President William McKinley & the Spanish-American War

Instructor: Logan Thomas

Logan has taught college courses and has a master's degree in history.

President William McKinley took office with grand plans on expanding the influence of the United States at the end of the 19th century. In this lesson, we will learn how McKinley led the country in a war with Spain.

An Age of American Imperialism

During the latter half of the 19th century, the United States was growing at an incredible rate. After swallowing up the western lands and forcing Native Americans onto reservations within a few decades, some in the country set ambitions on the rest of the world.

William McKinley
McKinley

A politician with imperialistic goals, President William McKinley took office with the ultimate prize being U.S. supremacy in the entire western hemisphere.

Background

McKinley made sure voters knew he was pro-business during the election of 1896. In fact, the wonders of the Industrial Revolution enthralled most of the country. Factories produced goods at unprecedented rates and the American economy became one of the most vibrant in the world. It seemed that nothing could stop the country from expanding its influence, and American businesses wanted to spread investments across the world.

With this goal of expansion in mind, President McKinley made it known he wanted the United States to expand by planting naval bases in foreign countries. When trouble continued in Spanish-controlled Cuba so close to the United States, it caught McKinley's eye.

American Businesses and Cuba

In the latter half of the 1800s, American companies started increasing investments in Cuba with each passing year. Millions of American dollars supported Cuban sugar plantations, and the vast majority of the exported product went to the United States.

Cubans also started to Americanize, adopting the culture and practices of the United States. Many immigrated to take advantage of American schools. Soon, more Cubans wanted to shake off Spanish control, and the fires of Cuban revolution sparked the attention of the entire world.

Cubans Revolt

Cubans took up arms and rebelled in 1895. The United States took notice when rebels destroyed sugarcane fields and affected American businessman as sugar exports dwindled to nearly nothing.

The Spanish reacted to the Cuban revolt with harsh measures, forcing thousands of Cubans into camps where many starved to death or died from diseases. The news of such atrocities troubled many Americans.

McKinley's Goals

As he took office in 1897, President McKinley watched the chaos in Cuba with many ideas in mind. If the United States could liberate Cuba, businesses would be thrilled and the American public would be happy that the violence 90 miles from Florida had come to an end. Also, in McKinley's estimation, Cuba would also be a perfect location for the naval bases he sought.

With these goals in mind, McKinley offered to purchase Cuba from Spain, but the Spanish had no intention of relinquishing control. With more violence breaking out in early 1898, McKinley ordered the USS Maine to Cuba to demonstrate American power and concern for the situation.

The USS Maine in Cuba
USS Maine

It would be a decision that would ultimately start a war.

The Fate of the USS Maine and the Aftermath

In February of 1898, the battleship USS Maine exploded in the harbor of Havana. More than 250 American sailors died in the blast that would later be determined to have been accidental. Americans were outraged at the news and blamed Spain.

An American newspaper blaming Spain for the USS Maine Explosion

In the days leading up to the Maine explosion, newspapers reported that Spanish diplomats had insulted McKinley and that Spain would continue the fight in Cuba. With the public and the government behind him, McKinley prepared to deliver an ultimatum.

The War Begins

McKinley would no longer tolerate the ongoing disorder and violence in Cuba. He planned to use force to remove the Spanish with the ultimate goal of securing peace and ending the violence.

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