The Spanish-Cuban-American War
The ideal of ¡Cuba libre! (Free Cuba!) had support among the U.S. populace, which saw echoes of its own struggle for independence a century earlier. The public hungered for information about the war. The New York World and New York Journal, owned by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst respectively, started a race to see which newspaper could first reach one million subscribers. While Hearst’s hacks made up stories from Cuba, the magnate himself worked behind the scenes to orchestrate dramatic events. He sent the photographer Frederic Remington to Cuba in anticipation of the United States entering the war. At one point Remington wired Hearst: “There will be no war. I wish to return.” Hearst hastily replied: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”
Remember the Maine!
Responding to public pressure, President McKinley sent a warship—the USS Maine—to Havana to protect U.S. citizens living there. On February 5, 1898, the ship mysteriously exploded and sank in Havana Harbor, killing 258 people. Evidence suggests this was an accident, but Hearst had his coup and rushed the news out in great red headlines, beating the World to the one million mark. He blamed the Spanish, and so did the public. His New York Journal coined the phrase “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain.” Theodore Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, also fanned the flames, seeing the venture as “good for the navy.”
On April 25, 1898, Congress declared war against Spain.
The Cuban general, Máximo Gómez, did not want U.S. troops. His guerrilla army—the Mambi—was on the verge of victory and would have undoubtedly won independence before the close of the century. However, Cuba’s freedom fighters soon found themselves forced into the back seat.
The Yanks thought the Cubans a dirty and decrepit lot—most of whom weren’t even white! Where the Mambi did fight, heroically, their part was dismissed, as at the pivotal engagement at San Juan Hill in Santiago de Cuba, where, on July 1, 1898, a cavalry charge ostensibly led by Theodore Roosevelt sealed the war. In a decisive naval battle on July 3, the U.S. Navy decimated the Spanish fleet as it attempted to escape Santiago harbor. On July 17, Spain surrendered. The Spanish flag was lowered and the Stars and Stripes raised, ending one of the most foolishly run empires in the world. Cuba ended the century as it had begun—under foreign rule.
Uncle Sam Takes Over
Washington “granted” Cuba “independence”—at the end of a short leash. The U.S. military occupation formally began on January 1, 1899, when 15 infantry regiments, one of engineers, and four of artillery arrived to “pacify” Cuba. They would remain for four years. Washington dictated the peace terms embodied in the Treaty of Paris, signed on April 11, 1899. Even the Cuban constitution was written by Washington in 1901, ushering in a period known as the Pseudo-Republic. Rubbing salt in the wound of Cuban sensibilities was a clause called the Platt Amendment, named for Senator Orville H. Platt of Connecticut but written by Elihu Root, Secretary of War. Through it, Uncle Sam acquired the Guantánamo naval base and the right to intervene whenever the United States deemed it necessary.
On May 20, 1902, the U.S. flag was lowered and the lone-star flag of Cuba rose into the sunny sky. “It’s not the republic we dreamed of,” said Máximo Gómez.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition