In This Article Spanish-American War

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Select Contemporaneous Sources
  • Prewar Diplomacy and Agitation

Latino Studies Spanish-American War
by
Paul T. McCartney
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0024

Introduction

The Spanish-American War marked a watershed in American history, when the United States first announced its intention to assert great-power status in world politics with meaningful, concrete policies. The war began as an intervention into the Spanish-Cuban conflict, a nationalist revolt by the Cubans that had been intermittently engaged for decades but had resumed with unusual ferocity in 1895. The fact that the United States emerged from the conflict with a set of colonies extending from Puerto Rico to the Philippines has fueled a wide range of interpretations about whether the American decision to intervene in Cuba was motivated by the desire to engage in empire building, or whether the decisions to start the war and acquire an empire were made independently of each other. The evidence is ambiguous; those relying on an economic approach to explaining US behavior gravitate to the former view, while those whose interpretive lens trains on cultural and ideological variables tend to adopt the position that the war was engaged in for the humanitarian purposes stated by American leaders, while imperialism represented a distinct policy choice. President William McKinley’s intentions are shrouded, and they seem to hold the key to understanding whether the United States fought Spain in 1898 for primarily selfish or compassionate reasons. Certainly for the mass public in 1898, and most likely for many policymakers as well, American intervention in the Spanish-Cuban War was initiated primarily for humanitarian purposes. Consequently, many Americans felt surprise and betrayal when their country’s “noble” undertaking resulted in an unprecedented imperialist experiment. A massive debate about America’s identity and role in the world seized the nation. Few seemed to notice or care, though, that neither the Cubans, for whom the United States ostensibly started fighting, nor the Filipinos, who occupied the most significant colony after the war, were allowed to participate in this debate. Many questions of intent still remain unresolved. A complicated affair of tremendous significance, the Spanish-American War has invited a huge body of scholarship, much of which invites us to think in fresh ways about American foreign policy and national identity.

General Overviews

Several approaches can provide the reader with a general understanding of the Spanish-American War and its significance. Historical overviews of the Era impart domestic context and flavor, while general overviews of US Foreign Policy can generate the benefit of a longer-term perspective. Of most immediate salience, of course, are overviews of the Conflict itself, especially when they integrate broad analytic perspectives with rich historical detail.

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