During the Spanish-American War, the United States defeated Spanish troops in Cuba and the Philippines. Afterward, the United States annexed the Philippines and became an imperial power.

The Coming of War

Why was the United States willing to go to war with Spain over Cuba?

Cuba was one of Spain’s oldest colonies in the Americas. Its sugarcane plantations generated considerable wealth for Spain and produced nearly one-third of the world’s sugar in the mid-1800s. Until Spain abolished slavery in 1886, about one-third of the Cuban population was enslaved and forced to work for wealthy landowners on the plantations.

In 1868 Cuban rebels declared independence and launched a guerrilla war against Spanish authorities. Lacking internal support, the rebellion collapsed a decade later. Many Cuban rebels then fled to the United States, including their leader, José Martí.

By the early 1890s, the United States and Cuba had become closely linked economically. Cuba exported much of its sugar to the United States, and Americans had invested approximately $50 million in Cuba’s sugar plantations, mines, and railroads. These economic ties created a crisis in 1894, when the United States imposed a new tariff on sugar that devastated Cuba’s economy. With Cuba in financial distress, the Cuban rebels launched a new rebellion in February 1895. Martí died during the fighting, but the rebels seized control of eastern Cuba, declared independence, and formally established the Republic of Cuba in September 1895.

America Supports Cuba

When the uprising began, President Cleveland declared the United States neutral. However, stories of Spanish atrocities in two major newspapers, the New York Journal and the New York World, swayed many Americans in the rebels’ favor. The news reports, in which writers exaggerated or made up stories to attract readers, became known as yellow journalism. Although some stories were invented, Cubans indeed suffered horribly.

The Spanish sent nearly 200,000 troops to put down the rebellion. The rebels destroyed a considerable amount of property, some belonging to Americans, hoping to provoke American intervention in the war. To prevent villagers from helping the rebels, the Spanish herded hundreds of thousands of rural men, women, and children into “reconcentration camps,” where tens of thousands died of starvation and disease.

Calls for War

In 1897 William McKinley became president of the United States. In September 1897, he asked Spain whether the United States could help negotiate an end to the conflict, so that the United States would not have to intervene in the war. Spain removed the Spanish governor from office and offered the Cubans autonomy, but only if Cuba remained part of the Spanish Empire. The rebels refused to negotiate.

Spain’s concessions enraged many Spanish loyalists in Cuba. In January 1898, the loyalists rioted in Havana. McKinley sent the battleship USS Maine to Havana to protect Americans living there. Then, on February 15, 1898, the Maine exploded in Havana Harbor. To this day, no one is sure why the Maine exploded. Many Americans believed the Spanish did it. “Remember the Maine!” became the rallying cry for war against Spain.

McKinley faced tremendous pressure to go to war. Within the Republican Party, jingoism —aggressive nationalism—was very strong. On April 11, 1898, McKinley asked Congress to authorize the use of force. On April 19, Congress proclaimed Cuba independent, demanded that Spain withdraw from the island, and authorized the president to use armed force. On April 24, Spain declared war on the United States.

When trying to learn a lot of new ideas, names, and events, use the words who, what, when, and where to ask questions. As you read about the war between Spain and the United States, use words you know in the questions.

A War on Two Fronts


How was the Spanish-American War different from earlier U.S. wars?

The U.S. Navy was ready for war with Spain. The navy blockaded Cuba, and Commodore George Dewey, commander of the American naval squadron based in Hong Kong, was ordered to attack the Spanish fleet based in the Philippines, then a Spanish colony. American naval planners wanted to prevent the Spanish fleet from sailing east to attack the United States.

The Battle of Manila Bay

On May 1, 1898, the American ships in Dewey’s squadron entered Manila Bay in the Philippines. They quickly destroyed the Spanish fleet. Dewey’s quick victory surprised McKinley. Hastily, the army assembled 20,000 troops to sail from San Francisco to the Philippines. On the way, the Americans also seized the island of Guam, another Spanish possession.

While waiting for the American troops to arrive, Dewey contacted Emilio Aguinaldo, a Filipino revolutionary leader who had staged an unsuccessful uprising against the Spanish in 1896. Now, while Aguinaldo and his rebels took control of most of the islands, American troops seized the Philippine capital of Manila.

American Forces in Cuba

The Spanish in Cuba were not prepared for war. Their soldiers were weak and sick, and their warships were old with untrained crews. If the United States could defeat the Spanish fleet, Spain would not be able to supply its troops in Cuba. Eventually, Spain would have to surrender.

The U.S. Army was not prepared for war, either. The army had recruited volunteers but lacked proper resources to train and equip them. One volunteer cavalry unit was a rough mix of cowboys, miners, and law officers known as the “Rough Riders.” Theodore Roosevelt was second in command.


Between June 22 and 24, some 17,000 U.S. troops had landed east of Santiago, Cuba. The Spanish fleet, well protected by powerful shore-based guns, occupied Santiago Harbor. Americans wanted to capture those guns to drive the Spanish fleet out of the harbor and into battle with the American fleet waiting nearby.

On July 1, American troops attacked Spanish positions near Santiago and the San Juan Heights. The Rough Riders and the all African American 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments attacked and held Kettle Hill, then assisted in the capture of San Juan Hill. In Santiago the Spanish commander ordered the Spanish fleet to flee the harbor. On July 3, American warships attacked them, destroying every Spanish vessel. Later, the Spanish in Santiago surrendered, leaving American troops to occupy nearby Puerto Rico.

An American Empire


How did the United States develop an overseas empire?

As American and Spanish leaders met to discuss the terms for a peace treaty, Americans debated what to do about their newly acquired lands. Cuba would receive its independence as promised, and Spain had agreed to the U.S. annexation of Guam and Puerto Rico. The big question was what to do with the Philippines. The United States faced a difficult choice—remain true to its republican ideals or become an imperial power that ruled a foreign country without the consent of its people. The issue sparked an intense political debate.



The Debate Over Annexation

Many people emphasized the economic and military benefits of taking the Philippines. It would provide another Pacific naval base, a stopover on the way to China, and a large market for American goods. Others believed America had a duty to help “less civilized” peoples. “Surely this Spanish war has not been a grab for the empire,” commented one minister, “but a heroic effort [to] free the oppressed and to teach millions of ignorant, debased human beings thus freed how to live.”

Not all Americans supported annexation. An anti-imperialist movement quickly formed and many prominent Americans voiced their opposition to the United States becoming an imperial power. Andrew Carnegie argued that the cost of empire far outweighed the economic benefits. Samuel Gompers, the head of the American Federation of Labor, worried that competition from cheap Filipino labor would drive down American wages. The social worker and reformer Jane Addams and the writer Samuel Clemens both believed imperialism violated American principles and traditions. Many people argued that it was inconsistent for a democratic-republic founded on the idea of self-government to rule over others who would have no say in who was appointed to rule them.

Despite the objections of anti-imperialists, President McKinley ultimately decided to annex the islands. He later explained his reasoning as follows:

“When I next realized that the Philippines had dropped into our laps I confess I did not know what to do with them. I sought counsel from all sides—Democrats as well as Republicans—but got little help. . . . And one night late it came to me this way—I don’t know how it was, but it came: (1) That we could not give them back to Spain—that would be cowardly and dishonorable; (2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) that we could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government—and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and (4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died."

—James Rusling, “Interview with President William McKinley,” The Christian Advocate, January 1903

McKinley's thinking blended the ideas of many military and business leaders with the ideas of Anglo-Saxonism. On December 10, 1898, the United States and Spain signed the Treaty of Paris, under which Cuba became independent. Also, the United States acquired Puerto Rico and Guam and paid Spain $20 million for the Philippines. After an intense debate, the Senate approved the treaty in February 1899.

1898: A Turning Point

The year 1898 was a major turning point in American history. In just a few short months, the United States had defeated a European nation, demonstrated that its navy was one of the most powerful in the world, and had acquired its own empire. The reputation of the United States for being a nation that did not involve itself in global affairs was shattered. Increasingly the world's other great powers had to take American perspectives and policies into account, and in the years ahead the United States would find itself drawn into issues and events thousands of miles from its own shores. After 1898, the United States had become a world power.



The Platt Amendment

Although the United States had promised to grant Cuba its independence, conditions were attached to the new Cuban constitution. The Platt Amendment, submitted by Senator Orville Platt, specified the following: (1) Cuba could not make any treaty with another nation that would weaken its independence; (2) Cuba had to allow the United States to buy or lease naval stations in Cuba; (3) Cuba’s debts had to be kept low to prevent foreign countries from landing troops to enforce payment; and (4) the United States would have the right to intervene to protect Cuban independence and keep order. The Platt Amendment, which effectively made Cuba an American protectorate, remained in effect until its repeal in 1934.

Governing Puerto Rico

In 1900 Congress passed the Foraker Act, establishing a civil government for Puerto Rico. The law provided for an elected legislature, and a governor and executive council that were appointed by the U.S. president. Congress gradually allowed Puerto Ricans greater self-government. In 1917 it granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship. Thirty years later, Puerto Ricans were allowed to elect their own governor. A debate eventually began over whether Puerto Rico should become a state, become independent, or continue as a self-governing commonwealth of the United States. The debate over Puerto Rico’s status continues today.

Rebellion in the Philippines

In 1899 Emilio Aguinaldo ordered his troops to attack the American soldiers who had been sent there. Aguinaldo wanted the Philippines to be independent. To fight the Filipino guerrillas, the U.S. military established reconcentration camps to separate Filipino guerrillas from civilians. Thousands died from disease and starvation. Many U.S. soldiers died fighting the guerrillas.

While American troops fought the guerrillas, the first U.S. civilian governor of the islands, William Howard Taft, tried to win over the Filipinos by improving education, transportation, and health care. These reforms slowly reduced Filipino hostility. In March 1901, American troops captured Aguinaldo. On July 4, 1902, the United States declared the war over. Gradually the Filipinos gained more control over their government. By the mid-1930s, they elected their own congress and president. In 1946 they gained full independence from the United States.

The Economic Effects of the War

In 1897, the year before the war, Americans had invested roughly $700 million in business ventures overseas. By 1904, they had invested over $2.5 billion. The war made Cuba safe again and American investment in sugar plantations and mining surged. Hawaii was now an American territory and companies there no longer had to pay tariffs to ship goods to the United States, making it attractive to investors. Puerto Rico was in a similar position. American investors revived the island’s sugar industry and expanded its tobacco industry. American investments in the Philippines helped build railroads, open mines, and expanded its sugar industry as well.

All of these developments came at a cost. Together, the war with Spain and the battle against the Filipino guerrillas had cost some $400 million. Over 5,400 men had died in the war with Spain, and another 4,200 died fighting Filipino guerrillas. The war also led to a steady increase in naval spending, from $64 million in 1899 to $135 million in 1912. The spending helped stimulate parts of the economy related to shipbuilding, though it also diverted money from investment in other areas. But as a new world power with far-flung bases and territories, the United States now needed a larger naval force to project its power and safeguard its interests.

Reviewing Vocabulary


TEKS: 2D, 4A, 4B, 15D


Using Your Notes



Answering the Guiding Questions



TEKS: 4A, 4B


Writing Activity