The Four-Sided War

If ever a war was misnamed, it was the Spanish-American War. The name implies that only Spain and the United States fought in the war of 1898. It suggests that Spain was the only loser and the United States the only victor. Nothing could be further from the truth. Spain, which had long counted Cuba and the Philippines in its empire, was easily defeated, but the United States did not win the war by itself and fought most of the war against an antagonist that was not Spain.

In fact, there were four, not two, sides to this war. It was not merely a Spanish-American war; it was also a Spanish-Cuban-American war and a Spanish-Philippine-American war. To leave out Cuba and the Philippines from the name of the war is to leave out the Cubans and Filipinos who were fighting Spain before the United States entered the war and without whom the United States would not have scored such an easy victory.

We still do not have a work which does justice to the four sides of this war. Most of the existing literature on the war deals with the Spanish and American sides, with the rest either on the Cuban and American sides or the Philippine and American sides. Professor Louis A. Pérez of the University of North Carolina is an old hand at presenting the Cuban side, which he has again done in The War of 1898. This time, however, he gives a reason for favoring Cuba and invites us to look at the war as a whole.

Pérez maintains that Cuba “mattered most and, indeed, [was] what the war was mostly about.” For this reason, he feels justified in making his book “principally about one aspect of 1898: the complex relationship between Cuba and the United States.” No doubt the war owed its origin to the struggle in Cuba. In the pre-war period, the Philippines were so far away and so little known that they might have existed on a different planet. But it is not so clear that Cuba defined the ultimate nature of the war. To its chief American supporters, the war was principally important because it made the United States into a “World Power,” a term that had recently come from Germany, where it was more at home in the form of Weltmacht. The conquest of the Philippines, not Cuba, made the United States into a World Power. The Philippines accomplished this feat precisely because they were turned into a colony, not a protectorate as was the case with Cuba. This was the golden age of Western imperialism, for which colonies were indispensable. The most marked characteristic of the age, as one of its foremost historians put it, was “a break-neck race for territory.” Between 1884 and 1900, three and a half million acres were added to the British Empire. Americans were not immune to this European craze for other people’s territory, mainly in Africa. The Philippines suited the new US imperialism …

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