The Spanish-American War

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Why is the Spanish-American War referred to as a "splendid little war"?

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The Spanish-American War was deemed a "splendid little war" by US ambassador John Hay because of the war's brevity. In just ten weeks, the US secured a decisive and relatively bloodless victory over Spain.

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The Spanish-American War took place in 1898 between the United States and Spain. At the time, Spain ruled Cuba, and Cubans were fighting for their independence. Following the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, the Americans entered the conflict on the side of the Cubans.

The United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom, John Hay, wrote to Teddy Roosevelt that the armed conflict had been “a splendid little war,” in reference to its brief 10-week duration. One reason for this swiftness was that the United States was able to gain victory with low levels of casualties. Another reason was the United States, at the tail end of a period of reunification, was able to reap great benefits on the world stage. Following the bloody and destructive Civil War, Northerners, Southerners, black citizens, and white citizens all came together and fought side-by-side against a common enemy.

This was a major step towards the world's perception of the United States as a massive player in foreign affairs. By greatly reducing the scope of Spain’s presence in the Caribbean, the United Sates filled that void, becoming the key economic partner to the Caribbean nations. This war also helped the United States become viewed as a global champion of democracy.

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The description of the Spanish American War as a "splendid little war" comes from John Hay, US ambassador to Britain, when he said to Theodore Roosevelt,

It has been a splendid little war, begun with the highest motives, carried on with magnificent intelligence and spirit, favored by that fortune which loves the brave.

With those words, he explained what he meant by "splendid." The war was "little" only in the sense that it lasted only 110 days; its impact, however, was huge.

The "highest motives" that Hay referred to were the desire to intervene on the behalf of Cubans and Philippine islanders in their struggles for independence from Spain. Cubans in particular had suffered greatly in their efforts to rid themselves of Spanish rule. Over 100,000 Cubans had died from disease while imprisoned in Spanish internment camps. Americans, including Clara Barton, wanted to help their Caribbean neighbors. Additional motives for engaging Spain included the desire for strategic positions around the world and the longing to display American might to the rest of the world and assert the U.S. on the world stage. Although modern views question whether such motives were commendable, at the time most American citizens seemed ready for the US to become involved in world affairs.

Hay also thought the war had been carried on with "magnificent intelligence and spirit." Like any war, this one had its blunders of communication, so intelligence wasn't always its defining quality. Few could deny, however, the "spirit" with which it was conducted. On sea and on land, the Navy and Army respectively entered the conflict with gusto. This is best symbolized by Teddy Roosevelt, who resigned his role with the Navy to put together his one-thousand-man group of Army soldiers known as the Rough Riders. This regiment included prestigious athletes from Ivy League colleges, members of elite families, cowboys, and frontiersmen. They volunteered to help fight the war on the ground to liberate Cuba.

Hay also commented on the "fortune" that blessed the war. This refers to the relatively small number of American deaths and casualties the war claimed as well, as the momentous gains that accrued to the US upon the war's completion. Only 385 men died in battle, and the Treaty of Paris that concluded the war gave the US control of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Phillippines, establishing the US as a colonial power.

Although to modern ears "splendid little war" sounds offensive, Hay had reasons for describing the Spanish American War with those words.

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The Spanish-American War was a splendid little war for a few reasons. One reason is that we were looking for a war to fight. We wanted to become a world power, so we needed to get colonies. Since most lands were already colonized, we would have to fight a colonial power to get these lands. Newspaper stories exaggerated events in Cuba about how poorly the Spanish were treating the Cubans. When a United States warship exploded in Havana Harbor, we blamed Spain. This gave us an opening to go to war, and war was declared.

This war was a short and glorious war. It was over within three months, and we were able to gain lands in the Pacific and the Caribbean. Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam became lands that we controlled. Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders were glorified in the war, even though they didn’t do as much as they said they did. In short, this war that we desperately wanted to fight was a short war that gave us the desired results. We got colonies and were now considered a world power. People in the Us thought it was splendid, indeed.

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