The Nueva York (1613-1945) exhibition that opened yesterday at El Museo del Barrio in New York City looks to be terrific.
It was jointly developed by Museo de Barrio and the New-York Historical Society, and is billed as “the first museum exhibition to explore … New York’s long and deep involvement with Spain and Latin America.”
Descriptive material posted online about Nueva York describes the show’s thematic presentation across five galleries.
It says the Spanish-American War–which was fought over Cuba in 1898–“was a conflict sold to the American public by New York newspaper publishers including Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst,” the city’s leading practitioners of yellow journalism.
That’s a media-centric interpretation of a much-misunderstood war.
It’s a misleading characterization, too.
As I discussed in my 2001 book, Yellow Journalism: Puncturing the Myths, Defining the Legacies, such claims tend to rest on unsupported assumptions about the effects of newspaper content on readers in New York City and beyond, and on policymakers in Washington.
Critics who blame the yellow press for bringing on the war–or for selling the American public on the conflict–fail to explain precisely how the often-exaggerated content of the New York yellow journals was transformed into policy and military action.
As I state in Yellow Journalism:
“The yellow press is not to blame for the Spanish-American-War.
“It did not force—it could not have forced—the United States into hostilities with Spain over Cuba in 1898. The conflict was, rather, the result of a convergence of forces far beyond the control or direct influence of even the most aggressive of the yellow newspapers, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.”
The Spanish-American War 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, could 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 restore order. By early 1898, the Cuban rebellion had become a stalemate.
A particularly disastrous element of Spain’s strategy was to seek to deprive Cuban rebels of support in the hinterland by 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, yellow and otherwise.
In many ways, the U.S. entry in April 1898 into the rebellion on Cuba was a humanitarian crusade to end to abuses caused by Spain’s “reconcentration” policy. (A leading historian of the Spanish-American War, David F. Trask, has written that Americans in 1898 “went to war convinced that they had embarked upon an entirely selfless mission for humanity.”)
It was the human rights disaster on Cuba, not the press of New York City, that “sold” Americans on going war with Spain. Newspapers–including the yellow journals of Hearst and Pulitzer–were marginal in that equation.