W. Joseph Campbell

Wikileaks and the Spanish-American War?

In Debunking, Media myths, Spanish-American War, Yellow Journalism on December 3, 2010 at 7:41 am

The recent Wikileaks disclosure of more than 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables has prompted commentators to look for parallels, however rough, in American history.

Going to war with Spain

The Watergate scandal has been invoked, but the equivalents are neither especially clear nor convincing.

Now, the blustering conservative commentator Pat Buchanan has found Wiki-like resonance in a diplomatic faux pas in 1898, when the chief Spanish diplomat in Washington wrote disparagingly of President William McKinley in a private letter.

The letter was purloined and given to William Randolph Hearst‘s New York Journal, which splashed the  contents across its front page, beneath a hyperbolic headline that declared:

“The Worst Insult to the United States in its History.”

It’s an intriguing case, about which Buchanan said in a blog post yesterday:

“The Spanish minister in Washington, Enrique Dupuy De Lome, had written an indiscreet letter that was stolen by a sympathizer of the Cuban revolution and leaked to William Randolph Hearst’s warmongering New York Journal. In the De Lome letter, the minister had said of McKinley that he is ‘weak, and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd, besides being a … politician who tries to leave a door open behind himself while keeping on good terms with the jingoes of his party.’

“Six days later, the battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor. Hearst’s Journal screamed Spanish ‘treachery.’ And the war was on.”

Just like that?

Well, no.

The Maine blew up in mid-February 1898. The United States and Spain did not declare war until late April 1898, during which time a U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry investigated the battleship’s destruction. The Inquiry found that the Maine most likely had been destroyed by an underwater mine. Who set the device couldn’t be determined.

The de Lome letter and the destruction of the Maine weren’t related and they weren’t decisive factors in the U.S. decision to declare war in 1898. (And the overheated content of Hearst’s New York Journal wasn’t much of a factor at all in the march to war.)

As I wrote in my 2005 book, The Spanish-American War: American War and the Media in Primary Documents:

“The United States went to war in April 1898 to fulfill a moral and humanitarian imperative—that of ending the abuses created by Spain’s failed attempt to quell an island-wide rebellion in Cuba,” its last important colonial possession in the Western hemisphere.

The Spanish-American War, in broad terms, was the upshot of a prolonged, three-sided diplomatic impasse: Cubans, who in 1895 launched what became an island-wide rebellion against Spanish rule, would settle for nothing short of political independence. Spain, for reasons of political stability at home, would not agree to grant Cuba its independence. And the United States could tolerate no longer the disruptions caused by turmoil in Cuba.

Spain sent nearly 200,000 soldiers to the island in a mostly failed attempt to put down the rebellion. But by early 1898, the military situation in Cuba was a stalemate.

A particularly disastrous element of Spain’s strategy was to seek to deprive Cuban rebels of support in the hinterland through a policy called “reconcentration,” under which Cuban non-combatants–old men, women, and children–were forced into garrison towns. There, by the tens of thousands, the Cubans fell victim to disease and starvation.

A humanitarian disaster had taken hold in Cuba by early 1898, and the harsh effects of Spain’s “reconcentration” policy were often described in U.S. newspapers, including Hearst’s yellow press.

In many respects, the U.S. entry into the rebellion in Cuba was a humanitarian crusade to end to the abuses caused by Spain’s “reconcentration” policy.

Buchanan’s telescoping of late 19th century history lends a mistaken impression that de Lome’s diplomatic faux pas help precipitate a war. It didn’t.

At best, it was a mild contributing factor.

WJC

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My thanks to FiveFeetofFury for linking to this post.

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