Tag Archives: Cuba

Gowing to War: Purpose and a Plan

In continuation with last week’s post about the study of the motivations of war, I decided to revisit something I wrote a couple years ago.

The Spanish-American War and subsequent Philippine War were short wars by U.S. standards but had far reaching consequences. President McKinley’s “limited war strategy” was intended to gain independence for Cuba but its limited scope also included a limited understanding of the consequences of international conflict.[1] Simply put, the United States was unprepared for war. While the navy was somewhat prepared, the army struggled under continued state and congressional opposition to a strong peacetime military force.[2] As with the American Revolution and the Civil War, untrained volunteers, “who fancied they were soldiers because they could get across a level piece of ground without stepping on their own feet,” were mustered and sent to war with little opportunity for training.[3]

Lack of preparation was one of the issues faced during the “splendid little war.” Of greater issue was the lack of a clear objective for war. If independence was the objective, then it would have seemed logical for the United States to have had greater respect for the native rebels who had worn down the Spanish forces before the U.S. arrival. Rather than respecting and aiding the rebel effort, the United States went from liberator to conqueror and rejected the notion of revolution and self-governance. Rather, the United States implemented a paternalistic imperial rule over the former Spanish colonies. Although there would be efforts at nation building and promises of self-rule, economic and military dependency became the reality.

Whatever goals President McKinley might have had in justifying war, they seem to have gone with him to his grave.[4] While Cuba would achieve a semblance of independence once the war ended, the Philippines would find itself embroiled in further war and facing an arguably unwanted annexation. The United States would become an empire by default more than by plan. McKinley’s little war would also have unexpected, long-term consequences on U.S. military strategy.

The Spanish American War and the Philippine War which created a new empire, would encourage future generations to believe that a guerrilla opposition could be snuffed-out with enough oppression, pacification, and force. While McKinley had not recognized the nature and consequences of international war coupled with imperial occupation, later presidents would justify future international wars based on the perceived successes of these conflicts. Only after it was too late would they realize that occupying islands cut off from allies and supplies was and easier task than occupying lands connected to supply networks. In a time when photographic war journalism was in its infancy, and the atrocities of war could still be ignored by civilians in the United States, pacification policies, total suppression of civilians and combatants, and a torched earth policy could subdue an enemy without public outcry. The United States would learn eventually that people may cry for war when national interests are at risk, but they have little stomach for war or the devastation war brings when faced with the brutal reality of war. Former U.S. secretary of state and retired general Colin Powell once said, “War should be the politics of last resort. And when we go to war, we should have a purpose that our people understand and support.”[5] More importantly, a nation should only go to war when the president understands the clear purpose of the proposed war and has weighed the consequences, short-term and long-term, thoroughly.


[1] Allen R. Millett and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America. rev exp. (New York: Free Press, 1994), 286.

[2] Ibid., 303.

[3] Ibid., 290.

[4] Brian McAllister Linn, The Philippine War, 1899-1902 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000), 3.

[5] Tim Russert, “Powell’s Doctrine, in Powell’s Words.” The Washington Post, October 7, 2001. http://www.mbc.edu/faculty/gbowen/Powell.htm (accessed September 11, 2012).

Unexpected Consequences: Revolution

Prior to the twentieth century, war was most often the product of the elite rather than the common man. Assuredly, war had an impact, both direct and indirect, on the laborer. Whether from conscription, taxation, or proximity to the combat and the combatants, war could wreak havoc. War could also quickly change boundaries and cause forced changes in allegiance. Entire regions could become disputed territory as powerful states weakened and weaker states grew strong. The chaos of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars led the rulers of Europe to seek a balance of power that would prevent the outbreak of wide spread war. For approximately a century they succeeded in quelling the rising nationalistic zeal that threatened to reignite the flames of world war. However, revolutionary ideologies were not contained even as rulers tried to contain revolt. While notions of self-determination, democracy, and equality were discussed by liberal minded thinkers, the ruling class held fast to the notion that not all men were ready or capable of self-rule. In some cases, outright racism was the justification for the continuation of imperial dominance and all the ills that imperialism wrought on subjugated peoples. In other cases, benign paternalism justified policies that increased inequality and protected the status quo. Regardless of the grand rhetoric of the time that promoted equality and brotherhood, paternalistic elitism, the belief that some were better suited to govern than others, remained the consensus of the day.

As the twentieth century dawned, changes in society due to industrialization were creating unrest. The outbreak of World War I ratcheted up the change. Women went to work in greater numbers, particularly women who belonged to the middle class.  Men, who had once been viewed as expendable laborers, became a valuable commodity. Total warfare left no civilian untouched and caused soldiers to question the futility of war. As fighting dragged on and depravation increased, patriotic citizens on the battlefield and home front struggled to find justification for the continued support of a war that seemed less and less justifiable.

In Russia, the seeds of revolution found fertile ground as the citizens lost faith in an old system that seemed to bring endless suffering. Elsewhere the notions of liberty, self-determination, and equality caused subjugated peoples to question why they should remain the possessions of rulers in distant lands rather than be allowed to govern themselves. While Allied nations fought to prevent the invasion, subjugation, and annexation of small nations like Belgium and prevent territorial losses in France, the same nations clung fast to their territorial holdings in other regions of the world. The brutality and futility of total war also caused many within Europe to question whether the empires that governed them did so with any consideration for their needs and their security. Ethnic unrest, nationalistic zeal, and distrust for those with different cultural habits increased as the war continued. The seeds of revolution were cast wide, some to find fertile ground immediately and others to remain dormant for decades, but all to produce the fruit of conflict and bloodshed. Revolution was not the goal of those who declared war in 1914 but revolution was the unexpected consequence.

Diplomacy and Destiny

It has been said that war is politics by other means and few would disagree with the Clausewitzian sentiment, but one might also state that diplomacy is warfare by peaceful means. Often diplomacy seeks to gain without violence the same objectives that empires of old sought to gain through war. Relying upon Machiavellian precepts of being feared rather than loved, and by justifying the means by the end results, great diplomats have doggedly pursued national interests, sometimes believing destiny had already prescribed a greater future than present circumstances provided. One such diplomat was William Henry Seward (1801-1872). In 1853, seven years before becoming U.S. Secretary of State for the Lincoln administration, Senator Seward stated in a speech titled The Destiny of America, “Nevertheless it is not in man’s nature to be content with present attainment or enjoyment. You say to me, therefore, with excusable impatience, ‘Tell us not what our country is, but what she shall be. Shall her greatness increase? Is she immortal?’”[1] Steward believed the answer to these questions were the affirmative and would spend his career seeking to increase the greatness of the nation he served.

Like other expansionists, Seward would link U.S. commercial strength with the acquisition of foreign markets and territorial holdings. When Mexico and British Canada proved unfertile soil for acquisition, Seward looked elsewhere. Seward believed that the United States had a destiny to spread its notions of liberty to the new nations breaking free from European imperialism, particularly those liberating themselves from Spain. Unfortunately, he also believed, as many did, that shaking off imperial control did not necessarily mean the people of Latin America were prepared to self-govern.[2] Seward believed the southern neighbors would be better served if they became part of the United States. Seward achieved a piece of his goal by pushing for the purchase of Alaska, and while it was considered folly at the time, the discovery of gold changed how most viewed the acquisition. He had less success in his efforts to secure other territories in the Caribbean and Central America. However, he would be remembered for the tenacity with which he sought U.S. expansion; a tenacity that often diverged from diplomacy and bordered on bullying.[3] Those who were unfortunate to have sparred with Seward would have felt bombarded and under attack, and would have wondered at the fine line Seward drew between diplomacy and war. With a focus firmly on the destiny of U.S. greatness, Seward behaved more like a commanding general than a diplomat. Seward believed the destiny of the United States was not limited to contiguous land of North America, but that it reached far beyond. Eventually Steward’s tenacious diplomacy would be replaced by combat in a war that would acquire some of the territory Seward had desired. His vision of U.S. expansion, while not achieved during his time in office, did influence the direction of U.S. expansion as the nineteenth century drew to a close. Whether through diplomacy or warfare, men like Seward were determined to see the United States fulfill its destiny of greatness.


[1] Frederick Seward, Seward at Washington as Senator and Secretary of State: A Memoir of His Life, with Selections from His Letters, e-book (New York: Derby and Miller, 1891), 207.

[2] William Henry Seward, Life and Public Services of John Quincy Adams Sixth President of the United States with Eulogy Delivered before the Legislature of New York, e-book (Auburn, NY: Derby, Miller and Company, 1849), 122-123.

[3] George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 255-257.

Cuba and the United States

I have long found the US/Cuba situation fascinating particularly in light of the fact that many nineteenth and early twentieth century U.S. politicians and businessmen had the wish of annexing Cuba, or at least keeping Cuba a friendly U.S. playground. Cuba, so close to the United States, was often a hoped for prize. Many power brokers in the United States felt sure Cuba would eventually choose to join its neighbor to the north. The fact that it never did but instead rejected the United States during the Cold War makes it all the more interesting and begs the question of why it choose such a different path from the one hoped for by men like Theodore Roosevelt, President McKinley, and many others.

In 2002, historian Louis A. Pérez, Jr. wrote an article for the Journal of Latin American Studies titled “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy toward Cuba.” The following is a short paper I wrote after reading this and other articles discussing theories as to why the United States persisted with Cold War policies towards Cuba even after the end of the Cold War.

Loathsome Rejection: Cuba and the United States

Masked behind a cloud of Cold War fear, Cuba’s rejection of the United States was the loathsome reality of a failed U.S. attempt at imperial influence and a direct blow at the very heart of the Monroe Doctrine. Fidel Castro was “inalterably held responsible” and according to Louis A. Pérez Jr. in “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy Toward Cuba,” Castro became a problem that would blind policy makers for over forty years, even after the end of the Cold War.[1]

“Castro was transformed simultaneously in to an anathema and phantasm, unscrupulous and perhaps unbalanced, possessed by demon and given to evil doings a wicked man with whom honourable men could not treat.”[2]

Pérez stated that the “initial instrumental rationale” for U.S. policy with Cuba, particularly the policy of sanctions, may have become “lost” over time, but that it was initially created under the precepts of containment.[3] However, in the case of Cuba, the practice of utilizing economic pressure through embargoes was undermined by the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 which allowed political asylum to any Cubans who made it to U.S. shores. This act became a release valve for the pressures created by the embargoes. While poor Cubans remained poor, the middle-class Cubans, who were most affected by U.S. sanctions, could attempt to seek refuge elsewhere. “The Logic of the policy required containing Cuban discontent inside Cuba,” but this logic was lost amid the emotional reaction the United States had towards Fidel Castro and his rejection of the United States. This rejection was compounded by the challenge to “the plausibility of the Monroe Doctrine,” and the United States “primacy in the western hemisphere.”[4] If rejection was not enough to engender such resentment, inviting the Soviet Union to become a military as well as an economic ally was more than U.S. policy makers could stand without seeking retribution.

Cold War fear and rhetoric does not sufficiently account for the continued and virulent animosity between the United States and Cuba, and Pérez was not the only scholar to take note. As the Soviet system crumbled and the Cold War came to an end, “the antagonism displayed by the U.S. government toward Cuba and Castro …intensified.”[5] The continued containment of Cuba in the post-Cold War era negated decades of U.S. assertions that the Cuban policy was the direct result of its status as a Soviet satellite. While others would write about the illogical continuation of Cold War policy, Pérez argued that U.S. policy toward Cuba had less to do with Cold War fear and containment, and more to do with loathing and retaliation for the rejection of the United States and the embarrassment such a rejection caused.

Certainly there was a real national threat in having Soviet missiles located so close to U.S. shores, but that threat does not account for U.S. policy before and after the missiles. Wayne S. Smith, who was stationed in Cuba as a vice-consul during the Cuban Revolution, claimed that Castro and his revolutionaries were not communist threats in 1956.

“We found no credible evidence to indicate Castro had links to the Communist party or even had much sympathy for it. Even so, he gave cause for concern, for he seemed to have gargantuan ambitions, authoritarian tendencies, and not much in the way of an ideology of his own. He was also fiercely nationalistic. Given the history of U.S. military occupations, the Platt amendment, and the outsized U.S. economic presence in Cuba, he did not hold the U.S. in high regard.”[6]

Without a doubt, the United States needed to address the threat posed by Castro, but to bypass speaking softly and instead proceeding to the wielding of a big stick was a move that would ensure crisis rather than avoiding crisis, especially when the Soviet Union was more than happy to lend Cuba a hand. The Soviet’s willing assistance, especially after the embarrassment of the Bay of Pigs, was all the justification needed for President Kennedy to pick the moment of crisis rather than giving Nikita Khrushchev the opportunity.[7]

Pérez does not argue against the notion that there was a real threat posed by Cuba, but instead he points out that the United States was handed a “trauma” when the U.S. playground turned into a war zone, and then into a dangerous Cold War threat.[8] This trauma affected the U.S. ability to rationally create and implement a policy that would stabilize relationships and reduce threat. “Dispassionate policy discourse on Cuba … was impossible” [9] as long as Castro remained Cuba’s leader, because he was “a breathing, living reminder of the limits of U.S. power.”[10]


[1] Louis A. Pérez, Jr. “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy toward Cuba,” Journal of Latin American Studies 34, no. 2 (May 1, 2002): 227, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3875788 (accessed February 20, 2013).

[2] Ibid. 250.

[3] Ibid., 228.

[4] Ibid., 233.

[5] David Bernell, “The Curious Case of Cuba in American Foreign Policy,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 36, no. 2 (July 1, 1994): 66, http://www.jstor.org/stable/166174 (accessed February 19, 2013).

[6] Wayne S. Smith, The Closest of Enemies: A Personal and Diplomatic Account of U.S.-Cuban Relations Since 1957 (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1987), 15-16.

[7] Philip Zelikow, “American Policy and Cuba, 1961-1963.” Diplomatic History 24, no. 2 (Spring 2000): 325. http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy1.apus.edu/ehost/detail?sid=39889c50-22ab-48a2-b2e4-cd8946fd73a9%40sessionmgr15&vid=1&hid=18&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=2954415 (accessed February 19, 2013).

[8] Pérez, 231.

[9] Ibid., 250.

[10] Ibid., 251.

Other Readings

Dominguez, Jorge I. “U.S.-Cuban relations: From the Cold War to the colder war.” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 39, no. 3 (Fall 1997): 49–75. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/200219310/13BF83A38607C999D8F/7?accountid=8289 (accessed January 31, 2013).

Herring, George C. From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Paterson, Thomas G. “U.S. intervention in Cuba, 1898: Interpreting the Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino war.” Magazine of History 12, no. 3 (Spring 1998): 5. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/213739998/13BF824CD53256D7D45/11?accountid=8289 (accessed January 31, 2013).

Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. 1972 New Edition. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1988.