Birth of the American Century: Centennial History of the Spanish-American War, by Ron Ziel, Sunrise Special Ltd., Bridgehampton, N.Y., 1997, $44.95.
In this illustrated history of the Spanish-American War, author Ron Ziel sets out to tell the story of a forgotten eight-month war that he feels deserves to be remembered as “the second-most important conflict in the history of the United States.” His rationale is simple: By the time the war ended in December 1898, the United States had dramatically extended its domain overseas and made the first step toward establishing itself as a major world power.
Ziel’s book offers general descriptions of different stages of the war, interspersed with a wealth of photographs, maps, newspaper cartoons, diagrams of ships and armament, and art depicting numerous events. One of the book’s most captivating aspects is its firsthand accounts, such as those of crewmen who were aboard the battleship Maine when she exploded and sank in Havana Harbor on the night of February 15, 1898.
Similarly, it is interesting to see some of the war leaders’ speeches and proclamations included verbatim, such as President William McKinley’s proposition regarding Cuba and the U.S. Congress’ joint resolution formally declaring war on Spain in April 1898. Also included is Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo’s proclamation to foreign governments, issued on August 6, 1898, stating that “the Philippine people have already arrived at the state at which they can and ought to govern themselves.” The American dismissal of that proclamation would shortly lead to another conflict, called the Philippine Insurrection by the United States (and author Ziel) but known to Filipinos as the Philippine-American War.
Ziel’s illustrations serve to inform the text and engage the reader. Some of the action photographs are gripping, such as those showing American troops disembarking, rifles in hand, from lifeboats in Cuba. Portraits of some of the war’s key players are provided as well, along with biographical information. Ziel also presents the war on a personal level–for example, he shows what life was like for the sailors aboard their ships, sleeping or eating from hanging tables.
Fundamentally, the book presents the conflict from the American perspective, and sometimes its descriptions reflect the celebratory attitude of 1898 America. That approach is made up for somewhat by the variety of firsthand accounts. Ziel also presents some lesser-known aspects of the war, such as the contribution of women as nurses, which led to the later establishment of the female Army Nurse Corps. The narrative that accompanies Ziel’s pictures of black regiments notes that six of the 109 Medals of Honor awarded during the war went to black soldiers–proportionately more than were awarded to black servicemen in any other conflict.
Although there may be more evenhanded histories of the Spanish-American War available, the content and illustrations brought together in Birth of the American Century make for compelling reading and an attractive package.