McKinley faces decision about war with Spain

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

President William McKinley inherits a situation of mounting tension when he takes office in the spring of 1897. McKinley, his cabinet and many in Congress wished to avoid a war with Spain. This timeline outlines events leading to the Spanish-American War.

Spain was the first European nation to sail west and colonize territory in the Western hemisphere. The nation acquired a vast empire, but over time, colonies were lost to others.

In the late 1890s, Spain retained control over Cuba and Puerto Rico plus the Philippine and Mariana islands (Guam) in the Pacific, but Spain’s socioeconomic and military positions were weak.

After the Ten Years War in Cuba (1868-1878), Cuban planters and wealthy natives were trying to regain their plantations from Spain. The U.S., not fond of a Spanish colony 90 miles from its coast, was strengthening economic ties with Cuba and growing in confidence as a world power.

Spain instituted a policy to relocate Cuban civilians to concentration camps so they would be under the control of the Spanish Army and squash those who were fighting for Cuban independence. The plan backfired with 30 percent of the encampment occupants dying from lack of food and poor conditions. The policy also created severe anti-Spanish feelings in the U.S.

On July 24, 1897, the Dingley Tariff, which increased taxes on imported goods, including woolens, silks, linens and china, was passed by the United States. The tax rate for sugar doubled. Cuba’s already depressed economy plunged further down.

Yellow journalism was rampant from 1895-98. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal sensationalized the revolt in Cuba. They were trying to incite the American people to tell their political leaders to go to war against Spain. The Spanish-Cuban-U.S. conflict united the United States for the first time since the Civil War.

McKinley had seen the atrocities of a war serving in the Civil War. The president did not want to go to war and did everything in his power to keep the U.S. out of war with Spain. The nation had greatly reduced the size of the army after the Civil War and was not prepared to go to war.

On Jan. 25, 1898, the USS Maine was sent to Havana harbor in Cuba to protect U.S. interests in Cuba and to serve as a warning to Spain.

On Feb. 9, a private letter written by Enrique Dupuy de Lome, the Spanish minister to Washington, D.C., belittling McKinley surfaced in the domestic press, further promoting anti-Spanish opinion.

On Feb. 15, the Maine exploded in Havana harbor killing 260 men. Spain denied any involvement. McKinley ordered an investigation, appointed a commission and issued a presidential injunction to withhold nothing from the commission’s findings. McKinley opposed any rash action and was determined to remain calm and wait for the facts. Americans anxiously awaited the official report.

Linda Knepp is the coordinator for the McKinley Birthplace Home and a librarian at the McKinley Memorial Library.



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