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Albert Gates

The United States Empire – Its History

War With Spain: Empire Comes of Age

(February 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 6, 10 February 1941, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

With the defeat of the Southern Slavocracy in the Civil War the industrialization of the United States was assured. The war itself created the need for the erection of new industries and the expansion of the old. Between 1870 and the Spanish American war. the world was to witness the most phenomenal capitalist development in the New World. Railroads led the boom. The material requirements of railroads set into motion many new industries. The industrial population grew swiftly, and toward the end of the century surpassed the agricultural. This was the period in which the “great American fortunes” were created, through the medium of a horrifying exploitation of labor and natural resources, and the bribing of government officials, no matter what their position or responsibility. The government existed for the sole purpose of serving the business interests. The Republican Party, which entered American politics as a progressive force, had, within a period of twenty-five years, become the party of big business and reaction.

At its convention of 1896, the Republican Party announced itself as the party of imperialism. “Manifest Destiny,” dressed up in the supposedly idealistic clothes of bringing civilization to the “inferior races,” was merely the slogan under which the Republican Party prepared its program of imperialist aggrandizement. It spoke of the historic necessity of the United States, the white race, to dominate and civilize this continent and whatever other lands or peoples it may come in contact with. We have already seen how this principle, unclear and uncertain in the early days of the Republic, was to become an integral part of the nation’s foreign policy.

Presidential Fight

The presidential campaign preceding the Spanish American war was one of the most bitter in the nation’s history. William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, gathered around him the support of the dissatisfied South, exploited workers, impoverished farmers and a host of reformers, utopians and liberals. Big business, nowever, rode in the saddle They expended millions of dollars for the election of McKinley, a protegé of the infamous Mark Hanna.

The Republicans campaigned under the Slogan of a “full dinner pail.” Just before the voting took place, thousands upon thousands of workers received the following notice in their pay envelopes: “If Bryan is elected, do not come back to work. The plant will be closed.”

In New York, the Herald Tribune, then as now an organ of big business and imperialist expansion, after comparing Bryan with Benedict Arnold, Aaron Burr and Jefferson Davis, wrote of him that “He was the rival of them all in deliberate wickedness and treason to the Republic.”

Backed by vast riches, the support of the ever-corrupt press, always allied with big business, and other instruments of molding opinion the Republicans carried the election by a slim majority ot 600,000 popular votes. But that was more than enough. The election was interpreted as carte blanche to go full steam ahead.

A Dream Realized

American manufacturing and commercial interests had been casting about for many years at the islands in the Caribbean and the Pacific. The dream of an American Caribbean empire, of vast holdings in the Pacific and the Far East was an old one, and we shall soon see how the dream was soon realized through means far more gross than the stuff of which dreams are made.

Like the rule of all imperialisms over subject peoples, that of Spain in Cuba was no exception. It was ruthless and cruel; occupation of the country led to a most intense exploitation of its resources and its people. Revolutionary ferment long in existence, finally broke out into the open in 1895. The Spanish army of occupation could not subdue the revolt. The struggle levelled down to that of guerrilla warfare, a war of attrition. In answer to the insurgents, the Spanish authorities set up concentration camps, herded into them the families of the rebels, captured rebels and all those suspected of opposition to the rule of the Spanish king and queen. Like all concentration camps, the oppression was bestial. And here the story begins.

Propose Seizure

American business owned $50,000,000 worth of property in Cuba, invested in sugar, tobacco and iron mines. The stalemate in the revolutionary struggle led to a stagnation of the Island’s economy. More than that, the revolutionaries proceeded to destroy by fire and other means, the huge plantations owned by Spanish and American capitalists. By 1897 the situation became fairly chaotic.

At the beginning of the century southern plantation owners had already projected the plan of seizing Cuba and exploiting its sugar possibilities. But the nature of national development prevented the realization of that plan. Now, at the close of the century, the northern capitalists proposed the same plan.

Spanish-American relations were poor. The vested interests of the United States were for going into Cuba and taking the situation in hand. They wanted to drive Spain out of Cuba as the first step in the protection of American business interests. The Republican platform of 1897 had already declared that Spain was unable “to protect the property and lives of resident American citizens.” It cited American investments and losses as a result of the situation in Cuba and indicated what American policy would be if and when the Republicans won the election.

After two years of struggle in Cuba, the Spanish government was ready for compromise. It was especially solicitous of the attitude of the United States and upon the election of McKinley was fearful of American intervention. It knew, too, that the dominant group in the administration party was a pro-war group, calling for military intervention and seizure of the islands.

The Cuban business men and the intellectuals did not desire independence. They were quite content to settle the dispute by establishing Cuban autonomy and a parliament under Spain, similar to the dominion status of Canada. Quite likely this may have eventually resulted had not the intervention of the United States been consummated.

Storm Brewing

In the United States itself, a storm was brewing. The “Manifest Destiny” Republicans had launched their interventionist campaign which gained force with each passing day. President McKinley pursued a course of hesitation and indecision. On the one hand the important press was hell-bent on forcing the nation into an interventionist war. William Randolph Hearst was then making his mark in lurid journalism. The haloed Joseph Pulitzer “fishing for more profits, also fumed and stormed over the plight of the poor Cubans.” Hearst sent special feature writers to Cuba with instructions to go the limit. His papers were published with bright carmine headlines reciting atrocity tales of the Island. Other newspapers joined in the conspiracy of big business clamoring for war. The representative from the State of Maine very aptly said at the time, that “Every congressman has two or three newspapers in his district – most of them printed in red ink ... shouting for blood.” Appeals were made to the emotional feelings of the people to incite them to fight for the freedom of small defenseless peoples – the lie of imperialists:

But McKinley also faced the opposition of the Democrats and countless thousands who recognized the campaign for American intervention just for what it was. There was a great stir in Washington in the conflict between the interventionists and non-interventionists. The president stood in between this great storm.

In addition, too, McKinley found a pliant Spanish government in Madrid ready to deal with him and ready also, to acquiesce to most American demands; nay, ready to go beyond the demands of the Administration The American minister to Spain, General Woodford, cabled McKinley “That if congress would agree to a settlement, the Madrid Government was willing to grant any autonomy which the insurgents would accept even complete independence for Cuba, or cession of the island to the United States.” If one man knew that war was wholly unnecessary President McKinley was that man. Spain was in such a plight that the United States could have had what it wanted in Cuba without resort to arms.

The Maine “Sinking”

In January, 1898, the battleship Maine went to Havana on a “good will mission”. The ship was actually sent to re-assure American interests of protection. The situation was not without its aspect of a comic opera. Spain in turn, accepted this expression of good will and sent a cruiser to New York harbor in a return visit of friendship!

In the early part of February, the Spanish minister to Washington, Senor Dupuy De Lome, wrote a personal letter to a friend in Cuba in which was contained some unflattering remarks about the president based upon his observations as a result of relations with him. He wrote that McKinley had no mind, that he was influenced daily first by one group then another. It was the kind of personal letter, which if made public could do no good in a charged situation. That’s precisely what happened. The letter was stolen from the mails in Cuba and sold, quite properly, to Hearst, who published the letter as a proof of the ignominy of the Spaniards. It kindled quite a flame for a period, but even this situation died down.

But on February 15, 1898, the battleship Maine was mysteriously blown up in Havana Harbor. The effect was electrifying. No real findings resulted in ascertaining the cause of the explosion which took the lives of a couple of hundred seamen. Nevertheless American naval officers concluded that the Maine was blown up by a submarine mine. The explosion may have happened in a dozen different ways, and more than forty years afterward there is still no real determination of its cause.

It might well be that American interests were responsible in seeking a way to force the United States into the war.

War Factions

The pro-war factions went to work n McKinley, who continued with his hesitating policy. He and the Spanish Government tried to settle the issues peacefully. McKinley’s failure to dispatch troops immediately led jingo Teddy Roosevelt, who was then embarked on a great advertising campaign to popularize himself as the great American hero, to declare that “McKinley has no more backbone than a chocolate eclair.”

The “good” senator Thurston of Nebraska stated: “War with Spain would increase the business and earnings of every American railroad (it is not difficult to see whose office boy the Senator was!), it would increase the output of every American factory, it would stimulate every branch of industry and domestic commerce.” Yet in March, McKinley urged Spain to establish an armistice with the revolutionists and abolish the concentration camps. In his note to Spain he spoke of maintaining peace and precluded any American desire of acquiring Cuba.

On April 9, 1898. the Spanish cabinet accepted the American proposals. In their zeal to avoid a conflict with American arms they went much further than McKinley had asked. They were prepared to arbitrate the Maine question, even though, aside from the war-mongering propaganda, there was no certainly of what caused its sinking and no reason for Spain to accept the blame. Spain prepared to call the Cuban parliament immediately and was ready to seek the “pacification of the Island with justice to all parties.”

War With Spain

The reply came too late. President McKinley had resolved to succumb to the pressure of the war hysteria and the jingoists in control of his party. He delivered his war message to congress one day after the receipt of the Spanish note of conciliation, but made no mention of the note of surrender. On April 19, war was declared.

The war was a short one. The real aims of “Manifest Destiny” were quickly apparent. Long before the war had broken out, decisions as to the deployment of naval forces had been decided upon. The Pacific fleet suddenly entered the picture and went for the Philippines. This is the first time the Philippines enters the scene at all. The Spanish navy was routed in Manila Harbor, although in the absence of land forces no seizure of the country was possible. Troops, arrived weeks later and the seizure of the Philippines was accomplished with the aid of native insurgent troops after the rout of the Spaniards in Cuba and after peace had been declared!

It was not a real war in proportion of men employed or casualties. The American army lost 5,462 men, of which 379 were lost in action and more than 5,000 were the victims of disease, inadequate military preparation, unsanitary conditions, and downright rotten food, the scandalous “embalmed beef,” which brought great profits to American merchants. The navy lost less than 20 men.

It was in this war that Teddy Roosevelt, the House of Morgan major-domo, made his war record. Actually his war record was no better or worse than hundreds of others in a war of small dimensions. Yet the press stories of his valor, more often than not inspired by himself, led the country to think that he was a veritable combination of battle cruiser and pom-pom guns. So ludicrous did the campaign to glorify Roosevelt appear to discerning minds, that the venerable Finley Peter Dunne was led to say that Roosevelt ought to write an account of the war entitled: Alone in Cuba.

Terms of Peace

The revolution in Hawaii had been raging for some years (See my articles in Labor Action, December 30 and 23). The ostensible purpose for entering the war was to free Cuba and drive a world power out of the new world. Yet, when the commission met to prepare the peace. American demands included the acquisition of Puerto Rico, the Island of Ladrones, and the Philippines. The argument that the United States had not yet conquered the Philippines was unavailing. Nor was the argument that the United States had not once mentioned the Philippines in the pre-war exchanges, considered a valid objection by the victorious commissioners.

McKinley was a new man since he had finally decided on his course. He was not going to permit anything to slip out of the hands of the United States especially since the war was won. The imperialist surge was rampant in the States and it was apparent that the United States meant to grab as much as possible.

There was much interest in the way the President, so hesitant and undecided previously, resolved his “intellectual and moral methods.” But McKinley did explain himself in an address to his Methodist brethren. It is an interesting declaration, for he said:

“I walked the floor of the White House night after night, and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way – I don’t know how it was, but it came ... There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all. and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed. and went to sleep and slept soundly.”

It was plenty easy for McKinley to resolve things once he had but put on the mantle of Christ and decided that he was sacrificing all for the purpose of civilizing the Filipinos! Shortly thereafter, the American troops proceeded to Christianize the insurgent natives with mass water-cures performed on those who seriously believed the American pronunciamentos that they were there to liberate them from the yoke of Spain so that they may be a free and independent people.

Under the impetus of the war, the annexation of Hawaii, so long adjourned because of nation-wide opposition, was quickly accomplished. At the close of the war, the United States had acquired the Philippine Islands, Puerto Rico, Ladrones and control over Cuba. To salve the feelings of the Spaniards, they graciously paid Spain £20,000,000 for and on account of the Philippine Islands. Ever thus, the noble gesture!

A Power

The war established the American Empire, made her a power to be reckoned with in Europe. Heretofore the United States had been scorned by the powers in the Old World, but the imperialist rivalries on the Continent had led to a sharp division of interest. The English, already fearful of the power of post-1870 Germany, was wholehearted in its support of the United States. It challenged Germany at each step where Germany sought to soften American demands, or insisted upon a share for herself. England would then rather have a stronger United States than a stronger Germany, and the American seizures automatically forced Germany to curb her aims in the Pacific and the Caribbean.

In addition, the American policy served, whether it was needed or not, to bolster the imperialism of the Old World, since they could point in justification for their own imperialist policy, to the United States, which still had the reputation of a free and democratic nation. Elie Halevy in his History of the English People. Book I, Imperialism, graphically portrays the effect of the Spanish-American war on Europe and the inter-imperialist struggle in that part of the world, pointing out how positively it affected the British imperialists, as an example.

Thus a new chapter was written in the very upward march of the youngest and potentially most powerful nation in the capitalist world.

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