Thoughts on History
“It has been a splendid little war, begun with the highest motives, carried on with magnificent intelligence and spirit, favored by that fortune that loves the brave.” So said Secretary of State John Hay in a letter he wrote to Theodore Roosevelt 100 years ago. Hay was referring to the Spanish-American War, a conflict that pitted the up-and-coming United States against the decaying Spanish Empire. As wars go, it was somewhat splendid, at least from the American point of view. Casualties were relatively light, victory was total, and the United States teetered on the brink of empire itself after gaining Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines as part of the settlement.
It had been a splendid little war for Theodore Roosevelt too. His famous charge up San Juan Heights quickly entered American legend. “San Juan was the great day of my life,” Roosevelt said years later. His exploits in Cuba eventually helped propel him to the presidency.
But even a splendid little war has its downside, and for the Spanish-American War it was the Philippines. In the wake of victory, the United States found itself struggling with two contradictory impulses: Anti-Imperialism vs. Manifest Destiny. Anti-imperialist feelings were so strong that the Senate ratified the peace treaty, which included the annexation of the Philippines, by just one vote. No sooner had the islands become U.S. territory than the United States found itself involved in a guerrilla war in a distant land. As D.H. Ingram wrote in a 1906 poem titled “Manifest Destiny”:
Meanwhile we are gazing at Russia,
Aghast at her frightful scenes,
The blackest of which can but rival
Our own in the Philippines.
Roosevelt himself had favored annexation. “To refuse to ratify the treaty would be a crime not only against America but against civilization,” he said. “The insurrection in the Philippines must be stamped out as mercifully as possible; but it must be stamped out.” Stamped out it was, but the Philippines still faced a bumpy road to independence, and the ride wasn’t made any smoother by Leonard Wood, governor general from 1921 until his death in 1927, who helped apply the brakes to the movement towards independence. Wood, of course, had been Roosevelt’s commander in the Rough Riders.
History is a great tangle of events and personalities, and it’s always interesting to see how various threads work their way through the years. John Hay, of “splendid little war” fame, pops up all over the place. He started his career as Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary. As a negotiator of the treaty ending the Spanish-American War, Hay pushed for the annexation of the Philippines. With the Hay-Paunceforte Treaty, he also gained for the United States the rights to build the Panama Canal, and he was largely responsible for the Open Door policy with China. For a man who never held elective office, Hay had a major impact on the United States and its foreign policy.
Hay was also the best friend of writer Henry Adams, himself the grandson and great-grandson of presidents. Today in Washington, D.C., the Hay-Adams Hotel stands on the site opposite Lafayette Square where the two men built adjoining homes. There, they and their wives formed a social circle they named the Five of Hearts. The fifth member was geologist Clarence King, later the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey. This leads us to a connection with another story in this issue, for it was as the survey’s first vertebrate paleontologist that Othniel Charles Marsh really gained an advantage over his great rival, Edward Drinker Cope. Cope and Marsh had their own little war. I’d be hard-pressed to classify it as “splendid,” but it certainly was interesting.
Tom Huntington, Editor, American History