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Spoils of war

Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico became territories of the United States as part of the terms of the Treaty of Paris that officially ended the Spanish-American War of 1898. Since the war’s inception, scholars have written much about the motives behind United States’ policy makers’ decision to go to war with Spain, a war that thrust America into a new role as an imperial power. Scholars have vigorously disagreed about the main factors behind the decision to go to war. Those factors range from purely humanitarian reasons to a more sinister conspiracy theory.

An example of one the theories claims that the US was guided solely by selfish economic motives to lift itself out of the effects of the worst economic depressions it had experienced up to that point and then make itself a dominant world economic power. The war with Cuba was simply the excuse needed to take control of Guam and the Philippines and to extend American hegemony into the Asia/Pacific region where unrestrained access to the China market would help alleviate America’s economic woes.

Another recent proposed factor is the role that “gender politics” played in the decision for war. According to this thesis, US President William McKinley was pressured into supporting war so as not to appear weak and effeminate to the American people. They expected a strong manly chivalrous response to help save Cuba (portrayed as a “damsel in distress” in political cartoons and speeches) and assist Cuban rebels who had been fighting for their independence from Spain since 1895.

Headed for war

When the Cuban rebellion started, the US tried to remain neutral, but the so-called “yellow press” (unscrupulous newspapers) kept the conflict before the American public, and by focusing on Spanish atrocities, the press made it difficult for Americans to maintain a neutral stance.

On 9 February 1898, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal published the contents of a December 1897 letter that Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, Spanish ambassador to the US, had written to José Canalejas, a Spanish friend and Madrid newspaper editor who was then in Cuba. Dupuy described McKinley as:

weak and catering to the rabble, and, besides, a low politician, who desires to leave a door open to me and to stand well with the jingoes of his party.

Other parts of his letter led Americans to believe that Spain was not sincere in its efforts to bring an end to its war against the Cuban rebels. When Hearst published Dupuy’s letter, the USS Maine had been in Havana harbor for 15 days. With Spain’s permission, President McKinley had sent the battleship to protect American lives and property in Havana after some recent rioting. Then on the evening of 15 February, an explosion sank the battleship and killed 264 sailors and two officers. America’s “yellow press” blamed Spain, despite a lack of evidence.

Many in America now thought war with Spain was inevitable, including US Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt. Ten days after the sinking of the USS Maine, Roosevelt, while serving as acting Navy secretary, sent a cable to Commodore George Dewey, commander of America’s Asiatic Squadron then anchored near Nagasaki, Japan. The cable stated:

Secret and confidential. Order the (Asiatic) squadron, except Monocacy to Hongkong. Keep full of coal. In the event of declaration of war Spain, your duty will be to see that the Spanish squadron does not leave the Asiatic coast, and then offensive operations in Philippine Islands. Keep Olympia (Dewey’s flagship) until further orders.

Roosevelt’s order was in accordance with a contingency plan developed by a “special board” of the US Navy in June 1897 in case America went to war with Spain over Cuba. The board’s plan included an attack on Manila, Philippines to deprive Spain of a naval base and source of revenue.

Presidents seeks congressional approval

President McKinley finally decided to send a message to the US Congress on 11 April 1898. After describing the many failed American efforts to negotiate a non-military solution to end the hostilities, McKinley asked Congress to authorize him to use the American armed forces to intervene as a neutral nation and stop both the Cuban rebels and the Spanish forces from fighting. In its response to McKinley’s message, Congress went beyond his request.

On 19 April 1898, it passed a joint resolution that recognized Cuban independence (but did not recognize the Cuban Republic), told the Spanish government and armed forces to leave Cuba, authorized the president to use America’s armed forces to support Cuban independence and kick Spain out of Cuba, and declared that America had no intention of exercising sovereignty over Cuba.

Despite Congress having gone beyond his original request, McKinley signed the joint resolution on 20 April and ordered a Naval blockade of Cuba on 21 April. Spain considered the joint resolution and the blockade to be acts of war, and it broke diplomatic relations with the United States on 23 April. Congress then formally declared war on Spain on 25 April, making it retroactive to 21 April when the blockade was established.

Following orders to implement his part of the 1897 Navy contingency plan, Commodore Dewey sailed to Manila Bay and sank the Spanish fleet off the coast of Cavite on 1 May 1898. Upon hearing of Dewey’s success in Manila Bay, President McKinley took a new interest in perhaps holding on to a portion of the Philippines after the war was over. On 2 May, he ordered US Army troops to be dispatched to Manila Bay to reinforce America’s naval presence.

Orders to seize Guam

At the same time, American Naval personnel showed a new interest in another Spanish possession in the western Pacific. On 9 May, the US Naval War Board advised Secretary of the Navy John Davis Long that the US should seize the Spanish possession of Guam in Micronesia. The next day, Secretary Long issued sealed orders that were to be given to Captain Henry Glass, commander of the USS Charleston, when his ship departed Honolulu for Manila with the first contingent of US troops.

The sealed orders stated:

Sir: Upon the receipt of this order, which is forwarded by the steamship City of Pekin to you at Honolulu, you will proceed, with the Charleston and the City of Pekin in company, to Manila, Philippine Islands. On your way, you are hereby directed to stop at the Spanish Island of Guam. You will use such force as may be necessary to capture the port of Guam, making prisoners of the governor and other officials and any armed force that may be there. You will destroy any fortifications on said island and any Spanish Naval vessels that may be there, or in the immediate vicinity. These operations at the Island of Guam should be very brief, and should not occupy more than one or two days. Should you find any coal at the Island of Guam, you will make such use of it as you consider desirable. It is left to your discretion whether or not you destroy it. From the Island of Guam, proceed to Manila and report to Rear-Admiral George Dewey, USN, for duty in the squadron under his command.

Glass first read the orders on 4 June, when his ship left Honolulu, and he followed them to the letter.

On 20 June, the USS Charleston sailed into Guam’s Apra Harbor and fired a few cannon shots. Soon a small boat with four Spaniards, including a Lieutenant Gutierrez, approached the Charleston. The Spaniards apologized for not being able to return the salute due to a lack of gunpowder.

Then they were surprised to learn that Spain and America were now at war and that they were now prisoners. Glass asked Gutierrez to inform Governor Juan Marina of the new situation and have him board the Charleston to discuss surrender terms. Marina refused, claiming that Spanish law prohibited him from boarding the ship, but he asked that Glass come on shore instead.

The following day, 21 June, Glass sent Lieutenant William Braunersreuther to deliver an ultimatum to Marina. In his report to Glass of what transpired on shore, Braunersreuther’s wrote:

On reaching the landing at Petey [Piti], under a flag of truce, I was met by the Governor-General with his staff, and after a formal introduction, I at once handed to the governor your ultimatum, noting the time, 10.15 a.m. I called attention to the fact that but one half hour would be given for a reply, and casually informed the governor that he had better take into consideration the fact we had in the harbor three transports loaded with troops and one war vessel of a very formidable nature. He thanked me, and retired to a building near by with his advisors. Twenty-nine minutes later he reappeared, and handing me a sealed envelope addressed to commanding officer of the CHARLESTON, informed me that this was his reply. I broke the seal. While doing so, he again and very hastily remarked: ‘Ah! but that is for the commandante.’ I replied ‘I represent him here,’ and requested the governor to read his letter. He did so, and after studying it a few moments, I said ‘Gentlemen, you are now my prisoners; you will have to repair on board the CHARLESTON with me.’

They protested, pleading that they had not anticipated anything of the kind; had no clothing other than what they had on; that they all had property interests and families, and numerous other protests. I assured them that they could send messages to their families to send clothes and anything else they might desire, and that I would have a boat ashore at 4 p.m. ready to take of their families as they might desire and give them a safe return to Petey.

The governor, after a short consultation with his advisers protested against being made a prisoner, saying I had come on shore under a flag of truce for an interchange of ideas on the condition of affairs, and that he now found himself and his officers prisoners. I replied I came on shore with orders from my commanding officer to deliver to him (the governor) a letter, and I had now in my possession his reply thereto, making a complete surrender of the entire place under his command. This alone, if it meant anything, permitted me to make any demands I desired and deemed proper to make. He agreed, and I then gave him ten minutes in which to write an order to his military authority in Agana, directing him to have at this landing at Petey at 4 p.m. the 54 Spanish soldiers with their arms, accoutrements, and all ammunition, together with all the Spanish flags in the place (four in all), the two lieutenants of the companies to march the soldiers down. This letter was written, read by me, and sent to Agana. A general demur was made at the hour fixed upon, but I insisted that it must be done.

I then gave all the officers an opportunity to write letters to their families, which letters were by me considered private, and which left their hands unread by anyone but the parties concerned.

This being concluded at 11:30, I embarked with the governor and his staff, consisting of a doctor, the captain of the port, and the secretary to the governor.

After the Spanish authorities surrendered to the Americans in Piti, the American flag was raised over Fort Santa Cruz, and the crew of the Charleston gave a 21 gun salute while bands on the ships played the “Star-Spangled Banner.” With all Spanish troops and government officials aboard the US transports, Glass sailed for Manila on June 22.

Treaty of Paris

At this point, it was unclear what the future of Guam and the Philippines would be regarding whether or not they would remain under Spanish rule, become independent, or if another major power would take control. This matter became clear only after the short sixteen-week war officially ended on 12 August 1898. In October, negotiations for a final peace treaty began in Paris, France, and final disposition of Spain’s colonial possessions, especially the Philippines, became a contentious issue. When the American and Spanish negotiators finally signed the Treaty of Paris on 10 December 1898, one of its provisions gave possession and control of Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico to the United States, with a stipulation in Article 9:

The civil rights and political status of the native inhabitants of the territories hereby ceded to the United States shall be determined by the Congress.

At no time were the Chamorros consulted on what they wanted for themselves or what would happen in their homeland. The issue of partitioning Guam from the Northern Marianas was not discussed with them either.

The US bought from Spain all of the Philippines and Guam for a mere $20 million. American possession of these territories became final when the US Senate ratified the treaty on 6 February 1899.

By Donald L. Platt, PhD

For further reading

Grenville, John AS. “American Naval Preparations for War with Spain, 1896 1898.” Journal of American Studies 2, no. 1 (April 1968): 33-47.

Hoganson, Kristin. Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

LaFeber, Walter. The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1963.

Musicant, Ivan. Empire by Default: the Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1998.

Offner, John L. An Unwanted War: The Diplomacy of the United States and Spain Over Cuba, 1895-1898. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Trask, David F. The War with Spain in 1898. New York: Macmillan Press, 1981.