Lecture 8, 9: The Spanish-American War and Early Progressive Foreign Policy


I.                   Background

a.     US Foreign Policy had been focused on the conquest of North America for all of its history, up to the 1890’s.

b.     The US did involve itself in some commercial diplomacy—following the British lead in China (1840’s) and opening trade relations with Japan (1854).

c.     The US also undertook occasional military expeditions—Tripoli, Barbary Wars (to stop piracy in Mediterranean Sea in the early19th century)

d.     The Monroe Doctrine (1823) proclaimed to Europe that Central and South America were to be viewed as within the American sphere of influence, but the US had no power to enforce this policy. Spain and England held on to colonies—Cuba, and Guiana, for example.

e.     Consumed with domestic matters for most of the 19th century, the US started looking outward in the 1880’s and 1890s.

i. Especially after the unification of Germany, European competition for colonies appeared to portend the division of the world into exclusive spheres of influence. This would hurt the US in the area of trade.

ii. The “closing of the frontier” created a national psychic crisis in the US—in the prevalent ideology of Social Darwinism; it was believed that continual expansion was the sign of a “fit” or successful society. With the frontier “closed,” i.e., with all of America now settled, many in the US felt the country had to expand overseas.

iii. Related to this was the increasing power of the ideology of the “Social Gospel.” Domestically, this meant that the wealthy had an obligation to give back to the society that made them wealthy (recall Carnegie). Internationally, this meant that wealthy countries had an obligation to “teach” less fortunate peoples the “proper” way to govern themselves (“white man’s burden”).

iv. The Panic of 1893 and subsequent depression showed that the US market was not large enough to support the manufacturing base that had been created. Simply put, the US was making more products than US consumers could afford. The US felt it needed foreign markets as outlets for US-produced goods. Though Britain had promoted the idea of "free trade" in earlier decades, it wasn't a reality--countries with colonies made sure that the colonies were dependent on them for most of their trade.

II.                 The US, Spain, and Cuba

a.     Americans had long believed that Cuba was destined to become a part of the US—it was, after all, only 90 miles from Florida.

b.     Continued Spanish occupation of Cuba was regarded as a relic from the past—Spain was a corrupt monarchy and virtually all other Spanish possessions in the Americas had been abandoned or lost.

c.     A Cuban liberation movement began in 1868, supported by the US—the US gave rebels money, supplies, and arms.

d.     The liberation movement was largely unsuccessful, so the US developed a new strategy.

i.      1893—the Wilson-Gorman Tariff imposed new tariffs on sugar (Cuba’s main export)—the price of sugar collapsed and the Cuban economy went into depression.

ii. This renewed and strengthened the liberation movement.

iii. It forced Spain to take drastic measures to suppress the rebellion—and there were many atrocities committed by Spanish General Valeriano Weyler. Some 200,000 Cubans died in Reconcentrado Camps.

e.     Meanwhile, in the US, a newspaper war had developed—publishers of key newspapers were battling each other for customers. From this was born “Yellow Journalism”—basically sensationalism.

f.       The US public was thus inundated with exaggerated stories about events in Cuba, and was outraged at the “events” that were taking place so close to shore.

                  i.  The situation in Cuba became an issue in the campaign of 1896

g.     After winning the election, President McKinley bowed to public pressure and asked Spain to give Cuba greater independence—Spain ignored him.

h.     Many in the US believed that McKinley was spineless—weak.

i.        On 15 February 1898, the USS Maine exploded in Havana harbor, killing 260 US crewmen aboard.

      i. The US public was outraged, fueled by reports of the Yellow Press—and demanded action.

      ii. US declared war on Spain on 25 April 1898.

  III.              The War

a.     The War actually began in the Philippines, where US navy ships were already poised for action. The navy attacked and destroyed the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in early May.

b.     In Cuba, the US began with a blockade.

i. US was not ready for war, but the Spanish were in even worse condition.

 ii. After a few months of battles, Spain surrendered on 12 August.

IV.               The Treaty of Paris

a.     The Treaty of Paris officially ended the Spanish American War, concluded 10 December 1898. The treaty

                                    i. Granted independence to Cuba

ii. Gave the Spanish colonies of Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico to the US in exchange for $20 million.

V.                 The US had become an Imperial Power, and this would immediately open a huge and long-lasting debate about America’s role in the world.

a. The Anti-Imperialist League was formed in 1898 (November)

i. Believed that the idea of empire was un-American, and that if the US had colonies, those colonies should be brought into the country as equal partners.

ii. Believed also that it would be too costly—both in terms of money and in terms of the sacrifice of American principles (democracy, equality, and even-handed justice) that would be required to maintain an empire.

iii. Many of the worst fears of the anti-Imperialists were realized—within a few years, the US would be dealing with insurrections in both Cuba and the Philippines that required the use of heavy-handed, and decidedly undemocratic, methods.

VI. Although the domestic political reforms—the 8 hour workday, protection for workers rights, the direct election of Senators and so on--that embodied what was later called “Progressivism” began at state and local levels and only slowly occurred at the national level, it is not too far a stretch to say that the Spanish American War signaled the beginning of the Progressive movement. In going to war, the national government of the US displayed a new energy and a new commitment to active policy that aimed at improving the US economy overall, rather than just helping the largest corporations. The activism of the federal government in seizing the remnants of the Spanish Empire served to awaken the entire nation to the possibilities for the future. People immediately began to work toward an America that would take its rightful place among the leading nations of the world—and they started with efforts to remove the obstacles America faced. Chief among these was the vastly inequitable distribution of wealth and the inefficiencies created by monopolistic enterprises and corruption in government.


Lecture 9: Progressivism I: International Affairs

I.                   The usurpation of the Populist Reform agenda by the Democratic Party in the late 1890’s insured that key Populist reform issues would remain on the national agenda well into the new century.

II.                 However, it was probably the quick US victory in the Spanish-American War that gave Americans a new sense of their position in the world, and broke the bleak pessimism that dominated the 1890’s.

a.     The Spanish American War had demonstrated that the US was a power in the world to be reckoned with.

b.     It also showed that despite the “closing of the frontier,” there were other frontiers to occupy American energy.

c.     In addition, it gave the US an empire, albeit a small one—and with that concrete, objective interests around the world—especially Latin America and Asia.

III.              The first manifestation of the new US international assertiveness came when President McKinley’s Secretary of State John Hay issued the “Open Door Note.”

a.     European countries, Russia, and Japan had been establishing “spheres of influence” in China and the US felt it might be left out and cut off from the right to trade with China.

b.     The Open Door Note (1899) asked that all countries involved in China respect the idea of equal commercial opportunity and equality of trading rights throughout China.

c.     While the note was circulating around various world capitols, the “Boxer Rebellion” erupted in China. The “Boxers” killed 200 western missionaries. The US. British, Germans, and others sent 20,000 troops to China to quell the uprising. They did, and took $333 million from China for having caused the trouble.

d.     Hay then issued a second Open Door Note—this one asking all countries involved to respect the territorial integrity of China.

IV.               The US was at its most assertive in Latin America, after Theodore Roosevelt became President (McKinley was assassinated in September 1901).

V.                 Two crises in Latin America led Roosevelt to renew and extend the Monroe Doctrine with what is called the “Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.” (Monroe Doctrine: No new European colonies in Western Hemisphere—1823)

a.     The First Crisis: Germany in Venezuela:

      i.  Germany had shown itself to be increasingly aggressive in its efforts to carve out an empire for itself in Africa.

       ii. In 1902, Venezuela fell into economic crisis and began to renege on debts to several European powers.

      iii. Germany set up a blockade in order to punish Venezuela and possibly recoup its loans by seizing merchant ships.

      iv. Roosevelt had no problem with this until the Germans started bombarding Venezuelan ports and rumors began to circulate that Germany planned to set up a permanent base in the region.

      v. Roosevelt warned the Germans that the US Navy was standing by, ready to react to any attempt by Germany to acquire new territory—the Germans withdrew.

b. The second crisis involved a political and economic crisis in the Dominican Republic.

i. A revolution had toppled the government of the Dominican Republic, but the new government was unable to pay its debt to several European powers.

ii. France and Italy threatened to intervene, and the DR had asked the US for help.

iii.      Roosevelt responded by setting up a US “receivership—” the US took control of Dominican Customs Houses, distributing 45% of the revenues to the Dominican government, and paying off Dominican debts with the rest. This lasted almost three decades!


c.     In justifying his actions to the world and the US Congress, Roosevelt established the “Roosevelt Corollary:” The US has the right, not only to oppose European intervention in Latin and South America, but also to intervene in the domestic affairs of Latin and South American countries if they were unable to maintain order on their own.

i. In addition to the situations above, the US would intervene in Cuba in 1906. ii. The US had granted Cuba its independence in 1902.

iii. Domestic disturbances in Cuba threatened political and domestic stability on the island, so the US intervened to “protect” Cuba from disorder.” 

 iv. American troops landed in Cuba, stopped the uprisings, and left three years later. 

v. However, US influence in Cuba remained dominant until the Cuban revolution of 1959.   

VI.            The most famous incident of the new American international activism was the case of the taking of the Panama Canal zone.

a.     In 1850, the US and Great Britain had signed a treaty stating that they would participate jointly in building and operating any future canal across Central America.

b.     McKinley, and then Roosevelt wanted the right for the US to construct it alone. They negotiated a new treaty with England and got that right in 1901 (Hay-Pauncefote Treaty).

c.     The question became, “Where should we locate the canal?”

      i. a route across Nicaragua was first preferred because it would allow a sea level canal with no locks.

      ii.  However, the French had previously attempted to build a canal through Panama (at the shortest crossing point). They completed almost 40% of the project before going bankrupt.

      iii. The French were originally asking for $109 million for their equipment and other holdings, but then reduced the price to $40 million.

           iv.  After intense lobbying by Philippe Bunau-Varilla, who repeatedly told the US Congress that Nicaragua was unsuitable because of earthquakes, the US decided on the Panama route.

d.     The next problem was getting the right to actually build the canal.

      i. Panama was controlled by Columbia—was actually a part of Columbia at this time.

      ii.   The US sent representatives to Columbia to negotiate for rights to build the canal. Using threats and other “strong-arm” tactics, Secretary of State Hay forced the Columbian negotiator to sign a treaty that was highly unfavorable to his government—the US was given perpetual rights to a 6-mile wide strip of land right through the heart of Panama. The US would pay Columbia $10 million for these rights, and an annual rent of $250,000.

e.     The Columbian Senate was very angry at the deal—the French company was to receive 4 times the amount of money as they. They refused to ratify the agreement.

f.       Roosevelt was furious, and was prepared to do almost anything to get the canal zone.

g.     Bunau-Varilla, the Frenchman who stood to gain most from the deal, helped to organize and finance a revolution in Panama.

h.     With the support of the US—which prevented Columbia from re-supplying its forces in Panama, the revolution was a success.

i.        The US quickly landed troops to “maintain order” in Panama, immediately recognized the new government, and negotiated a treaty for rights to the canal zone with it.

j.       The Panama Canal was completed in 1914. It was the “moonshot” of the day, one of the biggest, most complex, and most expensive construction projects to that point. 

VII.            The culmination of Roosevelt’s foreign policy and the world’s acknowledgement of the new US position in world affairs came in 1905.

a.     Russia and Japan had gone to war in 1904 over disputes in Manchuria.

b.     The Japanese had soundly defeated the Russians, though if the war had dragged on, Russia may eventually have prevailed.

c.     The two parties asked Roosevelt to mediate the peace talks, which he was eager to do.

d.     At Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Roosevelt worked out a deal: the Russians would recognize the Japanese territorial gains in Asia (Korea, Manchuria, Sakhalin Island), while the Japanese agreed stop fighting and acquire no more territory.

e.     Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for his effort, despite the fact that the treaty would eventually prove to be worthless, as the Japanese continued their aggressive ways in Asia.