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American History: A Dispute Over Cuba Leads to the Spanish-American War

A painting of the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898 in which the United States Navy defeated the Spanish Navy
A painting of the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898 in which the United States Navy defeated the Spanish Navy

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SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Welcome to THE MAKING OF A NATION – American history in VOA Special English.

The Spanish-American War took place in the late eighteen hundreds during the administration of President William McKinley. This week in our series, Harry Monroe and Kay Gallant tell the story of that war.

HARRY MONROE: Unlike other presidents of the late eighteen hundreds, William McKinley spent much of his presidency dealing with foreign policy. The most serious problem involved Spain.

Spain ruled Cuba at that time. Cuban rebels had started a fight for independence. The Spanish government promised the Cuban people equal rights and self-rule -- but in the future. The rebels did not want to wait.

President McKinley felt Spain should be left alone to honor its promises. He also felt responsible for protecting the lives and property of Americans in Cuba. When riots broke out in Havana, he ordered the battleship Maine to sail there.

One night in early eighteen ninety-eight, a powerful explosion sank the Maine. More than two hundred fifty American sailors died. There was some evidence the explosion was caused by an accident in the ship's fuel tanks. But many Americans blamed Spain. They demanded war to free Cuba and make it independent.

KAY GALLANT: President McKinley had a difficult decision to make. He did not want war. As he told a friend: "I fought in our Civil War. I saw the dead piled up. I do not want to see that again." But McKinley also knew many Americans wanted war. If he refused to fight Spain, his Republican Party could lose popular support.

William McKinley in June of 1898
William McKinley in June of 1898

So, he did not ask Congress for a declaration of war right away. He sent a message to the Spanish government, instead. McKinley demanded an immediate ceasefire in Cuba. He also offered his help in ending the revolt.

By the time Spain agreed to the demands, McKinley had made his decision. He asked Congress for permission to use military force to bring peace to Cuba. Congress agreed. It also demanded that Spain withdraw from Cuba and give up all claims to the island.

The president signed the congressional resolution. The Spanish government immediately broke relations. On April twenty-fifth, eighteen ninety-eight, the United States declared war on Spain.

HARRY MONROE: The American Navy was ready to fight. It was three times bigger than the Spanish navy. It also was better trained. A ship-building program begun fifteen years earlier had made the American Navy one of the strongest in the world. Its ships were made of steel and carried powerful guns.

Part of the American Navy at that time was based in Hong Kong. The rest was based on the Atlantic coast of the United States.

Admiral George Dewey commanded the Pacific Fleet. Dewey had received a message from the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt. If war broke out, it said, he was to attack the Spanish naval force in the Philippines. The Spanish force was commanded by Admiral Patricio Montojo.

KAY GALLANT: The American fleet arrived in Manila Bay on May first. It sailed toward the line of Spanish ships. The Spanish fired first. The shells missed. When the two naval forces were five thousand meters apart, Admiral Dewey ordered the Americans to fire. After three hours, Admiral Montojo surrendered. Most of his ships were sunk. Four hundred of his men were dead or wounded.

American land forces arrived several weeks later. They captured Manila, giving the United States control of the Philippines.

HARRY MONROE: Dewey was suddenly a hero. Songs and poems were written about him. Congress gave him special honors. A spirit of victory spread across the nation. People called for an immediate invasion of Cuba.

Unlike the Navy, America's Army was not ready to fight. When war was declared, the Army had only about twenty-five thousand men. Within a few months, however, it had more than two hundred thousand. The soldiers trained at camps in the southern United States. One of the largest camps was in Florida. Cuba is just one hundred fifty kilometers off the coast of Florida.

KAY GALLANT: Two weeks after the Spanish-American War began, the Army sent a small force to Cuba. The force was ordered to inspect the north coast of Cuba and to take supplies to Cuban rebels. That invasion failed. But the second one succeeded. Four hundred American soldiers landed with guns, bullets, and supplies for the rebels.

Next, the Army planned to send twenty-five thousand men to Cuba. Their goal was the Port of Santiago on the south coast. American ships had trapped a Spanish naval force there earlier.

One of the commanders of the big American invasion force was Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt had resigned as Assistant Secretary of the Navy when the war started. He organized a group of horse soldiers. Most of the men were cowboys from America's southwest. They could ride and shoot well. Some were rich young men from New York who simply shared Roosevelt's love of excitement. The group became known as Roosevelt's "Rough Riders."

Theodore Roosevelt, center, with the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, Cuba, 1898
Theodore Roosevelt, center, with the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, Cuba, 1898

HARRY MONROE: As the Americans landed near Santiago, Spanish forces withdrew to positions outside the city. The strongest force was at San Juan Hill.

The Spanish soldiers used smokeless gunpowder. This made their artillery hard to find. The Americans did not have the smokeless powder. But they had Gatling machine guns which poured a stream of bullets at the enemy.

When the machine guns opened fire, American soldiers began moving up San Juan Hill. Several American reporters watched. Later, one of them wrote this report:

"I have seen many pictures of the charge on San Juan Hill. But none seem to show it as I remember it. In the pictures, the men are running up the hill quickly in straight lines. There seem to be so many men that no enemy could stand against them.

"In fact," said the reporter, "there were not many men. And they moved up the hill slowly, in a close group, not in a straight line. It seemed as if someone had made a terrible mistake. One wanted to call to these few soldiers to come back."

KAY GALLANT: The American soldiers were not called back. They reached the top of San Juan Hill. The Spanish soldiers fled. "All we have to do," an American officer said, "is hold on to the hill and Santiago will be ours."

American Commander General William Shafter sent a message to Spanish Commander General Jose Toral. Shafter demanded Toral's surrender. While he waited for an answer, the Spanish naval force tried to break out of Santiago Harbor. The attempt failed, and the Americans took control of the port.

The loss destroyed any hope that Spain could win the war. There was now no way it could send more soldiers and supplies to Cuba.

General Toral agreed to a short ceasefire so women and children could leave Santiago. But he rejected General Shafter's demand of unconditional surrender. American artillery then attacked Santiago. General Toral defended the city as best he could. Finally, on July seventeenth, he surrendered. The United States promised to send all his soldiers back to Spain.

HARRY MONROE: In the next few weeks, American forces occupied Puerto Rico and the Philippine capital of Manila. America's war with Spain was over. It had lasted just ten weeks. The next step was to negotiate terms of a peace treaty. The negotiations would be held in Paris.

The victorious United States demanded independence for Cuba. It demanded control over Puerto Rico and Guam. And it demanded the right to occupy Manila. The two sides agreed quickly on the terms concerning Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam. But they could not agree on what to do about the Philippines.

Spain rejected the American demand for control. It did not want to give up this important colony. Negotiations on this point of the peace treaty lasted for days.

That will be our story next week.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Our program was written by Frank Beardsley. The narrators were Harry Monroe and Kay Gallant. You can find our series online with transcripts, MP3s, podcasts and images at You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for THE MAKING OF A NATION -- an American history series in VOA Special English.


This is program #145 of THE MAKING OF A NATION