U.S. Intervention in Cuba’s War of Independence from Spain, 1898

On Feb. 15, 1898, the USS Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor where it was temporarily stationed to provide support for Americans in the city during Cuba’s war for independence from Spain. A subsequent naval board of inquiry concluded that there was no US negligence in operating the ship and that it was “destroyed by the explosion of a submarine mine.” Although it did not say Spain did it, that was the logical conclusion. And William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers launched a campaign “Remember the Maine” that fueled U.S. citizens’ pressure for war against Spain. [1]

For various additional reasons, Americans in 1898 “flocked to the cause of ‘Cuba Libre,’ especially once fighting broke out on the island in 1895. The plight of the Cubans was particularly affecting: “Over the next three years, hundreds of thousands of civilians died, many in Spanish concentration camps, the existence of which spurred hundreds of Americans to join illegal filibuster missions to aid the rebels.”

On April 11, 1898, President William McKinley asked the Congress “to authorize and empower the President to take measures to secure a full and final termination of hostilities between the government of Spain and the people of Cuba, and to ensure in the island the establishment of a stable government, capable of maintaining order and observing its international obligations, ensuring peace and tranquillity and the security of its citizens as well as our own, and to use the military and naval forces of the United States as may be necessary for these purposes.” [2]

In making this request, McKinley “was moved above all by this humanitarian impulse.. . . [The] primary driver was the widely held belief that Spain was destroying Cuba. ‘A country nearly as large as England, with all the material conditions of opulent civilization, has been made a charnel house,” said John James Ingalls, a Kansas politician. The Spanish-American War was a ‘popular’ conflict in the literal sense.”

Nine days later (April 20, 1898) the Congress adopted a joint resolution for “the recognition of the independence of the people of Cuba, demanding that the government of Spain relinquish its authority and government in the Island of Cuba and withdraw its land and naval forces from Cuba and Cuban waters, and directing the President of the United States to use the land and naval forces of the United States to carry these resolutions into effect.” What became known as the Teller Amendment was proposed by Senator Henry M. Teller (Rep., CO) and adopted by the Congress. It disclaimed  “any disposition of intention to exercise sovereignty, jurisdiction, or control over said island except for pacification thereof, and asserts its determination, when that is accomplished, to leave the government and control of the island to its people.”

Because there were practically no military-trained men ready to fight, “McKinley authorized three volunteer cavalry regiments (800 to 1,000 soldiers), to be drawn from the ranks of men whose skills and life experiences made them predisposed to martial pursuits: cowboys, policemen, even college athletes.”

“The most famous of the three regiments, and the only one sent to Cuba, was the First United States Volunteer Cavalry — which reporters soon nicknamed the Rough Riders. Thanks to the renown of Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1897 as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, had said, ““A rich nation which is slothful, timid or unwieldy is an easy prey for any people which still retains those most valuable of all qualities, the soldierly virtues.”’and who in 1898 left the Department of the Navy to become the Volunteer Calvary’s  lieutenant colonel, the regiment was overwhelmed with applicants.”

“The Rough Riders landed in Cuba on June 22, 1898. By August, Spain was suing for peace. In the subsequent Treaty of Paris, Spain recognized Cuba’s independence and ceded Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to the U.S.

“Above all, the Rough Riders became instant celebrities because they embodied the public’s newfound, idealistic militarism. ‘Whether Fifth Avenue millionaires or Western cowboys, they fought together and died together in Cuba for the great American principles of liberty, equality and humanity,’ an editorialist for The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote.”

From the U.S. perspective, Teddy Roosevelt and the Roughriders military success in Cuba became part of U.S. legend, and Clay Risen, a deputy Op-Ed editor of the New York Times has revisited that legend in a Times article and a book.[3]

Risen claims that this “war, however brief, was in fact a defining moment in America’s emergence as a global power. It captured the imagination of millions and changed how everyday citizens saw their place in the world. No longer content to merely inspire freedom for the world’s oppressed, . . . [many U.S. citizens] decided they had a personal obligation to bring freedom to them.”

“Underlying [this and other 20th century U.S. wars] is the same broadly held, deeply committed missionary zeal that drove . . . the Rough Riders to war. Until Americans learn to balance their commitment to global justice with an awareness of the limits to military prowess, the country will continue to make these mistakes.”

Nevertheless, Risen asserts that this was was “a half-baked, poorly executed, unnecessary conflict that pushed an immature military power onto the world stage.”

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[1]  See U.S. Entry Into Cuba’s War of Independence and Establishment of Protectorate of Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (April 23, 2017). Michael Beschloss in “Presidents of War” asserts that the naval board of inquiry was under implicit pressure to conclude that the Navy was not at fault, but that subsequent Navy studies concluded that the cause probably was not a Spanish mine. Indeed, in 1976, a team of American naval investigators concluded that the Maine explosion was likely caused by a fire that ignited its ammunition stocks, not by a Spanish mine or act of sabotage. (See Beschloss Discusses “Presidents of War at Westminster Town Hall Forum, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 15, 2018).

[2] Teller Amendment, Wikipedia.

[3] Risen, The Rough Riders’ Guide to World Domination, N,Y. Times (June 2, 2019); Risen, The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and Dawn of the American Century (Simon & Schuster, 2019): Millard, Book Review: Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, N.Y. Times Book Review (June 4, 2019); Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders Involvement in Cuba’s War of Independence,  dwkcommentaries.com (June 20, 2019).

 

 

Vice President Mike Pence Addresses Disruption and Transformation in the Americas

On May 7, U.S. Department of State co-hosted the 49th Annual Washington Conference on the Americas, which is designed to provide an  opportunity to hear from the most senior-level officials and engage with over 250 business and policy leaders, members of the diplomatic community, and media representatives from throughout the hemisphere. The theme of this year’s Conference was “disruption and transformation in the Americas.”

Vice President Pence’s Speech

At this Conference U.S. Vice President Mike Pence presented the Trump Administration position on these issues.[1] His focus was Venezuela,which he said was “the single greatest source of disruption.”  After reviewing that country’s significant events of the last year, Mr. Pence outlined the following new U.S. actions regarding Venezuela:

  • [At] “the President’s direction, the United States Navy will deploy the USNS Comfort to the Caribbean, Central America, and South America this June. The Comfort will embark on a 5-month humanitarian mission to address the Venezuelan crisis.  The United States military and medical personnel, working alongside their counterparts across the region, will be there to provide medical assistance to communities in need and help relieve countries overwhelmed by the influx of the suffering people of Venezuela.” (However, before it can be deployed from its homeport of Norfolk, Virginia, a staff of doctors, nurses and other medical staff has to be assembled.)
  • The U.S. has “ positioned more than 500 metric tons of food and humanitarian supplies on the Venezuelan border, ready for immediate distribution.  The American people have provided nearly $260 million in aid to support displaced Venezuelans and the host nations that support them so generously.”
  • “If the Supreme Court of Venezuela does not return to its constitutional mandate to uphold the rule of law, the [U.S.] will hold all 25 of its magistrates accountable for their actions.”
  • The U.S. “has sanctioned more than 150 government officials and state-owned businesses loyal to the dictator.”
  • But “these sanctions need not be permanent.” The U.S. “will consider sanctions relief for all those who step forward, stand up for the constitution, and support the rule of law — like General Manuel Cristopher Figuera, the former chief of the Venezuelan intelligence service, who just last week broke ranks with the Maduro regime and rallied to the support of the Venezuelan constitution and the National Assembly.  In recognition of his recent actions in support of democracy and the rule of law, . . .[the U.S.] is removing all sanctions on General Manuel Cristopher Figuera effective immediately.”
  • The U.S. “will help the fledgling Venezuelan democracy regain its footing.  We’ll build a brighter future after Maduro is gone — creating jobs, fighting poverty, and expanding opportunity.”
  • The U.S. “will continue to exert all diplomatic and economic pressure to bring about a peaceful transition of democracy in Venezuela.  But to those who continue to oppress the good people of Venezuela, know this: All options are on the table.

Conclusion

There are at least two items of good news in Vice President Pence’s remarks. First, he did not say anything about any current U.S. plan to use any military force with respect to Venezuela. Second, the hospital ship to be deployed should be helpful to ordinary Venezuelans who have been deprived of adequate medical care.

The USNS Comfort (in the above photograph) is a non-commissioned hospital ship owned by the U.S. Navy and operationally crewed by civilians from the Military Sealift Command, consisting primarily of naval officers from the Navy’s Medical Corps, Dental Corps, Medical Service Corps, Nurse Corps and Chaplain Corps, and naval enlisted personnel from the Hospital Corpsman rating and various administrative and technical support ratings When fully staffed it can provide the following services: general surgery, ophthalmologic surgery, dermatology, medical evaluation and treatment, preventive medicine, dental screenings and treatment, optometry screenings, eyewear distribution and public health. In accordance with the Geneva conventions it and its crew do not carry any offensive weapons.[2]

Without referencing Pence’s speech, Spain’s acting foreign minister, Josep Borrell, on May 8 said that Venezuela needs “a peaceful, negotiated and democratic solution” to its problems and that Spain and other European countries “will continue to reject any pressure that borders on military intervention” in Venezuela.”  The U.S. repeated assertion that “all options are on the table” is like “a western cowboy” who is threatening to draw his gun.[3]

Again without specifically discussing the Pence speech, U.S. commentators offer another perspective. They say that Trump “has yet to articulate a coherent theory for when the United States should push for such change and when it should avoid it.” Instead, they say, “Trump’s approach to foreign intervention is largely ad hoc and idiosyncratic — driven less by ideology than by his hunger for foreign policy victories and confidence in his own deal-making skills.”[4]

This “lack of ideological coherence has played to the advantage of Secretary Pompeo and the national security adviser, John R. Bolton, two hawkish officials with strong interventionist tendencies,” who have used hawkish rhetoric regarding Venezuela, Cuba and Iran, for example. “Critics say the disconnect between Mr. Trump and his advisers is confusing the nation’s allies and heightening the risk of a military conflict.” [5]

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[1] White House, Remarks by Vice President Pence at the Washington Conference on the Americas (May 7, 2019); Reuters, U.S. Lifts Sanctions on Venezuelan General Who Broke With Maduro, N.Y. Times (May 7, 2019); Assoc. Press, US to Send Hospital Ship to Help With Venezuelan Refugees, N.Y. Times (May 7, 2019).

[2] Southcom, Hospital Ship USNS Comfort in Latin America; Enduring Promise Medical Assistance MissionUSNS Comfort (T-AH-20), Wikipedia.

[3] Assoc. Press, The Latest: Spain Official: US Like a ‘Cowboy’ on Venezuela, N.Y. Times (May 8, 2019).

[4] Landler, With Mix of threats and Blandishments, Trump Bandies Policy of Regime Change, N.Y. Times (May 8, 2019).

[5] See n. 4 supra. See also U.S. Reactions to Failure of Juan Guiadó’s Attempt To Takeover Venezuelan Government, dwkcommentaries.com (May 6, 2019).