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The War Lovers

When war was considered glorious.

(Page 2 of 2)

Others, like Roosevelt (who would actually fight in the war) and his ideological brethren, were obsessed with maintaining America’s vigor. Whether the US was more concerned about the plight of oppressed Cubans or its own future as an emerging world power remains an open question. Perhaps it was a bit of both.
Whatever the reason, the war against Spain began in April 1898. By August, it was over. In the wake of America’s “liberation” of Cuba, the US immediately replaced Spanish tyranny with its own brand of imperialism, which would last until the mid-20th century.

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Nor was America’s imperial project confined to Cuba. The acquisition of the Philippines, part of the Spanish Empire, was another consequence of the war. According to the US Navy’s war plan, in the event of a conflict with Spain, America would seize the island chain. With the start of the war, a Navy squadron steamed to Manila Bay and easily accomplished its mission.

A ferocious domestic debate ensued, since it was not at all clear why the US needed the Philippines. It was America’s duty to uplift the Filipinos, some declared, while others thought controlling the islands would open the vast markets of Asia to American exports.

But opponents of annexation were unconvinced, claiming imperial lust was an Old World practice that undermined American principles. Others recoiled at the thought of establishing a connection with the islanders, whose nonwhite racial identity made them repugnant.

In the end, President McKinley, helped (he said) by a message from God who guided the president as he weighed his options, backed annexation. In a close vote, the Senate agreed.

Once annexation was announced, war erupted between the US and the Filipinos. It was an extraordinarily brutal affair in which tens of thousands died. Not surprisingly, the islanders did not relish trading Spanish for American imperialism, which is precisely what happened. By the early 20th century, the US had become an imperial power.

Years later, as Roosevelt neared the end of his life, his love of war – and that’s what it was – would be severely tested. The man who had eagerly led his men into battle in Cuba learned that his youngest son, Quentin, had been killed in World War I.

Roosevelt never got over the death of his son. Day after day, he sat staring into space. Sometimes he could be heard repeating the boy’s childhood nickname, “Quen-tee, Quen-tee.”

Perhaps war was not so lovely after all.

Jonathan Rosenberg teaches American history at Hunter College and the City University of New York Graduate Center.


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