A Rising Power (1890–1914)


“Goodbye, Mother,” wrote 25-year-old Clara Maass from Las Animas Hospital in Havana, Cuba. As a contract nurse for the U.S. Army, she penned her last letter home during the summer of 1901. “I will send you nearly all I earn,” she promised her widowed parent and her eight younger siblings, adding with pride that she was “the man of the family.”

Hailing from New Jersey, Maass previously attended a training school for nurses in Newark. She overcame personal misfortunes and became the head nurse at the German Hospital that served a robust immigrant community. Her patients received treatment in an antiseptic environment – not considered the norm for medical care during the late nineteenth century. While anticipating marriage to a New York businessman, she earned high marks for hard work and exemplary professionalism.

At the outset of the Spanish–American War, Maass volunteered for national service with the Army. She joined with VII Corps and VIII Corps, which allowed her to serve in the continental U.S. as well as in the Philippines and in Cuba. Because infectious diseases took more lives than armed combat, she battled against the spread of dengue, malaria, typhoid, and yellow fever among American troops. Like many other contract nurses, she treated ailing soldiers, war prisoners, and civilian refugees in the makeshift hospitals of the Army.

Maass learned that the Army's Yellow Fever Commission, which was headed by Dr. Walter Reed, claimed that mosquitoes spread the deadly epidemic amid U.S. forces in Cuba. Summoned by the chief sanitary officer, Dr. William Gorgas, she became a test subject at a civilian facility. She accepted $100 from the Army for consenting to receive mosquito bites. Fighting to gain immunity, she suffered from high fever, joint pain, and blinding headaches. She recovered from a bout in June but writhed in agony that August. In the sultry heat of the tropics, she took her last breath of air on August 24, 1901. Her mother received an Army pension thereafter, since her death overseas involved “a military character.”

Figure 9.1 The New York nurses, 1898. Photograph of Sternberg General Hospital, Camp Thomas, Chickamauga, Georgia, Army Nurse Corps in the War with Spain, U.S. Army Center of Military History


“No soldier in the late war placed his life in peril for better reasons,” announced an obituary of Maass in a New York newspaper. She represented the last fatality of the Army's experimentation with mosquitoes and yellow fever in Cuba, thus making her the only woman, nurse, and American among the casualties. The wartime experience with tropical environments spurred desperate efforts to control diseases worldwide, though it came too late for many in uniform. With troops injected into faraway places, the armed forces became involved in efforts to improve welfare and safety outside the borders of the U.S. As people and goods moved freely across international boundaries, Americans took a more active role in solving humanitarian problems around the globe.

Americans embraced controversial scientific theories, which informed an amalgam of popular beliefs about the “survival of the fittest.” Under the sway of Social Darwinism, a new generation of citizens imagined military action among the most purposeful of all human ventures. In fact, many conceived of war as nature's way of culling the weak from the strong. Throughout the Gilded Age, policymakers in the U.S. based their plans for a strong defense on the military weakness of pre-industrial societies within the western hemisphere. A Harvard graduate named Theodore Roosevelt composed a multivolume work titled The Winning of the West (1889–96), in which he rebuked those “prone to speak of all wars of conquest as necessarily evil.”

Whereas the U.S. population had surged to 75 million by 1890, Americans such as Roosevelt searched for order in a world that seemed out of control. Even though many reminisced about a frontier heritage, the explosion of international commerce made a “big navy” necessary to safeguard the shipping lanes. Steam-powered ships required bases to replenish supplies of coal and water, which further entangled service members with populations beyond the North American continent. Moreover, an industrial giant needed to acquire overseas territories for access to raw materials and foreign markets. Owing to the nation's considerable anxieties about the future, the armed forces grew more powerful during an age of imperialism.

Race for Empire

During the late nineteenth century, the Great Powers of Europe seized territory in Africa and in Asia while eying potential prizes in the western hemisphere. The assumptions of racial superiority bolstered the worldwide scramble for colonies, as did the growth of industrial societies that consumed large quantities of natural resources. Though largely protected by vast oceans from the imperial reach of European rivals, the American people exhibited a willingness to support ventures abroad on strategic, economic, and intellectual grounds.

Given the imperialistic implications, the American republic took cautious steps to acquire additional territories. The U.S. purchased Alaska for $7.2 million in a diplomatic effort to push Russia away from North America. Naval confrontations from South America to the Caribbean Sea produced saber rattling, but U.S. commanders avoided direct action. Thanks to the tripartite agreement of 1889, the naval base at Pago Pago in Samoa remained securely in American hands. Two years later, the American ambassador in Hawaii summoned marines to support an uprising against Queen Liliuokalani while protecting the naval base at Pearl Harbor. Consequently, the race for empire provided new energy for expansionist policies in Washington D.C.

As a matter of coastal defense, policymakers in Washington D.C. began expanding the naval forces. Congress authorized funding during the 1880s for four modern warships, requiring that all armor plating, structural steel, gunnery components, and propulsion equipment derive from domestic manufacturing. The ships of steel were christened the Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and Dolphin, or the “ABCD” ships. Two more armored cruisers, the U.S.S. Maine and the U.S.S. Texas, became second-class battleships. Thereafter, the Navy Department commissioned first-class battleships and named them the Indiana, Massachusetts, and Oregon. Displacing more than 11,000 tons, the U.S.S. Iowa eventually surpassed its predecessors in size. They showed the national colors while commanding the waters for thousands of miles from the shores of North America. Ranking third in the world by the turn of the century, the Navy of the U.S. attained considerable stature in a short amount of time.

Both Republican and Democratic administrations made the Navy a national priority. Recommending that the U.S. build 100 modern warships during the 1890s, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin F. Tracy insisted that the “sea will be the future seat of empire.” To match the technological capabilities of the European navies, every advance in the big guns stimulated a corresponding advance in the strength and the thickness of the heavy armor. Ship construction and coastal fortification proved mutually beneficial to national defense and to big business. Military contracts enabled American corporations to build factories and to hire workers, while the increased expenditures by the federal government maintained employment in defense-related industries even during economic downturns. Over the years, the procurement of steel and ordnance by the Navy mingled private interests with public policies.

Because “old salts” and “mossbacks” in uniform dominated the officer corps, the Navy established institutions for the advancement of professional military education. Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce helped to establish the U.S. Naval Institute during the 1870s, which published Proceedings that contained articles on naval strategies and tactics. In 1885, he became the first president of the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. “No less a task is proposed,” stated Luce, “than to apply modern scientific methods to the study and to raise naval warfare from the empirical stage to the dignity of a science.” The faculty escaped from sea duty into the lecture halls, where they attempted to codify navalism for an age of steam and steel.

While a faculty member at the Naval War College, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan authored a landmark work, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783 (1890). In over 450 pages, he maintained that all great civilizations held colonies and protected them with powerful navies. The attainment of both wealth and security amid “organized warfare” required naval bases, safe harbors, and coaling stations beyond the mainland. He emphasized the significance of decisive battles for taking “command of the sea,” which resembled Napoleonic doctrines for land warfare. He posited that a fleet of battleships represented “the arm of offensive power, which alone enables a country to extend its influence outward.” His grand narrative employed historical examples as testimony for the transcendent, universal value of naval forces in winning wars. Hence, any army in the world would capitulate to the blockade of a sea power.

While striking a resonant chord with audiences in Great Britain, Germany, and Japan, the doctrine of sea power profoundly influenced the U.S. in the years ahead. Mahan formed a lasting friendship with Roosevelt, who soon became a naval enthusiast. Of course, Mahan's argument for “command of the sea” echoed the sentiments of others in search of decisive battles in history. Though flawed in many respects, his dense writings won the acclaim of “big navy” advocates in Washington D.C. He undermined the traditional notion that the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans provided a buffer from the rest of the world, suggesting instead that they represented a “highway” or “wide common” for seafaring traffic in all directions. Underscoring the benefits of maritime commerce, he recommended annexing the Hawaiian Islands and developing a Central American canal. “Whether they will or no,” he scribed, “Americans must now begin to look outward.” In other words, the U.S. grew too large during the nineteenth century to confine its strategic thought to a military policy of continentalism.

Despite efforts to promote “Pan-Americanism,” the U.S. perceived Chile as an emerging threat to national interests in the western hemisphere. During 1891, a mob in Valparaiso attacked a group of sailors on shore leave from the U.S.S. Baltimore. Two Americans died, and another 17 were injured. President Benjamin Harrison vowed to take “such action as may be deemed appropriate,” which prompted the Chilean government to apologize for its role in the Baltimore affair as well as to compensate the families of the slain.

President Grover Cleveland, who both preceded and succeeded Harrison in office, invoked the Monroe Doctrine to justify American assertiveness. Owing to a boundary dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana in 1895, he directed the Secretary of State, Richard Olney, to demand that London submit the dispute to international arbitration. In a dispatch to the British Foreign Secretary, he indicated that the U.S. contemplated armed intervention to defend “self-government” in Venezuela. To preempt European imperialists from trying to carve out new colonies in Latin America, the president boasted that the dispatch amounted to a “20-inch gun.” In a message to Congress that triggered a war scare, he fortified the Monroe Doctrine as an international principle while indicating that the U.S. was prepared to intervene to settle the boundary dispute. Eventually, Great Britain accepted arbitration in a way that allowed the Cleveland administration to avoid military action.

Though Cleveland withdrew a treaty that annexed Hawaii, the next president, William McKinley, contemplated territorial expansion beyond the continental U.S. The last Civil War veteran to occupy the White House, the commander-in-chief appraised the value of the Pacific Ocean for national security. “We need Hawaii,” he observed, “just as much and a good deal more than we did California.” Japan dispatched warships to the Pacific islands the next year, which prompted McKinley to offer another treaty for annexation. Unable to find the votes in the Senate, he obtained a joint resolution to achieve his aims in 1898. “It is Manifest Destiny,” concluded the president with satisfaction.

Remember the Maine

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the Cuban struggle for independence attracted American attention. While an expatriate living in New York, José Martí became a symbol of the movement to free Cuba from Spanish dominion. He organized the Junta to coordinate a campaign under the banner of Cuba Libre. Recruiting revolutionaries from Key West to Santo Domingo, he joined filibustering expeditions to liberate what the Spanish called the “ever faithful isle.” After landing in Cuba, he died in his first battle on May 19, 1895.

The insurrection of 1895 spurred the governor general, Valeriano Weyler, to institute punitive measures against the civilian population of Cuba. While rebels struck plantations and trains, Spanish soldiers assaulted villages in retaliation. To suppress the widespread unrest, the reconcentradopolicy involved the herding of men, women, and children to areas controlled by the Spanish Army. As a result of the devastation, disease, and starvation, thousands perished in the Cuban countryside. The “yellow journalists” of the U.S. circulated sensational stories about the military atrocities, denouncing the Spanish commander in Cuba as a “butcher.”

With Cuba only 90 miles off the coast of Florida, pressure for the U.S. to stop the mayhem continued to mount. American “jingoists” called upon the federal government to safeguard national interests with military action. In 1897, John D. Long, the Secretary of the Navy, directed senior officers to develop a war plan based upon the previous work of the Naval War College and the Office of Naval Intelligence. Their planning drew from a key document by Lieutenant William W. Kimball, which he titled “War with Spain.” Acknowledging the fact that American trade with Cubans actually surpassed Spanish commerce with them, a congressional resolution recognized the rebel cause. Unable to crush the rebellion against the empire, the Spanish government eventually replaced the “butcher” with the more humane General Ramón Blanco. Spain offered autonomy to the island but refused to grant independence.

The McKinley administration expressed no animosity toward Spain, although the Republican platform in the presidential election of 1896 included a plank on behalf of Cuban independence. When anti-American riots erupted in Havana, he ordered the U.S.SMaine to the harbor in early 1898 as a sign of resolve. Spanish ambassador Dupuy de Lôme made disparaging remarks about the U.S. president in a letter reprinted in the New York Journal, which editorialized that it amounted to the “worst insult to the United States in its history.” Having seen “the dead pile up” as a private during the American Civil War, McKinley remained reluctant to push for war against Spain.

While anchored in Havana, the presence of the Maine troubled Spain but sparked no immediate reaction from officials. Captain Charles D. Sigsbee, the commander of the U.S. battleship, went ashore with the American consul, Fitzhugh Lee. Taking precautions against “injury or treachery,” he stationed the marines on guard while ordering the sailors to remain on board. He attended a bullfight at Regla without incident.

Figure 9.2 Ship's company, U.S.S. Maine, 1896. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


At 9:40 p.m. on February 15, 1898, Sigsbee sat in his cabin while writing a letter home. Several officers gathered by the port-side turret to enjoy excellent cigars. Most of the crew climbed into their bunks. A marine bugler played taps, which reverberated in the night air. Suddenly, the captain heard what sounded like a rifle shot. A tremendous “bursting, rending, and crashing” separated the forecastle from the rest of the vessel and bent the keel upward through the armored deck. As the smoke rose into the heavens, the wreck sank to the harbor bottom. Of the 355 men on board, 255 died immediately. Another eight perished from their injuries. Only 16 escaped without any harm, including Sigsbee. Noting that Spanish officials expressed sympathy, he cabled the Navy Department: “Public opinion should be suspended until further report.”

“Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!” screamed the headlines of U.S. newspapers in the immediate aftermath. A naval court of inquiry reported that “a submarine mine” set off the explosion in the munitions magazine. However, subsequent investigations determined that an internal fire in the coal bunker triggered it. Most Americans drew hasty conclusions, although no evidence was ever found that linked Spanish actions directly to the incident.

Given American outrage at the time, Congress voted unanimously to approve $50 million in appropriations “for national defense and for each and every purpose connected therewith.” Moreover, McKinley demanded that the Spanish government indemnify the U.S. for the Maine and grant independence to Cuba. In response to his demands, Spain consented to arbitration for the former but refused to concede the latter. On April 11, the commander-in-chief asked Congress to “authorize and empower” him to expel Spanish forces from the island. Read by clerks from the well of the House of Representatives, his “war message” anticipated the use of the “military and naval forces of the United States” in the righteous effort. He also issued an official ultimatum to Spain and announced a naval blockade of Santiago. A congressional joint resolution supported his request, although the Teller Amendment prohibited the annexation of Cuba. Consequently, Spain reacted by declaring war on the U.S. Spain's belligerent actions, said McKinley with indignation, demonstrated “an existent state of war.” Both houses of Congress quickly approved a declaration of war on April 25.

Even if unprepared to wage war, Secretary of War Russell Alger wanted to deploy 100,000 soldiers to occupy Cuba. With only 27,000 men on active duty, the federal government called upon the states to raise volunteer regiments from existing militia units. Despite the reluctance of some governors to send the National Guard overseas, rapid mobilization brought the number of effectives to 182,687. Scores of troops readied for action without blue uniforms, because federal stockpiles proved insufficient. Regulars often carried Krag-Jørgensen rifles that fired smokeless powder cartridges, but states armed National Guardsmen with older Springfield rifles that fired only black powder ammunition. Regardless of the logistical mess, General Nelson A. Miles, the Commanding General of the Army, assumed responsibility for assembling, training, and equipping the Army.

While the Army remained in the continental U.S., the Surgeon General's Office established a Nurse Corps Division for coordinating medical care. More than 1,700 women volunteered to toil as nurses aboard medical ships as well as at military camps, aid stations, and field hospitals. In addition, female physicians and staff prepared to accompany the Army.

The McKinley administration prodded the Army to campaign in Cuba but expected the Navy to triumph over Spain. Before the war began, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt sent orders to the European and Asiatic Squadrons to prepare for military action. The 39-year-old suddenly resigned his naval post in order to go “to the front,” while Secretary Long established a three-man Naval War Board that included Mahan. Under the command of Rear Admiral William T. Sampson, the North Atlantic Squadron imposed an effective blockade of Cuba that April. A “war room” soon appeared in the White House, which included large-scale maps with colored flags to indicate the location of U.S. warships around the world.

Splendid Little War

“War has commenced between the United States and Spain,” stated a telegram from Long to Commodore George Dewey, the commander of the Asiatic Squadron. Sent on the same day that Congress declared war, it directed Dewey to “proceed at once to Philippine Islands” and to “capture or destroy” the Spanish fleet. Before American vessels departed from Hong Kong in China, Emilio Aguinaldo, an exiled leader of Filipino rebels, offered to organize an insurrection against the Spanish garrisons. Dewey agreed to aid the rebels, but his flagship cruiser, the U.S.S. Olympia, steamed ahead without waiting for them to come aboard.

Dewey intended to cut off the Philippine archipelago from Spain, thereby giving the U.S. an upper hand in bargaining to end the contest. With a force of seven steel-hulled warships, his squadron entered Manila Bay on May 1. At 5:22 a.m., he barked a command through a speaking tube to the skipper, Captain Charles V. Gridley: “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.” They hurled shells at seven wooden vessels anchored at Cavite, a fortified point directly across from the city of Manila. Without losing a single American life, they sank or disabled the entire Spanish fleet by the end of the day. Promoted to rear admiral a few days later, Dewey became a national hero after the Battle of Manila Bay.

The decisive victory gave Dewey control of the waters around the Philippines, though he paused before making his next move. His guns had silenced the coastal artillery defending the bay, yet the Spanish garrison in the city of Manila refused to capitulate. He held the Cavite Navy Yard but needed “the man with a rifle” to occupy the colony. With barely enough sailors and marines to maintain the Asiatic Squadron, he awaited the arrival of ground troops from the U.S. Aguinaldo arrived aboard the U.S.S. McCulloch on May 19, when he took charge of the Filipino insurrectos. He claimed that Dewey promised independence for the Philippines, although the naval officer lacked the authority to do so. After issuing a series of proclamations, anti-Spanish forces controlled most of the archipelago by the time U.S. volunteers crossed the Pacific.

Elsewhere in the Pacific, Captain Henry Glass steered the U.S.S. Charleston along with three steamers toward the Spanish colony of Guam. On June 20, Glass entered Apra Harbor and fired a challenge shot at Fort Santa Cruz. After learning that a state of war existed, Spanish authorities surrendered the island the next day. With the small garrison secured on behalf of the U.S., the Charleston steamed toward the Philippines to join the Asiatic Squadron.

The U.S. strategy for liberating Cuba consisted of maintaining a naval blockade while encouraging rebels to harass Spanish troops on the island. Spain's principal battle fleet crossed the Atlantic under the command of Admiral Pascual Cervera, who reached the Caribbean that May. Maneuvering past Sampson's North Atlantic Squadron near Puerto Rico, the Spanish fleet took refuge in the bay of Santiago, the key city on the southeastern shore of Cuba. Santiago's mines and batteries gave protection to Cervera's warships. Nevertheless, Sampson tightened the blockade while operating beyond the range of the big guns. Given the impasse on the waters, the Navy needed the Army to go ashore.

The Army tarried at military camps inside the U.S. during Cuba's rainy months, which Alger called the “sickly” season. As Miles readied a “reconnaissance in force” to launch that fall, he ordered General William R. Shafter to assemble V Corps at Tampa Bay, Florida. Captain John J. Pershing of the 10th Cavalry noted that the port “had not been at all prepared to handle the amount of property or the numbers of men and animals that were concentrated there.” Close to one-fourth of the regulars and volunteers were African Americans, including the “Buffalo Soldiers” redeploying from the Trans-Mississippi West. With the public demanding a fast and furious end to the Spanish–American War, the McKinley administration ordered the Army to invade Cuba as soon as possible. Numbering close to 17,000, the anxious men of V Corps boarded transports in early June and steamed toward Santiago.

Nearly 40 miles east of Santiago, Sampson secured a forward repair and coaling station known as Guantánamo Bay. On June 10, a battalion of marines disembarked from the U.S.S. Panther on the eastern side of the harbor. Commanded by Colonel Robert Huntington, they overcame enemy resistance to secure the base in a few days.

Shafter chose to land V Corps closer to Santiago at Daiquirí and Siboney, where American troops went ashore after June 21. He ignored the plans of the Navy regarding a quick strike against the harbor defenses, deciding instead to march inland along a muddy road. In spite of insufficient horses, General Henry W. Lawton commanded the vanguard of the advancing columns. General Joseph Wheeler, an ex-Confederate officer, urged his dismounted cavalry forward, as he put it, against “the Yankees – dammit, I mean the Spaniards!” He directed a pedestrian drive to Las Guásimas, where U.S. forces pressured the Spanish lines to break.

U.S. forces paused near the San Juan Heights east of Santiago. On July 1, Shafter dispatched Lawton with 6,500 soldiers to attack El Caney to the northeast. Instead of a brief skirmish, the Battle of El Caney lasted over 12 hours. Spanish soldiers made a last stand at a blockhouse, while hundreds perished in the trenches nearby. Though eventually victorious in combat, the Americans counted 81 dead and 360 wounded.

Americans attacked the San Juan Heights on the same day, although the corpulent Shafter became too ill from gout to participate. As the thin blue line advanced through the San Juan River, a U.S. Signal Corps' observation balloon permitted Spanish gunners to locate their movements. Furthermore, the black powder smoke from American firearms allowed Spanish riflemen to spot their targets in the tall grass. U.S. soldiers were pinned down until midday, when Gatling guns began clearing San Juan Hill on the left and Kettle Hill on the right.

Suddenly, the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry – popularly known as the “Rough Riders” – charged into a hailstorm of bullets on foot. Commanded by Colonel Leonard Wood, the unit included cowboys, Indians, and Ivy Leaguers as well as Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt. During what he called a “crowded hour,” they joined with several regiments of “Buffalo Soldiers” at the top of Kettle Hill. General Jacob F. Kent's division pressed San Juan Hill to the left, while Roosevelt scrambled down Kettle Hill and into the valley that separated them. After sprinting to the summit of San Juan Hill, he and his men swung their hats in the air and cheered their moment of triumph. He later received the Medal of Honor for his actions. Labeled the Battle of San Juan Hill by war correspondents, the fighting at the heights took 205 American lives and wounded another 1,180.

As the day of battle ended, the Spaniards retreated to a defensive line around Santiago. Admiral Sampson went ashore to meet with Shafter, while Admiral Cervera attempted to steer the Spanish vessels out of Santiago Bay. Commodore Winfield S. Schley, Sampson's second in command, directed six warships in the Battle of Santiago Bay on July 3. “Fire steady, boys,” he shouted to his crew, “and give it to them.” With the loss of only one American sailor, he ran three enemy warships aground while sinking and damaging five more. A short bombardment of the city followed. Even though Shafter continued to flounder on the island, the arrival of reinforcements from the U.S. convinced the Spanish garrison to surrender two weeks later. In a humanitarian gesture, the bluecoats shared canned meat, hardtack, beans, bread, and coffee with their captives. Consequently, the Navy transported thousands back to Spain.

Thanks to the Navy's control of the waters, the American Red Cross entered Cuba. At the age of 77, Clara Barton led nurses and doctors to the Army camps outside Santiago. She described “a few little dog tents” at the V Corps Hospital, where the bloodied men huddled together in misery. Many rested motionless on the wet ground under the starry night. “The operating tables were full of the wounded,” she lamented. The nurses toiled for hours to keep the life in each body “that seemed fast oozing out.” The Army's disarray that summer turned scores of civilian volunteers into lifesavers.

With Spain reeling from the Army's blows, Miles directly entered the fray in the Caribbean. After landing at Siboney, he organized U.S. forces for an operation to seize Puerto Rico. More than 3,000 soldiers sailed from Guantánamo on July 21 and arrived at Guánica a few days later. After securing the highway and railroad at Yauco, the Americans took the city of Ponce without a fight. In less than a week, almost 12,000 troops controlled the southern rim of the island. Miles issued a terse proclamation, promising that his men would bear “the banner of freedom, inspired by a noble purpose to seek the enemies of our country and yours, and to destroy or capture all who are in armed resistance.” Four columns drove toward San Juan but encountered only light resistance, which resulted in four U.S. fatalities and 40 wounded. Because the Puerto Ricans generally welcomed the Americans, hostilities on the island ended in mid-August.

Meanwhile, the McKinley administration ordered nearly 15,000 soldiers to the Philippines that summer. General Wesley Merritt assumed command of VIII Corps while preparing to assail the city of Manila. “I do not yet know whether it is your desire to subdue and hold all of the Spanish territory in the islands,” he wrote to the commander-in-chief, “or merely seize and hold the capital.” However, Dewey and Spanish officials agreed to a “sham” battle that kept the Filipino insurrectos on the sidelines. Supported by U.S. warships, Merritt's attack began on August 13. With token opposition from 13,000 Spaniards, the Battle of Manila cost the Americans six killed in action and 105 wounded.

“It has been a splendid little war,” wrote John Hay, the American ambassador to Great Britain. After he became the Secretary of State, he negotiated a formal end to the Spanish–American War. With France acting as an intermediary, the U.S. and Spain agreed to an armistice in August but haggled over terms until December. According to the Treaty of Paris, the U.S. acquired the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. Furthermore, Cuba was promised independence. Madrid received $20 million from Washington D.C. in compensation for the loss of the Philippine islands. The Stars and Stripes flew over Wake Island as well. Hence, the outcome of the war greatly expanded the global reach of the U.S.

During 109 days of fighting, the U.S. rose to the challenge of a European rival. Some 200,000 Americans donned a uniform, but no more than 35,000 left the U.S. While 379 soldiers and sailors were killed in action, another 2,565 perished from disease. Yellow fever, typhoid, dysentery, and malaria devastated the American divisions, which prompted Shafter to lament that he commanded “an army of convalescents” in Cuba. Navy transports swiftly carried V Corps from Santiago to Long Island's Montauk Point, where the Medical Department established Camp Wikoff to quarantine the evacuated troops. As the summer ended, thousands of Americans mustered out of service. The next year, the American Veterans of Foreign Service formed a fraternal order that later became known as the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Philippine Rebellion

If U.S. forces left the Philippine islands prematurely, McKinley feared that Germany, France, Russia, or Great Britain would attempt to snatch them. Calling them a “gift from the gods,” he urged senators to ratify the Treaty of Paris and to annex the entire archipelago. Many opponents of new acquisitions, however, expressed contempt for “an alien race and foreign tongue.” Despite a contentious debate in Washington D.C., the Senate ratified the treaty on February 6, 1899.

Figure 9.3 Colonialism in Asia, 1914


The terms of the treaty kindled animosity between U.S. forces and Filipino insurrectos, whom Aguinaldo named the Army of Liberation. Once the Spanish soldiers exited the fortifications across Luzon, the former allies faced each other on the outskirts of Manila. Their relations grew tense while trading gunfire and insults along the lines. McKinley replaced Merritt with General Elwell Otis, who regarded the Filipinos as “ignorant and very superstitious.” Shortly before the treaty vote, he authorized a series of military actions to secure the Manila perimeter.

As directed, two American divisions stormed the Filipino dispositions around Manila while taking few casualties. Unable to resist the surprise offensive, thousands of Filipinos died in defense of blockhouses and redoubts. In fact, Filipino weaponry such as the bolo proved no match for U.S. arms and ammunition. U.S. gunboats pushed up the Pasig River, which brought naval firepower further inland. Rifles crackled and cannons roared from the front lines to the rice paddies. General Arthur MacArthur marched a division into the villages of Caloocan, Malolos, and Calumpit before the onset of the monsoon season. With Aguinaldo's Army of Liberation in retreat, U.S. forces rolled onward from February to June.

That February, McClure's magazine in the U.S. published a poem titled “The White Man's Burden” by Rudyard Kipling, a British scribe. With the subtitle, “The United States and the Philippines,” he interpolated the prevailing assumptions of race with grim exhortations about power. The verses beckoned Americans to embrace an overseas mission, that is, to fight “the savage wars of peace.” Resonating with a resurgent nationalism at the end of the century, Roosevelt called it “poor poetry but good sense.”

A sense of nationalism permeated the rank and file of the American military, who seemed eager for another war abroad. Following the annexation of the Philippines, Congress approved legislation to maintain 65,000 regulars in the Army while adding another 35,000 volunteers for service. Once reinforcements arrived from the U.S., various National Guard and volunteer units with expiring enlistments departed for home. The logistical problems presented by 6,000 miles of ocean notwithstanding, the high command likened operations in Luzon to “Indian fighting” in the American West. Nevertheless, some officials in the War Department worried that African American regiments would not fight against “their colored Filipino cousins.” Troop levels exceeded 20,000 in 1899, when Otis began forming native auxiliaries as well.

After a brief hiatus in the military campaign, Otis expected U.S. forces to crush the Philippine rebellion that fall. Called the “General of the Night” by Aguinaldo, Lawton led a column up the Rio Grande River and over to the Lingayen Gulf. While General Loyd Wheaton failed to cut off the Filipino leader's escape route from Tarlac, MacArthur pressed forward along the railroad line from Angeles to Dagupan. The triple-pronged pincer succeeded in defeating the Army of Liberation, but it did not end the resistance. An enemy sharpshooter killed Lawton during a small skirmish on December 19, which made him the highest-ranking U.S. officer to die in the Philippines. Aguinaldo fled into the mountains of northern Luzon, where he directed the remnants of the Filipino forces to shift from conventional to guerrilla tactics.

Despite co-opting a number of Filipinos, the American military struggled to counter an insurgency in the countryside. Otis issued General Order 40 to organize municipal governments, which allowed him to declare victory and to go home. William Howard Taft, a prominent judge from Ohio, arrived in Manila to head a civilian commission as a temporary governor. Ultimately, more than 15,000 natives joined the Philippine Constabulary, the Philippine Scouts, and various other police and paramilitary organizations under U.S. supervision. While administering conquered areas, Army personnel oversaw the building of schools, hospitals, bridges, and roads. In addition, they strung around 16,000 miles of telegraph wire. However, they also condoned the sacking of villages, the execution of prisoners, and the raping of women. They grew frustrated with amigo warfare by some Filipinos, which entailed friendly cooperation in public but deadly sniping and sabotage in secret. To implement what McKinley called “benevolent assimilation,” U.S. forces confronted their foes with extreme prejudice.

However ugly, U.S. forces generally operated within the framework of the existing “laws of war.” Americans resorted to variations of the “water cure” to enhance interrogations, which involved forcing liquid down a subject's throat until information was forthcoming. If the torturous application failed to produce results, then soldiers stood on the swollen stomach to induce vomiting. Moments later, the “water detail” repeated the steps. An Army marching cadence at the time shouted with glee: “We've got him down and bound, so let's fill him full of liberty!” With little guidance from Washington D.C., cruelty all too often became the hallmark of the operations in the Philippines.

As hostilities took a toll on the operations, American corpses sometimes appeared mutilated beyond recognition. Chaplain Charles C. Pierce established an Army morgue in the Philippines, where the bodies of the slain were tagged for repatriation. Going forward, he proposed that the War Department include an “identity disc” in each soldier's field kit. Years later, his recommendation resulted in an item that U.S. forces called “dog tags.”

Taking command of U.S. forces in 1900, MacArthur extended the operations by establishing hundreds of garrisons throughout the archipelago. He boasted of killing 15 Filipinos for every one wounded, which insinuated a motto of “no quarter” within his command. His strength in the Philippines surged to 70,000 men while offering incentives for armed guerrillas to lay down their weapons. With great success in penetrating the mountains and jungles, he expanded the activities of the native constabulary and scout units.

MacArthur authorized Colonel Frederick N. Funston to personally lead a clandestine party that included Filipino auxiliaries. A successful interrogation of Cecilio Segismundo – a courier for Aguinaldo – revealed the location of his secret hideout. Funston posed as a prisoner to gain entry to Aguinaldo's headquarters at the village of Palanan. With the aid of Macabebe villagers from central Luzon, he captured the Filipino leader on March 23, 1901. Consequently, Aguinaldo wrote a general proclamation to insurgents asking them to surrender.

The surrender of Aguinaldo represented a closing act in the Philippine rebellion, although horrific violence continued in a few provinces. American troops on Batangas forced at least 300,000 civilians into concentration zones. On Mindanao, a group of Muslims known as the Moro resisted pacification for another decade. Following the massacre of 45 soldiers at Balangiga, one brigade commander, General Jacob Hurd Smith, told subordinates to turn the interior of Samar into a “howling wilderness” in retaliation. On July 4, 1902, the U.S. officially proclaimed an end to the rebellion.

From 1899 to 1902, the U.S. deployed over 126,000 regular and volunteer soldiers to the archipelago. The federal government spent approximately $400 million to counter an insurgency that most officials in Washington D.C. ignored. The Americans lost 4,234 dead in addition to suffering 2,818 wounded. At least 16,000 Filipinos perished in three years of clashes. More than 100,000 civilians died from a cholera epidemic, which erupted as a result of contaminated food and water in the war-ravaged areas. Though tainted by the sensational stories of military atrocities, the American colors flew over the Philippines until 1942.

The Boxers

Given the weakness of China in the late nineteenth century, a number of European powers began carving out “spheres of influence” across the mainland. Moreover, Japan and the U.S. emerged as important rivals in the Pacific Rim. Under the protective guns of steel navies, American missionaries and merchants entered Asia with great expectations. In the words of Secretary Hay, they expected “a fair field and no favor.”

Beginning in 1899, Hay circulated a series of “Open Door notes” to London, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Rome, Paris, and Tokyo. His policy resembled the Monroe Doctrine in a sense, albeit in terms that transcended the western hemisphere. While acknowledging the interests of foreign nations in existing “spheres” within China, he urged them to allow wide access to the China market. “We do not want to rob China ourselves,” he wrote privately to McKinley, but “public opinion will not allow us to interfere with an army to prevent others from robbing her.” Though mostly a bluff, the U.S. pledged to protect China's territorial integrity. The Open Door Policy provided legitimacy to the burgeoning American interests in Asia while laying the groundwork for future military actions if warranted.

By 1900, a group of Chinese nationalists began calling themselves “Fists of Righteous Harmony,” or the Boxers. Adept at martial arts, they claimed to possess supernatural powers that made them invulnerable to bullets. Empress Dowager Cixi recruited nearly 30,000 into her army while declaring war on all “devils.” In a period of severe drought, one placard announced: “Heaven is now sending down eight million spirit soldiers to extirpate these foreign religions, and when this has been done, there will be a timely rain.” Denouncing the encroachments upon their traditional culture, the red-sashed warriors marched across the Chihli Province toward Peking. After destroying railroads, dismantling telegraphs, and burning churches, they besieged the Legation Quarter in the capital. Extending less than 1 square mile, the embassies of 11 foreign nations stood between the walls of the Tartar City and the Imperial City.

Sweeping through Peking, the Boxers began to “serenade” the Legation Quarters with rifle and cannon fire along the Tartar Wall. Refugees flocked to the compounds, while the rampage continued for weeks. On May 31, 1900, more than 50 marines arrived by rail to protect the U.S. embassy. “Thank God you've come,” exclaimed the U.S. minister Edwin H. Conger, who feared for his safety. Standing guard alone, Private Dan Daly held a barricade overnight with only a Lee straight-pull 6-mm rifle and a bandoleer of ammunition. Joining with a British relief expedition, Captain Bowman McCalla, skipper of the U.S.S. Newark, led 112 marines and sailors in a vain attempt to rescue the legations. Though causing little damage, a Chinese shell hit the U.S.S. Monocacy while anchored in port. Without consulting Congress, McKinley decided to deploy around 5,000 troops to quell the Boxer rebellion that summer.

Drawing personnel from ongoing operations in the Philippines and in Cuba, U.S. forces arrived in China along with British, French, Austrian, Italian, German, Russian, and Japanese troops. After landing at the Taku forts in June, a marine battalion under the command of Major Littleton W. T. Waller marched 30 miles to Tientsin. Members of the 9th Infantry Regiment and the 1st Marine Regiment arrived later than their counterparts, but they participated in the Battle of Tientsin on July 13. The Americans lost 23 dead and 73 wounded in a sharp engagement with the Boxers. The city fell to the coalition of forces the next day.

The coalition lacked an overall commander, even though the various commands worked together to form the China Relief Expedition. Disembarking from a U.S. warship that July, General Adna R. Chaffee led 2,500 soldiers and marines into the fray. A 48-year-old cavalryman, he experienced combat from Gettysburg to the Red River before reaching the rank of general in the Spanish–American War. His command in China included the 9th and 14th Infantry Regiments, a marine battalion, a cavalry troop, and a light battery of artillery. In concert with 20,000 troops from other nations, the expedition set out for Peking in early August.

The Americans reached Peking on August 14, when they gazed upon the Tartar Wall that rose nearly 30 feet high. No one had brought along scaling ladders, but Corporal Calvin P. Titus, a bugler from Company E of the 14th Infantry, climbed the wall to look around. “The coast is clear,” he shouted with confidence to his comrades below. After more soldiers reached the top and passed over the wall, they opened the Tung Pien gate for the rest to enter the city. They rescued Russian troops pinned down in the courtyard, while Captain Henry J. Reilly cleared the way with his horse-drawn cannons. However, British soldiers reached the Legation Quarter shortly before the Americans completed their dash of glory. Chaffee next ordered U.S. forces to enter the Imperial City, where Reilly fell from a bullet to his head. A few days later, leaders of the coalition entered the Forbidden City together to demand concessions from the empress.

Following the seizure of Peking, the coalition attempted to erase the last vestiges of the Boxer rebellion. Chaffee's command lost around 250 casualties overall, while the losses of others in the China Relief Expedition numbered in the thousands. Whereas the outcome vindicated the principles of the Open Door Policy, a temporary military government allotted different zones of occupation to participating nations. Observers described an “orgy of looting” by many soldiers, even though the U.S. sector featured improvements in sanitation, hospitals, policing, and schools. The next year, the Chinese dynasty signed the Boxer Peace Protocol. Accordingly, they agreed to pay an indemnity to the foreign governments. On September 7, 1901, American troops began their withdrawal from China.

A Progressive Defense

Americans entered the twentieth century with renewed passion for national defense, even as many debated the role of the armed forces around the world. With domestic disturbances on the rise, troops were summoned occasionally to quell unrest at home. Given the range of tasks assigned to military personnel, policymakers complained about the misuse of limited resources in general and the mismanagement of the War Department in particular. As a result, the federal government appeared receptive to calls for the reform of military affairs.

In the aftermath of the Spanish–American War, the McKinley administration formed a commission chaired by retired General Grenville M. Dodge to investigate military affairs. Commissioners questioned bureau chiefs as well as staff officers in the War Department, even visiting Army camps associated with misery and malfeasance. As the Commanding General of the Army, Miles testified that the unfortunate soldiers consumed “embalmed beef” with poisonous chemicals. Poor food, he posited, was “one of the serious causes of so much sickness and distress on the part of the troops.” A muckraking press highlighted the venality of the outgoing Secretary of War, thus making “Algerism” a synonym for the Army's ineptitude in contrast to the Navy's competence. Exposés of corruption and negligence tarnished the image of the War Department, but the commission concluded that most Army officers served “with earnestness and energy.”

No official played a more significant role in restoring the reputation of the War Department than Elihu Root, who became the Secretary of War during 1899. A New York attorney before his appointment to the cabinet, he assumed the post with a fresh outlook on the relationship between the armed forces and civil society. After immersing himself in the writings of the deceased General Emory Upton, he resolved to make the Army comparable to European models. In 1901, he urged Congress to increase the Army's manpower to 100,000. That year, they established the Army Nurse Corps to attract female professionals into military service. The “Root Reforms” included the first Field Service Regulations in the Army along with procedures that rewarded merit rather than seniority. Throughout his tenure at the War Department, he reiterated the axiom: “The real object of having an Army is to provide for war.”

Root posited that the officer corps needed an extended postgraduate program of professional military education. On November 27, 1901, he announced General Order 155 to establish the Army War College. A few years later, the first class of six captains and three majors convened to study plans for war and peace. Located originally at Washington Barracks, the educational institution launched by Root ensured that high-ranking officers received “intelligent and adequate preparation to repel aggression” against the U.S.

Root wanted to make voluntary service more professional, especially in regard to the nation's reserve component. Charles W. Dick, an officer in the Ohio National Guard and a Republican member of Congress, collaborated with the War Department to overhaul the militia system. The Militia Act, which was also known as the Dick Act, attempted to raise the state forces to federal standards. Passed in 1903, it established the National Guard as the “organized militia” under the War Department. Although the states retained military personnel for local emergencies, Congress provided for their dual service as a “reserve militia” to replenish the regular Army. In other words, the National Guard constituted both a traditional militia under the command of a governor and a federal reserve under the authority of the commander-in-chief. With a formula for payment of federal subsidies to states, policymakers promulgated guidelines for training, equipping, and mobilizing citizen soldiers. Thereafter, Guardsmen trained at least twice a month and once a year in a summer camp. They also participated in at least five days of maneuvers annually with Army regulars. Irrespective of the limitations imposed on the duration and the scope of militia service, the National Guard constituted the main recruiting base for volunteers.

A second Militia Act in 1908 eliminated a number of service restraints in exchange for a provision to activate Guardsmen as “hometown” units – not as a pool of individual replacements. The martial tradition for localism endured, even if citizen soldiers deployed abroad. However, the language for compulsory militia service outside the continental U.S. appeared to violate the Constitution. Owing to the inadequacies of the mobilization plan, the War Department began crafting an “independent” federal reserve. For example, the Medical Reserve Corps enlisted skilled personnel on inactive status. Commensurable with an expansible force, members of the reserve would augment the regular Army only in a time of war. Progressives increased federal authority, but they did not replicate European models for the force structure.

If strengthening the Army's “body” required revisions to the force structure, then reforming what Root called the “brain” involved reorganizing the General Staff. He wanted to reduce the independence of the bureau chiefs, who became overburdened with responsibilities during mobilization. Instead, he preferred a staff of 45 officers to administer the War Department in addition to commanding the Army's geographic departments. He also intended to eliminate the division of authority between his office and the Commanding General of the Army. Replacing the latter with a Chief of Staff, he suggested, would enable a high-ranking officer to serve as a responsible advisor and executive agent for the commander-in-chief and the Secretary of War. Unlike the German Grosser Generalstab, however, American military policy, planning, and logistics remained directly under civilian control.

Approved in 1903, the General Staff Act largely reflected Root's scheme of organization in spite of congressional antipathy toward German militarism. Although the bureaus did not consolidate in the manner that he advocated, a group of senior officers rotated in select roles as the “supervisory” and “coordinating” authority within the War Department. An opponent of the reform, Miles decided to retire from the Army. Thereafter, the exalted post of Commanding General of the Army ceased to exist. General Samuel B. M. Young, who presided over the Army War College after its founding, became the first Army Chief of Staff. In the beginning, the War College Board acted as the embryonic General Staff. Consequently, Root disseminated the regulations to shape the Army staff system that he envisioned.

After Root left the War Department in 1904, the staff system provided a laboratory for reform without revising Army doctrines. Under Secretary of War William Howard Taft, the Coast Artillery Corps separated from the Field Artillery. Serving as Chief of Staff from 1910 to 1914, General Wood challenged subordinates to implement initiatives for logistical consolidation. The Quartermaster Department incorporated the functions of the Subsistence and Paymaster Departments. Likewise, the Service Corps began to facilitate operations for all echelons. Faced with congressional hostility to additional reforms, though, the high command of the Army remained mired in paperwork and bureaucracy for years.

Meanwhile, innovations in technology promised to enhance the capabilities of the Army. The M1903 Springfield rifle became the standard firearm for combat operations, while the M1902 3-inch gun incorporated a recoil mechanism comparable to European field pieces. Moreover, U.S. industries increased the domestic output of smokeless powder. Most regulars appreciated the lethality of the rapid-firing machine gun, including the models designed by Hiram Maxim, John M. Browning, and Isaac N. Lewis. However, procurement decisions curbed large-scale acquisitions of automatic weapons. Despite early doubts about the internal combustion engine, the “horseless carriage” appeared on military installations. Many officers jumped behind the wheels, but poor roads deterred greater interest in motorization. In 1908, the War Department ordered its first airplane from the celebrated Wright brothers. A few years later, the Signal Corps formed an aeronautical unit to operate all kinds of “flying machines.” The progressive era produced technological marvels, yet the Army lacked the expertise to fully exploit the applications.

Gunboat Diplomacy

After rising to the U.S. presidency in 1901, Roosevelt encapsulated his approach to military policy with the adage: “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.” He comprehended the essential but unpleasant fact that great power conferred enormous responsibilities upon a nation. His platitudes also complemented the assumptions of Anglo-Saxon dominance. The Roosevelt administration touted what became known as “Gunboat Diplomacy,” that is, the pursuit of international objectives with conspicuous displays of military strength.

Figure 9.4 U.S. interventions in Latin America, 1900–1935


Military strength became a necessity after the Spanish–American War, especially in regard to administering the former colonies of Spain. In 1901, the Platt Amendment to an Army appropriations bill stipulated the right to preserve “a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty” in an independent Cuba. In addition, a proviso granted U.S. control over the naval base at Guantánamo Bay. When an insurrection erupted on the island a few years later, American troops quickly suppressed it. U.S. forces reduced their footprint in the Philippine archipelago but endeavored to make the inhabitants “fit for self-government.” The commander-in-chief insisted that “our whole attention was concentrated upon the welfare of the Filipinos themselves, if anything, to the neglect of our own interests.” As arranged by the War Department, the U.S. maintained “peculiar relations” with Cuba and the Philippines.

Transit across the Isthmus of Panama excited interest in the U.S., even though some Latin Americans balked. The Hay–Herrán Treaty of 1903 established a Canal Zone, but the government of Colombia rejected it. Because the Colombian province of Panama revolted that fall, Americans seized the opportunity to negotiate a deal with the separatist government in Colón. On November 4, the U.S.S. Nashville ported, showed the flag, and placed boots on the ground. Two more U.S. warships blocked the sea lanes from Colombia. A week later, Roosevelt received the Panamanian ambassador, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, and agreed to a new deal. The Hay–Bunau-Varilla Treaty that year gave the U.S. a 10-mile-wide Canal Zone for $10 million down and $250,000 a year “in perpetuity.” After Congress created the Isthmian Canal Commission, the Army began to make the “dirt fly.” Colonel George W. Goethels, the chief engineer, constructed the locks and administered the project. Creating a pathway for the interoceanic cruises of the Navy, the Panama Canal opened on August 15, 1914.

Even before the armed intervention in Panama, Roosevelt appreciated the military implications of the Monroe Doctrine. Great Britain and Germany took action in Venezuela to collect unpaid debts, spurring him to send the Navy to monitor their exit in 1902. When another debt crisis occurred in the Dominican Republic two years later, the Roosevelt Corollary refined an enduring strategic concept. As an addendum to the Monroe Doctrine, his annual message to Congress declared that the U.S. intended to exercise “international police power” in the western hemisphere. To forestall “chronic wrongdoing,” the U.S. temporarily took over the Dominican customs and revenue service and ensured that the unstable government repaid its debts. Over the years, U.S. presidents used force to stabilize Latin American regimes again and again.

Before retiring from the presidency, Roosevelt wanted to form a first line of defense commensurate with the doctrine of sea power. Indeed, American shipyards turned out new battleships with impressive capabilities. Nevertheless, technical flaws occasionally resulted in catastrophic explosions and sparked public debate about the costly vessels. Line officers known as the “Young Turks” gained the upper hand in regard to naval policies, as the General Board in the Navy Department began to organize a battle fleet. Along with making upgrades in firepower and in machinery, the Navy also grappled with emergent technologies such as fixed, floating, and mobile torpedoes and submarine mines. With the British launch of H.M.S. Dreadnought in 1906, the U.S. accelerated plans for manufacturing all-big-gun capital ships. For the foreseeable future, the “big stick” undoubtedly meant a “big navy.”

The rapid growth of a “big navy” did not result in adequate numbers of sailors to man the ships, though. Most vessels lacked about 10 percent of the intended complement, while shortages in petty officers and skilled technicians persisted over time. Though precluded from other jobs, women joined the Navy Nurse Corps after 1908. The Navy's sister service, the Marine Corps, officially created an Advanced Base Force under Commandant William P. Biddle. Whereas the Navy Department had established the Office of Naval Militia years earlier, Congress sanctioned a reserve component with the Naval Militia Affairs Act of 1914. Recruiting for maritime service continued to lag, which undermined U.S. efforts to keep pace with the Royal Navy and the German High Seas Fleet.

To make warfare beneath the waters possible, the U.S. commissioned its first submarine in 1900. John R. Holland, an engineer living in New Jersey, designed the Type VI craft. He combined the internal combustion engine for surface cruising with a battery-powered electric motor for submerged operations. Christened the U.S.S. Holland, it constituted an effective weapon for close-to-shore coastal defense. However, it lacked the capacity for attacking battle fleets on the high seas. Since the submarine possessed no significant commercial applications, its technological development depended almost entirely on appropriations from Congress. By 1914, generous federal expenditures enabled the Navy to acquire 34 underwater vessels.

Ranking second in the world to Great Britain, the Navy abandoned its dispersed squadron deployments to concentrate its battle fleet in the Atlantic Ocean. Painted white with gilded scrollwork on their bows, the 16 battleships inspired the nickname, “Great White Fleet.” Under the command of Rear Admiral Robley D. Evans, the U.S.S. Connecticut served as the flagship. His crew expected “a feast, a frolic, or a fight,” or so he said. They departed from Hampton Roads, Virginia, on December 16, 1907, for a world tour. Manned by 14,000 personnel, the steamers covered some 43,000 miles on the voyage and made 20 port calls on six different continents. With a rousing celebration, Roosevelt welcomed them home on February 22, 1909. Thus, the “Great White Fleet” symbolized American military strength in a progressive era.


No longer insulated from international affairs, the armed forces of the U.S. encountered a dynamic world by the end of the nineteenth century. Americans expressed enthusiasm for the doctrine of sea power, which insisted that naval assets determined the outcome of armed conflicts. After a battleship sank one hot night in Havana, Congress declared war on Spain. U.S. forces won a swift victory over the Spanish military during 1898, when their offensives in the Philippines, Guam, Cuba, and Puerto Rico proved decisive. In addition to winning battles, they built hospitals, schools, roads, and canals on foreign soil. Technological and organizational changes enabled them to flex their proverbial muscles, although their reach sometimes exceeded their grasp. Civilian authorities provided an administrative framework for managing a more robust military. Instead of remaining an unassailable yet isolated nation, the U.S. competed in a race for empire with offshore holdings that spanned the globe.

The U.S. experienced a power surge inadvertently, even if the new proponents of Manifest Destiny considered it a godsend. While the Army and the Navy adapted to the emergent trends, only the latter seemed prepared for military action. Because the former lacked a grand strategist comparable to Mahan, U.S. commanders fielded what amounted to a constabulary force to wage war. The War Department maintained a defensive shield, but only the Navy Department honed capabilities akin to an offensive sword. Unlike Europeans in an age of imperialism, Americans seldom worried about the threat of either a land invasion or a naval assault. Likewise, only a few appreciated the tactical or logistical challenges of countering insurgencies. Facing the prospect of foreign adventures for years to come, many repeated ideological statements about America's mission that sounded like jingoistic nonsense. In other words, the U.S. would not become a truly great power without more “savage wars of peace.”

The Spanish–American War represented a small war in many respects, but its impact on the U.S. was large. To a remarkable extent, the expansionists of 1898 helped to resolve a domestic crisis caused by the disappearance of a frontier region and the panic of an economic decline. With Washington D.C. taking the initiative, the momentous turn seemed bold and purposeful. Service members liberated a number of colonized people under Spanish dominion, although the evolving missions revealed a combination of harshness and conciliation. Defending national interests led soldiers, sailors, and marines to plant the U.S. flag in faraway places. They inspired the myth of an imperial republic, which mixed aggressive acts with anti-colonial sentiments. With each step into a new century, Americans in the military found themselves, as Roosevelt famously put it, “in the arena.”

Because of Americans in the military, the U.S. represented not only an unrivaled power in the western hemisphere but also a leading actor on the world stage. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, intellectuals dismissed the cruelty of war as an aberration of a “less civilized” age. Global partnerships made the clash of arms nothing if not unnatural. International conferences at The Hague forged agreements to “humanize” combat, although the congenial rhetoric resonated mostly with elites. Even the pugnacious Roosevelt earned a Nobel Peace Prize, making him the first American recipient of the award. As for the use of force in peacetime, a host of bureaucratic rules and regulations attempted to impose order upon military operations within diverse environments. The nation soon learned that newfound responsibilities for overseas possessions and the commercial interests of industrial societies made any reversion to insularity unrealistic.

Essential Questions

1 How did the doctrine of sea power influence strategic thought before 1898?

2 In what ways were U.S. forces improved by progressive reforms?

3 Did the Spanish–American War mark a turning point in American military history? Why, or why not?

Suggested Readings

Abrahamson, James L. America Arms for a New Century: The Making of a Great Military Power. New York: Free Press, 1981.

Boot, Max. The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. New York: Basic Books, 2002.

Challener, Richard D. Admirals, Generals, and American Foreign Policy, 1898–1914. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Cirillo, Vincent J. Bullets and Bacilli: The Spanish–American War and Military Medicine. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

Hoganson, Kristin. Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish–American and Philippine–American Wars. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Linn, Brian McAllister. The Philippine War, 1899–1902. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999.

McBride, William M. Technological Change and the United States Navy, 1865–1945. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

McCartney, Paul T. Power and Progress: American National Identity, the War of 1898, and the Rise of American Imperialism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.

Musicant, Ivan. Empire by Default: The Spanish–American War and the Dawn of the American Century. New York: Henry Holt, 1998.

Preston, Diana. The Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China's War on Foreigners that Shook the World in the Summer of 1900. New York: Walker & Company, 2000.

Reardon, Carol. Soldiers and Scholars: The U.S. Army and the Uses of Military History, 1865–1920. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990.

Shulman, Mark Russell. Navalism and the Emergence of American Sea Power, 1882–1893. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995.

Sibley, David. War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine–American War, 1899–1902. New York: Hill & Wang, 2007.

Spector, Ronald. Professors of War: The Naval War College and the Development of the Naval Profession. Newport, RI: Naval War College Press, 1977.

Tone, John Lawrence. War and Genocide in Cuba, 1895–1898. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Trask, David F. The War with Spain in 1898. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!