There is a debate amongst historians regarding the moment as to when America became a world power. When did this vast country emerge from a position of isolationist continental force to become a significant player on the global stage? The 1898 Spanish-American War is a clear candidate for that very moment; when the young United States of America flexed its muscles and when the world took notice.
But why did the USA come to fight the Spanish in 1898? Like most wars, the origins lie in the turmoil of the Latin America. Many countries were asserting their independence against the old colonial regimes – such as the Spanish – and looked for help from the mother of all democratic independence movements: the United States. Places such as Cuba saw a rise in nationalist movements to throw off the imperial yoke of the Spanish, and this followed a similar pattern seen throughout the New World in the 19th Century: the ending of European empires and the rise of new nation states.
America became involved for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, there was the principle of the Monroe Doctrine; declared decades earlier, it warned off nations of the Old World – principally Britain – from the Americas. Secondly, the American press whipped up public opinion against the horrors of the barbaric and oppressive Spaniards. Thirdly, the Americans had massively expanded since the Civil War of the 1860s; by the 1890s the West had been declared populated, thereby ending one stage – of Manifest Destiny – in their history. America was ready to flex their military muscles on the world stage. The crumbling Spanish empire was a fitting target.
The spark of intervention came in the form of the sinking of the American battleship Maine in Havana harbour. Supported by the jingoism of the popular yellow press, the Americans declared war (headed by William McKinley, who three years later would join Lincoln as an assassinated president) once the Spanish refused to surrender control of Cuba. What followed was a three month war in which Spain completely collapsed to Cuban and American forces. Furthermore, the war spread to other territories of the Spanish in the Pacific, principally the Philippines. The Spanish lost key bases and squadrons and faced the facts: the war, and their imperial pretentions , were lost.
The Treaty of Paris – always a popular city for a peace settlement – allowed the Americans to gain control of Cuba, as well as the Philippine islands, Guam, and Puerto Rico. This was the curtain call for Spain and the end of its empire and acting on the world stage. The twentieth century was to prove to be one dominated by the United States; the century when America fulfilled their destiny in serving as a beacon of hope to the Old World: decisive involvement in both world wars, as well as triumph in the Cold War in the second half of the century. Of course, such an interpretation is a positive one that chimes in with the notion of American exceptionalism; other historians are more cynical in their assessment of American motives in this war and future wars. There is also debate regarding the significance of 1898: did it announce the arrival of a new American “empire”, thereby acting – in the words of Brogan – as ‘a turning point’ in the foreign policy of the USA? Or, there is the alternative view proposed by Chomsky who comments on the idea of a ‘salt water fallacy’: that it is only imperialism when a nation crosses a sea (salt water). Chomsky contends that America had exerted imperial control over others since the colonial age, and in the century prior to 1898 had already exerted their power over numerous Native American tribes and the Mexicans in the 1840s. Therefore 1898 was a continuation of these aggressive policies, rather than a turning point.
Despite the various levels of debate the Spanish-American War of 1898 is significant for several reasons. The USA announced themselves as a serious military force, and one that would contend with the established European empires. Furthermore, it also ended any hopes the Spanish had of holding onto their empire into the modern age; their loss of control of these territories arguably put events in motion that culminated in the Civil War of the 1930s. For these reasons alone the Spanish-American War is of interest, placing a divide between two different ages: that of the old and that of the modern.