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Declared a century ago, the brief Spanish-American War made the United States a recognized power for the first time.

By Blaine Taylor

Images of the Spanish-American War, April­August 1898 (Pictorial Histories Publishing, Inc., Missoula, Mont., 1997, $29.95), by Stan Cohen, is an informative and highly readable tome that will appeal to both the general interest reader and military specialist alike. Images of the Spanish-American War opens with a chronological history of the conflict. That is followed by an analysis of the political and military situation in Cuba at the start of hostilities, as well as a thumbnail sketch of the decade of the 1890s in general.

The author also covers the role of the American “yellow press” in fomenting war fever against Spain’s rule in Cuba. Americans objected to the presence of the autocratic hand of Spanish tyranny just 90 miles away from their shores, and Cohen argues there was wide support for a war with Spain long before the newspapers began banging the propaganda drums. According to Cohen, the blowing up of the second-class battleship Maine in Havana Harbor resulted from the combustion explosion of coal in its hold, not Spanish sabotage, as was widely believed at the time. Whatever the true cause of the disaster, the yellow press turned it into the cause célèbre that ultimately drove the U.S. government to declare war on April 25, 1898.

Having thus set the stage for the outbreak of war, Cohen provides a cogent comparison of the rival armies, navies, generals and admirals, with a special place of honor reserved for U.S. Undersecretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt and his legendary Rough Riders. Their epic battles in Cuba helped to launch Roosevelt’s career in politics, beginning with his election as governor of New York and his subsequent appointment as the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1900.

The chapters on the various camps and staging areas where the invading American forces were marshaled are followed by detailed chapters on the land campaigns in Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico, as well as the annexation of Hawaii and the seizure of Guam. If the war was a splendid achievement of American arms, it was also a scandal, considering the inadequate medical care the troops received.

American victories on land paralleled even more stunning successes at sea, both at Manila Bay in the Philippines and off Santiago, Cuba. The author covers the homecoming of American troops, the negotiations that ended the war and how the war was later portrayed in films, including the most recent cable television special, The Rough Riders. The book also includes accounts of the establishment of various veterans’ associations, and color photomontages of artifacts, monuments and memorials.

All in all, this is a superbly illustrated and well-written account of a war that few Americans acknowledge the importance of today. Because of that war, the United States added what would eventually be its 50th state to the union, along with the territory of Puerto Rico, the naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba–still occupied by American forces–and the Philippines, which remained an American protectorate for almost half a century. The harbinger of its later rise as a world power, the Spanish-American War was one of the most important conflicts in the history of the United States.