The War with Spain in 1898

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

This latest addition to the acclaimed The Macmillan Wars of the United States is a scholarly tour de force. Based on a prodigious exploration of primary and secondary sources, The War with Spain in 1898 vividly recounts the causes, battles, strategies, and consequences of a conflict the nation was reluctant to fight but steadfastly determined to win. The book also examines every dimension of the complex political and diplomatic background of the war in both America and Spain. The frenzied diplomacy that failed to avert the conflict is chronicled, as well as the rapid mobilization of regular and volunteer forces. Furthermore, in addition to describing carefully the clash of arms in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, Trask offers fresh insights on how the struggle transformed the United States into a major world power.

The book fills a major void in American military history. Prior to its publication, French Ensor Chadwick’s The Spanish-American War (1911) and Walter Millis’ The Martial Spirit (1931) were the standard accounts of the conflict. Scholars who studied the war usually focused on its causes and consequences rather than the military campaigns. A host of articles and books explore whether war could have been avoided, what groups and individuals in American society were responsible for the nation’s involvement, if imperialistic motives brought it on, and how the outcome shaped the nation’s new standing in international affairs. Trask’s study, however, is the first definitive modern sythesis of the subject.

The author correctly defines the book as a “military-political history.” He accepts as a truism that war is an extension of politics, an effort to arrive at a desired political settlement by armed force rather than diplomatic pressure, negotiations, and other means. The central focus of the book is the relationship between force and diplomacy during the War with Spain. The military strategies, tactics, and logistics are portrayed in remarkable detail. Every contour of the diplomatic and political landscape is also revealed in order to illustrate how domestic and foreign factors affected the decisions of the contending governments.

Trask breaks a great deal of new ground and challenges many long-accepted views about the war. The author, for example, contradicts the conclusion that the United States Army was badly led and fought poorly in 1898. He smashes the thesis that America crushed the Spanish in the Philippines as an imperialistic adventure, a point of view fostered in recent years by a number of scholars. He also sheds new light on the role of the American president during this period. Rather than treating President William McKinley as a blatant imperialist, Trask portrays him as a serious, talented leader who initially sought to avoid war but later skillfully used force to achieve strategic national goals. McKinley clearly labored to seek a diplomatic solution with Spain and was not at first in favor of annexing the Philippine Islands. Trask also devotes considerable attention to the war at sea, and brings to light heretofore ignored aspects of this subject, such as the voyage of Admiral Camara in relief of Manila after Commodore Dewey’s victory.

Trask captures the great irony of the struggle—neither McKinley nor Praxedes Mateo Sagasta, the Spanish Prime Minister, wanted war. The American chief executive had a personal aversion to violence and feared an armed conflict would undermine his domestic priorities—a sound currency and improved tariff legislation. He was dedicated to completing the recovery from the 1893 depression and guarding the future of private enterprise. Nevertheless, the sinking of the American battleship Maine at Havana in February, 1898, unleashed a tide of pressures that were too severe for McKinley to withstand. A massive public demand...

(The entire section is 1587 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Booklist. LXXVIII, September 1, 1981, p. 24.

Choice. XIX, November, 1981, p. 437.

History: Reviews of New Books. X, November, 1981, p. 34.

Library Journal. CVI, May 1, 1981, p. 973.