On December 10, 1898, the US humbled the old-world empire of Spain. Following thorough defeats in Cuba and the Philippines, Madrid signed a peace treaty surrendering those two territories, along with Puerto Rico and Guam. At a stroke, the new world republic had become a saltwater empire.
The outcome seemed preordained. America’s ambassador to Great Britain, John Hay, called the conflict “a splendid little war.” But in truth, it was a terrible mistake.
The US had long acted aggressively on the North American continent. Native Americans were largely wiped out as mostly ethnic Europeans, ultimately followed by enslaved black Africans, moved west. British, French, and Spanish enclaves were absorbed. Half of Mexico was annexed.
But in terms of the world beyond, Americans followed George Washington’s admonition to avoid foreign entanglements, especially permanent attachments or antagonisms. The Monroe Doctrine was an attempt to exclude those endless quarrels from the US. The system promoted American exceptionalism, though it was admittedly harsh toward anyone on the continent competing for the same territory.
Empire over Liberty
However, there were Americans who preferred empire to liberty. They were the saltwater imperialists, like Indiana Sen. Albert Beveridge, a noted progressive—a leader of a movement filled with social engineers determined to destroy the old constitutional order. Humility was not his strong suit: He claimed God “has made us the master organizers of the world…to overwhelm the forces of reaction throughout the earth.” Doing so is America’s “divine mission,” he added. “We are trustees of the world’s progress, guardians of its righteous peace.”
In the case of Spain, this meant transferring, not freeing, its colonial possessions. The proximate cause of the war was Cuba. The sinking of the warship Maine on a visit to Cuba, which American jingoists blamed on Spain, greatly increased tensions. Of course, Madrid had no reason to furnish Washington with a casus belli. The ship shouldn’t have been there: Sending the vessel was a gross provocation. It most likely sank due to spontaneous combustion in the coal bunker.
The most important cause of the war was an uprising by the Cuban people against their Spanish rulers, creating a sympathetic cause exploited with great effect by America’s Yellow Press, especially those owned by press barons William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. The Spanish government responded brutally, but the newspapers did not stop with the truth, turning fake news into an art form.
Public figures such as Teddy Roosevelt, who spent much of his life promoting war, piously clamored for US intervention. Even he acknowledged the existence of interests in Cuban sugar and tobacco production, as well as the use of the island to support what became the Panama Canal. However, he emphasized “the standpoint of humanity.”
Yet American complaints about Spanish conduct mixed sanctimony with hypocrisy. The US Army and irregular forces rarely hesitated to kill Native American women and children; US atrocities against civilians were common in the Mexican-American War; Generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Phil Sheridan avidly visited the horrors of war upon Southern civilians. Moreover, the prospect of US involvement caused the Cuban rebels to reject conciliatory offers from a new, more liberal Spanish government. They believed, rightly, that Washington would give them all they wanted.
The Real Target
Moreover, since Cuba was the conflict’s cause, then only that island should have been the target of the war. However, the real target of Beveridge and his fellow imperialists was the Philippines. For decades American business dreamed of the illimitable markets of China, imagining great riches flowing from selling products to hundreds of millions of Chinese. (How little some things changed over the following century.) The Philippine archipelago would be the perfect way station for American business and military. Never mind that it was occupied by Filipinos who were not looking for a new set of overseers.
American and Philippine forces cooperated in the capture of Manila, after which the former refused to allow the latter to enter the city. Insurgent leader and self-proclaimed President Emilio Aguinaldo claimed US officials had promised official recognition, which they denied. Alas, American imperialists intended to rule. Beveridge, for one, declared:
The Philippines are ours forever. They are not capable of self-government. How could they be? They are not a self-governing race.
Welcome to the new imperium.
President William McKinley attempted to be slightly more conciliatory, issuing a proclamation telling Filipinos they would be expected to love their new rulers.
It should be the earnest wish and paramount aim of the military administration to win the confidence, respect, and affection of the inhabitants of the Philippines by assuring them in every possible way that full measure of individual rights and liberties which is the heritage of free peoples, and by proving to them that the mission of the United States is one of benevolent assimilation substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule.
Filipinos had been resisting Spanish rule for years and were not inclined to accept new taskmasters. As relations deteriorated, Aguinaldo responded to McKinley.
My government cannot remain indifferent in view of such a violent and aggressive seizure of a portion of its territory by a nation which arrogated to itself the title of champion of oppressed nations. Thus it is that my government is disposed to open hostilities if the American troops attempt to take forcible possession of the Visayan islands. I denounced these acts before the world, in order that the conscience of mankind may pronounce its infallible verdict as to who are true oppressors of nations and the tormentors of mankind.
Roosevelt’s “standpoint of humanity” was a fraud. Stuart Creighton Miller of San Francisco State University applied lipstick to the proverbial pig when he wrote that
Americans altruistically went to war … to protect the Filipinos from European predators waiting in the wings for an American withdrawal and to tutor them in American-style democracy.
In fact, the imperialists cared more about the islands than the peoples on them. What if the territory fell under another nation’s influence? How then to help sell US products in China? Alas, Filipinos didn’t want Washington’s assistance, and many died resisting it.
"I Wish You to Kill and Burn"
Victory did not come easily for Washington. Fighting erupted on February 4, 1899, turning into a full-scale insurgency. Led by Aguinaldo, these early freedom-fighters eventually numbered upwards of 100,000, backed by thousands more ill-armed auxiliaries. America’s occupiers eventually resorted to the same sort of cruel tactics the Spanish had employed, rounding up and concentrating residents to dry up support for the insurgents. “What is that but the policy of Spain to her dependencies?” asked social scientist William Graham Sumner.
Uneasy soldiers wrote letters home about the frequent mistreatment of locals and the commission of war crimes. Some combatants compared the tactics to those used against Native Americans. In response to a local massacre, Gen. Jacob H. Smith, who was later court-martialed, ordered:
I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me. I want all persons killed who are capable of bearing arms in actual hostilities against the United States.
The military did its best to suppress the ugly truth. Commanders denied reporters access to insurgent-held territory, attempted to isolate Red Cross representatives, and forced subordinates to recant stories of common brutality. Soldiers who refused to sign a retraction were court-martialed.
Nevertheless, the truth got out. The Philadelphia Ledger reported:
The present war is no bloodless, opera bouffe engagement; our men have been relentless, have killed to exterminate men, women, children, prisoners and captives, active insurgents and suspected people from lads of ten up, the idea prevailing that the Filipino as such was little better than a dog.
Killing those seeking self-government embarrassed diplomats inclined to preach the virtues of the American Revolution and its principles of self-government abroad.
The conflict lasted some three and a half years. Ironically, the fighting officially ended on July 2, 1902, just before Independence Day. Americans ended the Philippines’ hopes for independence as they celebrated their own historic victory against colonialism. In fact, sporadic combat continued for at least another decade. And some of the islands—such as the Moros, where Abu Sayyaf and other radical Islamic groups are active today—were never fully pacified.
The cost was high. Some 4,200 US soldiers died denying the Philippines what an earlier generation of Americans had demanded of the British. Around 20,000 Filipino combatants and 34,000 civilians were killed. At least 200,000 Filipinos—and perhaps as many as a million—died as a consequence of the war, mostly from disease and famine. (The consequences and casualties eerily track with the result of the invasion of Iraq.) All this to extend US naval power and enrich businesses intent on exporting to China.
In 1946, after the end of World War II, the US granted the archipelago its independence. Since then, the Philippines has been closely tied to America, though historic antagonisms occasionally burst forth, as under President Rodrigo Duterte.
The turn toward militaristic colonialism spawned a diverse, vibrant, anti-imperialistic movement. Author Mark Twain, industrialist Andrew Carnegie, and politician William Jennings Bryan all united in opposition to what became known as the Philippine-American War. “I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess,” Twain wrote.
Sumner, a classical liberal teaching at Yale, wrote a famous essay, “The Conquest of the United States by Spain.” By taking Madrid’s place, America had adopted Madrid’s values, as well. He explained:
We have beaten Spain in a military conflict, but we are submitting to be conquered by her on the field of ideas and policies. Expansionism and imperialism are nothing but the old philosophies of national prosperity which have brought Spain to where she is now. Those philosophies appeal to national vanity and cupidity. They are seductive, especially upon the first view and the most superficial judgment, and therefore it cannot be denied that they are very strong for popular effect. They are delusions, and they will lead us to ruin unless we are hardheaded enough to resist them.
The impact of this new approach, he warned, would be far-reaching. He warned:
The doctrine that we are to take away from other nations any possessions of theirs which we think that we could manage better than they are managing them, or that we are to take in hand any countries which we do not think capable of self-government, is one which will lead us very far. With that doctrine in the background, our politicians will have no trouble to find a war ready for us the next time that they come around to the point where they think that it is time for us to have another. We are told that we must have a big army hereafter. What for, unless we propose to do again by and by what we have just done?
And do it again and again.
The Spanish-American War was a giant step into a dramatic new world. The US formally became an overseas, saltwater imperialist power. Americans would kill foreigners who resisted Washington’s rule. However, that was only the beginning.Arrogant, sanctimonious, megalomaniacal Woodrow Wilson sought to remake not just one country but the entire world and took the US into the European killfest known as World War I. America had nothing at stake to warrant joining the conflict between contending imperialist blocs. Worse, by radically unbalancing the continent’s power equation, Washington made possible an even worse war a generation later.
The result was to leave the US as the only force capable of containing the Soviet Union in the lengthy Cold War, which sometimes turned blazingly hot, as in Korea and Vietnam. But that time is long over. Now Washington needs to finally relinquish its assumed responsibility for attempting to fix most every global problem.
President Donald Trump has inveighed against endless wars and spoken of putting America first. This is his chance to overturn the legacy of the Spanish-American War as he establishes his own. Rather than Albert Beveridge, John Quincy Adams, secretary of state and then president, should be our guide.
To those who clamored to intervene in foreign wars, he responded,
Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.
That is wise counsel for today.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.