The Spanish-American War of 1898, in which the United States quickly defeated Spain, broadened U.S. international obligations and expanded the power of the presidency. It demonstrated that the United States was ready to assume a wider role in global affairs.
In 1895 a rebellion against Spanish rule erupted in Cuba. For some Americans the Cuban crisis offered an opportunity to flex American muscle against a European power and extend U.S. influence. Other Americans, aroused by inflammatory reports in the press of Spanish atrocities in Cuba, wished to rescue the island's inhabitants from Spanish tyranny. This combination of forces resulted in a popular crusade in the United States to aid Cuban independence.
President Grover Cleveland resisted the temptation to satisfy the nation's appetite for war with Spain during the last two years of his second term. William McKinley entered office in 1897 similarly determined to avoid war. After the sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana Harbor in February 1898, popularly attributed to Spain, McKinley could no longer resist congressional pressure and public opinion. (A credible opposing interpretation was that the explosion was accidental.) On April 11, 1898, McKinley asked Congress to approve armed intervention in Cuba. Spain had already agreed to most of the U.S. demands for a settlement of the Cuban crisis, but on April 25 Congress passed a declaration of war authorizing the president to use military force to expel Spain from the island. The declaration was adopted by the Senate, 42–35, and by the House, 310–6.
Although U.S. ground forces were poorly equipped, trained, and commanded, superior American naval power enabled the United States to oust the Spanish from Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. The brevity of the war, the ease with which it was won, and the popularity of the conflict made McKinley's job as commander in chief an easy one. The issue of what to do with the Philippines afterwards was more controversial. McKinley decided to take possession of the islands and, as he later told a group of clergymen, “uplift and civilize and Christianize” the Filipinos.
On December 10, 1898, Spain signed a treaty in which it gave up control of Cuba and ceded the Philippines along with Puerto Rico and Guam to the United States. In spite of news that Philippine insurgents had taken up arms for independence against U.S. forces, the Senate approved the treaty after a month of debate by a vote of 57–27, only one vote more than the necessary two-thirds majority. For the first time, a president and Congress had acquired territory for the United States outside the North American continent through war.
The Filipino rebellion against U.S. rule ended after three years with the defeat of the insurgents. The bloody conflict in the Philippines cost more American lives and money than the Spanish-American War.
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