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Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century

Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century by Ivan Musicant. Henry Holt and Co., 1998, 768 pp.

While pondering the current debate over the American predilection for empire in modern times, one would do well to consider the period in history when the United States actually did assume the mantle of an imperial nation. With the closing of the frontier in the late nineteenth century, individuals convinced of the exceptional nature of American society looked beyond their shores to fulfill their Manifest Destiny. The decline of Spain as a world power offered the United States the opportunity to replace the Spaniards’ despotic rule of their colonies with the benefits of enlightened American governance.

Such a premise to the Spanish-American War assumes that leaders of the United States had a grand strategy for establishing a world empire. However, in Ivan Musicant’s Empire by Default, the author obliquely argues that weak political leadership both in Spain and the United States bowed to domestic pressures to wage war. For Spain, the issue was national pride: the Spanish government had to hold on to its remaining overseas possessions to maintain its great-power status. For the United States, the cause of human rights fed by sensational press coverage of Spain’s despotic military rule demanded that the Spanish cease their oppression of Cuba by granting the island either greater autonomy or outright independence. The matter of an American empire emerged only after the cessation of hostilities when President William McKinley was left with a fait accompli in terms of the former Spanish possessions of the Philippines, as well as some Pacific and Caribbean islands. Believing the Filipinos unable to govern themselves and faced with the almost certain threat that other European powers or Japan would take control of these strategic assets following an American withdrawal, McKinley opted to retain these former Spanish colonies. Their military and economic value was indeed evident, but—the lobbying of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt, and Henry Cabot Lodge aside—these were not the deciding issues in either going to war or retaining the colonies. Musicant further cites evidence of American imperial ambivalence in how the US government eschewed the mercantilist policies of its European counterparts and did not invest heavily in the defense of these new possessions, as demonstrated when the Philippines and other Pacific islands fell to the Japanese during World War II. Furthermore, and with little internal dissent, the US government disavowed its imperial status after the war by granting independence or autonomy to its former colonies.

Nothing in Musicant’s interpretation is particularly new. In fact, his thesis seems mainly to serve as a device to relate an extremely detailed military-history narrative of the war, which he does quite well. Reflecting his background as a naval historian (he twice won the prestigious Samuel Eliot Morison Award for Naval Literature, including one for Empire by Default), Musicant spills considerable ink in his voluminous study describing naval operations in the Battle of Manila Bay and the Battle of Santiago. His descriptions of military operations are vivid, but one often wonders to what point. More germane to his thesis would have been the consequences for America of its newly acquired empire. Musicant barely touches on the resulting Philippine insurgency, which led to an American anti-imperialism movement. Nowhere does he even mention the Platt Amendment, which defined US-Cuban relations until 1934. Although he gives ample coverage to Theodore Roosevelt’s role as assistant secretary of the Navy and his combat experience with the Rough Riders, Musicant does not follow through by explaining how President Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy managed America’s new empire.

Certainly, more scholarly works on the Spanish-American War are available. The War with Spain in 1898 by David Trask comes to mind. Readers seeking to become familiar with the conflict can find more concise studies. If one is willing to invest the time, however, Musicant’s meticulous account of military events that led to the birth of an American empire can be an informative and enjoyable read.

Dr. John F. Farrell

Maxwell AFB, Alabama

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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