Was the US Justified in Going to War Against Spain?
Whether or not the United States was justified in going to war against Spain depends wholly upon why it went to war with it. It is only possible to determine whether a war was just or not with a knowledge of why the war took place. Thus it would be prudent, when regarding history, to examine the motivating factors behind wars. Without this knowledge, it is impossible to know who, if anyone, was justified in going to war. If motive is everything, why did the US go to war with Cuba against Spain?
If asked this same question, most Americans would give an answer centering around the sinking of the USS Maine. The Maine was an armored cruiser sent to Havana Harbor to ensure that rioting in the area did not harm Americans living there. However, after it arrived, an explosion resulted in the sinking of the ship and the loss 266 American men. What caused the explosion is still undetermined to this day, and the issue was quite nearly as ambiguous at the time.
Perhaps the main reason that the sinking of the Maine was so influential on public opinion was because of newspaper hyperbole. Competing news sources such as those owned by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer exaggerated the news, sometimes flat out fabricating it, to bring about the effect which they desired. This helped to sway the public mood, which was already appalled by atrocities committed by the Spanish in Spain’s response to the Cuban rebellion, in favor war.
Although there was little to no evidence that Spain was behind the sinking of the USS Maine, the newspapers relentlessly pointed the finger at the Spanish. This, of course, led to outrage and indignation in America, allowing Americans to feel affronted. With popular opinion blaming Spain for the explosion, Americans could find reason to go to war. After all, the Spanish had already sunk one of America’s ships. They struck first, so retaliation was the natural response, at least in the popular American mind.
However, even before the sinking of the Maine, there was a deal public support for intervention on behalf of Cuba. This support may not have been widespread enough to send America to war with Spain, but it certainly was enough to garner the receptivity of Americans to the exaggeration of the newspapers. There were essentially two motivations for public support of intervention before the sinking of the Maine. Without them, no one can say whether the public would have so readily accepted the inflammatory rhetoric of the papers.
First, there existed economic motivators. The prolonged conflict between Cuba and Spain was harming US trade. In total, trade with Cuba dropped more than sixty six percent as a result of the conflict. This certainly created a motivation for the economically minded. American trade would have benefitted from intervention, so many in the industry were early supporters of the cause.
However, they were not alone. The second main motivator for support before the sinking of the Maine was the presence of atrocities being committed by the Spanish against the Cubans. The newspapers had a great deal of influence in forming this view. Also, the Cubans were viewed as being oppressed, with some Americans seeing Cuba as a sort of America and Spain as typological of the British. The similarities between Cuba’s revolution and America’s revolution may have helped to fuel this viewpoint, engendering sympathy for the Cubans.
With an understanding of the underlying motivations behind war with Spain, it is now possible to examine whether or not the US was justified in going to war with Cuba. By way of summary, motivators for US support of war against Spain were largely based upon hyperbole, desire for profits, and sentimentality. The chief motivator, the sinking of the Maine, may or may not have been caused by the Spanish, as the investigations into the issue were inconclusive. However, the US was already predisposed towards war, largely due to the influence of the press, so instead of treating the Spanish as innocent until proven guilty, the US launched itself into war.
Just as any individual would be unjustified in attacking his neighbor for economic gain or for some sentimental reason, so nations are unjustified in attacking one another without sufficient reason. Unless a nation has already been attacked, there can be no real moral justification for war. Self defense is the only justification for going to war.
Unfortunately, the belief that the US had been attacked by Spain was at the very least tenuous. Without proof of an affront, the United States was simply allowing its passions to control it. Thus the war with Cuba was unjustified. The motivators were lacking. There existed no worthy cause for war, as the strongest cause was unfounded and based largely on pre-existing moods.