No American alive in 1898 could have had any doubt about why the United States had gone to war with Spain. The conflict was fought to resolve a single question: Who would control Cuba?
Conditions in Cuba led to war, Cuba was the battleground, and Cuba was the prize. Cuba had exerted a hold on the American imagination for many years, at least since Thomas Jefferson wrote of his hope that it would one day become part of the United States. 
Cuba, the largest and by far the most beautiful island in the Caribbean, was in turmoil during the second half of the 19th century. Patriots there fought a ten-year war of independence that ended with an inconclusive truce in 1878, and rebelled again in 1879-80. Their third offensive broke out in 1895. Its chief organizer was an extravagantly gifted lawyer, diplomat, poet, and essayist, José Martí, who from his New York exile managed to unite a host of factions, both within and outside Cuba. His success persuaded two celebrated commanders from the first war, Máximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo, to come out of retirement and take up arms again.
After careful planning, the three of them landed on the island in the spring of 1895 and launched a new rebellion. Martí, who insisted on riding at the head of the military column, was killed in one of he rebel’s first skirmishes. His comrades posted his last, unfinished letter on a pine board at their campground. In it he urged his compatriots not only to free their country from Spain but also “to prevent, by the independence of Cuba, the United States from spreading over the West Indies and falling, with that added weight, upon other lands of our America.” 
In the spring of 1897, William McKinley succeeded Grover Cleveland as the president of the United States. Like most Americans, McKinley had long considered Spanish rule to be a plague on Cuba. The idea of the Cubans governing themselves, however, alarmed him even more.
McKinley had reason to worry. Cuban rebel leaders were promising that once in power, they would launch sweeping social reforms, starting with land redistribution. This was (and still is) a “No-No” in American politics. American businessmen had more than $50 million invested on the island, most of it in agriculture. McKinley decided it was time to send both sides in the conflict a strong message and ordered the battleship Maine to leave its place in the Atlantic fleet and head straight for La Habana.
Officially the Maine was simply making a visit to protect American interests and ensure the safety of American citizens living on the island, but no one in Cuba took that explanation seriously. And who would? Just look at the history of naval aggression by imperialist powers around the world. Everyone knew that she was serving as a “gunboat calling card”, a symbol of America’s determination to control the course of events in the Caribbean.
For three weeks she lay quietly at anchor. Then, on the night of February 15, 1898, she was torn apart by a tremendous explosion. More than 250 men perished. No one was officially blamed but the episode riveted the nation. All assumed that Spain was responsible. Advocates for war with Spain cried: “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!” 
Around this time, there was a sensationalist yellow journalist by the name of William Randolph Hearst. Yellow journalism is a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines and exaggerations to sell more newspapers. Mr. Hearst was one of the best!
The moment Hearst heard about the sinking of the Maine, he recognized it as a great opportunity to push American public opinion against Spain. Never underestimate the power of the media. In a few short weeks, other newspapers joined the frenzy, and their campaign brought Americans to near-hysteria. 
With such intense emotion surging through the United States, it was easy for McKinley to turn aside repeated offers from the new Spanish prime minister, Praxedes Sagasta, to resolve the Cuban conflict peacefully. Sagasta was a modern Liberal who understood that his country’s colonial policies had brought its empire to the brink of collapse. Sagasta tried to appease the Cuban rebels by offering them home rule. The rebels, sensing that victory was at hand, rejected his offer. That made Sagasta all the more eager for peace, and several times during the spring of 1898 he offered to negotiate a settlement with the United States. The U.S. dismissed all talks of peace and determined to resolve the Cuban situation by force of arms. 
Here is the obvious fact: Negotiations would most likely have led to an independent Cuba where neither the U.S. nor any other country would have military bases or access to the richness of the land. This was hardly the outcome the U.S. wanted.
Years later, the historian Samuel Eliot Morison surveyed Spain’s efforts to resolve the Cuban crisis peacefully and concluded: “Any president with a backbone would have seized this opportunity for an honorable solution”.  Such a solution, however, would have denied the U.S. the prizes it sought. They could only be won by conquest. On April 11, McKinley asked Congress to authorize “forcible intervention” in Cuba. 
This step alarmed Cuban revolutionary leaders. They had long believed that, in General Maceo’s words, it would be “better to rise or fall without help then to contract debts of gratitude with such a powerful neighbor”. The rebel’s legal counsel (yes, even rebels have legal counsel) in New York, Horatio Rubens, warned that American intervention would be taken as “nothing less than a declaration of war by the U.S. against the Cuban revolution” and vowed that rebel forces would resist any American attempt to take the island “with force of arms, as bitterly and tenaciously as we have fought the armies of Spain.” 
Protest like these had a great effect in Washington, where the cry of “Cuba Libre” still stirred many hearts. Members of Congress were reluctant to vote for McKinley’s war resolution as long as the Cuban people opposed it.
Enter the Teller Amendment.
To secure congressional support for intervention in Cuba, McKinley agreed to accept an extraordinary amendment offered by Senator Henry Teller of Colorado. It began by declaring that “the people of the island of Cuba are, and or right ought to be, free and independent” and ended with a solemn pledge: “The United States hereby disclaims any disposition or intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over said island except for the pacification thereof, and asserts its determination, when that is accomplished, to leave the government and control of the island to its people.” The House and Senate approved it almost unanimously. 
The promise, which came to be known as the Teller amendment, calmed the rebel’s fears. “It is true that they have not entered into an accord with our government,” wrote General Calixto Garcia, “but they have recognized our right to be free, and that is enough for me.” 
The Spanish-American War
On April 25, Congress declared that a state of war existed between the United Stated and Spain. A few weeks later, American soldiers landed near Santiago on Cuba’s southeastern coast. They fought three one-day battles, the most famous being the one in which Roosevelt, dressed in a uniform he had ordered from Brooks Brothers, led a charge on Kettle Hill, later called San Juan Hill.
On July 3, American cruisers destroyed the few decrepit Spanish naval vessels anchored at Santiago. Spanish forces soon ended their resistance, and the Cuban and American commanders, General Calixto Garcia and William Shafter, prepared to accept their formal surrender. It had been, in the words of the American statesman John Hay: “a splendid little war.” 
Here is the first hint that the U.S. would not keep the promise Congress had made when it passed the Teller Amendment. Before the ceremony of surrender, the American commander (Shafter) astonished Calixto Garcia by sending him a message saying he could not participate in the ceremony or even enter Santiago. 
In La Habana, leaders of the revolutionary patriot committees planned a week of festivities to begin New Year’s Day. Just as the celebration was to begin, the newly named American military governor of Cuba, General John Brooke, made a stunning announcement. He forbade the entire program. Not only would there be no parade of Cuban soldiers, but any who tried to enter La Habana would be turned back. Furthermore, the general declared, the U.S. did not recognize the rebel army and wished it to disband. 
With victory won, the time had come for the U.S. to begin its withdrawal and, in the words of the Teller Amendment: “leave the government and control of the island to its people.” Instead, it did the opposite!
In the United States, enthusiasm for Cuban independence faded quickly. Whitelaw Reid, the publisher of The New York Tribune, proclaimed that “absolute necessity of controlling Cuba for our own defense,” and rejected the Teller Amendment as “a self-denying ordinance possible only in a moment of national hysteria.” Senator Beveridge said it was not binding because Congress had approved it “in a moment of impulse but mistaken generosity.” The New York Times asserted that Americans had a “higher obligation” than following ill-advised promises, and must become “permanent possessors of Cuba if the Cubans prove to be altogether incapable of self-government.”
These pillars of American democracy were arguing quite literally that the U.S. was not obligated to keep promises embodied in law if those promises were later deemed to have been unwisely made!
Over the next year, they and others justified this remarkable argument through a series of propositions. All were calculated to soothe the public conscience, and all were largely or completely false! 
One of these propositions was that American fighters, not Cuban, had expelled the Spanish from Cuba. Newspaper reporters told their readers that when the U.S. Army arrived, it found the Cuban rebel force “in desperate straits”, “threatened with collapse” and “bogged down in a bitter stalemate”. Quite the opposite was true. After three years of continual fighting, Cuban rebels had won control of most of the island, forced the hungry and disease-plagued Spanish army to withdraw into guarded enclaves, and made plans to attack Santiago and other cities. They were headed toward victory when the Americans landed.
None understood that Cuban units had secured the beaches where the American soldiers landed near Santiago! Even the American naval commander there, Admiral William Sampson, said afterwards that the absence of Spanish troops on the beaches “remains a mystery”.
To most Americans, war consisted of set-piece battles in which armies faced off. Anyone with little knowledge on warfare will tell you that this idealized picture of war is completely false. The long war of attrition that Cuban had waged unfolded far from the view of American officers and correspondents. Most of them did not realize that this campaign played a decisive role in the victory of 1898.
Once Americans convinced themselves that Cubans were cowards who had no idea of how to organize an army, it was easy to them to conclude that Cuba was incapable or ruling itself. The American press never focused on the revolutionary leaders, some of whom were highly educated, experienced, and sophisticated. Instead they portrayed the rebel force as an ignorant rabble composed largely of blacks who were barely removed from savagery.
“Self-government!” General Shafter snorted when a reporter asked him about it. “Why, these people are no more fit for self-government than gunpowder if for hell.” 
American officials began telling the Cubans that they should forget the promise of independence embodied in the Teller Amendment. The confusion the Cubans felt as they heard these statements later turned to anger when their liberating army was not allowed to participate in the celebrations.
“None of us thought that [American intervention] would be followed by a military occupation of the country by our allies, who treat us as people incapable of acting for ourselves, and who have reduced us to obedience, to submission, and to a tutelage imposed by force of circumstances”, General Maximo Gomez wrote. “This cannot be our fate after years of struggle.” 
Cuban patriots had for years promised that after independence, they would stabilize their country by promoting social justice. Americans wanted something quite different. “The people ask me what we mean by stable government in Cuba,” the new military governor, General Leonard Wood, wrote in a report to Washington soon after he assumed office in 1900. “I tell them that when money can be borrowed at a reasonable rate of interest and when capital is willing to invest in the island, a condition of stability will have been reached.” In other words: Economic slavery! Wood would later describe his idea of a stable government as “Money at six percent”. 
The Platt Amendment
That summer, Secretary of War Elihu Root, who had been a leading corporate attorney in New York, and Senator Orville Platt of Connecticut, chairman of the Senate Committee on Relations with Cuba, wrote the law what would shape Cuba’s future. The Platt Amendment, as it came to be known, is a crucial document in the history of American foreign policy. It gave the U.S. a way to control Cuba without running it directly, by maintaining a submissive local regime. Washington would go on to apply this system in many parts of the Caribbean and Central America, where to this day it is known as plattismo.
Under the Platt Amendment, the U.S. agreed to end its occupation of Cuba as soon as the Cubans accepted a constitution with provisions giving the United States the right to maintain military bases in Cuba [ie: Guantanamo Bay]; the right to veto any treaty between Cuba and any other country; the right to supervise the Cuban treasury; and “the right to intervene for the preservation for Cuban independence [or] the maintenance of government adequate for the protection of life, property and individual liberty”. 
In essence, the Platt Amendment gave Cubans permission to rule themselves as long as they allowed the U.S. to veto any decisions they made.
Congress approved the amendment 43-20, later the House of Representatives joined in approval, and President McKinley signed the amendment into law on March 2nd 1901.
Cuba was plunged into what one historian called “a storm of excitement.”
“Havana was in turmoil on the night of March 2. A torchlight procession delivered a petition of protest to Wood at the Governor’s Palace, and another crowd of demonstrators sought out the convention delegates and urged them to stand firm in their opposition to American demands. Similar demonstrations occurred on the following night. Outside the capital, municipal governments throughout the island poured out a flood of protest messages and resolutions, while public meetings were epidemic. On the night of March 5, speakers told a procession in Santiago that if the United States held to its demands, the Cubans must go to war once more.” 
Cuban delegates to the constitutional convention had to decide whether to accept the Platt Amendment. American officials ensured them that the U.S. wished no direct influence over Cuba’s internal affairs, and warned them that if they did not accept the Platt Amendment, Congress would impose even harsher terms.
After long debate, much of it conducted behind closed doors, the Cuban delegates agreed, by a vote of 15-14, to do what the U.S. wished. A year later, in an election the Americans supervised, Tomas Estrada Palma, who had lived for years in the town of Central Valley, New York, was chosen as the first president of the Republic of Cuba.
General Wood, the military governor, wrote in a private letter what every Cuban and American knew: “There is, of course, little or no independence left in Cuba under the Platt Amendment”. 
I’m not sure if it’s safe to assume that the rest is history, since most are familiar with what happens next, but I’m so excited about this article that I feel the need to mention just a little more.
The Republic of Cuba
The Republic of Cuba came into existence on May 20, 1902. Its early years were marked by sporadic uprisings and attacks on American property. After a protest against electoral fraud in 1906, American troops landed and placed the country under direct military rule (they stayed for three years).
Opposition movements matured during the rule of Gerardo Machado in the 1920s and 1930s. All of Latin America was being swept by winds of nationalism and anti-Yankee sentiment, and they blew especially strong in Cuba, which had strong trade unions, a core or radical writers and thinkers, and a long tradition of resistance to foreign powers. The greatest beneficiary was the Communist party.
Founded in 1925 and quickly banned by Machado, the Communist party took advantage of its position as an outlawed enemy of the dictator [Machado], and by 1930 was the dominant force in Cuba’s labor movement. During this time, Communists managed to persuade many Cubans that they were the nation’s truest patriots.
After Franklin Roosevelt became president of the United States in 1933, he decided that the Machado dictatorship had become an embarrassment and encouraged the Cuban army to rebel. It did so, and out of the ensuing turmoil emerged a sergeant named Fulgencio Batista. By the mid-1930s he was master of Cuba, and he shaped its fate for most of the next quarter century.
Batista broke diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, cracked down on the Communist Party, and invited American military advisers to train his army. He later encouraged American investors, including prominent gangster, to build what became a spectacularly lucrative tourism based on prostitution and casino gambling.
However, Batista’s most lasting legacy may have been his cancellation of the congressional election that was to have been held in 1952. Among the candidates was a charismatic young lawyer and former student leader…his name was Fidel Castro!
Now, Castro might have gone on to a career in electoral politics (maybe!?), but Batista’s coup certainly made that impossible.
And here is something to think about:
One can argue (and I’m not alone on this) that Castro was a pure product of American policy toward Cuba. If the United States had not crushed Cuba’s drive to independence in the early 20th century, if it had not supported a series of repressive dictators there, and if it had not stood by while the 1952 election was canceled, a figure like Castro might not have emerged. Castro’s regime is the quintessential result of a “regime change” operation gone wrong, one that comes back to haunt the country that sponsored it.
Castro came down from the hills and made his very first speech as leader of the revolution in Santiago, and in that speech, he does not talk about what kind of a regime he’s going to impose, but he makes one promise. He says, “This time I promise you it will not be like 1898 again, when the Americans came in and made themselves masters of our country.”
Now, any Americans who might have read a report of that speech, I’m sure, would have been very puzzled. In the first place, they would have had no memory of what happened in 1898, but secondly, they would wonder, “What could an event 60 years ago possibly have to do with this revolution in Cuba today?” What they had failed to realize is that resentment over these interventions burns in the hearts and souls of people in foreign countries. Castro’s revolution is a perfect example of what happens when a foreign power continually frustrates people’s legitimate nationalist aspirations.
Please read the references below if there are any doubts as to the facts on this article. This is the true history of Cuba.
Thanks for reading,
The article above is mostly comprised of excerpts and information from “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq” by Mr. Stephen Kinzer.
- Transcript of letters: Thomas Jefferson to James Monroe concerning Cuba: http://edsitement.neh.gov/lesson_images/lesson578/forJefferson.pdf
- Transcript of letters: Thomas Jefferson to James Madison concerning Cuba: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/149.html
- Franklin, Jane, “Cuba and the United States: A Chronological History”, Ocean Press; Rep Sub edition, July 1, 2002
- Jons, O. P. “Remember the “MAINE”. Transactions of the Wessex Institute: http://library.witpress.com/pages/PaperInfo.asp?PaperID=14710
- Bethell, John T. “A Splendid Little War – Harvard and the Commencement of a New World Order”, Harvard Magazine, http://harvardmagazine.com/1998/11/war.html
- Kinzer, Stephen, “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq”, Times Books; First Edition, April 4, 2006).
- Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Oxford History of the American People. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.
- Trask, David, The Spanish-American War, Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress; http://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/trask.html
- Perez, Louis The War of 1898: The United States and Cuba in History and Historiography, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1998
- Teller and Platt Amendments, Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/1898/teller.html
- Perez, Louis A. “Cuba and the United States: Ties of Singular Intimacy”, University of Georgia Press, 2003.
- The Public, Vol. 1; Number 17, Chicago, Saturday, July 30th 1898: http://books.google.com/books?id=PDHmAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA138&lpg=PA138&dq#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Cubans forbidden to celebrate independence; New York Times, Dec. 28-29, 1898
- Shafter’s Opinion of Cubans; New York Times, Dec. 19, 1898: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F50A10FF3A5811738DDDA00994DA415B8885F0D3
- Gomez’s Farewell Advise – Tells the Cubans to Work Together to Secure Self-Government – Doubts of American Unjust; New York Times, June 7th, 1899: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F20C14FA395913738DDDAE0894DE405B8985F0D3
- Healy, David F., “The United States in Cuba, 1898-1902”, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1963.
- Modern History Sourcebook: The Platt Amendment, 1901: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1901platt.html
- Norton, Katzman, Blight, Chudacoff, Logevall; “A People And A Nation: A History of the United States, Volume 2, Since 1865”, Wadsworth Publishing; 8 edition, October 22, 2007
- Ravsberg, Fernando; “Democracia a la cubana”, BBC Blog: Cartas de Cuba, Sept. 9, 2010.