The Spanish-American War Was America's First Taste Of Superpower Status

Kyle Mizokami

Key point: The defeat of a continental European power, Spain, was a major military accomplishment.

The end of the Second World War is often considered the defining moment when the United States became a global power. In fact, it was another war forty years earlier, a war that ended with America having an empire of its own stretching thousands of miles beyond its continental borders. The Spanish-American War, which lasted five months, catapulted the United States from provincial to global power.

The Spanish-American War was a classic example of the “Thucydides Trap,” in which tensions between a declining power, Spain, and a rising power, the United States, resulted in war. By the end of the nineteenth century, Spain was clearly in decline, and Madrid’s grasp on its empire was increasingly tenuous. Cuba and the Philippines both experienced anti-Spanish revolts, and Spain’s difficulty in putting them down merely illustrated to the rest of the world how frail the empire actually was.

Meanwhile, in North America, the American doctrine of Manifest Destiny had run its course. The admission of Washington State to the Union in 1890 had consolidated America’s hold on the continent. Americans with an eye toward expanding America’s business interests and even creating an American empire couldn’t help but notice weakly held European colonial possessions in the New World and the Pacific. The march towards war in America was multifaceted: even liberal-minded Americans favored war to liberate Cuba from a brutal military occupation.

The sinking of the battleship USS Maine on February 15 was the last straw in a long and increasingly tense series of crises between Washington and Madrid. In Havana harbor at the request of the American ambassador, the Maine was reportedly struck by an underwater mine, although it seems far more likely in hindsight the sinking was the result of an accidental onboard explosion. The destruction of the ship, as well as the deaths of 266 sailors, made war inevitable even for those, like President William McKinley, who wished to avoid it.

On April 19, 1898, President McKinley’s request to intervene in Cuba on behalf of the rebels was approved by Congress. The U.S. Navy began a blockade of Cuba two days later, and Spain replied by declaring war on April 23. The United States replied by declaring war on the twenty-fifth.

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