McKinley agonized over war decision
The week of April 20, 1898, added to a timeline of turmoil for President William McKinley and the United States. A revolution in Cuba had been ongoing since 1895. The tiny nation, less than 100 miles away from the U.S., attempted to overthrow Spanish colonial rule. The rebels used America as a base of operation from which to attack, and were financially supported by private U.S. interests. The Spanish military responded with brutal force and thousands of Cuban citizens died. The media and the public were soon on a warpath to give Cubans their independence.
On Feb. 17, 1898, the battleship USS Maine exploded in Havana’s harbor, killing 252. It was later determined the explosion was not caused by an attack, but was triggered by spontaneous ignition of faulty ammunition.
McKinley desperately wanted to avoid war, but the outcry from the public, the press and his peers, along with American anti-Spanish sentiment, made him submit to the pressure.
Theodore Roosevelt repeatedly criticized McKinley for “not having a backbone.” McKinley was fearful war would have a direct effect on Wall Street and his fellow business associates, including Mark Hanna, who was a wealthy businessman, leading advisor and close friend of McKinley.
McKinley knew war would potentially have a destabilizing effect on the U.S. economy. He was also fearful not going to war would shift support to the Democrats and William Jennings Bryan, and it would be used against him in the upcoming 1900 election.
The prospect of war was also an inner struggle for the deeply spiritual, devout Christian president. It was said McKinley spent hours on his knees praying at his bedside to make the right decision about entering the war.
On April 11, 1898, McKinley sent a message to Congress requesting a declaration of war with Spain.
He summarized his grounds for intervention first, as a humanitarian effort for the people of Cuba, to put an end to their suffering; second, to protect the life and property of Cubans; third, to protect commerce, trade and business; and finally, the unrest in Cuba was seen as a direct and constant threat to the civilians and military of the U.S.
Spain declared war on the United States on April 24, 1898. The next day, the U.S. declared war on Spain. The success of swift naval battles in the Philippines and the army’s capture of Santiago and Puerto Rico ended the Spanish-American war in four months with relatively few casualties. It boosted the confidence of the young nation and put it on course to become a superpower.
Most historians now view the Spanish-American War as an American imperialistic war.
Carrie Kibby is the manager of Adult Reference at the McKinley Memorial Library in Niles.