Empire by Default: The Spanish-Amercian War and the Dawn of the American Century

Empire by Default: The Spanish-Amercian War and the Dawn of the American Century

5.0 1
by Ivan Musicant

The definitive version of the Spanish-American War as well as a dramatic account of America's emergence as a global power.


The definitive version of the Spanish-American War as well as a dramatic account of America's emergence as a global power.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Empire by Default is a riveting narrative imbued with impeccable scholarship and lively anecdotes. Ivan Musicant, a superb military and diplomatic historian, has written the single best account of the Spanish-American War currently available. "-Douglas Brinkley

Alan Earls
Ivan Musicant's...narrative...provid[es] a stronger explanation of Cuban aspirations and politics and Spanish motivations than most readers will have found elsewhere. -- Boston Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Timed to coincide with the centennial of the Spanish-American War, Musicant's latest history (after Divided Waters) shows solid command of published sources in a work that compares favorably to David Trask's standard The War With Spain in 1898 (1981).

Musicant's nuanced approach stresses the desire of both President William McKinley and his Democratic predecessor, Grover Cleveland, to avoid any international issues that might impede America's recovery from the economic depression of 1893. Cuba, however, was impossible to ignore because of Spain's inability to develop either a military or a political solution to the insurrection that racked the island. Even without the impact of "yellow journalism," war was nearly impossible to avert after the sinking of the Maine, which Musicant attributes to an internal explosion. Musicant demonstrates that American operational and logistical performances were far better than might have been expected, given the complete lack of experience in every kind of fighting the Army and Navy undertook. The greatest U.S. weaknesses, he explains, were administrative; the country raised a much larger army than needed, only to find its military bureaucracy swamped by the resulting demands. Nor did anyone at planning and policy levels have any idea of the long-term consequences of the large-scale expeditions that decided the war. Philippine independence in particular was a chimera. Emilio Aguinaldo's rebels were only one of many armed factions, and a weak state was certain to attract foreign attention, leading to annexation and pacification being considered as a least-unacceptable option.

Musicant explores the ideology behind this policy, and satisfyingly demonstrates the beginnings of the American trade "empire" to have been less exploitative than altruistic.

Library Journal
Often referred to as "the splendid little war," the Spanish-American War of 1898 was anything but splendid. Musicant (Divided Waters, LJ 8/95), an independent naval historian, presents a solid military history of the war, thoroughly grounded in the sources yet never allowing the detail to overwhelm the narrative.

His theme is that the American empire acquired as a result of the war wasn't planned, a point he illustrates rather than states explicitly by showing how both U.S. and Spanish actions were governed by the internal politics in each country and ultimately led to the clash. While discussing the problems and scandals as well as the successes, his very readable history is not as scholarly as David Trask's The War With Spain in 1898 (LJ 5/1/81) but still belongs in most academic and public library history collections.

--Stephen H. Peters, Northern Michigan University Library, Marquette

Naval historian Musicant sees in the 1898 war the end of US isolationism and its entry as a player on the world stage. He also traces its origins to tabloid journalists, a public just far enough removed from the horror of the Civil War to think the battleground a romantic testing ground, a president uncertain of his support in his party and the country as a whole and taunted by a bellicose and bloody Theodore Roosevelt. All in all, he concludes, the situation then was much as it is now. His narrative combines military, political, press, and social events.

Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.

William L. O'Neill
[a] colorful, highly readable book...

--William L. O'Neill, The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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6.60(w) x 9.52(h) x 2.16(d)

Read an Excerpt

HAPTER ONE STATE OF THE UNION On the warm evening of July 12, in the exciting Chicago summer of 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner, a young history don at the University of Wisconsin, rose to speak before a stellar audience of international scholars. The setting was superb, the extravaganza of the World's Columbian Exposition, America's self-conscious debut commemorating four hundred years of progress since Christopher Columbus claimed the New World for the king and queen of Spain. Here on the shores of Lake Michigan, a gleaming white and gilt beaux arts temporary city rose to herald the remarkable achievements of the bursting new colossus of the Western Hemisphere. World-traveled tourists marveled at the breathtaking exhibits attesting to the social and technical advancement of the United States. Everything, from the giant Corliss electric dynamo, to George Washington Ferris's 250-foot wheel, to the hootchy-kootchy girls of the "Egyptian Village," brought wide eyes and gaping mouths to tens of thousands of parasoled and straw-hatted tourists. "We were all knocked silly," said the future secretary of state, John Hay. "It beats the brag so far out of sight that even Chicago is dumb." Historian Henry Adams, grandson and great-grandson of presidents, called the fair "the first great expression of American thought as a unity." Compared to these manufactured wonderments, it's no surprise that Professor Turner's learned address, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," got so little attention in the public journals, or indeed, even among his fellow historians. Federal civil service commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, no mean historian himself and a man who understood before a good many others the significance of what became the "Turner thesis" of American history, sent a polite congratulatory note: "I think you have struck some first class ideas, and have put into definite shape a good deal of thought which has been floating around rather loosely." To present the "frontier" as a driving catalyst of American history, Turner lifted a virtually unnoticed passage of enormous significance from the U.S. Census Bureau's Bulletin No. 12, of April 1891. Until the national census of 1880, the social and political map of the United States stopped at a frontier line of settlement, a pale, beyond which its statutes and civilization did not cross. A decade later, the bureau declared this unwrought world "so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line.... It cannot, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports." The frontier had vanished in law as well as in fact. Turner grounded his thesis on American economic power generated by "free land." America's unique individualism, nationalism, political institutions, its very democracy, depended on it. "So long as free land exists," he told the assembly, "the opportunity for ... competency exists, and economic power secures political power." For Turner, continental expansion, symbolized by the ever moving frontier creating more free land, was the driving, dynamic factor of American progress. It had been since Christopher Columbus, and remained so until the Census Bureau erased the frontier with the keystroke of a typewriter. Without the economic energy created by expanding the frontier, he warned, America's political and social institutions would stagnate. If one adhered to this way of thinking, America must expand or die. Even as he spoke, an imbroglio between President Cleveland and the U.S. Senate over the annexation of Hawaii was in high spate, making it an extraordinary time for such observations. Would the United States halt at its saltwater margins? Must expansion be defined in terms of a terrestrial line across prairie or mountains, or might it include strategic and economic projection across a "free" ocean? Turner did not say. "And now," he concluded, "four centuries from the discovery of America ... the frontier is gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history." While Turner's lucid thesis created hardly an inch of newspaper copy or a poke of interest among contemporary national policymakers, the reverse was true with another equally obscure historian: Gauging the pulse of the time, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan of the U.S. Navy had no qualms about moving the frontier beyond the coastline, and three years before Turner offered his thesis, he made his case. Born in 1840 at West Point, the son of Mary and "Old Dennis" Hart Mahan, a highly regarded, puritanical Episcopalian professor of mathematics and engineering at the U.S. Military Academy, young Alfred eschewed the army life and graduated (number two of twenty) from the Naval Academy in 1859. For thirty years, his naval career was drudgingly undistinguished. During the Civil War his sole experience of gunfire occurred when his ship arrived late for his only battle. He was decidedly uncomfortable at sea, a poor sailor and indifferent ship handler--hardly the stuff of his hero, the great David Farragut. Though Mahan was an outstanding student and intellect, his first efforts at naval history, the vocation that shot his comet across the celebrity cosmos of the 1890s, was a mind-numbingly dull account of the Civil War, The Gulf and Inland Waters, published in 1883. It was both Mahan's and the navy's good fortune that he caught the notice of Commodore Stephen Bleecker Luce, a broad-whiskered educational reformer during the navy's sinkhole, post-Civil War dark age. Luce had already established the Naval Apprentice Training System for enlisted sailors, and duty at the Naval Academy provided experience in molding young midshipmen. But Luce chose as his special project the revolutionary conception of graduate study in naval warfare for junior officers. The modern naval officer, Luce believed, could richly profit by a study of naval history, examining wars, leaders, theory, and battles "with the cold eye of professional criticism." Seeking a distinctly separate institution from the undergraduate Naval Academy, Annapolis, Luce submitted a proposal for a postgraduate Naval War College to the Navy Department in 1876, and there it languished for eight years. Then, in October 1884, shortly after the general reform of the service had gotten under way with modest beginnings, Navy Secretary William E. Chandler, over protests from most of the barnacled, seignioral bureau chiefs, found temporary quarters for Luce's school in an abandoned almshouse on Coaster's Harbor Island, by the torpedo station at Newport, Rhode Island. Luce, nearing sixty years old, was appointed its first commandant. "Poor little poor house," said the commodore to the small group of officers with him. "Poor little poor house, I christen thee the United States Naval War College!" Luce had begun his own systematic study of naval history almost twenty years before, in the final months of the Civil War. During that conflict, steam-driven armored warships fought on both sides, heralding eight decades of the "battleship era" in naval history. In the years that followed that war, several ironclad battles had erupted on the world's oceans, from the Pacific coast of South America to the Black Sea. Yet there were no codified principles on which to forge a canon of the new naval warfare of iron (soon to be steel) and steam. Brainy Alfred Thayer Mahan, Luce thought, might be just the man to establish them, and he invited him to join the War College faculty. Of the two subjects Luce proposed for Mahan's syllabus of instruction, naval tactics and naval history, it was the second that gave Mahan "more anxiety." But in the summer of 1884, he could not have been further removed from the intellectual ferment beginning to bubble up slowly within the service. Mahan commanded the Wachusett, a twenty-year-old Civil War wooden screw-sloop, on her last commission before being sent to the knacker's yard. In the isolation of the far Pacific station, Mahan plumbed the well of naval history, "continuously seeking" the elusive thread that bound ancient and modern maritime empires, their admirals, galleons, ships of the line, and sea battles into a cohesive, encompassing historical theory. Aboard the tired Wachusett there came to him "from within, the suggestion that the control of the sea was an historic factor which had never been systematically appreciated and expounded." This was the nut, the kernel of Mahanian philosophy that would dominate the world's naval and foreign policy councils for decades into the next century. In October 1885, Mahan, newly promoted to captain, reported to Rear Admiral Luce at the War College. A year later, he succeeded to the presidency. Ignoring the sniping that constantly pinged around the college from the mossback element in the Navy Department, Mahan buried himself in research at the New York Public Library, trying to formulate basic principles governing the art and science of naval warfare. Eventually, his concept of the history of sea power was not a simple chronology of campaigns and battles, or even an examination of tactics; instead, it concentrated on the elements that combined to make a nation powerful at sea: trade, geography, natural resources, diplomacy and naval policy, the character of the people and their government. By the autumn of 1886, Mahan had synthesized his research into a series of lectures, which he delivered to an audience of twenty student officers at the War College. Occasional speakers from the civilian world complemented the classroom; one such, a recent Harvard graduate, had just written a well-accepted, creditable history, The Naval War of 1812; this was Theodore Roosevelt. Both men took an instant liking to each other. In September 1887, at the beginning of Mahan's second year at the War College, he was convinced that his lectures might equally serve as naval history for a mainstream book publisher. Not only would theories on the development of modern naval warfare be presented to the public, but publication, said Admiral Luce, would "assist the college" in its continuing bureaucratic and financial struggle "for bare existence." The Boston house of Little, Brown, and Company was persuaded to undertake the project, offering Mahan an advance of $2,500. In May 1890, the lectures, bolstered with a hefty introduction, appeared under the title The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. As a work of historical prose, the book was an improvement on the pedantic yawner that had previously come from Mahan's pen. Yet it was not the four hundred-plus pages of straight-ahead naval history that captured the world's attention, but its introduction, "Elements of Sea Power," written as a marketing tool and designed, Mahan frankly admitted, to make the book "more popular," an "attractive subject to the public." Basing his introductory theme on the contemporary condition of the United States, an industrial complex manifestly capable of producing vast surpluses, Mahan held the mirror of history for his countrymen to see in their reflection England at the seventeenth-century beginnings of her maritime empire. Each possessed characteristics that in Mahan's view were vital to the growth of a modern naval, indeed world, power. First, strategic geography. Unlike certain maritime states, France or the Netherlands, for instance, the United States need not worry about protecting a landed frontier that drained manpower and resources better suited for overseas expansion. Second, physical geography. A nation embarking on a course for sea power needed extensive coastlines, deep, protected harbors, and a fertile agricultural interior. The United States held all in abundance. Third, a well-distributed seafaring population having "an inborn love of the sea." Until the post-Civil War maritime doldrums, the United States had been a great seafaring nation, and it was time to rekindle the spirit. Fourth, the establishment of a large merchant marine. America's carrying trade had once rivaled Great Britain's in tonnage and prestige. But that had ended for all time at the hands of Confederate sea raiders during the Civil War. (Mahan soon realized this as false doctrine. A nation no longer needed to ship products under her own flag to become commercially prosperous; it need only have a navy capable of protecting the goods and vessels.) Fifth, national character. The people of a maritime state must be materially acquisitive, with a knack and yearning for profitable overseas trade, and generally "love money." Americans held these traits--indeed, held them rather high. To Mahan, the full flowering of these national qualities was held in check by the "legislative hindrances" of those distinctly unwilling to expand into overseas possessions. Last, character of the government. Mahan granted that the governments of several historically great maritime powers, Carthage and Spain for example, had been particularly despotic, and it was infinitely more desirable to have a participatory political structure. "In the matter of sea power, the most brilliant successes have followed where there has been intelligent direction by a government fully imbued with the spirit of the people. Such a government," he observed, "is most certainly secured when the will of the people ... has some share in making it." England in the late seventeenth century contained the germ of this ideal. The United States in the late nineteenth had arguably progressed somewhat further. As Mahan reasoned, the theories of history and the reality of the present molded themselves in the America of 1890. The productive capacity of the nation had grown too large for the strictly continental market to absorb. Further, having lost the landed frontier--a political line--it must turn to the sea, its ever present, strategic geographical frontier. Reversing the traditional American thought of the oceans as a barrier against European entanglements, Mahan compared them to "a great ocean highway; or better, of a wide common, over which men pass in all directions." Mahan charted America's imperial passage away from the mercantilism of European maritime empires such as Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Spain. Their colonies were mainly sources for raw materials, and markets and outlets for manufacturing and human surplus. These outposts of empire, be they at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, the Cape of Good Hope, Havana, or Manila Bay, naturally assumed the roles of distant naval stations to service the colonial trade and, latterly, for local defense. Mahan separated these functions and reversed their polarity. It is a given, he said, that colonies are markets, both outlets and nursery for home industry and commerce, but this is not their true value. That lies in what was formerly taken for granted, their role as strategic naval bases. Military conflict between nation-states will not end, and holding critical points in the strategic geography of the world is enormously important. Whatever the reason for the strife, Mahan stated, "when a question arises of control over distant regions ... whether they be crumbling empires, anarchical republics, colonies, isolated military posts, or [small] islands, it must ultimately be decided by naval power." It was so in the British defense of Gibraltar, a strategic outpost purely, and it would be so when the United States acquired the way for its linchpin of empire, the Central American isthmian canal. Naval power, not the marching thousands of conscript armies, would decide these contests. Whereas Frederick Jackson Turner talked of closure, Mahan clearly understood the beginnings of an America dominant in a new, dangerously opportunistic world. Writing in 1890, Turner's benchmark year, Mahan, too, identified the disappearance of the frontier as a milestone of American history, with large implications for its economic and political future. In a companion piece to The Influence of Sea Power, he closed the circle of Turner's frontier thesis and charted America's new course: "Whether they will or no, Americans must now begin to look outward." The Influence of Sea Power Upon History

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