April 11, 1898 — December 10, 1898

The debate over America’s global role intensified when Cubans began to fight for their independence from Spain in 1895. Americans were sympathetic to Cuba’s struggle for independence, but were divided about how to help. President William McKinley was deeply ambivalent about war against Spain. Ultimately, however, the pressure of public opinion forced McKinley into the war that made the United States an international power. Newspaper publishers like William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer worked up war fever among the public with reports of Spanish atrocities against Cuban rebels. Then, Hearst’s New York Journal published a leaked letter in which the chief Spanish diplomat in Washington described President McKinley as “weak” and a “petty politician.” Hearst publicized the letter under the screaming headline “WORST INSULT TO THE UNITED STATES IN ITS HISTORY.” Days later an explosion sank the USS Maine in Havana harbor. A naval court of inquiry blamed the explosion on a mine, further inflaming public sentiment against Spain. After ten days of debate, Congress declared war, but only after adopting the Teller Amendment, in which the United States made it clear that it did not harbor imperialist ambitions. The amendment announced that the United States would not acquire Cuba. But after the United States defeated Spain, it set up a military government on Cuba and made the soldiers’ withdrawal contingent on the Cubans accepting the Platt Amendment, which gave the United States the right to intervene in Cuba to protect “life, property, and individual liberties.” The 144-day war also resulted in the United States taking control of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam.

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