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The Spanish-American War began in April 1898, shortly after the USS Maine was inexplicably sunk in a Havana harbor. America engaged the Spanish on two fronts, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Spain was woefully underprepared to combat US advances. In the Pacific, the American Navy was able to destroy the Spanish fleet anchored in Manila Bay, Philippines, in one morning. In the Caribbean, attacks were mounted by land and sea near Santiago, Cuba. On July 17, 1898, the Spanish surrendered to the US, and the Treaty of Paris was signed on December 10, 1898.
In the United States, there were calls for war against Spain long before any official declaration was made. The Cubans began rebelling against the Spanish colonial rule in 1895, and the fight for independence resonated with many Americans. President Grover Cleveland proclaimed neutrality shortly after the conflict broke out. Many Americans, however, disagreed with this decision. Newspapers were printing numerous exaggerated and sensationalized articles about the atrocities occurring in Cuba, earning the name “yellow journalism,”and the accounts of disease and starvation in General Valeriano Weyler’s reconcentration camps increased American sentiment for the Cuban people.
The US maintained neutrality for almost four years; however, things changed in 1898. President William McKinley sent the USS Maine, a US Navy ship, to protect US citizens if the conflict in Cuba escalated. On February 15, 1898, a mysterious explosion sank the ship in Havana Harbor. The cause of the explosion was never determined. Yellow journalists took advantage of the story, speculating about Spanish involvement and planted bombs. Three weeks later, Congress voted to allocate $50 million to build up naval forces. On April 21, President McKinley ordered the blockade of Cuba, and Congress declared war four days later.
Many Americans believed in the just cause of the Cubans and enlisted in the military, serving in either the Caribbean or the Pacific, where Spain had naval fleets. The first battle was fought on May 1, 1898, in the Bay of Manila. With superior ships and manpower, the American naval fleet, under the command of Commodore George Dewey, defeated the underprepared and outdated Spanish fleet, sustaining no fatalities. Despite the decisive victory, US troops would not obtain control over Manila until August due to the guerrilla tactics of Emilio Aguinaldo’s Filipino forces.
In the Caribbean, US forces had been able to trap Spanish ships in the harbor of Santiago, Cuba with the blockade forcing a standstill on the water. A land campaign was then mounted. On July 1, US troops, including the famed Buffalo Riders and Rough Riders, attacked San Juan heights. Forces led by Theodore Roosevelt and Jacob Kent pushed Spanish troops inland. Two days later, the trapped Spanish ships tried to make an escape. Each was stopped and destroyed. On July 16, the Spaniards agreed to an unconditional surrender, and hostilities were halted on August 12, when the US and Spain signed the Protocol of Peace.
Negotiations for peace began, and on December 10, the Treaty of Paris was signed. The Treaty ceded the colonies of Guam and Puerto Rico to the US, allowed the US to purchase the Philippines for $20 million, and gave Cuba its independence. However, the US immediately made Cuba a protectorate, despite the Teller Amendment passed in April where the US asserted that it would not exercise hegemony over Cuba.
Tens of thousands of soldiers fought in the Spanish-American War, earning positions as officers and medals for service. Their war efforts were essential in making the US the predominant power of the Western hemisphere and establishing the US sphere of influence to surrounding countries.