Despite McKinley’s best efforts, U.S. creeping closer to war

Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series marking the 120th anniversary of Niles native William McKinley’s U.S. presidency.

On Feb. 19, 1898, President William McKinley continued to hope the United States would not become involved in the war for Cuban independence from Spain, although it seemed to be inching closer to that end.

Ten days earlier, William Randolph Hearst published in his newspaper, The New York Journal, a translation of a letter from Spanish Minister Enrique Dupuy deLome to Don Jose Canelejas critical of McKinley.

This letter is undated, but was most likely written in December 1897.

“The situation here remains the same. Everything depends on the political and military outcome in Cuba. The prologue of all this, in this second stage (phase) of the war, will end the day when the colonial cabinet shall be appointed and we shall be relieved in the eyes of this country of a part of the responsibility for what is happening in Cuba while the Cubans, whom these people think so immaculate, will have to assume it…

Besides the ingrained and inevitable bluntness (groseria) with which is repeated all that the press and public opinion in Spain have said about Weyler, it once more shows what McKinley is weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd besides being a would-be politician (politicastro) who tries to leave a door open behind himself while keeping on good terms with the jingoes of his party.

Nevertheless, whether the practical results of it (the Message) are to be injurious and adverse depends only upon ourselves.

I am entirely of your opinions; without a military end of the matter nothing will be accomplished in Cuba, and without a military and political settlement there will always be the danger of encouragement being given to the insurgents, by a part of the public opinion if not by the government.

It would be very advantageous to take up, even if only for effect, the question of commercial relations and to have a man of some prominence sent hither, in order that I may make use of him here to carry on a propaganda among the senators and others in opposition to the Junta and to try to win over the refugees.

So, Amblard is coming. I think he devotes himself too much to petty politics, and we have got to do something very big or we shall fail.”

In “President McKinley: Architect of the American Century,” author Robert Merry states McKinley reacted dispassionately to the insult. Madrid quickly issued an apology, disavowing sympathy about Dupuy’s letter. The letter further committed Spain to Cuban autonomy and trade reciprocity.

At that time, rival publishers Joseph Pulitzer and Hearst in their newspapers attempted to persuade McKinley to send U.S. troops to the aid of Cuba.

Public opinion on this matter ran high, with the public calling for troops to help Cuba, but McKinley didn’t want to get involved.

His declaration, “Observe good faith and justice toward all nations (and) cultivate peace toward all” angered many, including McKinley’s Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy, Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt’s response was to refer to McKinley as having “no more backbone than a chocolate eclair.” Again, McKinley, ever the introspective leader, took this criticism in stride.

On Feb. 15, 1898, the USS Maine, moored in Havana Harbor to protect U.S. citizens living in Havana, sank. Initial reports stated the Spanish launched a torpedo that sank the ship, but many decades later it was discovered this type of battleship had a flaw that caused minor explosions.

Since the Maine carried ammunition, the minor explosion caused a major explosion, killing 266 U.S. sailors. The misinformation the yellow press spread about why the Maine sank, led the press to popularize the phrase “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!”

Two days later, Hearst’s newspaper ran the following headline: “War Sure! Maine Destroyed by Spanish: This Proved Absolutely by Discovery of The Torpedo Hole.”

Public sentiment grew that the U.S. should become involved in this conflict. Having been advised that U.S. troops needed more training, McKinley continued to bide his time until he knew the military was ready to intercede.

Scarmuzzi is curator of collections at the National McKinley Birthplace Museum in Niles.