War with Spain - Charles Morris

Relations of the United States to Cuba

Cuba, as was long ago said by an American statesman, is by nature an outpost of the United States, and it has long been held that "manifest destiny" demands its annexation to this country. Seventy-five years ago Jefferson said that "the addition of Cuba to our confederacy is exactly what is wanted to bound our power as a nation to the point of its utmost interest," and this sentiment has been widely entertained.

The relations of amity between the United States and Spain have frequently been strained through the aggressive acts of Spanish colonial agents. As long ago as the beginning of the nineteenth century the efforts of the authorities at New Orleans to close the Mississippi to American commerce almost precipitated war. At a later date border troubles with Florida caused a suspension of diplomatic relations with Spain, lasting from 1808 to 1815. In the end, West Florida was taken by force, the uncivilized methods of Spanish colonial administration having rendered the situation intolerable. In 1819, Florida was obtained by purchase, and the long-existing border difficulties were brought to an end. Meanwhile, in 1810, the revolution in Spanish America had begun. Injury was done by Spain to the commerce of the United States during the war, but redress was stoutly resisted, and only granted after seven years' negotiations. Payment of the indemnity was made in the usual dilatory fashion of Spain.

In July, 1818, Richard Rush, United States minister to England, was told by Lord Castlereagh that Spain had requested that country to mediate between her and her rebellious colonies, with the co-operation of the Holy Alliance,-a compact of the despotic powers of Europe formed after the fall of Napoleon, though it was never made manifest in what the holiness of this alliance consisted. Rush said in reply that the United States would take no part in any intervention for peace "if its basis were not the independence of the colonies."

This plain declaration ended the matter until 1823, in which year Rush found reason to believe that the Holy Alliance was laying plans to aid Spain in her struggle with her colonies. England had now shifted in the opposite direction, refused to join the alliance in these plans, and suggested opposition on the part of the United States. This was the state of affairs which led to the celebrated Monroe Doctrine, in which this country first clearly formulated the policy in relation to European interference in America which it has since vigorously maintained.

Monroe began by asking Jefferson for his opinion as to what was proper in the crisis. The venerable author of the Declaration of Independence replied briefly but forcibly, saying that it should be a leading principle of the United States "never to suffer Europe to interfere with cisatlantic affairs." Monroe placed this opinion before his cabinet, by which body it was fully indorsed. This it was that led to the doctrine which later events have made famous. It will suffice here to quote one of its most significant passages:

"We declare that we should consider any attempt [of the allied powers] to extend their system to any portion of our hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety."

This general declaration of principles was followed by statements of American policy directly relating to Cuba. The close of the struggle for independence in Spanish America left Spain devoid of any colonies in this part of the world except Cuba and Porto Rico. Avaricious eyes were being turned upon these. There was reason to distrust France and England, while Mexico and Colombia made open preparations for invasion, as mentioned in the preceding chapter. It was time for the United States to act.

There was no hesitation or loss of time in doing so. The opinion was everywhere held in this country that the interests of the United States demanded the maintenance of the status quo  in Cuba. This was officially indicated in 1825 in the decided declaration that the United States could not see with equanimity the island pass into the possession of any European power whatever. Henry Clay, secretary of state, put this declaration into plainer language still, sending a despatch to our minister to Russia in which it was distinctly stated that the United States would not "allow and permit" Cuba to pass into the hands of any foreign power. This threatening ultimatum put an end to all projects of interference on the part of England, France, or the Holy Alliance.

American powers remained to be warned off. In 1821, a congress had been suggested for the purpose of forming a close union between the Spanish states of Central and South America. This, known as the Panama Congress, met in 1825. The freeing of the islands of Cuba and Porto Rico from Spain was openly placed upon the platform of the congress, in consequence of which Mexico and Colombia began, as has been stated, to organize an expedition for the invasion of Cuba. This the United States was not willing to permit. The horrors of the San Domingo massacre were fresh in memory, and those countries were informed, in polite phrase, that if an invasion should lead to a race war between blacks and whites, the United States would feel obliged to interfere. They were, therefore, requested to delay the expedition that they were fitting out.

In Congress it was declared by Senator Hayne that the United States would not permit the Spanish American states to "take or to revolutionize" Cuba. Other members suggested that threats should be tried if advice or remonstrance failed. No overt action was needed, however. Diplomacy ended the difficulty. Mexico and Colombia deemed it wise to withdraw from their projected enterprise.

The United States had thus virtually guaranteed to defend the title of Spain to Cuba against any other power in Europe or America. The guarantee as regarded American states was made openly in 1830, when Martin Van Buren, secretary of state under Jackson, declared that Mexico would not be allowed to acquire Cuba. As for European powers, a similar declaration was made by every secretary of state from Clay to Webster. The latter, under date of October 22, 1851, wrote to the Spanish Minister Sartiges as follows: "The government of France and those of other European countries were long since officially apprised by this government that the United States could not see without concern that island transferred by Spain to any other European state."

In I852, a proposition was made to the United States, on the part of France and Great Britain, to the effect that each of those three parties should bind itself not to acquire Cuba, nor suffer any other power to do so. The United States declined to enter into any such convention, and Secretary Everett, in a despatch to Minister Crampton, decisively laid down the position of this country as regarded Cuba. His statement contained three clauses: First, that the United States would permit no foreign interference, European or American, in the island of Cuba; second, that it would join in no agreement with European powers respecting the island: third, that it would not bind itself not to take the island if this should become necessary through its condition under Spanish rule.

"But," he continued, "the President would consider its acquisition by force, except in a just war with Spain (should an event so gravely to be deprecated ever take place), as a disgrace to the civilization of the age."

This was certainly plain enough. Nearly half a century ago the United States had definitely formulated its position, and Spain had accepted it as a guarantee to her title in Cuba,—viz., that the destiny of the island must be determined by the United States, and could be left to no foreign power whatever. This country had also virtually pledged itself not to interfere, unless the character of Spanish rule in the island or other sufficient cause should lead to a just war with Spain.

Previous to this declaration, however, a strong feeling in favor of the acquisition of Cuba had arisen in the Southern States, whose leaders were moved by a desire to gain more slave territory. For the same reason this movement met with opposition in the North. In 1848, James Buchanan, secretary of state under President Polk, authorized in the name of the President an offer to Spain of $100,000,000 for the purchase of Cuba. This offer was indignantly refused by Spain, and the negotiation ended almost as quickly as it had begun. Soon afterwards the Lopez invasion took place. It found sympathizers and adherents in the South, many Americans joining the expedition. The execution of Crittenden's fifty men led to such a show of indignation that when the remainder of the party was captured the military authorities in Cuba found it convenient to fine their executions to Lopez and his Cubans, the Americans being released after a term of severe imprisonment.

Another event that aroused much excitement in this country took place in 1850. The Black Warrior, a steamer plying between New York and Mobile, which was in the habit of stopping at Havana to land and receive passengers and mail, but not to take on or discharge freight, was seized on a charge of violating the customs regulations. She had on board nine hundred and sixty bales of cotton, and in strict accordance with the stringent revenue laws at that port should have shown a manifest of her cargo. But this would have been a mere form, as none of it was moved; and therefore, to save time and trouble, she was entered and cleared as "in ballast" This had taken place no less than thirty-six times before, the revenue officers knowing the facts and consenting, and it was in accordance with a written general order of the Cuban authorities.

Yet on the occasion in question the vessel was seized for alleged violation of law, its cargo confiscated and. taken on shore, and a fine of twice its value laid against the vessel. Captain Bullock refused to pay any fine, protested against the whole proceeding, and when the customs authorities forcibly opened the hatches, he hauled down his colors, took them with him, and left the vessel in the hands of the authorities as a Spanish prize. He and his crew and passengers made their way home by other vessels to the United States.

This violent and uncalled-for action raised a storm in the United States. The feeling was strongly warlike; but the difficulty was settled by negotiation, Spain agreeing to pay an indemnity of $300,000, and doing so after five years' delay. The feeling of resentment was added to by the action of England and France after the failure of the Lopez invasion. They sent orders to their admirals in the West Indies to prevent by force any new attempt of filibusters to land on the island. Mr. Crittenden, then acting secretary of state, emphatically intimated that any attempt by these countries to exercise police powers in American waters might lead to serious complications. The orders to the admirals were withdrawn.

The Black Warrior affair and the attitude of the European powers named had their natural effect in creating a strong annexation sentiment in this country, which was greatly strengthened by the desire then entertained in the South to extend the area of slavery. It gave rise to a second attempt to take the island by force,—the General Quitman enterprise of 1854, already referred to. A secret society devoted to the same purpose, the "Order of the Lone Star," was organized in New Orleans, its membership early in 1853 being twenty-eight thousand.

But the chief method depended upon to gain the island was that of purchase, and in this two Presidents from the North, Pierce and Buchanan, took a leading part. President Pierce proposed the annexation of Cuba by purchase early in his term. The most decided move in this direction, however, was the celebrated Ostend Conference. Under the inspiration of the President's desire, three leading American statesmen, Mr. Buchanan, Mr. Mason, and Mr. Soule, United States ministers respectively to England, France, and Spain, met at Ostend, the result of their deliberations being the Ostend Manifesto, in which the purchase of Cuba for $120,000,000 was strongly recommended, with the further declaration that in no event should the island be permitted to become subject to any other European power than Spain.

Buchanan, on reaching the Presidency, continued to advocate the acquisition of Cuba, asking for an appropriation for its purchase in his first message, and continuing to do so in later messages. "It is required," he said in 1860, "by manifest destiny that the United States should possess Cuba, not by violence, but by purchase at a fair price." If the offer was not accepted, he did not see how a collision could be avoided But neither Pierce, Buchanan, nor the Ostend confreres could induce Congress to act, and no offer was made to Spain. After 1860, more vital interests at home put an end to the scheme until 1868, when the subject of Cuban annexation was discussed in the American Senate, but no action was taken.

The insurrection of 1868-78 again brought the subject of Cuban annexation into prominence. The shooting of the students at Havana in 1871 sent a thrill of indignation throughout the United States, which was succeeded by a decidedly warlike feeling in 1873 in consequence of the celebrated Virginius  affair. The Virginius  had been a blockade-runner during the Civil War. She was captured and sold to John F. Patterson, an American citizen. From 1870 to 1873 this vessel was engaged in West Indian waters, under the control of a Cuban junta, in whose interest she occasionally visited the cost of Cuba. On October 31, 1873 while hovering off the Cuban coast with a cargo of arms for the insurgents, she was chased and captured by the Spanish cruiser Tornado, and brought the next day into the harbor of Santiago de Cuba. There were one hundred and fifty-five persons on board, mainly with Spanish names, though a considerable number of them had American names.

The Virginius  carried the flag of the United States and was Chartered and cleared as an American vessel. She had, therefore, the right to protection as such until her claim to show these colors had been disproved. Mr. Schmitt, the American vice-consul at Santiago, made a prompt assertion of this right, and also demanded proper treatment for any American citizens on board; but the provincial governor treated him with great lack of courtesy; and declared that the prisoners were pirates, and should be dealt with as such. He even refused to the consul the use of the cable to Kingston, Jamaica.

A court-martial to try the prisoners was hastily summoned. They were as hastily condemned, and a series of shootings began, fifty-three of them having been Tried and executed by the morning of the 8th of November. On that morning the British war-ship Niobe, which had been summoned in haste from Kingston by the British consul, entered the harbor of Santiago, and, so it is said, Captain Lorraine threatened to bombard the town unless the executions were stopped at once. There was no more shooting.

The tone assumed by the governor of Santiago was copied by the Spanish minister of state when General Sickles, United States minister to Spain, entered his protest against these sanguinary proceedings. The minister was so defiant that General Sickles demanded his passports, whereupon Senor Carvajal changed his tone, and agreed to give up the vessel and the surviving prisoners, salute the American flag, and punish the perpetrators of the massacre. This ended the affair. The Virginius  had no right to fly the American flag, but could not well be called to account for her fraud, since she and all on board went to the bottom in a storm off Cape Fear on their way to the United States. Indemnity was paid to the families of American and British citizens who had been executed, but the sanguinary governor was never punished.

Citizens of the United States suffered in other ways from the arbitrary methods of the Spaniards, and much irritation was occasioned, but the government showed no disposition to interfere. Hamilton Fish, secretary of state, in a letter to Caleb Cushing, minister to Spain, in 1875, spoke strongly of the barbarous and useless character of the warfare, saying further, "No effective steps have been taken to establish reforms or remedy abuses, and the effort to suppress the insurrection by force alone has been a complete failure." He hinted that the time was at hand when it might be necessary to intervene.

President Grant, in his message of 1875, reviewed the situation, but without recommending any definite action. and the government seemed disposed to move with great caution. The mild suggestions made were wasted on Spain. No attention was paid to them, and the insurrection dragged on until both parties, worn out with the useless struggle, consented to peace.

Some further injuries were done to American commerce. Three whaling vessels were fired upon and held for a time, their crews being treated with the usual brutality by Spanish officials. But these troubles, like former ones, were settled by the payment of an indemnity, and the two countries continued in a state of irritation, but without a show of open hostility, until the El Zanjon treaty of peace put an end to the cause of dissatisfaction. From that time until 1895 things went on smoothly. The blank disregard of its engagements on the part of Spain was not satisfactory to the American sense of honor, but however the Cubans themselves might chafe under the injustice done them, the people of this country settled down and watched calmly the course of events, with its slow but unseen drift towards war.