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The Long-Lasting Legacy of the Spanish-American War

The Long-Lasting Legacy of the Spanish-American War

The war of 1898 gave rise to features of American policy foreign policy that remain important today.

Michael Mandelbaum

The Spanish-American War formally ended 125 years ago this month, with the signing of a peace treaty in Paris on December 10, 1898. The anniversary will go largely unnoticed. That war has largely faded from the collective consciousness of the United States. It is perhaps best remembered today, insofar as it is remembered at all, as the event that made Theodore Roosevelt a national figure. He left his post as assistant secretary of the Navy, recruited a regiment called the “Rough Riders” that fought in the war, and used the notoriety he earned to become, successively, governor of New York, vice president, and, in 1901 upon the assassination of William McKinley, president of the United States.

The war of 1898 is worth remembering as well, however, because it has a wider and enduring significance for both America and the world. It inaugurated a number of trends that became major features of the foreign policy of the United States in the twentieth century and beyond.

The war began in Cuba, then a colony of Spain, where the Spanish authorities were trying to quell an uprising that sought to throw off their rule. The brutality that Spain employed against the Cubans outraged Americans. As a sign of its concern the administration of President William McKinley sent the warship Maine to Havana harbor, where an explosion blew it up. Americans held the Spanish responsible for the sinking of the Maine–wrongly, it came to appear in retrospect–and the United States declared war on Spain, sent troops to the island and, with Roosevelt and his volunteers playing a prominent role, defeated the Spanish forces there.

As part of the war the American naval fleet deployed in the Pacific steamed to another Spanish colony, the Philippines, 8,000 miles from Cuba, and scored a decisive victory over a Spanish fleet in Manila Bay on May 1. Although the administration had not initially intended to do so, in the wake of that victory it decided to annex the entire Philippine archipelago. This touched off an insurrection against the American occupiers, which the American army took the better part of two years to bring to an end. The United States governed the islands until 1946, when they became independent.

As the first American war waged outside North America, the conflict of 1898 marked the country’s debut as a great power capable, like the traditional great powers of Europe, of projecting military force beyond its borders. (American armed forces had fought effectively outside the United States in the Mexican War of 1846-1848, but that did not lead to further foreign military excursions.) As a result of the Spanish-American War, America joined the company of European great powers in another way: it acquired a formal empire, directly ruling non-Americans without their consent. This broke with precedent. The United States had become an independent country in the late eighteenth century through a rebellion against British imperial rule; and although it had vastly expanded the territory it controlled thereafter, it had always incorporated the territories it acquired into the country as states of the Union, which gave their inhabitants the same rights as other Americans had. By contrast, the United States did not afford similar treatment to the Philippines, or even seriously contemplate it.

America’s role in its new possession in the Pacific soon proved to be unpopular with the American public. The United States subsequently acquired no additional foreign territories that it kept indefinitely as imperial possessions. Its experience as a formal imperial power turned out to be, in comparison with the imperial careers of the British, the French, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the Ottoman Turks, brief, modest, and half-hearted.

The Spanish-American War also counts as the first, although not the last, humanitarian intervention by the United States. It had as a principal aim protecting the Cubans from Spanish mistreatment. Like the interventions a century later in Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti and Kosovo, the military operations in Cuba in 1898 were undertaken to vindicate American values and not in response to any threat to American security or Americans’ well-being.

Perhaps the most enduring significance of the war of 1898 was the emergence of the United States Navy as a major instrument of a newly expansive American foreign policy. Its remarkable victory in Manila Bay–no American lives were lost–made a hero of the commander of the American fleet, Admiral George Dewey, who is the subject of an excellent new biography,  A New Force at Sea: George Dewey and the Rise of the American Navy, by David A. Smith, an historian at Baylor University in Texas.

Dewey was the son of a physician in Montpelier, Vermont who graduated in 1858 from the United States Naval Academy, which had been founded in 1845. He served with distinction in the Civil War, particularly in the campaign to control the Mississippi River, in which he was closely associated with the Union’s naval hero of that conflict, David Farragut. (Thanks to a square in the heart of Washington, D.C. and two nearby subway stations that bear his name, as well as a statue of him that stands in that square, Farragut’s name is now more familiar, at least in the nation’s capital, than that of George Dewey.)

Dewey lived through the great nineteenth-century technological transformation of the American navy (and other navies as well) from wooden ships to iron armor to steel hulls. In his era, navies also deployed ever-more-powerful guns. He commanded the American navy’s Asiatic Squadron when war broke out in 1898 and thus oversaw the American fleet in the decisive battle in Manila Bay. Smith provides a vivid account of how he won his great victory there through skillful seamanship and superior technology, with an assist from that frequent companion of victory in warfare, good fortune. In the wake of the war, Dewey’s renown made him, in Smith’s assessment, the first American celebrity; and he used his prestige to urge, with notable success, the modernization and expansion of the Navy.

As the United States became a global power, the Navy, which Dewey devoted much of his postwar career to promoting, assumed an increasingly important role in American foreign policy. It was particularly important in World War II. In that conflict, along with Great Britain’s Royal Navy, it enabled America to transport, deploy, and supply large military forces on the far sides of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Without Anglo-American naval supremacy, which required overcoming both German and Japanese naval power, that war could not have been won. Throughout the Cold War, the American navy underpinned the far-flung systems of American alliances, which were crucial to the successful outcome, from the American point of view, of that conflict. 

At the same time, the American navy provided the necessary security–as the Royal Navy had done before it­–for the expanding volume of cross-border trade and investment that took place after 1945, which helped to fuel rapid economic growth first in North America and Western Europe and then around the world. What came to be known as globalization has made a major contribution to the historically unprecedented prosperity the world has enjoyed over the last eight decades. It would not have been possible without the supporting presence, patrolling the world’s oceans and seas, of the most powerful navy on the planet, that of the United States. The American naval presence engendered the confidence required for commerce to proceed over great distances. Global peace and prosperity, in short, owe a great deal to American naval power, whose rise began with the achievement of a now almost-forgotten American naval officer in a now almost-forgotten war in the Caribbean and the Pacific 125 years ago.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter professor emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, a member of the editorial board of American Purpose, and the author of The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy: Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower, (2022).

Image: U.S.S. Olympia at the Battle of Manilla Bay, Spanish American War, 1898, Worden Wood, 1880–1943. (Yale University Art Gallery)

United StatesU.S. Foreign PolicyPolitical Philosophy