixture of rousing calls to empire and a warning of the costs involved,

            Take up the White Man's burden--

Send forth the best ye breed--

Go, bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives' need;…

To wait, in heavy harness,

On fluttered folk and wild--

Your new-caught sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child…

Take up the White Man's burden,

And reap his old reward--

The blame of those ye better

The hate of those ye guard-- [21]

The poem was quickly accosted by expansionists, who particularly appreciated the poem’s title as a perfect rhetorical explanation for what the country had recently done in terms of foreign policy.  Roosevelt sent Henry Cabot Lodge a copy of the poem stating that it was ‘poor poetry, but good sense from the expansionist standpoint.’[22]  Anders Stephanson suggests in his book, Manifest Destiny, that many Americans agreed with Kipling’s rousing call to take on the burdens of civilisation, and one American noted,

What America wants is not territorial expansion, but expansion of civilisation.  We want, not to acquire the Philippines for ourselves, but to give the Philippines free schools, a free church, open courts, no caste, equal rights to all.  This is for our interest.[23]

Overseas expansion – the new frontier 

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner presented his Frontier Thesis, entitled The Significance of the Frontier in American History.  In his thesis, he argued that the frontier, and indeed, pioneer life had shaped American identity, ‘American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier…this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities…furnish the forces dominating the American character.’[24]  With the closing of the frontier in 1890 then, came the end of pioneer life and therefore, America would have to assume a new identity.  This meant that Americans ‘…had to find…a new frontier or stagnate in [their] cities.’  While Turner himself did not urge extra-continental expansion, others who read his epochal paper did.’[25]  So, talk of expansionism returned to the political forefront once more.

 The principles of expansion became a prevalent talking point among politicians, businessmen, military circles and farmers, who believed that foreign markets would be extremely beneficial to them.  Captain Mahan, a prominent expansionist commented, ‘Americans must now begin to look outward.’[26]  Historians began looking at the ideology of the 1880s as slightly outdated, as ‘a time of fumbling towards an international policy more in keeping with the country’s new

‘Fate has written our policy for
us; the trade of the world must
and shall be ours.’

industrialist strength.’[27]  In 1897 and ’98 China was partitioned by the major imperial powers, with America being excluded.  This highlighted further the growing concern that America needed to begin a process of colonisation if it was to keep up in an ever-changing political and economic environment.  In 1898, imperialist Senator Albert J. Beveridge of Indiana declared, ‘We are Anglo-Saxons, and must obey our blood and occupy new markets, and, if necessary, new lands.’[28]  Roosevelt was an expansionist and since he was already a leading political and military figure, he held much sway with both politicians and the public.  He took intelligent advantage of this by persuading the people, to some degree, that based on their nation’s history, expansion was a rational next step; both in terms of one frontier closing and another opening and some inferior races having been dealt with, it was time to deal with the rest.  V. G Kiernan suggests,

In Roosevelt’s own mind or emotional make-up, this was very much the case.  A writer on the Wild West and the Indian wars, he took an ‘authentically Western frontier attitude’, and was quite prepared to explain the necessity of savage treatment of savages.’[29]

It was perhaps due to his own uncompromising belief in what he preached that Roosevelt was so effective in bringing his message to the people.  Calling upon the trusted rhetoric of destiny, Beveridge said at the time, ‘Fate has written our policy for us; the trade of the world must and shall be ours.’[30]

  From 1893 until 1896, America suffered a severe economic depression.  Walter Lafeber said of McKinley,

The President did not want war…By mid-March, however, he was beginning to discover that, although he did not want war, he did want what only a war could provide:  the disappearance of the terrible uncertainty in American political and economic life, and a solid basis from which to resume the building of the new American commercial empire.[31]

Indeed, Melvin Small argues that a ‘psychic crisis’ had developed around the depression, during which hordes of unemployed marched in protest and millions suffered as it appeared that the nation was falling into disarray.  ‘A little war would provide the means for the nation to release its tension safely, to forget its own troubles, and to rally around the flag in a therapeutic orgy of patriotism.’[32]   This willingness for adventure, Small reasons, also made it easier for the government and media to persuade the people that a war with Spain was in their best interests.  V.G Kiernan calls McKinley a ‘businessmen’s president’ and draws attention to the fact that McKinley’s government had a ‘suspicious number of contacts with the Sugar Trust.’[33]  It comes as no surprise then that when McKinley received a telegram on March 25th saying, ‘Big corporations here now believe we will have war.  Believe all would welcome it as relief to suspense’[34], he issued Spain with his final ultimatum two days later.  The New York ‘Commercial Advertiser’, which was originally against war, supported the views of the business community when, on March 10th, it requested U.S. involvement in Cuba for ‘humanity and love of freedom, and above all, the desire that the commerce and industry of every part of the world shall have full freedom of development in the whole world’s interest.’[35]  When it became clear that the annexation of the Philippines was a real possibility, both big businesses and unions stated that territorial expansion would prevent another depression.[36]  This was obviously an attractive prospect to everyone, but McKinley, speaking at a banquet in February 1899, insisted that ‘no imperial designs lurk in the American mind.’  Unfortunately for McKinley however, his Postmaster General, Charles Emory Smith, stated at the same banquet that ‘what we want is a market for our surplus.’[37]

Diplomatic insults and the sinking of the “Maine”

There were two events which, steeped in rhetoric, could be argued as the main contributors to the declaration of war with Spain by the U.S.  On February 9th, the ‘New York Journal’ published a translation of letter written by Dupuy de Lôme, the Spanish minister to the U.S. to a Spanish politician in December 1897.  In the letter, De Lôme described McKinley as ‘weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd, besides being a would-be politician who tries to leave a door open behind himself while keeping on good terms with the jingoes of his party.’[38]  De Lôme was demonstrating his awareness of McKinley’s use of and dependence on rhetoric and, although more vicious things were often said within political circles, the ‘Journal’ described this as, ‘The Worst Insult to the United States in Its History.’[39]  The letter further undermined the peace process as it queried Spanish respect for the American government.  As Small points out, whilst it was okay for Americans to say such things about the President, for a foreigner to say it was scandalous.  One reply was as follows,

Dupuy de Lôme, Dupuy de Lôme, what’s this I hear of you?

Have you been throwing mud again, is what they’re saying true?

Get out, I say, get out, before I start a fight.

Just pack your few possessions and take a boat for home.

I would not like my boot to use, but-oh-get out, de Lôme.[40]      

When the U.S. battleship, The Maine, blew up in Havana harbour killing 268 of the crew less than a week later, the government, press and people of the U.S. reacted with jingoistic fashion.  The Americans had stated officially that The Maine was being sent to Havana on a goodwill visit and to give refuge to any Americans who may have had to leave in a hurry.  Whilst the Spaniards rightly deduced that it was actually a show of strength by the Americans, they offered no objection to it.  Roosevelt’s comment to a friend, that the explosion was ‘an act of dirty treachery on the part of the Spaniards’[41], was a typical American response.  The mood in Congress following the event was increasingly aggressive towards Spain.  Senator Cullom of Illinois, for example, said that ‘the history of Spain is a history of more than a thousand years of concentrated cruelty.’[42]  The mood of the people was no better, as demonstrated with the popular saying, ‘Remember The Maine, to hell with Spain!’   There was both an American and a Spanish investigation, the former deducing an external cause and the latter, an internal cause.  Whatever the truth, as Small points out,

A Spanish attack on The Maine was illogical.  The last thing Madrid wanted was to provoke a war with the U.S.  The blowing up of The Maine was about the only thing they could do to guarantee such a war.  They had no conceivable strategic or tactical reason to attack the vessel.[43]

Battleship Maine entering Havana harbour in 1898 shortly before it explodedWith no proof that the Spanish were at fault, McKinley responded that, ‘anything that happened in Havana harbour was ultimately Spain’s responsibility and that the sinking of The Maine demonstrated the sort of chaos that flourished under Spanish misrule.’[44]  The fact that McKinley offered $300 million and gifts to Spain in return for Cuba[45] shortly afterwards, would further suggest that the government was not entirely convinced of any wrongdoing on Spain’s part.  However, on March 27th, McKinley demanded of  the Spanish that they close their concentration camps and begin a relief strategy, that they arrange a six-month armistice, during which time they and the rebels would negotiate peace and that if the insurgents were not appeased by the end of that period, that the U.S. act as arbitrator.  McKinley,

…prepared his war message on the 6th April, after receiving the first concession but before receiving the second one.  The message itself was presented to Congress on April 11th, two days after the armistice ultimatum had been virtually accepted.  The content and tone of his message demonstrated that he was no longer interested in the ultimatum.[46]

In his war message, McKinley made many rhetorical statements such as, that the Spanish – Cuban War had,

caused enormous losses to American trade and commerce, caused irritation, annoyance, and disturbance among our citizens, and, by the exercise of cruel, barbarous, and uncivilized practices of warfare, shocked the sensibilities and offended the humane sympathies of our people.[47]

and that, ‘In the name of humanity, in the name of civilization, in behalf of endangered American interests which give us the right and the duty to speak and to act, the war in Cuba must stop.’[48]  Interestingly, McKinley did not mention the concessions Spain had offered until nearly the end of his speech, and of course, by that time, everyone was too worked up by his talk of Spanish atrocities to listen.  The fact that the elections were just seven months away may have pushed McKinley to be more jingoistic than he would have been in other circumstances.  Also, instead of asking Congress to make a declaration of war, McKinley requested that they ‘authorize and 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.’[49]  This had the effect of making it appear that the President had been and was doing everything in his power to maintain a relationship with Spain whilst trying to alleviate the suffering in Cuba.  To have declared war outright would have seemed too aggressive and he was aware that to the rest of the world, The Maine incident did not seem enough for such a move.  So, by appearing conciliatory himself, he sought to appease any negative view of the government. 

  It could be suggested that the events surrounding The Maine bear some similarity to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, where it was alleged that two attacks on U.S. ships were carried out by North Vietnamese ships.  Whilst the first did occur, the second did not and there have been several suggestions that President Johnson was fully aware of this but claimed two attacks in order to pass the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which granted the President the authority to assist any Southeast Asian country whose government was ‘jeopardised.’  It also gave Johnson legal justification to send more troops into the Vietnam War.

  The U.S. navy has always been a draw for patriotism in America, and the period surrounding the Spanish – American War was no exception.  Battleships were built by Americans in America and were all named after states of the Union.  This meant that they were not only a source of national pride but local pride as well.  When one of these battleships sank, the indignation prompted thousands to declare their willingness to ‘fight for their country against what they perceived to be the treachery of Spain.’[50]  Indeed, Secretary of War Alger had estimated that at least 1 million men had replied to McKinley’s first request for volunteers.  Alger remarked that ‘it was the apotheosis of patriotism.’[51]  Indeed, it was at this time that the U.S. Army came to be viewed with just as much patriotic zeal as the navy, if not more.  The likes of Roosevelt, who resigned as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to become a member of the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry regiment, or ‘The Rough Riders’ as they became known, did much to promote the patriotic apThe Rough Riders, with Theodore oosevelt pictured second from the left in the second rowpeal of the army.  On meeting his fellow soldiers, Roosevelt remarked,

"They were a splendid set of men, these South westerners – tall and sinewy, with resolute weather beaten faces, and eyes that looked a man straight in the face without flinching. They included in their ranks men of every occupation; but the three types were those of cowboy, the hunter and the mining prospector – a man who wandered hither and thither, killing game for a living, and spending his life in the quest for metal wealth."[52]

Naturally, these images had a profound effect on the public and the war did much to heal wounds between Northern and Southern states as men from both sides came together to fight a common enemy.  However, the rhetoric of patriotism put pressure on the soldiers to stay quiet about awful conditions.  Roosevelt commented that, ‘the heat, the steaming discomfort, and the confinement, together with the forced inaction were very irksome,’ but that patriotism and thoughts of imminent action meant ‘there was little or no grumbling.’[53]  Journalist Poultney Bigelow explained how much patriotism figured in the soldiers keeping quiet, ‘Down here we are sweltering day and night with the thermometer ninety-eight in the shade.  Nobody dares complain for fear of appearing unpatriotic…thirty days after the declaration of war, and not one regiment is yet equipped with uniforms suitable for hot weather.’[54]

The role of the “yellow press”
With the introduction of the free news service from the Cuban Junta, it became increasingly easy for competitive journalists, (members of the ‘yellow press’ who printed melodramatic stories, relying heavily on rhetoric) to gain a higher number of readers.  Increased readerships meant increased public attention and, in turn, notice in Congress.  This is exemplified by the fact that from December 1895, ‘numerous resolutions recommending American action to aid the insurgents were introduced in every session.’[55]  The disadvantage to the relationship between the yellow press and the Cuban Junta was that the Junta ‘bought’ some journalists who often planted stories which focused on Spanish barbarism and always sympathised with the rebels.[56]  The focus of the yellow press was profit rather than unbiased, truthful reporting and it was a very competitive sector, which ‘led to the rise of sensationalism, blatant fabrication of stories, and all sorts of other disreputable measures which undermined the legitimacy of journalism.’[57]  Of course, the readers were all too willing to ‘read all about it’. 

American troops march into "Muriano Camp" after the Spanish evacuation of Havana, Cuba‘For a generation whose senses were not constantly stimulated by radio, television, movies, and Playboy, lurid descriptions of the scandalous behaviour of the Catholic Spaniards, who apparently spent considerable time ravishing demure Cuban virgins, made for exciting reading.’[58]

The competition between William Randolf Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World was the source of a lot of the scandal as they tried to outdo each other in an effort to gain more sales, and it was during this circulation contest that the phrase ‘yellow press’ was coined.  This is exemplified by Hearst sending a reporter and illustrator to Cuba to gain first hand accounts of the Spanish-Cuban war.  When Remington cabled Hearst saying, ‘Everything is quiet.  There is no trouble here.  There will be no war.  I wish to return’, Hearst cabled back, ‘Please remain.  You furnish the pictures.  I’ll furnish the war.’[59] It was Hearst who gave General Valeriano Weyler the infamous nickname ‘Butcher’[60] which is still quoted today.  This highlights the huge influence the press had at the time.  The papers built up the hysteria of the period, reporting that more than 400,000 people had lost their lives in Cuba during the revolution, a severely exaggerated figure.  It was Hearst who published Du Lôme’s letter, and of course, the press were instrumental in building up the drama surrounding The Maine.  Even local papers got involved.  In the ‘Local Happenings’ section of Humboldt Times on April 12, 1898, they remarked that it was 27 years to the day since the American Civil War began with the attack on Fort Sumter, stating, ‘how patriotic Americans would like to hear the cannon's reverberation on this 12th of April to avenge the slaughter of the boys in blue on board the Maine in Havana's harbour two months ago.’[61]  Whether the press initiated the public’s desire for war or simply furnished it is open to debate but it is certainly true that had McKinley not stayed silent on Cuban events from 1897 until early 1898, and done more to ‘educate and inform’ the public,[62] they may not have been so hastily jingoistic.

 “A splendid little war" – rhetoric versus reality
During the War, ‘5,462 died in the various theatres of operation and in camps in the U.S.  Only 379 of the deaths were battle casualties, the remainder being attributed to disease and other causes.’[63]  When Spain began seeking peace, Secretary of State, John Hay wrote to Roosevelt, ‘It has been a splendid little war; begun with the highest motives, carried on with magnificent intelligence and spirit favoured by that fortune which loves the brave.’[64]  The phrase ‘splendid little war’ was probably the most celebrated of the hostilities but did not take into account the lack of organisation and fighting by the army and the various diseases which plagued them throughout the period.  One reason perhaps, for so few casualties was the fact that not much combat took place.  The battle for San Juan Hill then, was hyperbolised.  When General Shafter informed Washington that the defences of Santiago de Cuba were powerful and that he was considering withdrawal, Alger replied with the promise of reinforcements and told Shafter to hold San Juan Heights as ‘the effect upon the country would be much better than falling back.’[65]  An eye-witness report of the seizure by Richard Harding Davis was highly romanticised.

An artist's conception of the Battle of Manila Bay in the Philippines on May 1, 1898, during the Spanish-American War.It was a miracle of self-sacrifice, a triumph of bull-dog courage, which one watched breathless with wonder.  The fire of the Spanish riflemen, who still stuck bravely to their posts, doubled and trebled in fierceness…But the blue line crept steadily up and on…[66]

Davis neglected to mention that the U.S. seriously outnumbered the Spaniards and amplified the level of resistance presented by them. 

  Another reason for such a high level of success in such a short space of time with a disorganised army was the fact that they fought alongside the rebels, something which was played up during the war.  These missions were termed ‘reconnaissance in force’.  While they ‘served certain tangible military purposes, the operation was mostly inspired by a desire of the army to be seen to be doing something and thereby  promote a positive image among American public opinion’[67]  During the war, the public were still being led to believe that the government were seeking to help the insurgents in their battle against the appalling Spaniards.  As the war ended however, and the government sought to basically replace the Spaniards on the island, the role the rebels played was talked down and the public were led to believe that the rebels were no better than the Spaniards and had not actually played a very useful role in combat.  ‘The implicit assumption which emerged [in Washington] was that victory would be secured principally, if not solely, by the efforts of the American army and navy.’

  The press did not initially pay much attention to the amateurish running of the army or the level of disease.  When they did take notice however, they once again created an uproar.  This prompted an official investigation after the war and, instead of the government accepting responsibility as a whole, the blame was pinned on one individual – Secretary of War, Alger.  ‘In popular speech the word ‘Algerism’ was used as a term of abuse to denote maladministration and callous insensitivity.’[68]  The rhetorical implication of this was that McKinley and the rest of his administration appeared blameless and received the positive attention from the war.

"Benevolent assimilation"– racism by another name

Following the war, the implications of the teachings of the likes of Rev. Strong and Burgess were highlighted.  William Taft, the first civilian governor of the Philippines, condescendingly referred to the Filipinos as ‘our little brown brothers.’[69]  Whilst this was inherently racist, it was a common belief that the Americans were better than their newly acquired colonial subjects.  Some however, were vicious in their summations.  Having no evidence to support his theory, Alger implied that it was for the best that the U.S. had taken the Philippines as ‘the horrors of a Filipino horde let loose in the town [of Manila] to indulge in the expected carnival of loot, arson and rapine, had been avoided.’[70]  The Cubans were presented to the public by soldiers and journalists as scroungers, thieves and lazy cowards.  ‘American contempt was also fuelled by the perception that the majority of Cubans were illiterate and apparently black or of mixed race.’[71]  So, after all the talk of helping their ‘fellow human beings’ to achieve independence, American’s now treated them as inhuman and suddenly judged them incapable of Home Rule, mainly because they were ‘black’.

The American flag flying over the Customs House in Ponce, Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American WarIn the Philippines, ‘McKinley’s declared aim of ‘benevolent assimilation’ in which the Filipino people would be ‘uplifted’ and ‘civilised’ was undermined by reports of the American army ruthlessly crushing the insurgents.’[72]  In 1901, Mark Twain commented, "The White Man's Burden has been sung. Who will sing the Brown Man's?"[73]  After citing Spain’s use of ‘reconcentration’ with its abhorrent cruelty to fellow human beings as one of the main reasons for going to war, America initiated the same policy in the Philippines.  They argued that it was on a smaller scale than the Spanish and that they treated the people well but reports of cruelty to civilians undermined this.  Perhaps the most scathing report was directed towards General Smith’s platoon.  An officer describing the testimony of Major Littletown Waller, accused of shooting 11 Filipinos without trial stated,

The major said that General Smith instructed him to kill and burn, and said that the more he killed and burned the better pleased he would be; that it was no time to take prisoners, and that he was to make Samar a howling wilderness.  Major Waller asked General Smith to define the age limit for killing, and he replied ‘Everything over ten.’[74]

Testimonies such as these served to outrage the public and The Nation reflected this when it stated that ‘the war of 1898 “for the cause of humanity” has degenerated…into a war of conquest, characterised by rapine and cruelty worthy of savages’.[75]  The new Secretary of War, Elihu Root countered these accusations by maintaining that, ‘The war in the Philippines has been conducted by the American army with scrupulous regard for the rules of civilised warfare…with self-restraint and with humanity never surpassed.’[76]

  The ‘Teller Amendment’ was passed on 19th April 1898.  Senator Henry Teller had declared previously that, ‘the time has come when the American people demand and when the interests of the race demand that we shall say the people of that island are entitled to be free.’[77]  It was with this knowledge that there was little opposition in America to going to war, as it had quelled any suspicion of imperial designs.  When the war was over and the time came when the government was being pressurised to realise its earlier promise, the ‘Platt Amendment’ came into being.  The Amendment stated that ‘the government of Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty’[78]  It also demanded, amongst other things, that the U.S. could purchase Guantánamo Bay and that Cuba be restricted in her power to treaties with foreign powers.   It was not until the ‘Platt Amendment’ was accepted that the U.S. handed over ‘power of government’ to Cuba.  This reflected the American view that the Cubans were unfit for self-government.  Shafter stated, ‘self-government!  Why, these people are no more fit for self-government than gun-powder is for hell’[79] and Platt remarked that ‘in many respects they are like children.’[80]  The government had essentially achieved the best of both worlds with the Amendment.  Whilst retaining fiscal and strategic advantages, they were released from the costs and duties which were attached to overseeing a colony.  The people of Cuba however, did not look upon the outcome so favourably.  In Havana, 15,000 Cubans held a torchlight demonstration, protesting against the adoption of the Amendment.  On this subject, General Leonard Wood, head of the occupation forces, reported to McKinley that, ‘the people of Cuba lend themselves readily to all sorts of demonstrations and parades, and little significance should be attached to them.’[81]

  McKinley, on deciding to take the Philippines, explained why he had come to this decision,

The truth is I didn’t want the Philippines…I thought first we would only take Manila; then Luzon, then other islands, perhaps, also….[I] prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night…one night late it came to me…there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilise and Christianise them…and do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died.[82]

Senator Albert Beveridge obviously did not hold the view of the Filipinos that, as fellow men, the American people must do their best by them.  Addressing Congress, he stated, ‘it has been charged that our conduct of the war has been cruel.  Senators, it has been the reverse…Senators must remember that we are not dealing with Americans or Europeans.  We are dealing with Orientals.’[83]

  When Emilio Aguinaldo declared independence for the Philippines and decreed a new government with himself as President, the American military or government said nothing.  Aguinaldo took this to mean that the Americans recognised his new government but in truth, they were unconcerned with this development.[84]  This would suggest that America already harboured intent towards the Philippines.  Writer Brooks Adams said of the islands, ‘rich, coal-bearing, and with fine harbours, [they] seem a predestined base for the United States in a conflict which probably is as inevitable as that with Spain.’[85]  When General Merritt set up a military government in Manila, Spain challenged the legality of this, stating that the taking of Manila had taken place after the signing of the peace protocol.  Whilst held up by precedent, McKinley rejected it, saying that the capture had happened before his General knew about the protocol and that the new government there ‘derived its authority to rule by right of conquest.’[86]  It would seem that President McKinley always had a rhetorical reply to hand.  Worried that the people now doubted America’s intentions in going to war, and so close to the mid-term elections, McKinley toured the Midwest in October.  Smith points out that the president stressed in speech after speech that ‘America had entered the war for humanitarian reasons and must do its ‘duty’ to help those people who had been liberated from Spanish tyranny.’[87]  It seems slightly odd however, that people who had already been liberated would need help.  In reference to the annexation of the Philippines, with expansionists on his side, McKinley had no need to make his own rhetorical claims.  They argued that the ‘Louisiana Purchase’ offered a precedent for taking control of a new area without needing consent of the governed.[88]  That Purchase also gave a precedent to the U.S. always offering money for new territory, even that acquired through conflict.[89]  As McKinley offered Spain $20 million for the Philippines, this had the effect of legitimising the taking of the islands in the government’s eyes.

  When the war ended, the U.S. government argued it had suffered the expense of war at the hands of the Spanish, and therefore held Spain financially responsible.  Since Spain was nearly bankrupt, the U.S. demanded Puerto Rico and Guam as financial compensation.  McKinley described this ‘offer’ as one of ‘signal generosity[90]  When General Miles arrived in the city of Ponce, Puerto Rico, he declared that the Americans had come to liberate the people and to give them ‘the advantages and blessings of civilisation.’[91]  When the islands’ discoverer, Ponce de Leon first spotted it, he exclaimed, ‘Ah, que puerto rico!’, meaning ‘What a rich port!’ and it seems likely that the Americans were probably more interested in this valuable asset than ‘blessing’ the island’s people with civilisation.

  Initially, the key rhetorical theme used by America to justify its conflict with Spain, appears to have been one of benevolent intervention.  But the ‘righter of wrongs’ quickly saw the advantages of expanding both its territory and global influence and so the rhetoric changed correspondingly to that of enlightened expansionism and natural destiny.  Indeed, all these themes continued, and still continue to inform American foreign policy rhetoric.  When robbed of rhetoric, the Spanish-American war seems nothing less than an audacious land-grab with little or no regard for the ‘liberated’ populations.  Similar pretexts and rhetoric accompanied the latest American adventure in Iraq and its population is still suffering the consequences.  Since it is now much easier to learn the truth about an international conflict such as this, with the sheer variety and complexity of media available today, and given the fact that there now exists a more educated and less gullible public, perhaps it will be more difficult in the future to rely solely on rhetorical talents and less than intelligent intelligence to mould the compliance of a nation.


    Kiernan, V.G.  America: The New Imperialism: From White Settlement To World Hegemony  (2nd edn., London: Zed Press, 1980.)

    Nichols, J., McChesney, R.W.  Tragedy and Farce: How The American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, And Destroy Democracy  (New York: The New Press, 2005.)

    Skidmore, T.E., Smith, P.H.  Modern Latin America  (4th edn., New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 1997.)

    Small, M.  Was War Necessary? National Security And U.S. Entry Into War  (London: Sage Publications, 1980.)

    Smith, J.  The Spanish – American War: Conflict in the Caribbean and the Pacific 1895-1902  (New York: Longman Publishing, 1994.) <; '>Stephanson, A.  Manifest Destiny: American Expansionism and the Empire of Right  (Canada: HarperCollins Candled, 1995.)

    Turner, F.J.  The Significance of the Frontier in American History  (Frontiers: The Mythology of the West, MCALA 1008)

    Waugh, A.  A Family of Islands: A history of the West Indies  (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964.)

    Zinn, H.  A People’s History Of The United States: 1492-Present  (3rd edn., Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2003.)

Internet Sources:

·        Baker, J.  Effects of the Press on Spanish-American Relations in 1898, [Online], Available from:, [Accessed 24/11/’06]

  • Kipling, R.  The White Man’s Burden, [Online], Available from:, [Accessed 25/11/’06 ]

·        McKinley, W.  War Message, [Online], Available from:, [Accessed 24/11/’06]

·        Zwick, J.  The White Man’s Burden’ and Its Critics, [Online], Available from:, [Accessed 25/11/’06]

  • The Monroe Doctrine, [Online], Available from:, [Accessed 25/11/’06]

·        The Platt Amendment, 1901, [Online], Available from:, [Accessed 24/11/’06]

[1] A. Stephanson, Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right (Canada: HarperCollins Canada Ltd, 1995), xii.

[2] Ibid., p.42.

[3] V.G Kiernan, America: The New Imperialism. From White Settlement To World Hegemony (2nd edn., London: Zed Press, 1980), 87.

[4] The Monroe Doctrine,,accessed 25/11/’06.

[5] A. Stephanson, Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right (Canada: HarperCollins Canada Ltd, 1995), 74.

[6] M. Small, Was War Necessary: National Security and U.S. Entry Into War (London: Sage Publications, 1980), 115.

[7] A. Waugh, A Family of Islands: A History of the West Indies (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964), 258.

[8] V.G Kiernan, America: The New Imperialism. From White Settlement To World Hegemony (2nd edn., London: Zed Press, 1980), 101.

[9] A. Stephanson, Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right (Canada: HarperCollins Canada Ltd, 1995), 93.

[10]Ibid., p107.

[11]Ibid., p.80.

[12] Ibid., p.81.

[13] Ibid., p.84.

[14] V.G Kiernan, America: The New Imperialism. From White Settlement To World Hegemony (2nd edn., London: Zed Press, 1980), 89.

[15] T.E Skidmore, P.H Smith, Modern Latin America (4th edn., New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1997), 365.

[16] M. Small, Was War Necessary: National Security and U.S. Entry Into War (London: Sage Publications, 1980), 115.

[17] J. Smith, The Spanish – American War: Conflict in the Caribbean and the Pacific, 1895-1902 (New York: Longman Publishing, 1994), 41/2.

[18] M. Small, Was War Necessary: National Security and U.S. Entry Into War (London: Sage Publications, 1980), 113.

[19] Ibid., p.131.

[20] A. Stephanson, Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right (Canada: HarperCollins Canada Ltd, 1995), 87.

[21] R. Kipling, The White Man’s Burden,, accessed 25/11/’06

[22]H. Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (3rd edn., Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2003), 300.

[23] A. Stephanson, Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right (Canada: HarperCollins Canada Ltd, 1995), 88.

[24] F. J Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (Frontiers: The Mythology of the West, MCALA 1008), 4.

[25] M. Small, Was War Necessary: National Security and U.S. Entry Into War (London: Sage Publications, 1980), 119.

[26] H. Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (3rd edn., Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2003), 299.

[27] V.G Kiernan, America: The New Imperialism. From White Settlement To World Hegemony (2nd edn., London: Zed Press, 1980), 81.

[28] Ibid., p.100.

[29] Ibid., p.86.

[30] Ibid., p.83.

[31] H. Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (3rd edn., Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2003), 304.

[32]M. Small, Was War Necessary: National Security and U.S. Entry Into War (London: Sage Publications, 1980), 120.

[33] V.G Kiernan, America: The New Imperialism. From White Settlement To World Hegemony (2nd edn., London: Zed Press, 1980), 101.

[34] H. Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (3rd edn., Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2003), 305.

[35] Ibid., p.304.

[36] Ibid., p.317.

[37] Ibid., p.314.

[38] J. Smith, The Spanish – American War: Conflict in the Caribbean and the Pacific, 1895-1902 (New York: Longman Publishing, 1994), 40.

[39] Ibid., p.40.

[40] M. Small, Was War Necessary: National Security and U.S. Entry Into War (London: Sage Publications, 1980), 134.

[41] J. Smith, The Spanish – American War: Conflict in the Caribbean and the Pacific, 1895-1902 (New York: Longman Publishing, 1994), 40.

[42] Ibid., p.45.

[43] M. Small, Was War Necessary: National Security and U.S. Entry Into War (London: Sage Publications, 1980), 135.

[44] Ibid., p.136.

[45] Ibid., p.136.

[46] Ibid., p.138.

[47] W. McKinley, War Message,,accessed 24/11/’06

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] J. Smith, The Spanish – American War: Conflict in the Caribbean and the Pacific, 1895-1902 (New York: Longman Publishing, 1994), 98.

[51] Ibid., p.101

[52] Ibid., p.103.

[53] Ibid., p.117.

[54] Ibid., p.114.

[55] Ibid., p.34.

[56] M. Small, Was War Necessary: National Security and U.S. Entry Into War (London: Sage Publications, 1980),  118.

[57] J. Nichols, R.W McChesney, Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy (New York: The New Press, 2005), 15.

[58] M. Small, Was War Necessary: National Security and U.S. Entry Into War (London: Sage Publications, 1980), 119.

[59]A. Waugh, A Family of Islands: A History of the West Indies (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964), 259.

[60] J. Baker, Effects of the Press on Spanish-American Relations in 1898,, accessed 24/11/’06.

[61] Ibid.

[62] M. Small, Was War Necessary: National Security and U.S. Entry Into War (London: Sage Publications, 1980), 143.

[63] H. Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (3rd edn., Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2003), 308.

[64] J. Smith, The Spanish – American War: Conflict in the Caribbean and the Pacific, 1895-1902 (New York: Longman Publishing, 1994), 212.

[65] Ibid., p.144.

[66] Ibid., p.140.

[67] Ibid., p.107.

[68] Ibid., p.213.

[69] Ibid., p.225.

[70] Ibid., p.187.

[71] Ibid., p.217.

[72] Ibid., p.224.

[73] J. Zwick, The White Man’s Burden’ and Its Critics,, accessed 25/11/’06.

[74] H. Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (3rd edn., Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2003), 316.

[75] J. Smith, The Spanish – American War: Conflict in the Caribbean and the Pacific, 1895-1902 (New York: Longman Publishing, 1994), 224. 

[76] H. Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (3rd edn., Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2003), 316.

[77] J. Smith, The Spanish – American War: Conflict in the Caribbean and the Pacific, 1895-1902 (New York: Longman Publishing, 1994), 45.

[78] The Platt Amendment, 1901,, accessed 24/11/’06.

[79] J. Smith, The Spanish – American War: Conflict in the Caribbean and the Pacific, 1895-1902 (New York: Longman Publishing, 1994), 218.

[80] Ibid., p.221.  

[81] H. Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (3rd edn., Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2003), 311.

[82] Ibid., p.313.

[83] Ibid., p.314.

[84] J. Smith, The Spanish – American War: Conflict in the Caribbean and the Pacific, 1895-1902 (New York: Longman Publishing, 1994), 179.

[85] Ibid., p.229.

[86] Ibid., p.195.

[87] Ibid., p.198.

[88] Ibid., p.203.

[89] A. Stephanson, Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right (Canada: HarperCollins Canada Ltd, 1995), 23.

[90] J. Smith, The Spanish – American War: Conflict in the Caribbean and the Pacific, 1895-1902 (New York: Longman Publishing, 1994), 191.

[91] Ibid., p.173.

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