By Naval History and Heritage Command
Yesterday, the first of our week-long spotlights on the Spanish-American War ended after the two big naval victories at the Battle of Manila Bay and Battle of Cuba de Santiago. Ground troops batting clean-up finished the less-than-four-month conflict.
But the impact of this “splendid little war” reached well beyond the duration of the war. It was the strategic shift that started the tsunami of fleet modernization and base acquisition that would carry the United States Navy well into the 20th Century through World War II.
Becoming a world power
As mentioned, having no U.S. ship capable of stopping a Spanish ironclad sitting in a New York port during the 1873 Virginius Affair led to President Chester Arthur calling for a rehabilitation of the fleet. While President Benjamin Harrison urged a continuation of constructing modern ships during his 1889 inaugural address, he also asked for the acquisition of bases to maintain the U.S. fleet in foreign seas, according to Naval History and Heritage Command historian Mark L. Evans.
Harrison worked with Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Tracy and Navy Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan, who believed the countries with the greatest sea power would have the most impact worldwide. He had written a book touting that concept, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 that would be released a year later. His ideas would be embraced by many of the major world powers and set into motion the United States Navy as we know it today.
“Their work bore fruit with the Navy Bill of June 30, 1890, authorizing construction of three battleships later named Indiana, Oregon and Massachusetts. Along with the battleship Iowa, authorized in 1892, this force formed the core of the new fleet willing to challenge European navies for control of the waters in the Western Hemisphere,” Evans wrote in a paper on the Spanish-American War.
It was the birth of navalism in a young country on the precipice of emerging into a world power.
“The United States decided if it was going to be a ‘big boy,’ it needed a strong navy. So the country went from a fifth-rate sea service to the third largest in the world during this period of time,” said Dennis Conrad, another NHHC historian.
But along with building up its naval forces, the United States was also beginning to flex its muscles beyond its borders. By the time the previously Euro-centric world began the 20th century, the power had tilted toward the United States during the start of the American Century, Conrad said.
The Navy’s transference from wood and sail to steam and steel had already proven itself in the defeat of the Spanish Navy.
But the over-arching changes that affected the country after winning the war was ending up with the Philippines.
“The Spanish-American War got us involved with Asia,” Conrad said. “We did not go into the war with the idea of taking over the Philippines. But it was an example of the importance of mission forward, presence and protecting the sea lanes.”
After crushing the Spanish navy, the United States could have become a major colonial power. But Americans did not follow the European model of imperialism.
“We didn’t pick up colonies like other countries after World War I, we just wanted access and trade, not to run colonies,” Conrad said. “So the aftermath of the Spanish-American War and our opting for independence for the Philippines on the heels of having subdued it, really defined the United States approach in the 20th century.”
Despite the victory, post-war wasn’t an easy time for the United States. The 1823 Monroe Doctrine decreed that the Western Hemisphere would forever be free from European expansion. Anti-imperialists called the U.S. hypocritical for condemning European empires while pursuing one of their own.
And just as the Cuban resistance fought against their landlords, so did the Philippines against the United States. Few Sailors, Soldiers or Marines were killed during the four-month Spanish-American War, while 4,000 American lives were lost fighting in the Philippine Insurrection.
But by the time Theodore Roosevelt, old Rough Rider himself, was elected president in 1901, America was just beginning to flex its might. The 1901 Platt Amendment forbade Cuba from incurring debt to keep foreign gunboats away from its shores. And if any conditions were violated, the United States would send the necessary force to restore order, thanks to the lease of a naval base at Guantanamo Bay — still in existence today.
America then entered its “protectorate” status with Cuba and even other nations over the next few years. The Roosevelt Corollary specified if any Latin American country engaged in “chronic wrongdoing,” the United States would step in and restore order, as evidenced by its intervention with the Dominican Republic when it came under U.S. protection in 1905. And the year before, President Theodore Roosevelt earned a Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation of the Russo-Japan conflict.
By 1907, Roosevelt sent off his Great White Fleet for an around-the-world show of strength, otherwise known as the “big stick” in his “speak softly, but carry a big stick,” mantra.
In order to get his naval fleet from the Atlantic to the Pacific faster if necessary, Roosevelt began his biggest achievement: the Panama Canal. The United States’ emerging power caused Great Britain to nullify the 1850 Clayton-Bulwer Treaty that had both countries agreeing neither side would build such a canal.
After negotiating a six-mile wide strip of land for the United States to lease to build the canal, Colombia held out for more. Roosevelt wielded his “big stick” by sending in a Navy gunboat and supporting revolutionaries fighting to free the Panama territory from Colombia. The United States was the first nation to recognize the new country of Panama and the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty gave the U.S. a 10-mile strip for the canal. Begun in 1907, the Panama Canal was completed in 1914 at the cost of $345 million. And American doctors, such as Walter Reed — the namesake of the military’s largest hospital — did their part in combatting malaria and yellow fever.
The United States had shed its isolationist past, but in doing so, began to hear rumblings of discontent from her South American neighbors, Japan and Russia.
While the United States was ramping up its steel navy, the Navy was investing in its leadership. Founded in 1884, the Naval War College was instrumental in getting its officers to adapt to constantly changing technology and also plan for operations in the event of war. The Naval War Board was formed in March 1898. But four years earlier, an 1894 paper by Lt. Cmdr. Charles J. Train addressed the “strategy in the Event of War with Spain,” Evans said. Train’s suggestion was for the U.S. Navy to destroy the Spanish fleet as early as possible and blockade Cuba’s principal ports. If Spain sent a fleet to stop it, the United States would be ready.
In 1895, a “special plan” was sent to Naval College War students to secure Cuba’s independence.
By the time USS Maine was destroyed in Havana Harbor on Feb. 15, 1898, the Navy Department already had a number of plans honed by four years of debate by its leading officers, Evans pointed out. Although the realities of war forced modifications to the plans, it allowed for quick decisions prior to the declaration of war.
America’s victory in the Battle of Manila could be attributed to Commodore George Dewey’s decision to plan strategies among his leadership and then train, train and train some more the crew until the day of the battle. After seven hours, with a 3-hour meal break, Dewey’s fleet blew apart the Spanish flotilla in Manila, without a single loss of life.
The Navy Department then ordered Commodore Winfield Scott Schley’s Flying Squadron to protect the east coast of the United States from the Spanish fleet led by Adm. Pascual Cervera, and sent Adm. William Sampson’s North Atlantic squadron to blockade Havana Harbor. After being hemmed in for six weeks, Cervera’s ships attempted to run the blockade during Sunday morning services on July 3. Chased down by the American armored ships, the rest of the Spanish ships were destroyed within 90 minutes.
“The overall success of U.S. naval operations during the Spanish-American War demonstrated the value of extensive peace-time preparations,” Evans wrote. “In the technological warfare of the last one hundred years, the most important preparations have not always been the construction of major warships, but also planning for adequate logistical support and vigorous intellectual debate.”
Tomorrow will feature a profile on Commodore George Dewey, the Civil War-era admiral who led the Battle of Manila Bay.
On Thursday, NHHC historian Dennis Conrad will discuss plans for NHHC’s newest documentary on the Spanish-American War “that will capture the drama and heroism that catapulted the United States Navy to world prominence.”