Press Ganging Up On Spain: Newspapers, Politicians, And The Spanish-American War

Press Ganging Up On Spain: Newspapers, Politicians, And The Spanish-American War

“You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war” – it was media tycoon William Randolph Hearst who is said to have cabled these immortal words to a reporter in Cuba.

He would later dispute this, but it’s clear he certainly desired, and was actively trying to engineer, a war. 

Hearst, who would found Hearst Communications and go on to inspire Orson Welles’ power hungry media baron ‘Citizen Kane’, had honed the art of sensationalism in his newspaper duel with Joseph Pulitzer.

Hearst owned the ‘New York Journal’, and Pulitzer the ‘New York World’ - two major papers of the age.

Spanish American War
Newspaper tycoons Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst compete for ownership of the war in Cuba (image: Library of Congress)

Their 'yellow journalism' (the colour from the comic sections bled onto the papers’ other pages) would use lurid stories of sex, violence, and random catastrophe to battle for readers.

Examples of the kinds of ‘facts’ featured in this press war were a girl running down the street with her hair on fire, and a boy biting into a stick of dynamite he thought was candy…and blowing his own head off.

The shocking headlines and melodramatic stories worked.

In ‘The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire’, Evan Thomas tells us:

“(Hearst increased) the circulation of the Journal from 20,000 to 150,000 in less than a year. But he was still losing money after stealing away Pulitzer’s staff at great cost (he poached them). He tried parades and fireworks to boost circulation, but he needed something bigger, more spectacular. He needed a war."

Eventually, the incident he had hoped for, those pictures he sought, and the headlines he wanted to craft, would materialise.

“Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain” would be the populist chant that emerged from the furore Hearst would help whip up in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor of the day – the explosion, on February 15, 1898, of the USS Maine in Havana, Cuba.

New York Journal USS Maine front page

Originally though, there was to be a different enemy.

The search for a good war had been going on for years, and the original pretence was not Spanish but British imperialism.

The 1895 Venezuelan crisis involved a dispute over the boundaries of Britain’s territory in South America. This would trigger the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, the precepts of which framed further European imperial expansion within the Americas as being hostile to the US.

It certainly rankled a man who despised Hearst but would become a huge pro-war ally of his in Washington: Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt.

A distant cousin of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), and, like him, also a future president, Teddy Roosevelt would become as closely associated with the Maine as FDR would with Pearl Harbor.

But, while Franklin Roosevelt would try to keep America out of war before then entering into an alliance with the British, Teddy Roosevelt’s goal was to get into a war, and quite possibly one with Britain.

His reasons for seeking conflict weren’t quite as cynical as Hearst’s, but do seem to have been rooted in some combination of political ambition and racial ideology.

He was an incessant self-promoter who would leave behind a sick wife and five children to become a war hero. A hawkish intellectual, he also worried intensely that:

“The race was becoming “over civilized”—too soft... The solution—indeed, salvation—would come from tapping into more primitive instincts, the kind brought out by sport, especially by hunting, and most of all by war. It was necessary, Roosevelt wrote, to let “the wolf rise in the heart.”

Roosevelt and his ally Henry Cabot Lodge
Roosevelt (image: and his ally Henry Cabot Lodge (image: Library of Congress)

Because of people like Roosevelt and his close friend and political ally Henry Cabot Lodge, the ‘manifest destiny’ meant to justify US expansion across the continent was morphing into imperialism that would extend beyond America.

In a three-day speech, Lodge would lobby the Senate to beef up the Navy because, as Captain A.T. Mahan’s seminal work ‘The Influence of Sea Power’ put it: 

“It is sea power which is essential to the greatness of every splendid people”.

Ironically, although Mahon’s book would go on to inspire the Japanese and the Germans, it was itself inspired by British naval might, and it was this that would cause America to blink - at least this time.

The proverbial cooler heads prevailed by pointing out that if conflict arose from the trouble in Venezuela, and America rushed headlong into Canada (a British territory), the British sea power that Lodge wished to emulate would be unleashed on US coastal cities.

There were, after all, a mere three American warships to Britain’s intimidating, and in this case war-deterring, 50.

An army bureau chief quoted in the New York Times said simply: “America would make a sorry spectacle at war with England.”

President Grover Cleveland agreed. The buck stopped with him, and he stopped the war.

Lodge, Roosevelt, and Hearst had lost the battle, but they would not lose the war of ideas, and until another opponent could be found, they would keep the pugnacious spirit of the age alive.

As well as Mahon, the politically connected historian Brooks Adams and his book ‘The Law of Civilization and Decay’ continued to be discussed in high circles.

The loss of the ruling class’ “soldierly virtues” was the issue at the heart of it. Brooks himself told Roosevelt in a letter that:

“The whole world seems to be rotting, rotting. The one hope for us, the one chance to escape from our slavery… is war, war which shall bring down the British Empire.”

While Roosevelt thought Adams somewhat “unhinged”, he agreed that America’s condition was that of decay, and that war was the medicine it needed to be rejuvenated.

For his part, Roosevelt himself was seen as somewhat mad by British diplomat Cecil Spring Rice, who he’d spoken to before the 1896 election that saw the Republican, and hopefully more warlike, William McKinley, replace the cautious Cleveland.

Though McKinley beat Cleveland’s intended Democratic successor, the race was never a sure thing, and Roosevelt had complained to Rice:

“If (McKinley’s Democratic rival William J Bryan) wins, we have before us some years of social misery.” 

Republican campaign poster from 1896
Republican campaign poster from 1896 (image: Library of Congress)

Getting into his Social Darwinist and Eugenicist leanings… "Roosevelt said he feared that Americans were becoming “effete”, and losing their “moral spring”.

Rice said Roosevelt got “worked up enough to indulge loopy racial theories of inherited characteristics—wondering why Germans, despite their martial history, made worse New York City policemen than the Irish”.

Although hardly leaving a good impression on the diplomat, Roosevelt’s ‘loopy’ and belligerent rhetoric did him far more damage when it was splashed all over the newspapers. 

The New York Journal eagerly sank its teeth into a most unfortunate conversation one of its sources had with Roosevelt on a train, also during the 1896 campaign.

Roosevelt had branded the Democratic Bryan a dangerous ‘socialist’ demagogue. He’d said he was ready, sword in hand, along with the “protectors of property”, to quell the working-class revolt Bryan would surely foment.

Just as with the brutal put down of the Paris Commune following the Franco-Prussian war, Roosevelt said he’d crush the Bryanites by standing them against a wall and shooting them.

Whether he meant it to or not, it came off in the press as a ‘scandalous’ call for political violence.

Roosevelt was furious, venting to Henry Cabot Lodge that the ‘damned’ Journal had misquoted him.

The story must be false, he insisted, because he, Roosevelt, was utterly incapable of using such a "ghastly" expression as "standing up the silver leaders against a wall to be shot".

Lodge must have shaken his head - Roosevelt was constantly talking this way.

Democratic campaign poster 1896
Democratic campaign poster 1896 (image: Library of Congress)

Then, there was the account of how, as Police Commissioner of New York, child spies were used to snitch on saloon owners Roosevelt wanted to catch selling alcohol on the Sabbath.

A rule prohibiting this was on the books, but until this point, police had largely looked the other way.

In a classic public relations blunder, Roosevelt adamantly denied using children in this way, and his department then proclaimed on the same day that the practice would stop.

Thomas suggests that the problem between Hearst and Roosevelt might have been that they were too similar.

Both were ambitious and war hungry, and both were high society ‘dandies’ (sartorially eccentric, perhaps, in today’s parlance).

Ultimately though, they’d learn to put their differences aside to bring about the war they both craved.

Once the election was over, the new Naval Secretary Roosevelt and his allies in the incoming McKinley Administration would settle, along with Hearst and the press, on a new enemy: Spain.

King Alphonso XIII of Spain about to get retribution for the Maine
King Alphonso XIII of Spain about to get retribution for the Maine (image: Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography)

On the government end, Lodge, attuned to the idea of societal rise and fall, had been struck by what he saw as the decline of the once mighty Spanish empire when he had gone there on a state visit. He wrote to Roosevelt:

“You never saw such dissolute dreary plains here and there a dying town. Even Madrid is bleak and cheerless… They are beaten, broken and are out of the race… and know it.”

Seen as the complete opposite of the ‘Anglo-Saxon virtue’ that continued through American bloodlines, the decadent, autocratic, and martially-sapped Spain would make a fitting opponent: one that deserved to be beaten.

Meanwhile, Hearst was fanning the flames of the Cuban War of Independence, talking up the bravery of Cuban guerrilla fighters against a cruel and oppressive Spanish governor, Valeriano Weyler.

To be sure, Weyler was brutal. According to Thomas:

“He ordered whole towns emptied of their citizens, “reconcentrating” them in squalid makeshift camps. The reconcentrados died of disease and malnourishment in droves: an estimated 170,000 people, or 10 percent of the civilian population”.

Weyler’s predecessor, General Ramon Blanco y Erenas, would eventually be brought back to replace him.

Unfairly, it would be Blanco who’d reap what Weyler had sown when America entered the conflict.

Weyler (left), and his predecessor and replacement Blanco (right)
Weyler (left; image: Army Museum (Spain)), and his predecessor and replacement Blanco (right; image from 'Cuba's struggle against Spain' by Fitzhugh Lee)

For now, the ‘noble’ freedom fighters would continue to resist Spain. But what Hearst didn’t mention was that they were committing their own horrific acts, like making Spanish soldiers dig their own graves before being buried alive in them, or simply beheading them with machetes. 

The wheeling and dealing going on behind the scenes also didn’t make the papers, as Lodge, Roosevelt, and their allies worked to get corporate sponsorship for war in Cuba. 

There were concerns that big business would wish to avoid war for fear of disrupting the stock market.

Fortunately, Lodge had a way in to “the Trusts”, through his friend and fellow senator J Donald Cameron. 

Thomas describes Senator Cameron as a “fool and a blowhard and an ugly drunk”, whose “vivacious and lovely” wife characterised her wedding night with him as "rape" (they were dubbed “the Beauty and the Beast”).

But Cameron was corporately well connected, and therefore a vital link in the chain of winning business over with the argument that, actually, war in Cuba would bring new markets and cheap labour. 

(John F Kennedy would rail against US corporate greed that had taken hold in Cuba many years later).

New York in 1900
New York in 1900 (image: Library of Congress)

In the meantime, Hearst’s headlines kept coming.

A favourite trope was very much in vogue with the literature and romantic spirit of the age, that of the damsel (Cuba) ravaged by the villain (Spain) in need of a rescuing knight (the US).

One story had a Cuban maiden strip-searched by ‘prying’ Spanish soldiers to stop her smuggling important documents out of the country. (The tale was greatly exaggerated). 

Another epic yarn was spun out of the imprisonment of the politically connected 17-year-old ‘fair maiden’ Evangelina Cisneros for taking part in an uprising of Cuban political prisoners.

Wasting no time, Hearst sent the blond, handsome, six-foot son of a Confederate cavalry colonel, Karl Decker, to rescue the girl and bring her, and the exciting breakout story, back to America.

The young Decker obliged, getting into Cuba, renting a room directly across from Evangelina’s prison cell, and the two of them co-ordinating the daring escape through secret signals (her with a handkerchief, him using a cigar).

When it was time, Evangelina cunningly drugged her captors, and the dashing Decker extended and clambered across a 12-foot ladder before sawing through her prison bars and prying them open with his bare hands.

Even though key members of the government and Hearst were working towards a common end, when he got the story back, the mogul couldn’t resist a dig with his headline: 

“EVANGELINA CISNEROS RESCUED BY THE JOURNAL – An American Newspaper Accomplishes at a Single Stroke What the Red Tape of Diplomacy Failed Utterly to Bring About in Many Months”.

What followed was a high society tour celebrating Evangelina’s liberation.

The fact that Decker had actually just bribed the guards, and they’d staged the escape to avoid getting into trouble with their superiors was quickly forgotten.

And so too, was Evangelina. She’d not end up with Decker, but would marry a dentist and disappear into obscurity.

No matter, Hearst and the government would soon put their focus on an incident that would finally spark war.

USS Maine Explosion

Described by critics as ‘waving a match in an oil well’, Roosevelt’s Department of the Navy sent the warship the USS Maine into Havana to protect US citizens in early 1898.

While there, on February 15, it blew up in an enormous explosion.

A ‘Spanish mine’ was the immediate cause cited by the papers, and then the official explanation following a government investigation a few months later.

Cuba was blockaded (as it would be in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis), provoking Spain to declare war.

Now the US could mobilise under a righteous pretence. 

Roosevelt, Lodge and much of American society had got what they wanted - or rather, what they thought they wanted: a ‘righteous’ war from which to weave tales of glory, and then new lands and markets in the aftermath. 

The fact that most war deaths would result from tropical fever was something people tried to forget.

And none of the participants imagined that they’d eventually end up in another catastrophic war in the Pacific resulting from this one.

For now, Hearst, Roosevelt, and their fellow hawks were to make up the all-star cast of their story of national rejuvenation and righteous conquest – and what a story it would be…

Click left on 'Dawn Of Empire 1898: The US Invades Cuba' for Part 2 of this story. 

For more on the politics surrounding the Spanish American War, read The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898 by Evan Thomas.