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Odd Wisconsin Archive

"Don't Inflame Our Youth!"

That's the headline of a Wisconsin State Journal editorial from 1898, when a seemingly noble military intervention spawned a wave of blind, unthinking nationalism, and the U.S. quickly became embroiled in a messy foreign occupation with a Wisconsin soldier in charge.

When the Spanish government set up concentration camps in 1896 to suppress a rebellion in Cuba, thousands of the island's rural farmers were imprisoned and many died from disease, starvation, and exposure. This only fueled more insurgents to rebel, and soon policy makers in the U.S. were calling for our military to topple the Spanish dictators and liberate Cuba. So began our involvement in the Spanish-American War.

The press, in particular, urged invasion in emotional language, with a blend of slanted reporting and blatant disregard of inconvenient facts that came to be known as "yellow journalism." Soon the clergy joined lawmakers and journalists in advocating war in the name of freedom and democracy. Boys who had spent their youths listening to their fathers' tales of Civil War bravery leaped at the chance to earn their own medals. Across the nation, calls for violent action, steeped in arrogance and tinged with racism, outnumbered calls for moderation -- which makes that Madison editorial remarkable.

"We need to check, not inflame, the war spirit among our citizens," the brave Wisconsin editor began. "With every small boy crazed with eagerness (forgetting the real issue -- a noble effort to save Cuba), with a desire to grab a Spaniard by the throat; with the hell-hounds of a mercenary press shrieking for a war of revenge, it is inconceivable to us how the Christian pulpit can add fuel to the flames by appealing to the passions of men."

Mark Twain's story "The War Prayer" perfectly captured the loneliness of the conscientious objectors. The story is widely read now, but was unpalatable at the time. It was largely dismissed, like its main character: "It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said."

As soon as war was declared on April 25, 1898, Wisconsin soldiers hurried to join up, and four regiments were formed. But the war was so one-sided that only two of them saw action before it was over; the third never left the U.S. and the fourth never even left Wisconsin. In early June the Spanish batteries at Guantanamo Bay and Santiago were destroyed, and 17,000 U.S. soldiers landed near the capital. In fact, June 7th is the 100th anniversary of the day Americans took over Guantanamo Bay, which is in the news so often now.

On July 3rd the U.S. Navy quickly destroyed Spain's Pacific fleet in Manila, the Philippines. Less than two weeks later Santiago was captured and on July 25th Puerto Rico surrendered without a fight. The war officially ended on August 12th, and occupying U.S. troops spread out across Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. Wisconsin lost 130 volunteers -- 2 to combat and 128 to tropical diseases. More than 40 memoirs and other eyewitness accounts by Wisconsin participants are in our online Local History & Biography Collection.

After the war, it was revealed that in addition to freedom and democracy, the U.S. was motivated by a desire to possess a harbor in the western Pacific, to have a stronger presence in the Caribbean because it was contemplating a canal across Panama, and that investors in some American corporations had suffered heavy losses from the instability in Cuba.

And though the Americans had ostensibly come to liberate, the rebels quickly concluded they'd only exchanged their Spanish masters for North American ones, and insurgents soon turned against the U.S.

Milwaukee's Arthur MacArthur had served as brigadier general of volunteers in the Philippines, and he remained there to head the occupying forces. From 1899 until 1901 he struggled to suppress the Philippine insurgents, imposing increasingly severe measures. These included execution of civilians who supported the rebels, erection of concentration camps not unlike the Spanish ones in Cuba, deportation of suspected insurgent leaders to jails in other countries, and punitive expeditions so brutal that one of his officers had to be court-martialed for inhumane actions.

As details about American misconduct became known and the U.S. death toll passed 4,000, American public opinion began to demand an end to the military occupation. In 1901 Washington politicians declared the war was over, although the rebels were not defeated and continued to attack the U.S.-backed government for more than a decade. Wisconsin's MacArthur returned home to the U.S., where he held less-demanding appointments for the remainder of his career.

:: Posted in Bizarre Events on June 1, 2009

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