Explaining the Spanish-American War 120 Years Later

By Zoe N. Jackson, Department of Defense

The Spanish-American War was a conflict that arose from Cuba’s struggle for independence 120 years ago, but why was the U.S. involved, and what did it mean for our future?

The Background

In February 1895, Cuba struggled for independence from Spain. It became problematic for United States investments on the island, nearly ending U.S. trade with Cuban ports. Humanitarian concerns for the Cuban people were also brought to America’s attention. Since Cuba was colonial, just as the U.S. once was, we understood their struggle for independence.

Buffalo soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 9th and 10th cavalries at the Battle of Las Guasimas during the Spanish-American War. Library of Congress drawing

The demand for intervention on behalf of Cuba gained support from Congress. In retaliation, on April 24, 1898, Spain declared war on the United States. A day later, the U.S. declared war on Spain, making the declaration retroactive to April 21.

The War Was Short

In the eyes of many historians, the Spanish-American War was particularly one-sided, as Spain had not readied its army or navy for a war with the U.S. That made it easy for U.S. Navy Commodore George Dewey to lead a naval rotation into Manila Bay in the Philippines on May 1, 1898, to destroy the Spanish fleet stationed there.

The Battle of Manila Bay. Library of Congress drawing

U.S. naval forces then found the majority of Spain’s Caribbean fleet in Cuba’s Santiago harbor. U.S. Army Gen. William Shafter landed on the east coast of Santiago and led U.S. troops into the city in an effort to force Spanish Adm. Pascual Cervera’s fleet out of the harbor. Cervera tried to escape along the west coast on July 3, but in doing so, all of his ships were targeted by U.S. guns. Unable to retreat, Cervera’s ships were left to burn or sink. It was a major defeat.

What the U.S. Gained

Spain surrendered on July 17, 1898, ending the brief and violent war. A few months later, on Dec. 10, Spain renounced all claims for Cuba and ceded Guam and Puerto Rico to the United States. It also transferred sovereignty over the Philippines to the U.S. for $20 million.

U.S. Army troops on the march in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Drawing by William J. Glackens, courtesy of the Library of Congress

Although it was short, the Spanish-American War was an important turning point in U.S. and Spanish history. Spain’s defeat turned that nation’s attention away from its overseas colonial pursuits. Spain refocused on domestic needs, which later led to a cultural and literary renaissance, as well as two decades of economic development.

For the U.S., emerging victoriously from the Spanish-American War lead to an interest in international politics.

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Explaining the Spanish-American War 120 Years Later