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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.”1 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 and enabled it to join the club of the other World Powers.

None of the other parts of the war compared with the struggle in the Philippines in duration and casualties. The naval battles in both the Philippines and Cuba were very similar—they were hardly battles. Commodore George Dewey’s famous victory on May 1, 1898, was more like target practice than war—the entire Spanish fleet in Manila Bay was destroyed in about six hours; not a single American ship was seriously hit; only seven Americans were slightly wounded.2 In the naval battle outside Santiago de Cuba, every Spanish ship was sunk and only one American was killed.3

But the land battles in both countries differed. In Cuba, it took about three weeks to capture Santiago de Cuba on the eastern end of the island, after which Spain decided to quit. In the Philippines, Dewey did not have ground troops; the first contingent did not arrive on the scene for about two months. Meanwhile, Filipino forces under the rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo had surrounded the capital, Manila.

The Cubans were totally excluded from the surrender of Santiago de Cuba and were not even permitted to enter the city, though they had been opposing Spanish rule for decades. The first Cuban rebellion against Spain lasted for ten years, from 1868 to 1878, during which the United States did nothing to help the Cubans. A second revolt broke out in 1895 and lasted until the United States entered the war three years later. The Cuban insurgents gave the Americans critical assistance in making their landings, protecting their flanks, and providing intelligence. But after Spain gave up, the municipal administration of Santiago was left in the hands of the incumbent Spanish office-holders. In the Philippines, a comic-opera surrender of Manila was arranged. The Spanish authorities were willing to submit but not to the Filipinos. In secret negotiations with the Americans, the Spaniards agreed to capitulate if the Americans made a token bombardment of one of their forts, after which they immediately raised a white flag. Spanish honor saved, the Americans took over Manila without a shot fired. Here again, the Philippine forces were not permitted to take part in the surrender.

In Cuba, 243 American officers and enlisted men were killed in action. 4 In the Philippines, US losses have been put at 4,464 dead and 2,818 wounded, and thousands of Americans later succumbed to diseases contracted in the islands.5 I have not been able to find comprehensive estimates of Philippine losses, which must have been far greater than the American losses. In one Philippine province alone, Batangas, the losses were so great that the population fell from 332,456 in 1896 to 241,721 in 1902—a decline of more than 90,000, some of it caused by a cholera epidemic, of which an American historian has said, “One can hardly deny that it had an intimate connection to the Philippine-American War.”6

The war in the Philippines continued long after the Spanish surrender in Cuba. After a minor incident, war broke out between the American and Filipino forces demanding independence on February 4, 1899. It continued for almost three years as the result of a campaign of “pacification” that was not splendid and not little. The war in the Philippines was a dirty war, by far the dirtiest ever fought by the United States until the Vietnam War.7

Pérez makes a few passing references to the war in the Philippines, but they are hardly enough in a book entitled The War of 1898. That war started in both the Philippines and Cuba in 1898, but it did not end in 1898 even in Cuba, as Pérez himself implies by extending his treatment as far as the Platt Amendment of 1901, which provided for a US military base at Guantánamo, east of Santiago, allowed for US intervention in Cuban affairs, and in effect made the island an American protectorate.

Thus readers who expect a broad view of the war will be disappointed. This book might better have been entitled The Cuban-American War of 1898, because that is really his subject. The problem in the book as a whole is that he oversimplifies and propagandizes.

In The War of 1898 Pérez is hardly interested in the war itself. His subtitle, The United States and Cuba in History and Historiography, is far more revealing. He is almost entirely concerned with US policy vis-à-vis Cuba and how US historians have treated—or mistreated—it. He takes on virtually all of them, often as if he were a prosecuting attorney. His book contains long strings of quotations from US historians, ostensibly showing that they were always biased against the Cubans and always wrong. They were not sometimes wrong or most often wrong; they were always wrong, and they were always biased against the Cuban side.

He cites so many historians from so many different periods that one could hardly check up on all of them. But sometimes a generalization caught my attention, and I decided to see what there was in it. For example, he charges that “in the main historians have routinely propounded the fiction that the pledge of ‘independence’ had been fulfilled, apparently unmindful of or indifferent to the ways that the Platt Amendment negated the project of Cuba Libre.” It is not clear who these historians are but I checked up on two historians whom Pérez himself cites in different contexts.

G.J.A. O’Toole wrote about the Platt Amendment: “Thus Cuba had become an American client state.”8 David F. Healy states: “The passage of the Platt Amendment and the discussion attendant upon it had supplied a precedent, a technique, and a rhetorical defense mechanism for a general American policy of intervention.”9 I have not been able to find a single historian who was “unmindful or indifferent to the restrictions of the Platt Amendment on Cuban independence.”

In fact, in his previous book, published in 1983, Cuba Between Empires, 1878-1902, Pérez himself said that the Platt Amendment “proved instrumental in preserving Cuban independence” and “in the short run, blocked the surge of postwar annexationist sentiment.”10 If anyone was “indifferent or unmindful” of the negative effects of the Platt Amendment on Cuban independence, it was Pérez.

Or we may take his third chapter, which he calls “Meaning of the Maine.” He claims that three generations of historians have made the explosion of the battleship Maine in the harbor of Havana on February 15, 1898, the “principal cause of war.” It is of course true that sensational reports of the explosion in the American press and the indignant reaction of American politicians and the public have often been cited as among the events that led to the war. Pérez first challenges the credibility of this causation on the ground that it—and other aspects of the war—lack “adequate verification.” It is not clear how the popular repercussions of an event in 1898 could be “verified” or what Pérez would accept as verification. Some of the historians cited by Pérez came close to making the destruction of the Maine the “principal explanation of 1898,” but he also admits that historical opinion differs “on whether it was one of many causes or chief among all, whether it precluded an obtainable peace or merely accelerated an inevitable war.” His own historical citations show that there has been no single interpretation of the effect of the Maine on American public opinion and that, as usual, historians have differed on the question.

But what is most noteworthy about Pérez’s treatment is his own avoidance of an opinion. Did the explosion of the Maine have any effect on American public opinion and hasten the war? Nowhere does Pérez give his own opinion on the subject: he leaves readers with an oversupply of other historians’ opinions without making them any wiser about the issue. Did the fate of the Maine have any effect on the coming of the war? On this point, Pérez gives no clue. He seems to question the role of public opinion in bringing on the war in order to make President William McKinley personally responsible for the American intervention.

According to Pérez, McKinley hastened into the war for a reason that had nothing to do with the Maine. Again Pérez trots out historians who have given different explanations for McKinley’s policy. But now Pérez offers his own theory of what moved McKinley to intervene in the war—“the imminence of a Cuban triumph.” McKinley allegedly feared that the Cuban liberation movement was about to take power and prevent the United States from replacing Spain in Cuba. This is the leitmotif of his entire book and goes far beyond his vendetta against American historians and historiography, who are mainly used as whipping boys for the policies of the American government.

McKinley has puzzled American historians for the better part of a century. He played his political cards close to his vest and left few clues to the development of his thinking. He had been, before his presidency, a run-of-the-mill Ohio politician with little apparent interest in foreign affairs. Pérez claims that a Cuban victory over the Spaniards was so “imminent” that McKinley could not wait to get into the war against Spain. Yet Pérez himself cites General Máximo Gómez, the Cuban commander, as saying early in 1898: “This war cannot last more than a year.” If so, McKinley could have waited as much as another year to beat the Cubans to the punch. In fact, there is no telling whether or when the Cubans might have won by themselves. Yet McKinley’s entire motivation, according to The War of 1898, was to prevent an imminent Cuban victory by rushing the United States into the war against Spain.

In his 1983 book, Cuba Between Empires, Pérez told a somewhat different story. The destruction of the Maine, he there wrote, “produced a national outcry demanding action.” McKinley wanted the Cubans to agree to an armistice, which the Cubans refused. Pérez refers to an “anticipated Cuban victory,” but does not make it McKinley’s main motivation. He emphasizes that McKinley was driven to act primarily by congressional pressure for war. “In early April, the White House recognized that it could no longer stem the congressional tide.” Pérez even cites McKinley’s lamentation for the war against Spain, as recalled by James Boyle, McKinley’s private secretary: “The declaration of war against Spain was an act which had been and will always be the greatest grief of my life. I never wanted to go to war with Spain. Had I been let alone, I could have prevented the war. All I wanted was more time.”

This is not the McKinley whom a reader would recognize from The War of 1898. There we get a one-dimensional McKinley bent only on preventing the Cubans from defeating the Spaniards. In effect, Pérez has narrowed down a complex subject to a single factor. He has created a cartoon McKinley who enables him to accuse the United States of having waged an imperialist war in the guise of humanitarian aims and lofty ideals.

For this purpose, the war in the Philippines would have served far better than the war in Cuba. The Philippines were made a colony and Cuba was not. Pérez writes that the disposition of Cuba after the war was a case of “territorial expansion” and “territorial aggrandizement.” Yet the United States did not expand its territory in Cuba but rather gave it a form of limited self-government, as defined by the Platt Amendment. It is one thing to point out that this halfway house was far from Cuban independence; it is another thing to make it “territorial expansion” of the United States. As one of the Cuban civilian representatives, Manuel Sanguily, cited by Pérez, saw, the choice was between limited sovereignty or none at all. The Cubans chose limited sovereignty, but Pérez makes it appear as if it were no sovereignty at all. This choice was never offered to the Philippines. It was a major reason why the Cubans did not fight the United States and the Filipinos did.

Pérez writes as a Cuban liberationist refighting the war of 1898. His concluding pages fervently praise Fidel Castro for bringing into the light the wrongs of 1898. “The importance of 1898 in Cuba was heightened by the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959,” he says. “It is difficult to imagine that these issues would have assumed such salience had it not been for Fidel Castro.” Some of Pérez’s views in his latest book resemble Castro’s propaganda. Anyone who can regard the treatment of Cuba after the war of 1898 simply as “territorial expansion” by the United States, as if Cuba had been annexed to the United States, is writing more as a propagandist than as a historian. 11

Nevertheless, Pérez has hit on the soft underbelly of US policy in 1898, which US historians have often tended to repress. In the Teller Amendment to the Congressional Joint Resolution which legitimated the war and which President McKinley accepted, it was stated that “the people of the Island of Cuba are, and of right ought to be, free and independent” and that “the United States hereby disclaims any disposition or intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over said island except for the pacification thereof, and asserts its determination, when that is accomplished, to leave the government and control of the island to its people.” One word, “pacification,” gave the United States the pretext to delay carrying out the rest of this self-denying ordinance. The United States did not nominally make Cuba “free and independent” until 1934. Pérez makes his strongest case against the United States in the way this pledge of 1898 was ignored and betrayed.

The Spanish-Cuban-Philippine-American War is our least understood war. It still awaits a broad, four-sided treatment. The Spanish-American War was only a prelude to the other two parts of the war, which our historians are still struggling to assimilate. In the entire spectrum of the war, the role of Spain was secondary. Its war with the United States was sometimes farcical, because the Spaniards knew in advance that they were beaten, whereas the other two parts were demeaning to the United States and destructive of Cuban and Philippine aspirations.

In its own time, the “Spanish-American War” was inflated to make Americans proud and imperial-minded. Since then, US historians have deflated it, and some have treated it with derision and contempt. Yet it marked a turning point in American history, because it gave the United States the first illusion of being a World Power, a status that did not come to fruition until after World War II. Despite the recent centennial year, we are still without a comprehensive history of the entire war. Perhaps we will get one by the time of the next centennial.

  1. 1

    William L. Langer, The Diplomacy of Imperialism, 1890-1902 (1935; Knopf, 1968), p. 79.

  2. 2

    George Dewey, Autobiography of George Dewey (Scribner, 1913), p. 220.

  3. 3

    Winfield Scott Schley, Forty-Five Years Under the Flag (Appleton, 1904), pp. 312, 319. Admiral Schley commanded the US fleet.

  4. 4

    Graham A. Cosmas, An Army for Empire: The United States Army in the Spanish-American War (Texas A&M University Press, 1994) p. 232.

  5. 5

    Stanley Karnow, In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines (Random House, 1989), p. 194.

  6. 6

    Glenn Anthony May, Battle for Batangas: A Philippine Province at War (Yale University Press, 1991), pp. 274, 283.

  7. 7

    Readers with strong stomachs can read about this campaign in Stuart Creighton Miller, Benevolent Assimilation: The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899-1903 (Yale University Press, 1982). A study of a single province by Glenn Anthony May, Battle for Batangas, is ostensibly less gruesome, but see pp. 142-162, 256-267.

  8. 8

    G.J.A. O’Toole, The Spanish War: An American Epic—1898 (Norton, 1984), p. 399.

  9. 9

    David F. Healy, The United States in Cuba (University of Wisconsin Press, 1963), p. 213.

  10. 10

    University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983, p. 384.

  11. 11

    One wonders what the Cubans of 1898 would have made of Castro’s Cuba. Pérez lists Professor Herminio Portell Vilá among four older Cuban historians who dedicated themselves to challenging US historiography. I knew Portell Vilá in the 1960s; he was a refugee in the United States from Castro’s Cuba, which he despised.

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