Spanish American War: How it Forged America’s Global Dominance

Spanish American War: How it Forged America’s Global Dominance


The Spanish American War, a conflict that took place in 1898 between the United States and Spain, is a pivotal moment in American history. This war marked a turning point for the United States as it transitioned from a regional power to a global superpower. In this essay, we will explore the various factors that contributed to the transformation of the United States into a world power as a result of the Spanish American War.

Background and Context

To fully grasp the significance of the Spanish American War, it is essential to examine the historical context that led to this conflict. During the late 19th century, the United States was undergoing a period of rapid industrialization, economic growth, and territorial expansion. This era, known as the Gilded Age, was characterized by immense wealth accumulation, technological advancements, and a burgeoning sense of American exceptionalism.

While the United States was experiencing internal growth and change, the once-mighty Spanish Empire was in decline. Spain had once been a dominant colonial power with vast territories in the Americas, but by the late 1800s, its empire had significantly weakened. Its colonial possessions in the Caribbean, such as Cuba and Puerto Rico, were plagued by economic difficulties, political unrest, and calls for independence.

American interests in Latin America and the Caribbean were growing, fueled by a combination of economic, strategic, and ideological factors. American business interests sought new markets for their products, and the idea of expanding American influence in the Western Hemisphere appealed to those who believed in Manifest Destiny—a belief that the United States was destined to spread its influence across the continent.

This complex backdrop set the stage for the Spanish American War, as the United States found itself increasingly entangled in the affairs of its southern neighbors. In the following sections, we will delve deeper into the causes of the war, the military campaigns that ensued, and the far-reaching consequences that ultimately established the United States as a prominent global player.

Causes of the War

The Spanish American War was not a sudden eruption of conflict; instead, it was the culmination of several factors that pushed the United States and Spain toward war. One of the immediate triggers was the explosion of the USS Maine, an American battleship, in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898. While the cause of the explosion was unclear, sensationalized by the American press through Yellow Journalism, it galvanized public opinion in the United States against Spain.

Yellow Journalism, characterized by sensationalized and often exaggerated news reporting, played a significant role in shaping public sentiment. Newspapers like William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World competed to publish stories of Spanish atrocities in Cuba, stoking outrage and calls for intervention. This media-driven fervor pushed the U.S. government toward a more aggressive stance.

Beyond these immediate causes, economic interests also played a pivotal role in pushing the United States toward war. American businesses had substantial investments in Cuba, and they feared losing these investments in the midst of Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain. Pressure from these economic interests influenced the U.S. government’s decision-making process.

Military Campaigns

With the United States officially declaring war on Spain on April 25, 1898, military campaigns soon followed. Two key naval battles marked the early stages of the conflict. In the Pacific, Commodore George Dewey’s victory at the Battle of Manila Bay on May 1, 1898, effectively destroyed the Spanish fleet in the Philippines. Meanwhile, in the Atlantic, the U.S. Navy, under Admiral William T. Sampson, achieved success at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba on July 3, 1898, effectively isolating the Spanish fleet in the Caribbean.

These naval victories showcased the United States’ emerging naval prowess and marked a turning point in the war. The use of new naval technologies, such as steel-hulled warships and long-range artillery, demonstrated the country’s readiness to compete on the global stage.

While naval battles were critical, land campaigns also played a role in the war’s outcome. Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, a volunteer cavalry regiment, gained fame for their role in the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba. Roosevelt’s leadership and the bravery of the Rough Riders highlighted the United States’ military capabilities and contributed to its reputation as a formidable force.

The Spanish American War, with its series of military engagements, showcased the United States as a nation willing and able to assert its power beyond its borders. These victories were instrumental in setting the stage for the United States to emerge as a significant player on the world stage, leading to important consequences that would reshape its foreign policy and global influence.

Treaty of Paris (1898)

The Spanish American War came to a formal conclusion with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898. This treaty marked a critical moment in American history, as it reshaped the geopolitical landscape and significantly expanded the territory and influence of the United States.

The terms of the treaty were highly favorable to the United States. Spain agreed to cede several of its colonies, including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, to the United States. Additionally, while Cuba was not annexed, it was granted independence, albeit with certain provisions that allowed the United States to maintain a significant degree of influence over the island.

The acquisition of these new territories represented a significant step in the United States’ transformation into a global power. Puerto Rico and Guam provided strategic naval bases in the Caribbean and the Pacific, while the Philippines offered access to markets in Asia and positioned the United States as a player in the geopolitics of the Pacific region.

However, the annexation of the Philippines was not without controversy. The debate over whether to incorporate the Philippines as an American colony or grant it full independence revealed divisions within the United States. While some argued that annexation was necessary for economic and strategic reasons, others, like the Anti-Imperialist League, believed it contradicted American principles of self-determination and warned against the perils of colonialism.

Economic Expansion

One of the immediate consequences of the Spanish American War was the expansion of American economic interests into the newly acquired territories. The United States saw these territories as potential markets for its products and sources of raw materials. American businesses quickly moved in, establishing a foothold in the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Puerto Rico, for example, became a significant market for American goods, and American companies invested in its infrastructure and agriculture. Similarly, Guam served as a coaling station for American ships, enhancing the United States’ ability to project power in the Pacific.

The Philippines, however, presented a more complex economic challenge. While it offered access to Asian markets and resources, the United States faced resistance from Filipino nationalists who sought independence. This resistance led to the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), during which the United States asserted control over the archipelago. Despite the conflict, the United States made significant economic investments in the Philippines, setting the stage for future economic ties.

The economic expansion that followed the Spanish American War laid the foundation for the United States to become a major player in global trade and commerce. The acquisition of new territories and the development of economic interests in the Caribbean and the Pacific contributed to the nation’s emergence as a formidable economic power on the world stage.

Shifts in Foreign Policy

The Spanish American War had a profound impact on the foreign policy of the United States. It marked a departure from the nation’s traditional isolationist stance and signaled a new era of international engagement. Several key developments in foreign policy emerged as a result of the war.

One significant policy shift was the adoption of the Open Door Policy toward China. With its new Pacific territories, the United States sought to ensure access to Chinese markets, which were highly coveted by Western powers. The Open Door Policy aimed to protect American economic interests in China by advocating for equal access to its markets among all foreign powers. This policy reflected the United States’ growing global economic ambitions.

Furthermore, the acquisition of colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific led to the emergence of the United States as a colonial power. This was a departure from its historical stance, as the nation had long opposed colonialism in the Western Hemisphere. The shift was encapsulated in the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which asserted the United States’ right to intervene in the affairs of Latin American countries to maintain stability. This policy signaled a more assertive and interventionist role in the Western Hemisphere.

Overall, the Spanish American War prompted a reevaluation of American foreign policy, positioning the United States as a more active and assertive player on the global stage. It marked the beginning of an era in which the nation would increasingly assert its interests and influence beyond its borders.

Social and Cultural Impacts

The Spanish American War had profound social and cultural impacts within the United States. It captured the imagination of the American public and generated a sense of national pride and identity. The war’s heroes, both military and journalistic, became celebrated figures, and their exploits were widely romanticized.

Theodore Roosevelt, in particular, emerged as a national hero for his leadership of the Rough Riders at the Battle of San Juan Hill. His reputation as a fearless and charismatic leader would propel him to the presidency and shape his approach to foreign policy, known as “Big Stick Diplomacy,” characterized by assertiveness and a willingness to use force when necessary.

The war also played a role in shaping American nationalism and exceptionalism. The belief that the United States had a unique destiny and responsibility in the world was reinforced by its victory in the Spanish American War. This sense of exceptionalism would influence the nation’s foreign policy decisions and its perception of its role in global affairs for decades to come.

Moreover, the war had a lasting impact on American literature, art, and media. It inspired a wave of patriotic and jingoistic works that celebrated American heroism and power. The Spanish American War became a central theme in American culture, reflecting the nation’s emerging status as a world power.

Legacy of the Spanish American War

The legacy of the Spanish American War reverberated through American history and had far-reaching consequences that extended well beyond the turn of the 20th century. One of the most significant legacies was the enduring impact on U.S. foreign policy. The war marked the beginning of a more interventionist and expansionist foreign policy posture. The United States, now a colonial power with interests in the Caribbean and Pacific, found itself increasingly engaged in global affairs.

This newfound global engagement was particularly evident during the two World Wars of the 20th century. The Spanish American War had set the precedent for the United States to assert its power and influence on a global scale. It paved the way for American involvement in World War I and World War II, where the United States played a crucial role in shaping the outcomes and the post-war order.

Additionally, the war had lasting implications for U.S.-Latin American relations. The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which allowed for American intervention in Latin American countries, established a pattern of U.S. involvement in the region’s affairs. This involvement would sometimes lead to tensions and conflicts, shaping the complex relationship between the United States and its southern neighbors in the years to come.


The Spanish American War of 1898 was a pivotal moment in American history. It marked the United States’ emergence as a global superpower through territorial acquisitions, economic expansion, and shifts in foreign policy. The war not only transformed the nation’s role on the world stage but also had profound social, cultural, and political impacts on American society.

From the acquisition of territories in the Caribbean and Pacific to the adoption of a more assertive foreign policy, the war reshaped the trajectory of the United States. It set the stage for the nation’s active involvement in global affairs in the 20th century and beyond, leaving an enduring legacy that continues to influence U.S. foreign policy and its position as a world power.

As we reflect on the Spanish American War and its consequences, it becomes clear that this conflict was a defining moment in the nation’s history, one that propelled the United States onto the world stage and reshaped its destiny as a global superpower.

How did the Spanish American War make the United States a world power?

The US victory in the Spanish American War resulted in the Us gaining possession and/or control of many new territories. These and other territorial gains resulted in the creation of a new far flung empire. Prior to the Spanish American War the United States gained control of the Hawaiian Islands. From the early 1800’s American business interests had grown in Hawaii, a series of islands that remained independent. In time the Dole Family was the largest landowner and the Hawaiian Royal family more or less followed whatever they and the United States said. In the mid 1800’s a new queen, Queen Liliuokalani gained control of the Islands and began to pass a series of anti American laws. As these laws hurt business the Dole’s and other private American businessmen funded a revolution and took over Hawaii. The USS Boston, a US Battleship, sat in the Harbor making any Hawaiian resistance impossible. In 1895 Hawaii became a US territory. The United States gained control of the following lands as a result of the Spanish American war.
1. Cuba 2. Puerto Rico 3. Philippines 4. Other islands as well but these are the important ones.
Not all areas were ruled in the same manner. Protectorate: Areas that were given autonomy (but were “protected” by the US military.
Cuba was made a protectorate. As a matter of fact we were so interested in “protecting” Cuba that we inserted something called the Platt Amendment into the Cuban constitution. The Platt Amendment said that the United States had the right to intervene in Cuba’s foreign affairs.
Commonwealth: Areas that were given limited self rule. Territory: Areas that were possessed and run directly by the US President McKinley justified the takeover of the Phillipenes (who wanted and expected independence) this way:
The Decision To Annex The Philippines
President William McKinley
When I realized that the Philippines had dropped into our laps, I confess I did not know what to do with them. I sought counsel from all sides – Democrats as well as Republicans – but got little help. I thought first we would take only Manila; then Luzon; then other islands perhaps, also. I walked the floor of the White House night after night…And one night late it came to me this way – I don’t know how it was, but it came: (1) That we could not give them back to Spain – that would be cowardly and dishonorable; (2) That we could not turn them over to France or Germany, our commercial rivals in the Orient – that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) That we could not leave them to themselves – they were unfit for self government, and they would soon have anarchy and misrule worse then Spain’s was; and (4) that there was nothing left for us to do but take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed…and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department…and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States…and there they are, and there they will stay while I am President! The Spanish American war which was named the “Splendid Little War.” In all only 460 American were killed and the result was a vast world wide empire.