ON the island in the middle of Narragansett Bay where I live there are remnants of fortifications built in 1898 to protect against a Spanish fleet. Supposedly it was lurking somewhere in the Atlantic ready to pounce upon the great cities of America's Atlantic seaboard. Other such fortifications exist elsewhere along the coastline. Portland, Maine, has a special Spanish War memory. Its citizens so feared a Spanish naval attack, and Maine's congressional delegation was so demanding of protection, that Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt sent them a leftover Civil War monitor-style ironclad ship.
There was of course never the slightest possibility of a Spanish naval raid on the US seaboard in 1898.
At the time of the panic, the Spanish government in Madrid was doing its utmost to figure out how to surrender Cuba to the United States with some shred of dignity left. As for the Spanish fleet, part of it was soon blocked inside Santiago Harbor by Adm. William T. Sampson. Another part was cornered inside Manila Bay by Adm. George Dewey.
The ``threat'' from those Spanish ships was measured when the fighting began. It took Admiral Dewey's ships three hours and 14 minutes of shooting. At the end all Spanish ships had been sunk or were surrendered. In the American squadron one man died of heat exhaustion in a boiler room. There were no US combat casualties.
At Santiago, in Cuba the Spanish fleet had a choice of either surrendering or going down fighting. Gallantly it chose the latter course. They came out shooting. But every Spanish ship was either sunk or beached. There were no combat casualties aboard the victorious US ships. Captain Philip of the USS Texas made history by telling his crew, ``Don't cheer, boys, the poor fellows are dying.''
The alleged mistreatment of the Cuban people by the Spanish colonial government was the excuse for an American demand for an end to Spanish rule. The demand was given irresistible momentum by the blowing up of the US battleship Maine in Havana Harbor. It was assumed at the time that the Spanish had done it by an underwater mine. A recent examination of the hull indicated that it was probably sunk by an internal, not an external, explosion.
On the day before Congress declared war on Spain in 1898, the US ambassador in Madrid cabled President William McKinley in Washington that if nothing were done to humiliate Spain, he could obtain a settlement of the Cuban question on any terms Washington required, from autonomy to actual cession to the US.
The President knew that he did not have to have a war in order to resolve his Cuban problem. A year later he 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.'' In the opinion of historian Samuel Eliot Morison, writing in his ``Oxford History of the American People,'' the decisive reason for McKinley's capitulation to war fever was ``the notion that if he did not give way the Republican Party would be broken.''
In other words, as in the US involvement in Vietnam, the US went to war against Spain in 1898 for domestic political reasons, not because a threat existed to the security of the US or because vital US interests were at stake. War fever had been built up largely by two newspaper publishers, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who were at the time engaged in a circulation war with each other.
The war was a tremendous political success in the US. Teddy Roosevelt rode it, via San Juan Hill, to the White House. The US ``liberated'' Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. But Cuba has continued to be a problem. Pushing out the Spaniards cleared the way, eventually, for Fidel Castro.
Today President Reagan is telling us that unless Congress gives $14 million to the contras in Nicaragua there will be ``a communist Central America with communist subversion spreading southward and northward.'' He adds that we face the risk that ``100 million people from Panama to our open southern border could come under the control of pro-Soviet regimes.''
I can't help remembering that nonexistent Spanish threat of 1898 and the nonexistent enemy ships in the Tonkin Gulf in 1964.