Congress Moves Toward War
Unfortunately, the Yellow Press drowned voices of men like Rea. This impacted not only public opinion, but members of Congress, many having no other information sources about Cuba.
After the Journal’s fake “strip-searching women” piece, Congressman Amos Cummings introduced an angry resolution in response. Deceived by tales of “Americans starving in Cuba,” Congress appropriated $50,000 for their relief, but U.S. consuls in Cuba were hard-pressed finding “starving Americans” to dispense the money to. The belligerently pro-war Senator John T. Morgan, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, quoted extensively from a report in Hearst’s Journal; Morgan’s successor as chairman, John Sherman, also relied on the Journal, calling it “one of the great journals of the country.”
After President McKinley appointed Sherman secretary of state, the latter wrote to the Spanish government, condemning General Weyler’s forcefulness, and urging “conduct of the war in a manner responsive to the precepts of ordinary humanity.” However, Sherman’s brother was Civil War General William T. Sherman, whose “war is hell” tactics made him abominable to Southerners. This irony was not lost on the Spanish foreign minister, whose reply reminded the secretary of “the expedition of General Sherman, that illustrious and respected general, through Georgia and South Carolina.”
According to Ferdinand Lundberg in his classic America’s Sixty Families, President William McKinley was beholden to the Rockefellers and Standard Oil. While governor of Ohio, McKinley went bankrupt, and was secretly bailed out by a syndicate headed by Rockefeller frontman Mark Hanna, who had known John D. since they were high-school classmates. Hanna became McKinley’s political manager. Many considered him the real White House boss; critics called the president “McHanna.” J. P. Morgan was another McKinley backer. Chicago’s Chronicleof April 14, 1898, commented: “The Rothschilds and the Morgans control the White House.”
As American cries for war grew, Spain sought to avoid it. General Weyler was recalled; the “reconcentration” policy was to be substantially reformed; and Cuba was offered semi-autonomy, similar to Canada’s relationship with Britain. Had McKinley and his controllers genuinely wanted peace, this should have placated them. Instead, the battleship Maine was dispatched to Cuba.
Tragedy in Havana Harbor
The Maine’ssinking remains the most enduring mystery of the Spanish-American War. One of McKinley’s riskiest appointments was Teddy Roosevelt, as assistant secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt incessantly pushed for a shooting war. Among his characteristic quotes: “McKinley is bent on peace, I fear.” One afternoon in February 1898, Roosevelt exploited the absence of Navy Secretary John Long to put the Navy on a war footing; he cabled Commodore Dewey in Hong Kong to prepare to attack Manila — even though war had not begun. When Secretary Long learned of this, he didn’t revoke the order, but said of Roosevelt, “the very devil seemed to possess him yesterday afternoon.”
On January 24, 1898, the inflammatory decision to send the Maine to Cuba was made at a White House meeting — of which no minutes were kept. Although the Spanish were advised that a warship would eventually visit, they were not expecting the Maine when it sailed into Havana January 25. This was unknown to the ship’s commander, Captain Charles Sigsbee, who wrote: “It became known to me afterward that the Mainehad not been expected, even by the United States Consul General.”
With potential war looming, by what “oversight” did Washington fail to notify both Spanish and American officials in Havana of the battleship’s arrival? However, if anyone hoped shooting would erupt in the harbor, leading to war, they were disappointed. The Spanish, courteously if coolly, welcomed the Maineand permitted her to dock.
William Randolph Hearst now pushed the war buttons harder. He had paid bribes to have the private correspondence of Spanish Ambassador Enrique Dupey de Lôme spied upon. In a private letter to a friend, the ambassador called McKinley “weak and catering to the rabble,” “a low politician” who desired to “stand well with the jingos of his party.” In violation of diplomatic immunity, the letter was stolen and reprinted in Hearst’s Journalunder the headline “THE WORST INSULT TO THE UNITED STATES IN ITS HISTORY.”
In reality, the leader of Cuba’s insurgents, Máximo Gómez, had paid far worse insults to America, lambasting George Washington, claiming McKinley and Congress were “in the employ of Spain,” and boasting that his men could lay waste to Florida in under a week. But Americans were not permitted to hear these words — only those of Dupey de Lôme, who resigned in embarrassment. The Spanish government apologized, but Hearst and other “Yellow Journals” had driven anti-Spanish feelings to fever pitch.
Two days later in Havana Harbor, a massive nighttime explosion tore apart the Maine. The horror was unimaginable. Of 355 crew members, 266 perished; only 16 survivors escaped uninjured. The day after the incident, Hearst’s Journal already published artistic renderings of how it was supposedly done — torpedoes, placed under the ship, connected to the shore by electric wires. A Naval Court of Inquiry convened. After hearing testimony from witnesses and divers, it concluded that a submerged mine sank the Maine. However, it fixed no responsibility for the deed.
But the Yellow Press had no reservations. Hearst’s Journal called it an act of “Spanish treachery.” As war cries intensified, a slogan was proclaimed: “Remember the Maine and to hell with Spain!” This was probably intended to arouse the desire for vengeance in the same manner that “Remember the Alamo!” inspired Sam Houston’s troops at the 1836 battle of San Jacinto. There was a glaring difference, however: The Mexican army undeniably slaughtered the Alamo’s defenders, but no proof implicated Spain in the Mainetragedy.
Spanish sailors risked their lives rescuing Maine survivors, who were cared for by Spanish doctors and nurses. The Spanish had no motive to provoke America, and desperately tried to avoid war. Spain still had mostly wooden warships, many in disrepair, which could not match the firepower of America’s increasingly steel navy. Admiral Pascual Cervera, who commanded Spain’s Atlantic squadron, warned his government of “our lack of everything that is necessary for a naval war, such as supplies, ammunition, coal, provisions, etc. We have nothing at all.” Furthermore, land war against American troops would be difficult in Cuba — less than 100 miles from the United States, but over 4,000 miles from Spain.
Spain conceded to every U.S. demand except complete withdrawal from Cuba, and offered to submit the matter of the Maineto arbitration. Nevertheless, demands for war erupted in Congress. To insure against Senate reservations, Senator Redfield Proctor made a quick visit to Cuba. After returning, he consulted McKinley, and that same day made a fiery Senate speech. Describing hunger and disease he had witnessed, Proctor urged Cubans’ “deliverance from the worst misgovernment of which I have ever had knowledge.” His speech strongly impacted the Senate, but Proctor omitted the main reason for the suffering: Cuba’s rebels themselves.
McKinley, now falsely proclaiming he had “exhausted” all diplomatic means of maintaining peace, asked Capitol Hill for authorization to intervene militarily. Congress issued a joint resolution
For the recognition of the independence of the people of Cuba, demanding that the government of Spain relinquish its authority and government in the island of Cuba and Cuban waters, and directing the President of the United States to use the land and naval forces of the United States to carry these resolutions into effect.
Spain could not have accepted this demand. It had ruled Cuba since 1511. All Spanish political parties, liberal and conservative, considered Cuba part of Spain, just as Americans consider Hawaii part of America. If it relinquished Cuba, the Spanish government would have faced revolution at home. Given a choice between revolution and war, the Spanish elected to fight, with honor, a war they could not hope to win. This delighted William Randolph Hearst. With the war in full swing, his newspaper’s headline gloated: “How Do You Like the Journal’sWar?”
While America’s military fought with tremendous valor during the war, as much may be said of the hundreds of Spanish sailors who died under U.S. Navy firepower, and of the defenders of San Juan Hill who, outnumbered over 15 to one, held until their ammunition ran out.