Lecture 6: The Splendid Little War


The so-called "splendid little war" was the Spanish-American War of 1898. This short conflict marked the rise of the U.S. to the status of an imperial nation and a world power.



During the late 19th century the United States had grown into a world power, but a latent one.  From the springboard of the Monroe Doctrine, along with other circumstances, the U.S. dove into world affairs.

Imperial Democracy

The late 1800s and early 1900s were a second age of imperialism, during which the United States, founded as a democracy opposed to British imperialism, itself contemplated assuming imperial, or at least global, roles.  Social Darwinism, economic considerations, and the big-navy idea were arguments in favor of this new role for the U.S.

Origins of the Spanish War

The motives of the U.S. in going to war with Spain over Cuba appeared to be humanitarian, but somehow they led to imperialistic outcomes.  Americans were repulsed by Spanish cruelties in Spain’s imperial remnant, Cuba.  Conservative interests in the U.S. did not wish to go to war, but popular demand called for it.  Eventually inflammatory incidents (such as the sinking of the Maine) led President McKinley to call for war against Spain.

Waging War for Liberty and Empire

Secretary of State Hay called the Spanish War of 1898 “a splendid little war.”  It was indeed a brief conflict; splendid, well, that depends on your definition.  Stunning naval victories and a successful invasion of Cuba won the war.  The peace treat with Spain left the U.S. partly in the role of defender of Cuban liberty and partly in the role of new imperial power.  This is an ambivalence we have struggled with ever since.

American Empire

How could a war against Spanish imperialism turn into a war for American imperialism?  The popular enthusiasm for the war strengthened the hand of those who, for their own reasons, wished the U.S. to acquire colonies.  Thus, in the aftermath of war, the U.S. acquired imperial possessions.

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“Why the National Vanity of the Americans Is More Restless and Captious than that of the English”

Tocqueville believes that Americans are way too sensitive about national honor and vanity.


·         Did the national vanity of Americans play a part in the Spanish War?


·         Is Tocqueville right in his opinions about sensitive Americans? Have you seen any evidence of it in discussions in your list?


A historical question of ethics in research – Walter Reed’s Yellow Fever Experiments

Film Review

No film on the subject to recommend

Book Review

Brown, The Correspondents’ War


Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History


Roosevelt, The Rough Riders