U.S. Entry Into Cuban War of Independence and Establishment of Protectorate of Cuba, 1898-1934

U.S. political clashes of 1898-1934 between advocates for and against U.S. imperialism is the subject of the new boook–The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire (Henry Holt & Co. 2017)–by Stephen Kinzer. [1]

An important part of that early history is the U.S. decision to enter the second Cuban War of Independence in 1898 and convert it into what we in the U.S. call the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Senate’s ratification of the Treaty of Paris ending that war and documenting U.S. acquisition of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines and the U.S. establishment of a de facto protectorate of Cuba, 1898-1934.

Here are some of the book’s highlights about Cuba’s involvement in this drama.

Authorisation for U.S. Entry Into the Cuban War of Independence

After the February 15, 1898, explosion of the S.S. Maine battleship in Havana harbour and the subsequent, insistent calls of the Randolph Hearst press to “Remember the Maine,” there was no surprise when President William McKinley on April 11 made a passionate call for U.S. intervention. He said, “Forcible intervention of the [U.S.] as a neutral to stop [this war would be] in the cause of humanity and to put an end to the barbarities, bloodsheed, starvation, and horrible murders now existing there, and which the parties to the conflict are either unable or unwilling to stop or mitigate. . . . It is specially our duty [to intervene], for it is right at our door. . . . Surely the there was never a more righteous cause than this for any nation to ask for justice.” (Id. at 36-37.)

Eight days later (April 19), Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Republican of Massachusetts, while emphasising that he did not want the U.S. to annex or colonize Cuba, introduced a resolution declaring that if Spain did not withdraw from Cuba, the U.S. would declare war. An anti-imperialist or anti-interventionist, Senator Henry Teller of Colorado, offered an amendment to the resolution to make that Lodge concession express. The amendment stated: “The people of the island of Cuba are, and of right ought to be, free and independent, and the [U.S.] hereby disclaims any disposition or intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over said island except for the pacification thereof, and asserts its determination, once that is accomplished, to leave the government and control of the island to its people.” Lodge acquiesced to the amendment, and as amended the resolution passed the Senate, 42-35 and the House 311-6; the next day President McKinley signed the resolution. (Id. at 38.)

Immediately thereafter, on April 24 and 25, Spain and the U.S. declared war against each other. (Ibid.)

Ending the Spanish-American War

The U.S. military forces actually entered the war on  June 10, and military hostilities ended on July 16 with a proclamation of peace on August 12. The Treaty of Paris of December 10, 1898, officially ended the war with Spain ceding to the U.S. the following: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii and the Philippines. (Id. at 61-66, 92.)

On February 6, 1899, the U.S. Senate, 57-27, ratified the Treaty of Paris. (Id. at 137.)

U.S. Establishes Its Conditions for the De Facto Protectorate of Cuba

Purusant to that Treaty and the terms of the Teller Amendment, the U.S. immediately assumed governance of Cuba as a de facto protectorate. Also almost immediately some in the U.S. government began to question the wisdom of the Teller Amendment’s commitment to transfer the governance and control of the island to its people.

A major reason for this attitude was the realisation that any popularly elected Cuban government would at least be partially black and a belief that they were not qualified to hold such positions. Indeeed, General Leonard Wood, the U.S. Governor-General of Cuba, described them as “only partially civilized.” (Id. at 137.)

The idea of amending or repealing the Teller Amendment, however, went nowhere. Instead, U.S. General James Wilson proposed that ¨Cuba be granted independence under a treaty that would ´practically bind Cuba . . . And put her destinies under our control.´¨ This approach was endorsed by President McKinley in his second inaugural address in March 1901: “The new Cuba . . .must . . . Be bound to us by ties of singular intimacy.” (Id.at 189.)

To that end U.S. Senator Orville Platt, chair of the Senate Committee on Cuban Relations, introduced a bill drafted by Vice President Theodore Roosevelt and Senators Henry Cabot Lodge and Secretary of War Elihu Root but known as the Platt Amendment that became law on March 2, 1901 as part of the Military Appropriations Act.  (Id.at 191-92.) It affirmed Cuba’s right to independence only on these conditions:

[a] Cuba “shall never ento any treaty or other contract with any foreign power or powers which will permit [them] to obtain by colonization or for military or naval purpose, or otherwise, lodgment in or control over any portion of said island;”

[b] “Cuba consents that the [U.S.] may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence;”

[c] “Cuba will sell and lease to the [U.S.] land necessary for coaling or naval stations at certain points, to be agreed upon with the [U.S.] President,” which turned out to be the lease of Guantanamo Bay as discussed in prior posts.

Adoption of Cuban Constitution of 1901

Thereafter U.S. General Leonard Wood arranged for “the election of delegates to the [Cuban] constitutional convention” and told them “the constitution would have to guarantee an American ‘right of intervention.’ He ensured this would happen By bribing Cuban military officers and rebel leaders and by warning the delegates that failure to do so would put Cuba at the “not-so-tender mercies of the [U.S.] Congress.” As a result, on May 28, 1901, the delegates, 15 to 14, accepted these conditions for the Cuban constitution, which was adopted on December 25, 1901. (Id.at 190, 193.)

Cuba-American Treaty of 1903

These same conditions were reiterated in the Cuba-American Treaty of 1903, which was used to justify the Second Occupation of Cuba, 1906-1909, with future U.S. President and Supreme Court Justice, William Howard Taft, as Provisional Governor. (Id.at 193.)

Cuba-American Treaty of 1934

During the first term of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the U.S. and Cuba concluded the Cuban-American Treaty of 1934 that eliminated the conditions of the Platt Amendment. (Id. at 236.)


[1] Kinzer is an author, journalist and Senior fellow at the Watson Institute for Interntional and Political Affiars at Brown University. Here are two positive reviews of the book: Lind, From Isolation to Intervention: Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain square off over American imperialism, N.Y. Times (Jan. 29, 2017); Lears, How the US Began Its Empire, N.Y. Review of Books (Feb. 23, 2017).

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

9 thoughts on “U.S. Entry Into Cuban War of Independence and Establishment of Protectorate of Cuba, 1898-1934”

  1. In the 1943 treaty, the US explicitly renounced its right to invade Cuba, yet that is what it did in 1961. This certainly has to be seen as a violation of the 1934 Treaty, and of the most serious and material kind. After binding Cuba to the US in a most intimate manner, as McKinley said, we then attack it. This is certainly akin to spousal abuse, and justification for divorce.
    It is beyond past time for the United States to drop the embargo, and abandon the base.

  2. Also note that although requirement “A”, namely

    “[a] Cuba “shall never ento any treaty or other contract with any foreign power or powers which will permit [them] to obtain by colonization or for military or naval purpose, or otherwise, lodgment in or control over any portion of said island;”

    does not prohibit a lease of some sort, it does prohibit a lease of land on the island of Cuba to the United States. And the US knew it. Anyone signing the lease on behalf of Cuba was exceeding his Constitutional authority.

    1. Reply to earlier post:
      The 1903 Treaty leaves open a lease for ports on the Isle of Pines, for example, because the 1903 treaty leaves the Isle of Pines as outside the definition of “cuba” for the moment least, later resolved. Cuba did lease lands that it did not have title to at Guantanamo, and there were provisions in the lease for later acquiring title. The same procedure could have applied to leasing lands on the Isle of Pines, and that lease could have been constitutionally signed by the President of Cuba.

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