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A war story

By Joseph C. Harsch / April 29, 1980



On October 10 of the year 1898 the American Minister (today he would be a full Ambassador) in Madrid wrote out a cable to the President of the United States in Washington. The cable reported that the Spanish government was ready to settle the problem of Cuba on almost any terms. They were even ready, the US diplomat said, to cede Cuba to the United States.

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But two days later the President, William McKinley, sent a special message to Congress saying:

"I have exhausted every effort to relieve the intolerable condition of affairs which is at our doors. . . . . I await your action."

The Congress promptly declared war on Spain.

That was the beginning of a lot of modern history. Cuba was "liberated" by "Teddy" Roosevelt and his Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, plus some considerable work by the new US Navy, then in its vigorous youth. Spain was shown up to be an obsolete power incapable of holding onto the relics of what had once been one of the world's greatest empires.

Also, the United States picked up Puerto Rico and the Philippine Islands on the side. And Teddy was picked to run in the next presidential election for the vice-presidency alongside of President McKinley.

After the war was over, President McKinley said: "But for the inflamed state of public opinion and the fact that Congress could no longer be held in check, a peaceful solution might have been had."

Public opinion had been inflamed, indeed, by rival newspaper publishers seeking a popular cause. They had taken off all restraints after the US battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor. A naval court of inquiry claimed that the explosion had been caused by a submarine mine. Almost everyone assumed that the Spanish had done it deliberately.

There was no evidence then that such a mine, if it existed, was planted by the Spaniards. It would have been more plausible for the Cuban rebels to do it to cause exactly what did happen. The existence of such a mine was never proved. A much later investigation indicated that the explosion was internal, not external.

However, the popular press and the younger Republicans in Congress set up a clamor for war -- and persuaded the President to call for it even though he knew it was not necessary. He could have had the Spanish out of Central America through diplomacy, had he been willing to negotiate. But he thought the war would be good for his party. But was it?

That leads into a fascinating line of speculation. Had there been no Spanish war, Teddy Roosevelt would not have been nominated for the vice-presidency. He had become such a popular hero by that charge up San Juan Hill that he had to be recognized politically. The elders of the party distrusted him profoundly. They made him the vice-presidential nominee on the theory that it would keep him out of sight and trouble. They were horrified when an assassin's bullet struck down President McKinley and released Teddy into the White House itself.

American politics have not been the same since. Teddy served spectacularly through 1908, then stood aside for his chosen successor William Howard Taft. But after four years of Taft, Teddy insisted on coming back into politics and ran in 1912 as an independent "Progressive." That elected Woodrow Wilson, put the Democrats into office, and cleared the way for Teddy's Progressives to join up with the Democrats under Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. Those who followed Teddy in 1912 could never bring themselves to go back happily into the regular Republican Party.

Before the Teddy Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill the Republican Party was broadly based and rather to the left of the Democrats. Those blacks who did vote voted automatically for Republicans -- in gratitude to Abraham Lincoln and Emancipation. The small farmers and poorer war veterans looked to the Republicans for subsidies, cheap loans, and bonuses.

Teddy, not Franklin, Roosevelt is most responsible for the fact that our political parties today tend to divide ideologically -- Republicans on the right , Democrats on the left. And one can't help wondering whether Fidel Castro would be running Cuba for the benefit of Moscow today, if President McKinley had resisted the clamor for war back in 1898.

The moral of the story: Think twice before rushing into an unnecessary war.