Notes on The Spanish American War


Color It Yellow


Strange as it may seem, the birth of U.S. imperialism was related to a newspaper comic. In 1895, Richard Felton Outcault, a cartoonist for the New York World, introduced a single panel comic that featured as its main character a slum child costumed in a garment that was tinted yellow by a brand-new color process, of which the paper was very proud. The World's publisher, Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), was delighted with "The Yellow Kid of Hogan's Alley," the popularity of which allowed him to close the gap in his circulation race with The New York Journal, published by rival news magnate William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951). Not to be outdone, Hearst lured Outcault to the ranks of the Journal, whereupon Pulitzer hired George Luks (who would go on to become a major American painter) to continue the original comic as simply "The Yellow Kid."

The battle over the comic was but one episode in an ongoing, high-stakes circulation war between Pulitzer and Hearst, both of whom were intent on building great publishing empires. The papers continually strove with one another to publish sensational news stories that

would attract readers. But it was the yellow ink of the slum kid comics that gave this style of newspaper publishing its name when newspaperman Ervin Wardman made reference to the "yellow press of New York."


"I’ll Furnish the War... “


Sometimes the quest for sensational news led the likes of Pulitzer and Hearst to publish muckraker material that exposed social injustice, corruption, and public fraud. Indeed, for all its faults, the age of yellow journalism contributed greatly to the cause of reform and introduced onto the American scene the tradition of the crusading journalist. But, noble motives aside, the circulation war kept escalating. Both Hearst and Pulitzer, hoping to bag the Big Story, dispatched reporters to cover a developing situation in Cuba, a colony of Spain that was a mere 90 miles off the Florida coast. At considerable expense, Hearst hired the great painter of life in the American West, Frederic Remington (1861-1909), and dispatched him to Cuba. When combat failed to materialize, Remington cabled Hearst: "Everything quiet. There is no trouble. There will be no war. I wish to return." The newspaper tycoon cabled in reply: "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war."

It was true that Cuban hostilities were slow to brew. The island had long been rebellious, and in February 1896, Spain sent General Valeriano Weyler (dubbed "Butcher Weyler" by Hearst) as governor. He created outrage not only in Cuba, but in the United States, when he summarily placed into "reconcentration camps" Cubans identified as sympathizing with or supporting the rebels. Although both President McKinley and his predecessor, Grover Cleveland, stoutly resisted intervening in Cuba, U.S. popular sentiment, whipped up by atrocity stories published in the papers of Pulitzer and Hearst, at last moved McKinley to order the battleship Maine into Havana Harbor to protect American citizens and property there.

Remember the Maine!

The temperature of America's war fever was not raised by sentiment alone. United States companies had made major investments in the island, especially in sugar plantations. Not only did revolution threaten those investments, but, to put the situation in more positive terms, a pliant puppet "independent" government in Cuba (or better yet, a Cuba annexed to the United States) would be very good for business. On February 9, Hearst scored a journalistic coup by publishing a purloined private letter in which the Spanish minister to the United States insulted President McKinley. Having for so long avoided "foreign entanglements," America was now propelled to the brink of war.

On February 15, 1898, the nation held hands and leaped over that brink. An explosion rocked Havana Harbor, and the U.S.S. Maine blew up, killing 266 crewmen. The Hearst and Pulitzer papers vied with one another to affix blame on Spain, and cries of "Remember the hell with Spain!" echoed throughout the nation.

President McKinley, himself still reluctant, waited until April to ask Congress to authorize an invasion of Cuba. Congress not only complied but voted a resolution recognizing Cuban independence from Spain. In response, Spain declared war on the United States on April 24. However, the first action took place in the Spanish-occupied Philippine Islands, not Cuba. U.S. Admiral George Dewey (1837-1917) sailed the Asiatic Squadron from

Hong Kong to Manila Bay, where, on May 1, he attacked the Spanish fleet, sinking al110 ships in the bay. This action was followed by a landing of 11,000 U.S. troops, who, acting in concert with the guerrilla forces of Filipino rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo, quickly defeated the Spanish army in the islands. In July, Spanish Guam also fell, and the U.S. gathered up previously unclaimed Wake Island. Most importantly, Congress passed a resolution annexing Hawaii.

Action on Cuba was equally swift and decisive. On May 29, the U.S. fleet blockaded the Spanish fleet at Santiago Harbor, and in June, 17,000 U.S. troops landed at Daiquiri and assaulted Santiago. The war's make-or-break land battle, at San Juan Hill on July 1, included a magnificent charge by the volunteer Rough Riders, led by Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt. In the meantime, Admiral Pasqual Cervera sailed into the harbor of Santiago de Cuba, where he was blockaded by the U.S. fleet. On July 3, after the U.S. victory at San Juan Hill, Cervera decided to run the blockade. Within four hours, his fleet was almost completely destroyed. The battle claimed 474 Spanish sailors and only two U.S. sailors. On July 17,24,000 Spanish troops surrendered, and Madrid sued for peace nine days later. U.S. Secretary of State John Hay (1838-1905) summed it all up by dubbing the ten-week conflict a "splendid little war."

Spain withdrew from Cuba and ceded to the United States Puerto Rico and Guam; it sold the Philippines to the U.S. for $20 million. The U.S. established a territorial government in Puerto Rico but temporized on Cuba, first establishing a military government there and then allowing Cuba to draft its own constitution, albeit with U.S. supervision and with provisos. The provisos included the right to establish American military bases on the island and to intervene in Cuban affairs "in order to preserve [Cuban] independence." Until the revolution spearheaded by Fidel Castro in 1959, Cuba would exist as the often less than willing puppet of the United States.

Theodore Roosevelt, who assumed office after the September 5, 1901, assassination of McKinley and who was subsequently elected to a presidential term in his own right, promulgated the so-called “Roosevelt Corollary" to the Monroe Doctrine. In effect, this policy made the United States a kind of international police force in the Western Hemi- sphere. The policy was a major step toward establishing the nation as a world power.