No need for peace

By virtue of Cuba’s strategic location at only 90 miles from mainland USA, it was inevitable for the “Pearl of the Caribbean” to be swallowed by the gluttonous expansionism of North America. That was the danger in the 19thcentury, which continues with more intensity today.

Three US presidents — James Polk (1845-49), Franklin Pierce (1853-57), and James Buchanan (1857-61) — wanted to buy  Cuba but Spain scoffed at them. Two other presidents — Ulysses Grant (1869-77) and Rutherford Hayes (1887-81) — were about to intervene militarily   when the Cubans first revolted against Spain (1868 to 1878), but they were distracted by European issues.

In 1895, when the Cubans resumed their revolutionary struggle, then President Grover Cleveland was too busy with British-American rivalries in Venezuela, but as soon as that was resolved, Cuba was brought to President Cleveland’s attention. Forty million dollars of American investments in Cuba were in danger together with $100 million of yearly trade. Through his Secretary of State, Richard Olney, President Cleveland told Spain that if it did not give Cuban revolutionaries concessions, including autonomy, the USA would be compelled to intervene. In his last State of the Nation address, President Cleveland declared, “…The United States is not a nation to which peace is a necessity.” From my 21th  century perch, that was indeed a prescient statement!

Significantly, Cleveland’s successor, William McKinley, totally ignored Cuba in his inaugural address (4 March 1897) simply because he felt he did not know enough about what was going on there.  His fellow Republicans were pressuring him to recognize Cuban belligerency but McKinley needed more than just consular dispatches and newspaper reports. He sent William J. Calhoun of Ohio, a trusted friend, to Cuba for a look-see and to gather some first- hand information.

Calhoun’s report was alarming. He said that outside the military posts, “…every house had been burned, banana trees cut down, cane fields swept with fire, and everything in the shape of food, destroyed…. I did not see a man, woman or child, a horse, mule, or cow, not even a dog. I did not see a sign of life, except an occasional vulture or buzzard sailing through the air. The country was wrapped in the stillness of death and the silence of desolation.” Calhoun blamed Spain’s “reconcentrado” policy for the depopulation of Cuba. He concluded “there will be no permanent peace in Cuba unless she is made free commercially, if not politically.”

Whenever I read about this period of Cuban history, I am baffled at how the USA exerted pressure on Spain to recognize Cuba as a belligerent and give it autonomy, if not independence; they were on the side of the revolutionaries!  How drastically their tactics changed when they conquered the Philippines.

Propitiously, the liberals in Spain came into power again with Mateo Sagasta replacing the conservative Antonio Canovas.  Numerous concessions were granted to Cuba, among them the end of “reconcentrado” and the removal of Gov-General Valeriano Weyler (“The Butcher of Cuba”) who was then sent to the Philippines. The USA went as far as demanding autonomy for Cuba, which was rejected, by both Cuban revolutionaries and Spanish loyalists. The latter  were still hoping for a military victory.

Pres. McKinley proceeded with diplomatic caution even after the publication of a secret report of a Spanish minister in the USA describing McKinley as “weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd.” By this time, Congress was furious enough to allow the president to declare war. Only after the battleship “Maine” blew up at the Havana harbor and Senator Redfield Proctor’s first-hand report of the atrocious conditions in Cuba did McKinley agree to intervene militarily, ostensibly due to humanitarian considerations. Be that as it may, now we know that American business interests in the Caribbean island were at stake and that was the glaring truth that shaped the president’s decision to start the Spanish-American War, which eventually crossed the Pacific Ocean and wreaked havoc in our country.

(Source: 1898: McKinley’s Decision by Robert Dallek)