The Spanish-American War

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Why did McKinley favor war over other alternatives during the Spanish-American War in 1898?

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On the one hand, like the Mexican-American War of the late 1840s, the Spanish-American War was a war of choice, a conflict that the United States became involved in out of a desire to acquire a global empire from Spain (by far the weakest of the European powers). Even the immediate cause of American entry—the sinking of the battleship USS Maine—was the result of McKinley's decision to send the vessel to Havana harbor. The explosion that sank the ship, it turned out, was the result of a fire in the coal bin. Moreover, Theodore Roosevelt, the assistant secretary of the navy, put American naval forces in the Philippines on high alert even before war broke out. So the United States certainly did not attempt to avoid conflict in the buildup to the war.

Still, McKinley did attempt to use his influence to broker an agreement between Spain and rebels in Cuba, where the simmering war for independence helped contribute to the outbreak of open conflict. But he failed, and it should be noted that American public opinion, fanned by so-called "yellow journalism," was squarely behind war with Spain. Still, American demands that Cuba receive independence were never going to be granted, and American leaders knew it. Moreover, even if the Spanish-American War was unavoidable, the decision to annex the Philippines in its aftermath was not. If the goal was really to protect the Cuban people, the United States could have exerted more diplomatic pressure on the Spaniards or even limited the war to the Caribbean, an intervention to help Cuban rebels rather than a broader move against the Spanish Empire.

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The Spanish-American War was not really necessary. This war was one that the United States wanted to fight in order to gain colonies overseas. There were several avenues President McKinley could have taken to avoid the conflict.

American newspaper reporters were over-exaggerating the harsh treatment of the Cuban people by the Spanish. If, for instance, President McKinley would have sent a team of investigators to Cuba, they could have determined whether what the American people were reading in the newspapers was accurate. A little more research could have gone a long way to determine the truth about the reporting.

When the U.S.S. Maine exploded, the American people immediately blamed the Spanish. Instead of jumping to conclusions and bowing to public opinion, the President could have waited until a thorough, official report was completed to determine what actually caused the explosion. Many years later, it was determined that the explosion was most likely not caused by the actions of Spain.

President McKinley could have used diplomacy to resolve the issue, regarding the alleged, harsh treatment of the Cuban people. He could have had the American ambassador to Spain meet with Spanish leaders to try to work out an agreement that would have eased some of the harsh conditions that the people of Cuba faced.

While going to war certainly was viewed as the popular thing to do in the eyes of the American people, there were other actions President McKinley had available to him to use to prevent the outbreak of this war. However, the real goal was to make the United States a world power, and going to war could accomplish it fairly quickly. When the Spanish-American War ended, the United States had control over Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, allowing the United States to begin to build a worldwide empire.

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