Darkest hour of McKinley presidency
Recently, I enjoyed watching actor Gary Oldman portray Winston Churchill in the 2017 war drama, “The Darkest Hour.” It’s an account of Churchill’s early days as prime minister of Great Britain when he must decide whether to negotiate or go to war as Adolf Hitler’s Nazi army sweeps across western Europe.
I could see a comparison of Churchill to President William McKinley after reading Scott Miller’s book “The President and The Assassin.” Miller goes into details about what those 69 days were like for our 25th president after the Battleship Maine’s explosion in Havana harbor in February.
The darkest hours of McKinley’s presidency occurred in February and March of 1898 until April 25, when McKinley would send a formal declaration of war against Spain to Congress.
As Miller writes, there was little doubt to the public Spain was responsible for the Maine tragedy, even though the official board of inquiry had not provided any proof linking Spain. Yet McKinley, ever pragmatic, stood fast against the war cries. Rather than announce a call to arms, McKinley told Congress he would keep them advised of the progress in renewed peace talks between the Cuban revolutionaries and Spain.
From coast to coast, Americans let out audible cries of outrage and even members of his own political party turned on him, as did the newspapers. Mobs burned effigies of McKinley and fired revolvers into his likeness and tore down his picture from walls.
Teddy Roosevelt, who had been angling for war, now burst with enthusiasm and as Under Secretary of the Navy sent his attaches to purchase vessels all over the world to prepare for war.
McKinley, the last president to have served in the Civil War, was hesitant to spill American blood if he could get peace through negotiations. The Spanish diplomats were beginning to make headway to try to avert a war. The strain of holding the public back took a terrible toll on the president. McKinley’s secretary George Cortelyou wrote in his diary the president “did not look well, and for lack of sleep and worry his eyes had a far away, deep set expression and dark circles ringed his eyes.”
McKinley would give Spain until March 31 to reply to his final peace deal to avert hostilities.
Even though many in his cabinet wanted peace over war, McKinley provided a 7,000-word war message to Congress on April 11, 1898, that did not include Cuban independence. Many in Congress felt it was unthinkable to enter war with Spain until McKinley was convinced to grant Cuba’s independence.
Senator Henry Teller of Colorado wrote a compromise amendment that was acceptable to the president, in which the people of Cuba had a right to be free and the U.S. disclaimed any intent to sovereignty or control over the island nation.
Maybe not as strong of words as Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender!,” but Spain in April 1898 now realized, as Hitler did in June of 1940, that they were actually going to war.