Podcast #41: William McKinley & The Spanish American War

Alright, so a big podcast. We are approaching the turn of a new Century within this episode, we will be talking about the Election of 1896 between William Jennings Bryan and William McKinley, the life, Presidency and Assassination of William McKinley, President #25 and the Spanish American War.

Politically, by 1896, platforms of political parties are shifting somewhat, especially for the Democratic party. Incumbent President, Grover Cleveland was really thrown to the wayside by his party and William Jennings Bryan won the Democratic nomination for President. He was supported by both Democrats and Populists.

If you’ve been with us from the start, you may have listened to our podcast on the evolution of political parties, we briefly mentioned the Populist Party, also sometimes called the People’s Party. This was a short lived political party that emerged in the late 1800s. The populists supported free coinage of silver, improvements for farmers and agrarian workers, public ownership of railroad and telegraph lines, direct elections of US Senators and a Graduated income tax. While this political party was short lived, their ideas were not and they were absorbed by the Democratic Party and many of their ideas will be passed into law and still remain today.

Alright, back to the election of 1896. William Jennings Bryan gave a speech at the democratic national convention in Chicago which becomes known as the “cross of gold speech”. It’s one of the most famous speeches in American History and it’s a great fiery speech. There are many noteworthy quotes in it, but by far the most used is “we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” This was the first of three Presidential runs for William Jennings Bryan. The Republicans nominated William McKinley a former Gov. of Ohio. Fun fact he is also the last veteran of the Civil War to run for President. The Republican platform supported the gold standard, economic expansion, annexation of Hawaii, overseas expansion – now this is important. The United States will become an Imperial power. Globally the Age of Imperialism is recognized as being from 1870-1914. I will get more into these terms when we talk about the Spanish-American War. If you look at the Electoral College map of the 1896 election results, you will notice that the Southern and Western states with the exception of California and Oregon voted for Bryan whereas Northern States and the upper Midwest, voted for McKinley. William McKinley was from the great state of Ohio and was born on January 29, 1843. He was one of 9 children. He was educated, fought in the Civil War for the Union, again the last Presidential candidate and US President to be a Civil War veteran. He became a lawyer and got involved in local politics with the Republican Party. He was a friend and protégé of Rutherford B. Hayes. He was a former Congressmen – he served in the House of Representatives and had a seat on the Ways and Means committee. He served two terms as the Governor of Ohio. He was married to Ida Saxton McKinley. They had two daughters who both died very young. Ida McKinley became sickly herself and suffered from seizures for the remainder of her life. The President was incredibly devoted to her.

When an individual is elected President, they create a road map of sorts of what they and the party want to accomplish. For William McKinley, his was a Presidency that was steered by Foreign Affairs.

Boxer Rebellion

Spanish-American War (1898) the war lasted for 100 days

I have mentioned a number of times in a number of different podcasts, that one event often leads to another. For example, with the industrial revolution we have the capability to mass produce items, but where are we going to sell this abundance of items and where are we going to get the inexpensive raw materials to produce them? The United States has already conquered the land from sea to shining sea. Now, we begin to look beyond our borders.

Latin America had become increasingly more important as the U.S. continued to industrialize. Spain controlled a vast empire in Latin America. By the mid 1800s, many countries were looking for independence. By 1895, Cuban rebels began to revolt against Spanish rule. In response, Spain sent a new Gov. who was very harsh in hopes of putting down the rebellion. Gov. Weyler became known as “the Butcher” Just so you can understand how harsh he was, detention camps were built for Cuban rebels and hundreds of thousands of Cubans were detained and conditions were so bad that an estimated 200,000 Cuban people died at the camps. The images of emaciated prisoners increased the calls for US intervention. The rebellion in Cuba concerned Americans as Cuba is located 90 miles away from the coast of Florida and economically, US businesses had millions of dollars in investments and our country was doing millions and millions of dollars’ worth of trade. There were arguments on either side if the US should intervene.

Imperialists and Anti-Imperialists

For those who were Anti-Imperialists, they feared what going to war would do economically. That the US didn’t need any more territory. You have some who felt it hypercritical for the US to become a Colonial Power, after all, we too fought a revolution to free ourselves from a colonial power.

For those who supported intervention: The US is producing more products than we need. We need more markets for our goods. By 1915, the US will export more products than any other country – WWI has a lot to do with that of course). There were strategic advantages to expansion (Commercial and Military) In times of war, the United States would be able to mobilize troops from a number of strategic locations.

What really fanned the flames for war was something called Yellow Journalism. The definition for this term is biased opinion masquerading as fact. The role of the press is an extremely important one. When information is distorted for the purpose of selling more newspapers than your competitors, or in today’s case for higher ratings and a greater opportunity to bring in more money through advertisements, this is very dangerous. This is something that can be debated at length. Who decides what is news? Who decides what gets prime time attention, and what doesn’t? Is something being made into a big story in order to detract attention from something else? All important questions to consider. When you get your news, do you go to one source? If the answer to the that last question is yes, you need to start getting your news from a variety of sources. Not just one. In the case of the Spanish-American War you have two competing newspaper editors: Joseph Pulitzer, who ran a paper called New York World and William Randolph Hearst, who ran The New York Journal. So we are seeing sensationalized headlines, distorted stories that weren’t telling the whole truth and misleading images. Each man printing editorials in their newspapers fanning the flames of public outrage. There are a number of great political cartoons that can be used in teaching this topic. After all, what sells newspapers better than a war? Right? Extra, Extra, read all about it. The image of the newspaper boys on the street corners holding the newspapers up reading off the headlines. There were some days that a million copies of the newspaper were sold as a result of their use of yellow journalism.

USS Maine was kept off of the coast of Cuba in the event that the rebellion escalated. It was a fairly new and impressive steel warship. So this warship is sent for the potential protection of American citizens in Cuba but also as a show of force. This is what the United States is capable of bringing to your shores. Spain is a European powerhouse. The United States is not even close to being a world power. Yet here is our warship. On Feb. 15, 1898, after over two weeks of being in the harbor, the USS Maine exploded. Many of the sailors on board were badly burned, many of them thrown into the harbor from the explosion and were drowning. Only 94 men of the 350 on board survived. The USS Maine sank and the survivors were taken from the wreckage. Spanish officials were quick to denounce the attack and ensure that the American government knew that the Spanish had nothing to do with it. The explosion of the Maine was most likely due to either a mine in the water or the spontaneous combustion of coal within the ship. It was most likely an accident, but at the time, newspapers in the United States printed story after story that only enraged the American public even more. President McKinley hoped that cooler heads would prevail until the full story of what really happened could be uncovered. The story is ripe for distortion. Who would have done this? The Spanish Government who is already having to battle Cuban rebels? Did the Cuban rebels have the means to plan and execute such an attack?

McKinley was heavily criticized for holding off on declaring war. He knew the horrors of the battlefield as a Civil War veteran. He hoped that war could be avoided. Spain’s refusal to free Cuba and the expulsion of the US ambassador to Spain, war was no longer avoidable. Spain declared war on the United States and the US declared war on Spain. It is often referred to as a “Splendid little war”. The war lasted about 100 days, there were limited casualties and by the time the war was over, the US was an Imperial Power. The limited Spanish forces in Cuba were no match for the US Navy. First the US defeated the Spanish Navy in the Philippines and then went on to Cuba.

Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders

Theodore Roosevelt was the Assistant Sec. of the Navy at the time. He had long supported going to war with Spain. He felt it was our job to bring freedom, to bring the greatness of the United States. He felt so strongly that he stepped down from his position so that he could go and fight. One of the most decisive battles of the war was the Battle of San Juan Heights. This battle cemented the fame of the Rough Riders and their commander, Teddy Roosevelt as a war hero. The rough riders were a volunteer regiment. Think cowboys, rough and tumble men mixed in with young college students outraged by current events and who had been emboldened to fight and even Native Americans. Another group we need to mention are the Buffalo soldiers. This was the name given to Black soldiers who had been fighting military campaigns against Native American tribes. A very distinguished group of soldiers, many of whom received the medal of honor. If you are into music, you might be thinking of the lyrics to the Bob Marley song, Buffalo soldier. The conditions for the men fighting were tough. US soldiers only had winter uniforms and their fighting in the hot Caribbean island of Cuba. Many more soldiers died from diseases like yellow fever and Malaria than those that died from battle wounds. After the Spanish fleet in Cuba was destroyed, the Spanish surrendered.

Remember the Maine” became a rallying cry

Treaty of Paris 1898

In Dec. of 1898, a Peace treaty was signed between the US and Spain after officials representing each country had met in Paris. Within the treaty, Spain granted Cuba Independence, the islands of Puerto Rico and Guam were given to the United States and the US paid Spain 20 Million for the Philippines. Puerto Rico and Guam are still under US control. We should do a separate podcast on this at some point too! The Philippines is a different story, like Cuba, the Philippines had been hoping AND fighting for independence. When it became clear the US had no intention of giving them independence fighting broke out. Its seldom talked about in US history classrooms. The conflict is referred to as the Philippine Insurrection or the Philippine-American war. It lasted until 1902. The calls for independence never stopped. By the end of WWII, the Philippines were given independence in 1946.

Spanish Colonial rule in the Americas officially came to an end and the United States became an Imperial Power.

Platt Amendment of 1901 stipulated the conditions for US military withdrawal from Cuba.

Cuba was expected to provide land for bases, repay debt to the US, never sign a treaty that would hurt the US and the US held the right to intervene in its affairs. The Military base in Cuba is one most may have heard of Guantanamo Bay.

It is also important to mention another territory that came under US control during the same time period, but in a different way and that is Hawaii. We need to briefly go back in time a bit. In 1820, the US sent missionaries to Hawaii. Many stayed. By 1887, US sugar planters had gained both economic and political dominance and forced the Hawaiian Monarchy to pass laws that restricted its power and they attempted to overthrow the monarchy. In 1893, the Queen of Hawaii, Queen Liliuokalani was deposed. President Grover Cleveland didn’t agree with what had happened to Hawaii’s Queen and rightfully so, it was very underhanded. McKinley held very different views and when he was in office, worked to bring the islands under US control. The Spanish-American war solidified Hawaii’s strategic importance and they were annexed to the US. In 1900, Hawaii became a US territory and in 1959, the 50th State.

Open Door Policy / Boxer Rebellion

In order to understand the importance of this Foreign policy, we have to go back in time a bit and we have to discuss a bit of world history.

European interest with trade with China goes back hundreds of years. The desire for Chinese goods increased but there was a big trade imbalance. There was one thing that British Merchants had that many Chinese wanted and that was Opium. Marketed for medicinal uses and a pain reliever, it was also highly addictive. So much so that an estimated two million people were addicted to it in China. It got to the point where China, ruled by the Qing Dynasty passed a law which banned the sale of Opium. GB went to war with China for the right to continue its Opium trade, twice. As a result of those two wars, GB and other countries had won the right to trade at more ports than they been able to before the wars. A number of European countries had carved out for themselves what became known as “Spheres of Influence” within China. Think of it as areas within the country where certain ports had been claimed by a specific foreign nation and that foreign nation had sole trading rights in that area. Now, what countries are we talking about? The heavy hitters (GB, France, Germany, Russia, even Japan). The US is not yet strong enough to create a sphere of its own and doesn’t want to get closed out of any potential opportunity, but we do have the idea to say, hey European countries, instead of spheres of influence, why not have an Open Door Policy. An Open Door policy in terms of trade… we still don’t want Chinese immigrants. The premise of the policy was that any of the countries who wanted to trade with China could trade Anywhere they wanted within China. This was the ingenious plan of McKinley’s Sec. of State, a man by the name of John Hay. We had to divide and conquer a bit to get everyone on board, but the opportunity to have unrestricted trade within China was to all of their benefits.

Que Rebellion within China, the Boxer Rebellion that is. A group known as the Harmonious Fists began to attack foreign officials, merchants and Christian missionaries. Fearful of losing their rights to trade and protect their economic interests, the US and a number of European countries, sent troops to put down the Rebellion. The thinking was that they were justified because they were protecting their economic interests. Foreign Policy wise, there was a lot going on during his Presidency. You can see the seeds being planted for the US to become a world power. It won’t fully happen until a bit later but the stage is being set.

Election of 1900

Once again we see a rematch between Republican Incumbent President William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan. Bryan is once again calling for bimetallism and was a vocal opponent of the Imperialist policies of McKinley’s Administration. William McKinley this time around had a new running mate. His first VP died in office and during the election, Republicans nominated former NYC Mayor and Gov. Theodore Roosevelt. He was a national figure after the Spanish-American war, everyone loves a war hero remember? I find it important to mention that the Vice Presidency was dangled in front of Teddy Roosevelt mainly to get him off of the backs of the powerful and corrupt NY Political Machine bosses. Roosevelt was a progressive reformer and he was doing a little too much reforming for their liking. So the sentiment was very much let’s get him out of here, lets offer him the Vice Presidency (which at that time was still a do nothing position). This plan of course back fired when he became the President after McKinley’s assassination. McKinley wins re-election in Nov. of 1900 and by Sept. of 1901, he would be dead.

McKinley Assassination

On the second day of his 2 day visit, Sept. 6, 1901, President McKinley was shot while attending Pan American Exposition or World’s Fair in Buffalo, NY by a 28 year old anarchist, Leon Czolgosz. He was a natural born citizen and the son of Polish Immigrants. A former laborer and Steele worker who had lost his job and been blacklisted. He felt as though the Presidency had too much power. The President didn’t have 24-hour protection like today. At the exposition he did have a large security detail but when it came time to shake hands with the public, President McKinley chose not to have them present. Two shots were fired point blank into the President. President McKinley was operated on, the doctors were unable to locate the second bullet but they closed the wounds. While it appeared the President would survive, the wound became infected with Gangrene and he died 8 days later. McKinley was the 3rd President to be assassinated (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley) and the last President not to have 24-hour protection. The assassin, Leon Czolgosz was put on trial for the murder of the President, was quickly found guilty and executed. President McKinley’s body was brought back by train accompanied by the 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt who had been rushed to Buffalo NY where he was sworn in as President an hour after McKinley’s death. President McKinley’s casket lied in state in the White House, then the Capital Building before being brought back to his hometown of Canton, Ohio. He is buried in a beautiful domed mausoleum built on top of a hill overlooking the city he loved so much. A man whose Presidency saw a former Colony now independent nation become an Imperial power.

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