W. Joseph Campbell

Some snarky history from WaPo

In Debunking, Spanish-American War on November 28, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Today’s Washington Post offers up a snarky commentary about the USS Olympia, the famous 19th century warship that helped launched an American empire.

The Olympia in 1899

The Olympia was Commodore George Dewey’s flagship in the Battle of Manila Bay that opened the Spanish-American War in May 1898. In recent years, the old warship has been a floating museum, docked at the Independence Seaport Museum on the Delaware River in Philadelphia.

The Post commentary says the Olympia, which was launched in 1892, is at risk of falling apart, and if it millions of dollars aren’t raised to save it, the vessel “will be dismantled for scrap or sunk to build an artificial reef off Cape May, N.J.

“And with it will go a symbol of America’s age of empire. When the Olympia was built, the United States was redefining itself as a global power, taking on expensive, elective wars in ever-more-distant places.”

Just what were those “expensive, elective wars” of the 1890s is left unsaid. The authors seem to be referring to the Spanish-American War, which marked the first time the United States projected its military power in a sustained way beyond the Western Hemisphere.

But the Spanish-American War was the consequence of no imperialist design. Rather, the conflict stemmed from an impasse over Spain’s reluctance to grant political independence to Cuba.

More specifically, as I wrote in my 2005 book, The Spanish-American War: American War and the Media in Primary Documents:

“The United States went to war in April 1898 to fulfill a moral and humanitarian imperative—that of ending the abuses created by Spain’s failed attempt to quell an island-wide rebellion in Cuba.”

I further wrote:

“While conditions [in Cuba] were the primary cause of the Spanish-American War, the conflict’s first and the last important military engagements were fought not in the Caribbean but in the distant Philippines.

“When the two-front war ended in August 1898, the United States had in effect become an imperial power, with new dependencies in the West Indies, Asia and the Pacific—an outcome wholly unanticipated four months before.”

Indeed, the outcome was unimagined at the war’s outset.

The commentary about the Olympia invokes one of the more misunderstood moments in the run-up to the Spanish-American War–an episode that in a snarky way might be called Teddy Roosevelt’s busy afternoon. Roosevelt then was an assistant secretary of the Navy.

The commentary says that when Navy Secretary John Long took “the day off” in late February 1898, Roosevelt “seized the opportunity to put the Navy on war footing.

“Roosevelt,” the commentary adds, “ordered Commodore George Dewey, aboard the Olympia in Hong Kong, to attack Spanish ships at their port in Manila, capital of the Philippines. That April, the Spanish-American War began.”

Teddy Roosevelt’s agency that day does make for a delicious story–but it didn’t happen quite the way the commentary recounts it. Roosevelt ordered no immediate attack.

Long, the navy secretary, took an afternoon off in late February 1898, not long after the explosion that destroyed the USS Maine in Havana harbor. And Roosevelt took it upon himself to dash off secret instructions to Dewey, telling him to concentrate the U.S. Asiatic squadron at Hong Kong and to be at the ready with coal bunkers topped off.

Roosevelt’s instructions said that “in the event of [a] declaration of war” with Spain, Dewey was to make sure the Spanish fleet at Manila did “not leave the Asiatic coast” and then undertake “offensive operations in the Philippines.”

The instructions were clearly conditional on war being declared, as it was several weeks later.

But the instructions represented no dramatic departure. They were much in keeping with U.S. planning.

As Ivan Musicant wrote in Empire by Default, his splendid history of the Spanish-American War:

“Revisionists to the contrary, Roosevelt’s orders to Dewey were not part of an imperialist cabal to get a jump on … American expansion. A naval attack on the Philippines in a war with Spain had been contemplated at least since the previous summer in the Naval War College scenarios. Long was aware of it and had endorsed the operation should it come.

“Roosevelt’s action in triggering the movement, though certainly beyond the scope of his nominal duties, was a sensible act of military preparedness.”

While impetuous perhaps, Roosevelt’s conduct that long ago afternoon hardly bore the sinister implications suggested by the Post commentary.

So not only was the commentary snarky. It was misleading and flabby.


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