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Spanish-American War

Causes of the War

Demands by Cuban patriots for independence from Spanish rule made U.S. intervention in Cuba a paramount issue in the relations between the United States and Spain from the 1870s to 1898. Sympathy for the Cuban insurgents ran high in America, especially after the savage Ten Years War (1868–78) and the unsuccessful revolt of 1895. After efforts to quell guerrilla activity had failed, the Spanish military commander, Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau, instituted the reconcentrado, or concentration camp, system in 1896; Cuba's rural population was forcibly confined to centrally located garrison towns, where thousands died from disease, starvation, and exposure.

Weyler's actions brought the rebels many new American sympathizers. These prorebel feelings were inflamed by the U.S. "yellow press," especially W. R. Hearst's New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, which distorted and slanted the news from Cuba. The U.S. government was also moved by the heavy losses of American investment in Cuba caused by the guerrilla warfare, an appreciation of the strategic importance of the island to Central America and a projected isthmian canal there, and a growing sense of U.S. power in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere. There was an unspoken threat of intervention. This grew sharper after the insurgents, refusing a Spanish offer of partial autonomy, determined to fight for full freedom.

Although the majority of Americans, including President McKinley, wished to avert war and hoped to settle the Cuban question by peaceful means, a series of incidents early in 1898 intensified U.S. feelings against Spain. The first of these was the publication by Hearst of a stolen letter (the de Lôme letter) that had been written by the Spanish minister at Washington, in which that incautious diplomat expressed contempt for McKinley. This was followed by the sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana harbor on Feb. 15, 1898, with a loss of 260 men. Although Spanish complicity was not proved, U.S. public opinion was aroused and war sentiment rose. The cause of the advocates of war was given further impetus as a result of eyewitness reports by members of the U.S. Congress on the effect of the reconcentrado policy in Cuba.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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