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American Imperialism: 1898–1913

Spanish-American War

The Spanish-American War (April–August 1898) was a brief but important conflict that transformed the United States into an imperial power.

The Spanish-American War was a brief conflict that began on April 25, 1898, with a declaration of war by the United States against Spain. The conflict was a result of American support for Cubans and Filipinos fighting for their independence from Spain. American business interests and an act of Spanish aggression also played a role.

Spain and the United States had long shared an interest in Cuba. The island had been Spain's colony since 1492 and was a prized source of sugar. By the late 19th century, American businesses had invested $50 million in Cuban sugar production. In 1895 Cubans began their war of independence against Spain, which insurgents waged mostly by destroying valuable sugar-producing properties. In retaliation, Spanish troops brutally rounded up Cubans and placed them in "reconcentration camps." Thousands died while living in horrific conditions, a fact widely reported in the American press. Despite the destruction of American property, most Americans felt sympathy for Cubans' desire for independence.

Spain's refusal to grant Cuba independence led to continued unrest. To reassure American businesses and the American public, President McKinley (1897–1901) sent the battleship U.S.S. Maine to patrol the harbor of Havana, Cuba's main port. On February 15, 1898, the battleship exploded, killing 268 people. The cause of the explosion was never determined, but it was assumed Spain was responsible. The yellow press—newspapers that used sensationalism to attract readers—printed inflammatory headlines about the "crisis" accusing Spain of "treachery." "Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!" became a rallying cry. Two months later, the United States declared war. American forces quickly outmaneuvered Spain's military. Four months after the war began, Spain sued for peace.
Sensationalist accounts of the destruction of the U.S.S. Maine in the newspapers New York World and New York Journal encouraged popular support for the Spanish-American War.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-3933
Described as "a splendid little war" by Secretary of State John Hay, the Spanish-American War formally ended on December 10, 1898, when the Treaty of Paris was signed. Although brief, the war transformed the United States' standing in the world. Once a colony of Great Britain, the United States was now an imperial power, with influence over and responsibility for the countries under its control. The Spanish-American War had several outcomes. Spain dismantled the last of its empire, granting Cuba independence and ceding control of Puerto Rico and Guam to the United States. The United States, recognizing the commercial and military value of the Philippines' proximity to China, paid $20 million to annex the islands. However, the United States also inherited the Filipinos' war for independence. The Philippine-American War was waged by Filipino nationalists against the United States from 1899 to 1902. The nationalists were led by led by Emilio Aguinaldo, who wrote a Letter to the American People stating their grievances. The prolonged and bloody conflict gave many Americans a distaste for imperialism.

Territories Annexed to the U.S. by the Treaty of Paris, 1898

Cuba was liberated from Spain after the Spanish-American war; Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines came under U.S. control. Inconsistent treatment of former Spanish colonies caused many Americans to question U.S. expansionism.