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My Life in Words

William McKinley and the Spanish-American War of 1898

The following is an exceprt from my final Senior Research project
Please disregard minor formatting issues

            The subject of the war between the United States and Spain has been under historical scrutiny since before it began.   War and conflict will always produce controversy, but the very nature of the way in which this one started arguably lent itself to an even more controversial nature than usual.   From the beginning of the Cuban insurrection in 1895, the United States was evenly divided over what the U.S. role should be.   The cries of War Hawks like Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge were counterbalanced by the unwillingness of those like President McKinley, Elihu Root, and John Hay to involve their country in a war, especially one that the majority of the country was not clearly united behind.   However, the decisions made by those around McKinley, as well as the President's own vacillations, may well have set the stage for it.

            Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris points out that even when it became clear that war was not in McKinley's plans for the immediate future, that did not keep Roosevelt from taking action on his own.    As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt became Acting Secretary whenever Secretary John Long left Washington.   During one of Long's trips to his home in New England, Roosevelt used this authority when he managed to secure Admiral George Dewey command of the Asiatic Station (Morris 1979, 614).   Dewey sailed for the Philippines on December 8, 1897, a move that was also engineered by Roosevelt while Long was out of Washington, effectively setting Dewey up for the battle he would so handily win in Manila Bay (Morris 1979, 616).   Roosevelt continued his push for war indirectly, speaking out for preparedness, seemingly at every opportunity.   In one example, Morris writes, "Roosevelt warned of 'serious consequences' for the Navy Department if it allowed itself to drift unprepared into war" (Morris 1979, 620).   Having put his people and plans in place, all Roosevelt had to do was wait for a spark.   When the Maine was sunk and public opinion looked as though it might shift his way, Roosevelt's voice grew louder.   In his analysis of the war, Warren Zimmerman writes, "Roosevelt wasted no time in assigning blame for the sinking.   In Hearst's New York Journal two days after, the subhead of the lead story proclaimed: 'Assistant Secretary Roosevelt Convinced the Explosion of the War Ship Was Not an Accident'" (Zimmerman 2002, 242).  

            Roosevelt's compatriot and close friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, had a good deal to do with his ability to accomplish this.   As Zimmerman points out in regards to Roosevelt's maneuvering, "Lodge saw what Roosevelt was doing and no doubt approved of it, thereby putting the stamp of the jingoes in the Senate on it" (Zimmerman 2002, 244).   Lodge did not only stand behind Roosevelt, though.   On the floor of the Senate he was outspokenly in favor of the war.   In addition, he often had the ear of the President and rarely hesitated to use that to his advantage.   After the sinking of the Maine, shows of strong public support grew.   Newspaper articles, opinion articles, and letters to the editor began to show that the public was lining up behind McKinley in preparation for war.   Lodge used this shift in opinion, in no subtle way, to try to sway McKinley.   Zimmerman quotes Lodge as writing to McKinley, "It is equally true that this unanimity of support, so freely and patriotically given, would disintegrate in a day if there were to be hesitation or weakness shown in dealing with the Maine incident or the Cuban question at large..." (Zimmerman 2002, 258).   Lodge, it seems, is attempting to push the President over to his side of the fence.

            Elihu Root, on the other hand, not yet an official member of McKinley's staff but still a close personal advisor, was much more cautious in his stance towards the war.   In March of 1897, McKinley had asked Root to act as a minister to Spain, even promising to make it an embassy position (Jessup 1938, 196).   Root declined the offer, however.   According to Root biographer and personal friend Philip Jessup,

"The controlling reason which he gave to McKinley was that the adjustment of such a matter required intimate and friendly and informal talks.   Exchanges of official calls and formal notes would be futile.   It was essential that the negotiator be able to converse freely with the Spanish in their own language" (Jessup 1938, 196).

This was a major setback for McKinley because, as Jessup states, "He believed that Root could do it; he knew of no one else who could" (Jessup 1938, 196).   This move may very well have signaled to McKinley that a diplomatic solution with Spain was not plausible, pushing him more towards war.   Root's reasoning was sound though, and little argument could be made against it.   Despite the rejection, Root's words for the President were usually strongly favorable.   At one point he wrote to a friend, "If we are to have war with Spain, and I assume that we are, the President should lead and not be pushed.   He has deserved and won endless praise at home and abroad for his judicious and courageous restraint both upon himself and upon his people" (Jessup 1938, 196).   Note his acknowledgement that war seems inevitable.   While his language shows a great deal of respect for the President's leadership, it is ignorant of the fact that Root himself may have pushed both McKinley and the country towards war by turning down the aforementioned offer.  

            John Hay, although not yet Secretary of State, was also a strong voice to McKinley for caution.   During the time leading up to the war, Hay was serving as American ambassador to England.   From this post he was able to gauge European reaction to the growing crisis and offer the President more of an international view of the situation.   It was through Hay's skill as a negotiator that the British became in favor of the American policy, even if that meant military intervention, so long as McKinley exhausted all other possible options first.   Because of his previous experience in the House, McKinley understood the nature of foreign relations and the importance of not having Great Britain as an enemy.   No doubt this also played a part in his cautious attitude towards war.

            President McKinley himself viewed war in an entirely different manner than either Roosevelt or Lodge, tending more to fall more on the side of caution, as Root himself notes in his above statement.   McKinley was personally opposed to war as a result of his combat service in the Civil War.   As biographer Kevin Philips puts it, he was, "influenced by a personal distaste" (Phillips 2003, 92). In one of his most notable quotes regarding this he said, "'I shall never get into a war until I am sure God and Man approve.   I have been through one war; I have seen the dead piled up; and I do not want to see another'" (Phillips 2003, 92). He did, however, recognize that it remained a real option, although it seems that he did not recognize the level that the situation had reached, especially in terms of human rights.   This combination of conflicting factors left him on unsure ground, which made dealing with both enemies and allies difficult.   As Phillips writes, "Foes charged him with vacillation and indecision, of which there was some" (Phillips 2003, 94).   He does go on to argue that all of McKinley's "postponements, ambiguities, and hesitations" were justified (Phillips 2003, 94).   However justified they may have been, this does not account for the fact that in not adapting a strong stance one way or another, McKinley allowed the hawks like Roosevelt and Lodge a great deal of room to lay the groundwork necessary to push the country their way.

            Ultimately, neither McKinley, nor his advisors, nor his opponents were directly responsible for the shift in public opinion towards favoring war.   On February 15, the USS Maine ,   which had been sent to Havana Harbor to safeguard U.S. interests there, suffered an explosion and sunk within minutes, killing a total of 262 American soldiers.   The U.S. Navy conducted its own independent investigation, but several private newspapers sponsored private investigations as well.   Hearst's aforementioned Journal , according to Edmund Morris, "published no fewer than eight pages of 'conclusive' data" (Morris 1979, 628).   The paper blamed what it called an "infernal machine," that was either launched or planted by the Spanish and detonated, causing the explosion (Morris 1979, 628).   The Navy's own inquiry determined that there had been two explosions, the first by a mine on the outside of the ship, which had triggered the second, much larger explosion in its magazine.   The inquiry was unable to determine who was responsible for the incident, but as Zimmerman points out, "McKinley knew that its findings would resonate in the country with hardly less force than the explosions themselves" (Zimmerman 2002, 258).   It was clear that the American public, having been primed by Roosevelt and others, would blame the Spanish.

            At the same time Americans were waiting for the naval review board's report on the Maine , they received a very different bit of information.   Senator Redford Proctor of Vermont returned from a visit to Cuba and gave a speech on the Senate floor in regards to the plight of the Cuban people themselves.   Zimmerman's account of the speech reads as follows:

Proctor's reputation for probity brought home to Americans the evils of the Spanish concentration camps.   His speech had a special effect on the business community, which was still hesitant about fighting Spain.   Former President Benjamin Harrison commented that no parliamentary speech in the past fifty years had 'so powerfully affected the public sentiment.' (Zimmerman 2002, 257)

In this way, the spark Roosevelt and his compatriots were looking for came on two fronts at almost the same exact time.   The groundwork they had laid would now make the road to war smooth traveling, with McKinley reluctantly in tow.

            McKinley requested a declaration of war from Congress on April 11, 1898, and received it on April 25.   By that point, though, the decision had already been made for him.   The evidence largely eliminates the idea put forth by George that, when dealing with a crisis, "in some confrontations a prudent approach to crisis management may require policy makers to slow down the momentum of events and to deliberately create pauses in crisis developments in order to give both sides time to make careful, well-considered decisions" (George 1991, 7).   The inability of the administration to make an agreement with Spain had already guaranteed a crisis.   The fervor whipped up by Roosevelt, Lodge, and the Jingoist press further guaranteed that when said crisis arrived, little room would be given for any such "careful, well-considered decisions."   What is supported, however, is Tanter's argument on the power of staff and advisors on policy in a crisis situation.   In this case, Edwards and Wayne were also correct in assuming that rationality could not play a large role.   This was also in large part due to the low level of control McKinley was able to maintain over his advisors, especially Roosevelt, in terms of following the party line.   McKinley had a pretty easy decision after all was said and done.   The people that McKinley surrounded himself with, in combination with the events and the outside influences provided by the press and the public, as well as his own personal dispositions, made certain that it was the crisis that would lead him, and not him leading the country into the crisis.



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