America's Imperialist War of 1898
One hundred years ago, in 1898, the United States was fighting the Spanish-American War. The victory over Spain made the United States a colonial power. The Spanish colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, as well as the formerly independent nation of Hawaii, became American possessions.
The excuse for entering the war was the rebellion by the Cubans against Spanish rule and the explosion of an American battleship. The Spanish colonies in mainland North and South America became independent in the early 1800s, but Cuba and Puerto Rico remained Spanish. Many U.S.-Americans sympathized with the insurrections in Cuba which began in 1895, and also, maybe more importantly, U.S. citizens owned $50 million worth of real estate and industry in Cuba. William McKinley became president in 1897, and later that year the Spanish prime minister was assassinated. After brutal rule that included concentration camps, Spain granted Cuba limited autonomy on January 1, 1898, but that was too little, too late. On January 12, there was a riot in Cuba against the Spanish.
On January 25, the U.S. government, concerned about disorder in Cuba, sent the battleship USS Maine to Havana. On February 15, the ship exploded, killing 266 crewmen. This raised a big outcry in the United States and the call to "Remember the Maine!" On March 28, the Naval Court of Inquiry reported that the Maine was destroyed by a mine, and did not assign the blame to any party. Many newspapers, however, stirred up outrage and called for war. On April 11, 1898, President McKinley asked Congress to declare war. On April 22, the Unites States was at war with Spain. The U.S. Postal Service has commemorated the Spanish American war, not directly, but with a stamp picturing the Maine and the inscription "REMEMBER THE MAINE" (in quotes).
Spain was by this time a decaying, weak empire, and no match for a vigorous, muscular American military kept in shape by killing American Indians. On May 1, U.S. ships under Commodore Dewey, sent from Hong Kong to the Philippines, won the Battle of Manila Bay. On May 15, Theodore Roosevelt began training his Rough Riders for battles in Cuba, which brought him the fame that made him vice president in 1901 and then president on September 13 after McKinley was assassinated. Roosevelt would later split the Republican presidential ticket in the election of 1912, enabling Wilson to win the presidency and bring the U.S. into World War I, which then led to World War II, the holocaust and the Cold War. All this because a battleship exploded in 1898.
On June 6, the U.S. military landed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. By July 3, the Spanish fleet in Cuba was destroyed. On July 25, the US Army invaded Puerto Rico. On August 13, U.S. troops took Manila in the Philippines. On December 10, 1898, the war was over. The United States was now a global colonial power, with territory in Latin America, the Pacific Ocean, and eastern Asia. To show the imperialist mentality of the time, the Cubans, who had helped defeat Spain, were not invited to the surrender ceremonies and the Treaty of Paris that concluded the war.
The Spanish American War also led to the annexation of Hawaii. There had been proposals for annexation during that decade, and on July 7 1898, on the excuse that Hawaii was needed as a naval military base for the war against Spain, the U.S. annexed Hawaii.
The colonial subjects in the Philippines then began to fight the U.S. instead of Spain. The insurrection in the Philippines began in 1899, which Roosevelt declared pacified in 1902. In Cuba, U.S. military rule ended in 1902, with the provision that the U.S. government had the right to intervene and held perpetual rights at Guantanamo Bay, which the U.S. still retains.
The Philippines became independent after World War II, while the U.S. possession of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico remains suspended between the pull of statehood and the appeal of independence. The emergence of the United States as a global power was a global disaster, as it led to the U.S. entry into World War I, which by dismantling the Austrian empire, led the way to the German Nazi conquest of Europe during World War II and to millions of horrible deaths, and then to the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and the nuclear threat that still threatens us.
As always, the war with Spain was a struggle for land. Governments have fought to dominate land, because as Franz Oppenheimer has written in his great work The State, oppressive state power originates in the conquest of territory. This continues because the popular global culture considers "countries" to have sovereign rights over their subjugated lands. Landowners and governments reap the fruits of the land, the rent, by the force of arms and armed rule, taxing the enterprise and labor of the subjects.
Not until we recognize that sovereignty resides in each individual human being, not in governments, will statist nationalism give way to the recognition that the rent of land belongs to global and local human communities. When the rent is no longer spoils that belongs to the victor, then shall the scourge of war be no more, and humanity will enjoy true peace with economic justice.