What were the intentions of the United States in the late 19th century given its changing identity on the world stage? Influenced by the publication of two influential texts, Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power in 1890 and Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” in 1893, the United States’ commitment to Manifest Destiny on the North American continent expanded beyond its changing borders, becoming a mission of global domination rooted in white supremacy. Stephen Kinzer describes the ideas of Mahan and Jackson in his book Overthrow - America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. About naval power he writes, “To achieve that control, [Mahan] asserted, a nation must maintain a navy powerful enough to protect its merchant fleet and force uncooperative countries to open themselves to trade and investment.” He quotes Turner who wrote, “For nearly three centuries the dominant fact in American life has been expansion...That these energies of expansion will no longer operate would be a rash prediction; and the demands for a vigorous foreign policy, for an inter-oceanic canal, for a revival of our power upon the seas, and for the extension of American influence to outlying islands and adjoining countries, are indications that the movement will continue.”25 Both works make the connection that emerged previously, American militarism and imperialism is linked with economic growth and investment.
This history of U.S. intervention that began in the late 19th century highlights a critical tension between the apparent and actual purposes of these “regime changes.” Kinzer writes about this pattern: “The United States repeatedly used its military power, and that of its clandestine services, to overthrow governments that refused to protect American interests.” He continues, “Each time, it cloaked its intervention in the rhetoric of national security and liberation. In most cases, however, it acted mainly for economic reasons-specifically, to establish, promote, and defend the right of Americans to do business around the world without interference.”26 We can see this contradiction between rhetoric and reality analyzing the purpose of the Spanish-American War. Was the purpose to secure freedom for Cuba from centuries of rule under imperial Spain? Or were these themes of liberation used to convince the American people to support the war while annexation of Cuba for military, political, and economic power was the actual goal? As we consider these questions, it is important to remember that there are no singular answers. A wide range of interests tried to define the meaning of the war and its purpose.
As students study 1898, they will value returning to José Martí. In the years leading up to U.S. involvement in the war, Cuban rebels resisted Spanish control and held their own in a battle for political self-determination and freedom from imperial rule. José Martí led his fellow patriots in these anti-imperialist efforts. In Martí’s last letter, posted by his comrades after his war-related death, he sought “to prevent, by the independence of Cuba, the United States from spreading over the West Indies and falling, with that added weight, upon other lands of our America.”27 Not only does Martí reclaim the name of America to include lands outside of borders to the north, he links Cuban independence to a check on the future imperial domination, not of Spain, but of the United States.
The United States’ entrance into the Spanish-American War in 1898 symbolized a shift. The U.S. entered the war in the name of fighting empire, ultimately to secure a new role as an empire itself. The war also signified a reunification and relegitimization of the Confederacy by the United States; the nation seemingly unified with a common purpose of bringing liberty to those outside of the United States who need it. In his book The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, Greg Grandin describes how expansion reunited the North and South in the post Civil War era: “White southerners bitterly opposed Reconstruction, a military occupation imposed on the entire defeated Confederacy, but they came together with the northerners ‘on the subject of Manifest Destiny.’”28 Grandin investigates the contradictions implicit in this shift: “The War of 1898 was alchemic. It transformed the ‘Lost Cause’ of the Confederacy-the preservation of slavery-into humanity’s cause for world freedom.”29 While self-determination was the implied purpose for global interventions and war, U.S. leaders had never shifted from their long-standing white supremacist policies. Even President William McKinley took a “victory tour” of the South after the defeat of Spain, wearing a Confederate badge on his lapel and saying, “When we are all on one side, we are unconquerable.”30 McKinley uses a colorblind narrative to celebrate unity, while failing to acknowledge or take action to protect the lives of African-Americans who were left out of the “one side” he celebrated. Grandin continues, “Nothing was truly reconciled, nothing transcended, at least when it came to the country’s founding paradox: the promise of political freedom and the reality of racial subjugation.”31 Students will recognize this paradox as they witness similar contradictions in history and in the human rights struggles of present day.