William McKinley entered the White House just as the nation was nearing a crisis with Cuba. Just ninety miles south of Florida, Cuba was still under Spanish control despite past American efforts to wrest it away. In the 1890s, falling sugar prices led Cuban farmers to rebel against their Spanish overlords in a bloody revolution. Spanish forces tried to crack down on the insurrection by herding all suspected revolutionaries, including children, into internment camps.
Americans became aware of the situation in Cuba via “yellow journalists” such as the famous newspapermen William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who printed sensationalized stories about the events. In competition for readership, each man tried to outdo the other. Hearst, for example, sent painter Frederick Remington to Cuba with the order, “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war!” hoping to boost sales with exclusive coverage of the conflict.
Already agitated by the articles of yellow journalists, Americans were outraged by the Dupuy de Lôme letter, which was intercepted and published in newspapers in 1898. In the letter, Spanish ambassador Enrique Dupuy de Lôme derided McKinley as a dimwitted politician. Inciting even greater public outrage, though, was the mysterious explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor a week later, which killed more than 250 U.S. servicemen. American investigators concluded erroneously that a mine had destroyed the ship, despite Spain’s insistence that there had been an accident in the ship’s boiler room. Although history proved Spain correct, Americans rallied under the cry “Remember the Maine!” and clamored for war.
Although McKinley did not want to go to war with Spain, he feared that if he failed to respond to strong public opinion for the war, William Jennings Bryan and his “free silver” platform would win the election of 1900. McKinley thus requested a declaration of war from Congress in April 1898; Congress consented on the grounds that the Cuban people needed to be liberated. To justify this cause, Congress passed the Teller Amendment, which promised Cuba independence once the Spaniards had been driven out.
The resulting Spanish-American War was quick and decisive and crumbled the Spanish Empire. Acting against direct orders, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent expansionist, ordered Commodore George Dewey to seize the Spanish-controlled Philippines in Asia. Dewey defeated the Spanish fleet in a surprise attack on Manila Bay without losing a single man. Congress then annexed Hawaii on the pretext that the navy needed a refueling station between San Francisco and Asia. While Dewey fought the Spanish at sea, Filipino insurgent Emilio Aguinaldo led a revolt on land. Although Britain did not participate in the fighting, it did help prevent other European powers from defending Spain.
The U.S. Army, meanwhile, prepared for an invasion of Cuba with over 20,000 regular and volunteer troops. The most famous of the volunteers were the Rough Riders, under the command of Lt. Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, who had left his civilian job to fight the “splendid little war.” As the Rough Riders’ name implied, they were an assortment of ex-convicts and cowboys mixed with some of Roosevelt’s aristocratic acquaintances. Roosevelt and the Rough Riders helped lead the charge and take the famous San Juan Hill outside the city of Santiago. Cuba eventually fell, prompting Spain to retreat.