On April 21, 1898, Spain broke off diplomatic relations with the United States in a long-simmering dispute over Cuba. The brief war that followed would have permanent implications for American foreign policy and push the formerly isolationist power on to the global stage.
The Spanish-American War is one of five conflicts where Congress approved an official declaration of war using its constitutional powers. In total, war declarations have been declared by Congress in the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II.
In the Constitution, Article I, Section 8, gives Congress the power to declare war and raise and fund the Armed Forces, and Article II, Section 2, names the President as the Commander in Chief in such conflicts. Since 1942, the President and Congress have used other means to take military action.
In the case of the conflict between Spain and the United States, it was clear that the declared war was just that, but the United States government would wind up with a global presence after eight months of conflict.
Before the war declaration by Congress on April 25, 1898, tensions were high as United States business interests eyed the sugar-producing industry in Cuba. There was already an uprising in Cuba by its colonial inhabitants against Spain. And after the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana’s harbor on February 15, war seemed inevitable.
On April 11, 1898, President William McKinley asked Congress for authorization to end the fighting in Cuba between the Cuban rebels and Spanish forces, and on April 20, Congress passed a joint resolution that acknowledged Cuban independence and authorized President McKinley to use whatever military measures needed to guarantee Cuba’s independence.
On April 21, Spain informed the United States that it had broken off all diplomatic ties with the Americans. On the next day, President McKinley ordered a blockade of Cuba. Spain declared war on April 23, and then Congress approved its war declaration on April 25, making it retroactive to April 21.
The actual fighting in the declared war lasted for 10 weeks. On May 1, in Manila Bay, Commodore George Dewey’s Asiatic Squadron defeated the Spanish naval force located in the Philippines, another Spanish possession. In June, American troops captured Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and attacked the harbor city of Santiago. After defeating the Spanish army on the ground in Cuba, the U.S. used its Navy to destroy the Spanish Caribbean squadron in July.
In late July 26, the French intervened for Spain to start peace negotiations, and a cease-fire was signed on August 12. The final peace between the U.S. and Spanish governments came with the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898.
The costs to Spain were heavy. It had to guarantee the independence of Cuba, give Guam and Puerto Rico to the United States, and agree to sell the Philippines to the United States for the sum of $20 million.
But there was one final constitutional step in the process: the U.S. Senate had to ratify the treaty in February 1899, and that was far from guaranteed.
A two-thirds majority of the Senate is needed to approve a treaty, and a powerful anti-Imperialist group opposed expanding the United States into a global power. The lobby included former Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland, and the industrialist Andrew Carnegie.
The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty on February 6, 1899, by a margin of just one vote, after William Jennings Bryan decided to support a treaty backed by his arch-rival, President McKinley.
Also, during the conflict, the United States annexed Hawaii. A joint resolution of Congress made Hawaii a U.S. territory on August 12, 1898, as concerns grew about its strategic importance in protecting the prospective new American interests in the Pacific.