American Justification for War in the Spanish-American War & the War on Terror

Matt Moser, Staff Writer & President of Young Americans for Freedom at UCSD

“Remember the Maine!” Americans gathered around this battle cry as our nation prepared for war in February of 1898 after the tragic sinking of the battleship U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor on 15 February of that year. Little more than a century later, Americans would be heard with a similar slogan, “9/11 We Will Never Forget.” These two attacks, and the wars that followed, would define how Americans rationalize war, and usher in a new era in American foreign policy as a “police state.” The terrorist attacks in New York City and Arlington, Virginia on 11 September 2001 were a ground shaking moment for many Americans, and the United States responded by waging a war on terrorism against the perpetrators of the attacks, with overwhelming support. Within hours after the attack, the Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division had boots on the ground working with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Like in 2001, the Americans of 1898 were crying for justice after the “attack” on the U.S.S. Maine. The newspapers were feeding the fire by telling Americans of the Spanish atrocities in Cuba. Patriotism was at a high and Americans were not going to let this Spanish transgression go unpunished. Years later the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine would prove to most likely be an accident; but with that knowledge being unknown to Americans at the time, it is important to note that concerning the Americans at the time, the sinking was an attack to the best of the public’s knowledge. The sinking of the Maine was just the final nail in the coffin for Spain; the American public had been bombarded by sensational news stories, published by Hearst and Pulitzer, telling readers about the humanitarian atrocities committed by the Spanish. Hearst and Pulitzer actively urged the public to seek war with Spain to save the Cubans.

In the Spanish-American War, the United States responded to the sinking of the Maine by declaring war on Spain. For the military, this meant fighting a two-theater war. The war would not only take place in the Caribbean where the U.S.S. Maine was sunk, but also in the Philippines, which was a Spanish colony at the time. The war itself only lasted less than a year with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in December 1898. The Filipino insurgency after the war lasted for years afterwards and is sometimes referred to as an entirely new war, under the moniker of the Philippine-American War. Hostilities in the Philippine-American War lasted until 15 June 1913 at the Battle of Bud Bagsak. The Philippine-American War developed as a direct result of the Spanish-American War when the McKinley administration refused to grant the Philippines independence.

Today, the United States is facing a familiar situation in the Global War on Terrorism, initially in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan, where insurgency attacks plague the streets of these struggling nations. Like in the Spanish-American War, the United States made some strategic mistakes that led to the creation of the insurgency. The Coalition Provisional Authority, the governing body in Iraq from 21 April 2003, to 28 June 2004; made serious mistakes that lead to the creation of the Sunni insurgency. Under Saddam Hussein, the Sunni Muslims, which are the population minority in Iraq, enjoyed prominence in the Baath Party government. After the U.S. lead war, the Coalition Provisional Authority created two decrees; the first of which excluded former Baath Party members from participating in government, the second decree abolished the Iraqi security forces. With Iraq’s economy being largely nationalized, this meant that the hospitals, schools, factories, and many other government services were to be chronically understaffed. These decrees also served to create a large unemployed population out of the Sunni minority. It was inevitable that the Sunni Muslims would not be content with their new role of being largely excluded from government. The United States made nearly the same mistake in 1898 when the commanders favored the non-Filipinos on the island when making the government, to the extent of not letting Filipinos enter Manila after the American conquest of the city. The Americans failed to acknowledge Emilio Aguinaldo’s, and the Philippine people’s desire for independence; they did not wish to simply be transferred from Spanish rule to American rule.

As with any war, the media and politics played a prominent role in the government’s plan for achieving overall public approval for the war, and this held true to both the Spanish-American War and the War on Terrorism. In 1899, the Treaty of Paris was up for ratification in the United States Senate with the presidential election just around the corner in 1900. President McKinley had just won a successful and popular war; however, there was a growing resentment to the new trend of American colonialism and the beginnings of diplomatic problems between the United States and her new territory in the Philippines had the potential to become very hazardous to McKinley’s reelection campaign. The McKinley administration became actively engaged in press censorship; General Otis, the new commander in the Philippines, would censor the reports that journalists sent back to their states-side papers. The U.S. commander in the Philippines, General Otis, was quoted as telling Robert Collins of the Associated Press, “My instructions are to let nothing go that can hurt the administration.” Many people have accused the Bush administration of adopting similar practices in it’s handling of the Iraq War, claiming that Bush mislead the Congress and the public as to the deteriorating situation in Iraq.

A notable trend that emerged during the Spanish-American War and has persisted to the modern day and has in fact become a staple of American journalism is the idea of “yellow journalism.” In the 1890’s “yellow journalism” emerged from the newspaper barons Hearst and Pulitzer, as a method to sell newspaper. The idea was that newspapers sell better when there is sensational news to read about. This came into fruition in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, when Hearst was quoted telling a photographer who was complaining that there was no war in Cuba, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

The yellow journalists sensationalized the news, often pushing aside credible news for large misleading headlines that played off of people’s emotions. To a large part, yellow journalism is more alive now than ever in the 24-hour cable news networks. Cable news certainly has as much to gain from a war today as their print counterparts did in the 1890’s. During the Gulf War in 1991, CNN quadrupled its viewership, and the cost for a 30 second advertisement spot rose from $4,000-$5,000 to $20,000. Since then, the MSNBC and FOX News have also joined the very lucrative business.

Overall, Americans can draw many connections between the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the ongoing War on Terrorism; the effects of the yellow media that pushed for war, the politicians who downplayed negative reports and most of all, the strategic mistakes made by the United States that occur when the post-victory scenario is not fully thought through. The U.S. invaded the Philippines and Cuba, without a full plan on what to do with our new territories, which inevitably led to a Filipino uprising. We repeated these mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan, the war was won without difficulty but the failed reconstruction and occupation has proved to be the downfall of the American strategy. Through these wars Americans have been given the opportunity to reflect on our own nation’s role in the world. In 1898 our question was, should America become a police power, with the ability to intervene in the sovereignty of another state? In 2009, the question appears to remain unsolved in our national conscience. The United States has resorted to military force over two hundred times, increasingly, these forces are deployed under the banner of “humanitarian causes” and “spreading democracy,” but does the United States have the right to interfere in another country’s domestic affairs? This question is as relevant now as it was when it was asked over a hundred years ago.


  1. Remember the Maine and screw SPAIN !

  2. Spanish-Cuban-American-War (Cubans did fight for 20 years for their independence we deserve part of the title psh)

  3. Great article Matt.

  4. Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!

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