Day By Day

Monday, February 15, 2010

This Day In History

Today is "Presidents Day". Originally the nation celebrated George Washington's birthday (February 22nd) but after the Civil War, some States added Lincoln's Birthday [February 12th]. Then, during the Sixties we decided to start celebrating a new holiday, one that would recognize the contributions of all presidents. The new holiday didn't really catch on, though, until the 1980s when advertising agencies began to use it as a peg for sales. Today hardly anyone still celebrates Washington's birthday or Lincoln's. Instead we honor all our chief executives, even the really bad ones. I'm not sure I entirely approve. It seems that these days we focus far too much attention on the office of the chief executive. I'm old enough to remember when Congressional figures like Sam Rayburn were iconic figures, or cabinet officers, like General George C. Marshall, were revered. Today they are just window dressing as we focus obsessively on the guy who sits in the Oval Office. Anyhow, today is a day to spend a little time thinking about the presidents other than the current embodiment of all our dreams and discontents. Here's a good place to start -- a list of links to presidential websites from Washington to Clinton.

On this day in 1898 the U. S. Battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor. This was the event that precipitated the Spanish-American War.

The situation in Havana was tense when the Maine had arrived there three weeks earlier, but that was not unusual. There had been intermittent Cuban revolts against Spanish rule from the 1860s, and the most recent of these, led by Jose Marti, had erupted in 1895. Spanish resistance to the revolutionaries was led by General Valeriano Weyler y Nicolau who used as one of his tactics, the relocation of civilian populations into "reconcentration camps". The rebels took advantage of the emergence of a national media in the United States to generate support for their cause. They established a propaganda office in New York and began to feed stories of General Weyler's terrible atrocities to the press. William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal, and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World were at the time locked in a bitter circulation battle and both papers picked up these stories and hyped them. These stories then were distributed over wires services to local communities all across the nation. Popular pressure for U.S. intervention in Cuba to stop the carnage began to rise.

In popular imagination the Spanish-American War was the one created by media hype but serious historians are in general agreement that the media input did not cause the war, it only inflamed an already dangerous situation. At the time President William McKinley, backed by most of the business community, favored peace and was actively seeking an agreement that would end the violence [in fact an agreement on Cuban autonomy had already been achieved], and the media certainly did not help these delicate negotiations, but the decisive factors impelling the United States to war were not media driven.

Early in January, 1898 a series of riots broke out in Havana and the U.S. Government sent the Maine there to protect American citizens and business interests. Three weeks after its arrival the Maine exploded killing 266 American sailors on board. The Navy launched an investigation that concluded that an external explosion had destroyed the ship. The press had a field day with this news, ignoring a Spanish government investigation that had concluded just the opposite. Public opinion was divided as to whether the explosion had been caused by a mine, or by an act of sabotage but all were in agreement that the sinking of the Maine was a provocation that could only be answered by military action. "Remember the Maine, and to Hell with Spain" became the catchword of the day.

As the debate raged over what to do, two factors became decisive. First several religious leaders who had previously opposed war now switched sides and began to demand that the government take action to end the violence in Cuba. Secondly, Congress passed the "Teller Amendment" to a war authorization resolution stating that the United States had no territorial ambitions in Cuba. These two developments overcame most of the moral objections to military action and President McKinley sent an ultimatum to Spain demanding that they withdraw their forces from Cuba and grant it full independence. Spain's response was a declaration of war and on April 25th the United States responded in kind. The Spanish-American War had begun.

No comments: