Spanish-American War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Dubbed the “Splendid Little War” because of its brevity and excellent results for American interests, the Spanish-American War is often viewed as one of the key events in the American rise to international power. American participation in the war resulted, in large measure, from the activities and pressure brought to bear by business magnates and government officials who favored vast development of the U.S. military as a precursor to expanding American economic markets and political interests abroad, especially in Asia.

In the decades before the Spanish-American War, the U.S. economy was plagued by the national debt, resulting in large measure from the U.S. Civil War, a downturn in agricultural prices, high unemployment due to the failure of many railroads, the demise of those investors and banks that had paid for the railroads, the declining value of stocks, and little growth in domestic markets. Business leaders, government officials, and academics teamed together to find viable markets abroad. The ideas of one thinker in particular, Frederick Jackson Turner, Frederick JacksonTurner, caught the attention of businessmen, politicians, military leaders, and missionaries alike. Turner asserted that by the 1890’s the American frontier had disappeared and that it was essential for Americans to maintain a frontier spirit, if the nation was to survive.Spanish-American War

Soon, new views of Manifest DestinyManifest Destiny, as well as Turner’s thoughts, had been adopted by leading members of the Republican Party, among them Theodore Roosevelt, William McKinley, Henry Cabot Lodge, and John Hay. Republicans combined the concept of Manifest Destiny with Turner’s theories and then added some of the opinions of Captain Alfred Mahan, who advocated that the United States construct a world-class “blue-water” navy, capable of operating effectively in international settings. In his work, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1600-1783 (1890), Mahan had argued for the need to annex certain Caribbean islands, Hawaii, and the Philippines to protect U.S. commercial interests.

With McKinley, WilliamMcKinley as their candidate, the Republicans prepared a winning platform for the presidential election of 1896. It called for building a “steel and blue-water” navy, constructing an isthmian canal somewhere in the Western Hemisphere, obtaining access to foreign markets through reciprocal trade agreements, annexing Hawaii, and seeking new markets in Asia. McKinley easily defeated his Democratic opponent, William Jennings Bryan, and won the presidency.

The Path of the War

Ongoing Cuban rebellions such as the Ten Years’ War and the uprising of 1895 caught the attention of American businessmen and government officials. American investments on the island had reached approximately $50 million, and import-export trade with CubaCuba in 1896 totaled some $100 million. The American business community feared that armed rebellion might disrupt trade and urged President McKinley to intervene in the situation. Reports of Spanish cruelty in Cuba were being funneled from the island to jingoistic American journalists, who, with their special brand of “yellow journalism,” highlighted the worst of the Cuban condition.

The explosion of the U.S. battleship Maine on February 15, 1898, was the determining factor in pushing the nation into war. The final report of the investigatory commission of the Judge Advocate of the Navy found that the explosion had been caused by a mine. The commission found insufficient evidence to fix responsibility for the explosion on any person or entity, but U.S. public opinion had been whipped into a frenzy, as yellow journalists blamed the Spanish.

The United States declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898. Congress immediately appropriated $50 million to be used at the president’s discretion and authorized the use of tariffs and a national inheritance tax to fund the war effort. A maximum rate of 15 percent was applied to estates valued over $1 million that were left to distant relatives, nonrelatives, or other entities. Military defeat of the Spaniards was quick. Spain and the United States signed a peace protocol ending the conflict on August 12, 1898.


Economic and political benefits of the war were abundant for the United States. In July, McKinley had authorized the annexation of Hawaii, annexation ofHawaii. Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, signed on December 10, 1898, Spain immediately ceded its colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam to American control and soon sold the Philippines at a cost of $20 million. As a result, the United States came to enjoy a foothold in Asia, a stronger presence in the Caribbean in Puerto Rico, and relations with a friendly power in Cuba, which was guaranteed its independence. McKinley undertook his plan to build an isthmian canal, which resulted directly in the building of the Panama Canal. The U.S. economy was now booming. The nation’s international prestige grew, and the United States was on course to become a great power. The direct cost of the war was approximately $283 million.

Further Reading
  • Cosmas, Graham A. An Army for Empire: The United States Army in the Spanish-American War. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1971. Detailed and carefully documented history and analysis of the role of the Army in every aspect of the war; an indispensable source.
  • McCartney, Paul T. Power and Progress: American National Identity, the War of 1898, and the Rise of American Imperialism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007. This excellent work situates the war in its cultural context and considers the important role played by the search for American national identity.
  • Musicant, Ivan. Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century. New York: Henry Holt, 1998. Perhaps the finest analysis to date of the causes of the war, its conduct, and its end results.
  • 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. Interesting comparison of the events leading up to this “unwanted” war, from both the American and the Spanish perspectives.
  • O’Toole, G. J. A. The Spanish War: An American Epic, 1898. New York: W. W. Norton, 1984. This study not only offers a clear chronology of the events leading up to and during the war but also provides significant insights into the period that are abundantly documented through personal correspondence.

Asian trade with the United States

European trade with the United States

Latin American trade with the United States

Panama Canal


Categories: History