Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Splendid Little War

This week we Americans will be celebrating the anniversary of the day the Continental Congress ratified the Declaration of Independence. Between picnics and fireworks many will also be remembering the terrible and costly battles that occurred over a three-day stretch in 1863 at Gettysburg.

A significant turn in another lesser known war took place between July 1 and 4 in 1898.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 is occurring as a background to my novel, Sooner Than Gold. Though the characters are not directly involved in the war it does affect their lives and intrude on their thoughts.

For this reason, I took a closer look than I ever had in the past at this conflict. It was another of those politically- and industrially-motivated wars which could have been avoided. The fact we entered it because of propaganda spouted by some with selfish and/or profit motivations does not diminish the bravery and patriotism of men (and women) willing to sacrifice all for their country. In all wars it is most often the bravest and most honorable who decline to speak later of their experiences.

What Teddy Roosevelt dubbed a “splendid little war” was promoted initially as a means of supporting the Cuban struggle for independence from Spain. Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst drummed up public support for intervention. While their motives may have been sincere it didn’t hurt that the public clamor for information spurred newspaper sales as nothing had in the preceding months. It’s also worth noting the U.S. had important economic interests made uncertain by continued conflict between Spain and Cuba.

President William McKinley sought to broker a peaceful settlement. That effort was scuttled when an explosion rocked the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, killing 266 U.S. sailors. Though the exact cause of the explosion has never been determined, Spain was held to blame and the nation went to war.

On July 1, 1898 a combined American force of 15,000 infantry and cavalry troops launched an offensive that, along with a naval operation by the U.S. fleet, effectively doomed Spain’s hope of holding onto its colonies. There were setbacks, including a crippling outbreak of Yellow Fever, but the war was over by August 12, 1898.

A highlight of that July offensive was the taking of San Juan Hill by Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. Credit is due Teddy and his bully boys. What isn’t acknowledged often enough is that they might not have made the crest had they not had the support of all four of the U.S. Army’s “colored” regiments and a force of rebel Cubans.

As to the aftermath of the war, the U.S. Congress promised Cuba independence but added an amendment which prohibited the island from signing treaties with other nations or contracting a public debt. The amendment also provided for the establishment of a permanent American naval base in Cuba. You may have heard of it. It’s called Guantanamo. The U.S. also annexed the Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. For the first time in history, the United States became an imperial power with colonies.