“A competent leader can get efficient service from poor troops, while on the contrary an incapable leader can demoralize the best of troops.” John J. Pershing


Finley Peter Dunne‘s Mr. Dooley discusses the dilemma of a nation on the brink of empire from Mr. Dooley in Peace and War (1898)

Wan iv the worst things about this here war is th’ way it’s makin’ puzzles f’r our poor, tired heads. Whin I wint into it, I thought all I’d have to do was to set up here behind th’ bar with a good tin-cint see-gar in me teeth, an’ toss dinnymite bombs into th’ hated city iv Havana. But look at me now. Th’ war is still goin’ on; an’ ivry night, whin I’m countin’ up the cash, I’m askin’ mesilf will I annex Cubia or lave it to the Cubians? Will I take Porther Ricky or put it by? An’ what shud I do with the Ph’lippeens? Oh, what shud I do with thim? I can’t annex thim because I don’t know where they ar-re. I can’t let go iv thim because some wan else’ll take thim if I do. They are eight thousan’ iv thim islands, with a popylation iv wan hundherd millyon naked savages; an’ me bedroom’s crowded now with me an’ th’ bed. How can I take thim in, an’ how on earth am I goin’ to cover th’ nakedness iv thim savages with me wan shoot iv clothes? An’ yet ‘twud break me heart to think iv givin’ people I niver see or heerd tell iv back to other people I don’t know. An’, if I don’t take thim, Schwartzmeister down th’ sthreet, that has half me thrade already, will grab thim sure.

“It ain’t that I’m afraid iv not doin’ th’ r-right thing in th’ end, Hinnissy. Some mornin’ I’ll wake up an’ know jus’ what to do, an’ that I’ll do. But ’tis th’ annoyance in th’ mane time. I’ve been r-readin’ about th’ counthry. ‘Tis over beyant ye’er left shoulder whin ye’re facin’ east. Jus’ throw ye’er thumb back, an’ ye have it as ac’rate as anny man in town. ‘Tis farther thin Boohlgahrya an’ not so far as Blewchoochoo. It’s near Chiny, an’ it’s not so near; an’, if a man was to bore a well through fr’m Goshen, Indianny, he might sthrike it, an’ thin again he might not. It’s a poverty-sthricken counthry, full iv goold an’ precious stones, where th’ people can pick dinner off th’ threes an’ ar-re starvin’ because they have no step-ladders. Th’ inhabitants is mostly naygurs an’ Chinnymen, peaceful, industhrus, an’ law-abidin’, but savage an’ bloodthirsty in their methods. They wear no clothes except what they have on, an’ each woman has five husbands an’ each man has five wives. Th’ r-rest goes into th’ discard, th’ same as here. Th’ islands has been ownded be Spain since befure th’ fire; an’ she’s threated thim so well they’re now up in ar-rms again her, except a majority iv thim which is thurly loyal. Th’ natives seldom fight, but whin they get mad at wan another they r-run-a-muck. Whin a man r-runs-a-muck, sometimes they hang him an’ sometimes they discharge him an’ hire a new motorman. Th’ women ar-re beautiful, with languishin’ black eyes, an’ they smoke see-gars, but ar-re hurried an’ incomplete in their dhress. I see a pitcher iv wan th’ other day with nawthin’ on her but a basket of cocoanuts an’ a hoop-skirt. They’re no prudes. We import juke, hemp, cigar wrappers, sugar, an’ fairy tales fr’m th’ Ph’lippeens, an’ export six-inch shells an’ th’ like. Iv late th’ Ph’lippeens has awaked to th’ fact that they’re behind th’ times, an’ has received much American amminition in their midst. They say th’ Spanyards is all tore up about it.

“I larned all this fr’m th’ papers, an’ I know ’tis sthraight. An’ yet, Hinnissy, I dinnaw what to do about th’ Ph’lippeens. An’ I’m all alone in th’ wurruld. Ivrybody else has made up his mind. Ye ask anny con-ducthor on Ar-rchy R-road, an’ he’ll tell ye. Ye can find out fr’m the papers; an’, if ye really want to know, all ye have to do is to ask a prom’nent citizen who can mow all th’ lawn he owns with a safety razor. But I don’t know.”

Empire by default : the Spanish-American War and the dawn of the American century    New York : H. Holt, 1998 Ivan Musicant Spanish-American War, 1898 Hardcover. 1st. ed., later printing. ix, 740 p. : ill., maps ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 704-716) and index. The definitive version of the Spanish-American War as well as a dramatic account of America’s emergence as a global power. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text.  VG/VG   

excerpted from the introduction with minor editing…

Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan‘s  book, “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783” (1890), captured the minds of imperialists and provided the key to expansion overseas after the American frontier ceased to exist. Spain’s cruelty in Cuba was the excuse required to achieve this end; the Navy was the means. In 1883 Congress authorized the first four all-steel ships of a new Navy. These small cruisers were followed by larger ones and, in 1890, by battleships, marking a decisive turn away from coastal defense and toward construction of a two-ocean Navy. The stage was set for empire.

This is a standard interpretation that is completely wrong, the historian James A. Field Jr. has argued. Field held that Mahan was not an imperialist, and that his writings were largely concerned with hemispheric defense. The lesson he drew from history was that the United States needed both a powerful fleet and naval stations in the Caribbean to command what would become a great highway of commerce when the Panama Canal was built. One need only read Mahan to see that Field was right, and to read “Empire by Default” to discover that Musicant really agrees with Field — and with his own title.

The building of a modern fleet in the 1880’s and 90’s, according to Field, was a response to the growing reach and power of European navies, not the work of Congressional imperialists. Even commerce raiding, the mission of the old Navy, could no longer be undertaken without long-range modern warships, the purpose of which was to deter aggression or, failing that, to defend the East Coast against attack from Europe. Thus, except for a handful assigned to Asian waters, most United States warships were deployed in the Atlantic. Before 1898 few Americans saw them as instruments of conquest.

The war with Spain resulted from a mixture of public enthusiasm and historical accident. As former colonial subjects, Americans sympathized with the Cuban rebellion that began in 1895. Spanish repression reached a peak with the arrival of Lieut. Gen. Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau in 1896. By decree he packed the rural population into fortified areas and garrison towns, where 95,000 Cubans are thought to have died of starvation and disease. The rebels were brutal too, but Weyler’s victims got noticed.

President William McKinley was an amiable man with no taste for war, but public opinion, excited by the yellow press, drove him onward. Spain, which was being drained by Cuba, did not want war either, but a series of weak governments courted public favor by upping the ante in a losing game. The armies shipped to Cuba melted away, largely from disease, while the rebels held the countryside. That was how matters stood when the battleship Maine arrived in Havana on Jan. 25, 1898, for a “friendly” visit. On February 15th it blew up for reasons still unknown. Only 96 of a crew of 355 survived, 80 of them wounded.

Incited by William Randolph Hearst‘s newspapers the American people demanded war and on April 25th Congress declared it. On May 1 the Navy’s Asiatic Squadron, Commodore George Dewey commanding, sailed into Manila Bay to put further pressure on Spain. At 5:22 A.M. Dewey said to his flagship’s captain, “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” Two hours later the guns of every ship in the decrepit Spanish fleet had been silenced. Spain lost seven ships and hundreds of men, Dewey nothing and no one. Empire beckoned, even though, as the humorist Finley Peter Dunne remarked, before Dewey’s feat most Americans had not known whether the Philippines were islands or canned goods.

Cuba was blockaded and then, amid frightful disorder, an invasion force came ashore. Spain’s pitiful Cuban fleet was efficiently dispatched by Rear Adm. William T. Sampson at the Battle of Santiago in July. His losses amounted to one man. Spain lost an empire. On Oct. 10, helpless and embittered, Spain signed a peace treaty in which it gave up Cuba, ceded Puerto Rico and Guam to the United States, and, for a payment of $20 million, the Philippines as well.

Buying the Philippines was an afterthought. Dewey had been sent to Manila Bay to obtain bargaining chips that would be useful at the peace table. But once Spain’s fleet was destroyed and Manila blockaded, America could not set the Philippines free because, for want of a navy, the islands would have been acquired by a foreign power — Germany and Japan being especially keen. Emilio Aguinaldo, leader of the native insurgency against Spain, wanted the Philippines to become independent under protection of an American fleet. That was impossible since America would never guard territory it did not control. Giving the Philippines back to Spain was no option either. It had been losing to the insurgents and could hardly afford another colonial war. Most likely Spain would have sold the islands, probably to Germany.

The German menace was real. Germany’s warships were all over Manila Bay, interfering with Dewey’s blockade. In July, Dewey became fed up with German disruptions and complaints. He reminded a German officer that it was he who was conducting the blockade and that German ships were there on his sufferance. “Do you want war with us?” Dewey asked. “Certainly not,” the German replied. “Well, it looks like it,” Dewey went on, “and you are very near it; and” — his voice rising until it could be heard in the wardroom below — “you can have it as soon as you like.” Germany backed off. The strategic dilemma remained, McKinley resolving it as best he could by taking the islands.

Musicant does not go beyond the war, but its aftermath is worth noting. The wave of jingoism soon passed, and the thirst for empire too. A long and bloody campaign was waged to suppress muslim insurgents, during which the United States used the same methods it had criticized Spain for. America then found itself with a possession it no longer wanted and could not defend, as Japan proved in 1942. The lesson was evident well before then. Owning colonies was a bad business that America meant to get out of, and did. Imperialism was a national growing pain, worse for the Filipinos than for us, but a mistake that would not be repeated.

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