U.S. Secretary of State John Hay called the Spanish-American War of 1898 a “splendid little war.” Superficially, the description seemed apt. After the battleship Maine mysteriously exploded in Havana Harbor — an incident then blamed on Spain — America went to war, our citizens urged to free Cuba from Spanish rule as well as avenge the Maine. Largely a naval war, an American squadron under Commodore George Dewey destroyed the Spanish squadron at Manila; likewise, the U.S. Navy crushed Spain’s Caribbean squadron off Cuba’s port of Santiago. In each engagement, the United States suffered only one fatality. Things went tougher for American troops in Cuba, where malaria and yellow fever proved as daunting as Spanish bullets. But American schoolchildren would thereafter thrill to tales of Teddy Roosevelt and his “Rough Riders,” and of the famed charge up San Juan Hill. Defeated on land and sea, Spain sued for peace. The war lasted less than four months; our fighting forces distinguished themselves with valor; and the United States, acquiring territory from Puerto Rico to the Philippines, emerged as a “world power.”
However, behind victory’s fervor lay deceptions, and principles of the Founding Fathers were discarded, portending future misery for Americans.
Cuba: Background to a Battleground
In the late 19th century, citizens were increasingly alarmed that monopolistic New York banking interests — represented by such names as Morgan, Rockefeller, Harriman, Carnegie, and Rothschild — were gaining a stranglehold on our economy. This helped inspire the 1891 establishment of the Populist Party, a grassroots movement of dissatisfied voters who perceived increasingly fewer differences between the Democratic and Republican parties, many of whose bosses were beholden to the bankers.
The Wall Street cabal realized that to thwart populism, it would be expedient to remove attention from themselves by inflaming Americans with hatred of another enemy. The enemy chosen was Spain, over the issue of Cuba. The reasons for this choice were as complex as they were sinister.
Spain was Europe’s leading colonial power in the 16th and 17th centuries, occupying much of North and South America. Through treaties and local revolutions, Spain lost much of this territory by the 19th century, but still retained a few possessions — notably Cuba, the world’s wealthiest colony and largest sugar producer by the 1820s.
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