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To Conquer or Redeem? The Spanish-Cuban-American War

Filipino Soldiers, Library of Congress

Filipino Soldiers, Library of Congress

Megan Elias

Queensborough Community College, CUNY

David Nasaw

Graduate Center, CUNY


The war which has commonly been known in America as the Spanish-American War really involved America, Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Spain, and a number of islands in the Pacific Ocean. The war lasted from 1898 to 1902.

This war has been considered a turning point in how America related to other nations. Events of the war divided opinions sharply on what America's international responsibilities should be. Should America follow the example of European nations such as Spain and England which had claimed vast empires in other parts of the world, or did America's own republican heritage dictate an anti-imperialist stance?

You are going to look at the history of this war from the perspective of an American citizen who lived through it and make up your own mind about American imperialism. You will follow daily events and respond to them as they happen. You will be paying attention not only to what happened, but also to how different Americans thought differently about the war and the various peoples involved in it.

Save your written work because you will use it later to construct an essay.

Note: to orient yourself, you may want to use the web site below, which provides world maps. Enter your location, click on “Satellite,” and use magnifying glasses to zoom in and out.


  1. Develop an understanding of the debate over American imperialism as related to the events of the Spanish-Cuban-American War.
  2. Practice analysis of primary source documents.
  3. Practice writing in a variety of genres: short answer, personal letter, and formal essay.
  4. Develop a critical perspective on news media.


The following are two websites used in this activity:



Activity One

Imagine that it is the morning of February 15, 1898. You wake up, have breakfast (a chunk of bread and a cup of coffee, or maybe you try one of these new “breakfast cereals” that the health-nuts are all talking about) and leave the house. All down the street you hear the newsboys shouting “Explosion in Havana! Read all about it!” You rush to buy a paper and this is the headline that greets your eyes:

At work everyone is talking about the disaster.

A coworker (who you have always thought was a little slow) asks you “What the heck was our boat doing in Havana anyway?”

You have been following the news and know all about it.

Just then your boss tells you all to quit talking and get down to work. So you write a note to your coworker to tell him/her what you know.

Using the information on the following websites, write out your answer in one paragraph.

Activity Two

During the next few months there is news about Cuba every day and it seems to you that reporting is becoming very dramatic. Even the cartoonists are writing about Cuba. In April the United States declares war on Spain. You start to hear about something called “yellow journalism,” and wonder what this means. Consult the following websites to learn about it.

For some examples of political cartoons from this era, go to the web site or PDF file below. For cartoons, click on “Cartoon gallery” on the left side of the page.

Also look at the cartoons on the web site or pdf file below. You do not need to read the text. Scroll down until you see the cartoons. There are six.

Working in a pair with another student, come to an agreement about what “yellow journalism” means. Now choose two contemporary headlines from any local newspaper and make them “yellow.” Post them on your class's blackboard site (both the pre and post-translation versions).

OR, if you find a headline that you think is already “yellow,” translate it into less yellow phrasing and post it. Read the headlines your classmates have posted and respond.

Activity Three

The war ends in December, but just one month later you read that the U.S. is involved in another war, this time in the Philippines. At the same time that Cuba was revolting against Spain, the people of the Philippines were also trying to end Spanish control of their country.

In May, 1898, the U.S. Navy, led by Admiral Dewey, crushed the Spanish forces at Manila, in the Philippines. It seemed at the time that the U.S. was assisting the Filipino revolution. (Note: The people of the Philippines are referred to as Filipino).At the end of the war in Cuba, however, Spain sold the Philippines to the U.S. for $20 million.

Now the people of the Philippines are resisting U.S. occupation. They consider themselves a free nation and claim the American Revolution as an inspiration for their overthrow of European imperial power.

Look at the web site below for a summary of the war:

There are many in America who think it is the right thing for the U.S. to annex, or take over the Philippines. There are many others who disagree.

Read statements by people on both sides of the issue. Write down for yourself a brief summary of each argument.

You have several friends and relatives who are serving in the army. Read through the collection of letters and pictures on the two sites below. Imagine that men you know have sent these letters (and pictures) to you.

Letters from African-American soldiers:

For important background information on African-American soldiers in the Philippines, see

Read these letters from white American soldiers:

Look at these Photographs taken by Americans in the Philippines and published in America. Notice the captions that were included with the photographs.

Slide show of stereopticon images of the Philippines

Watch the movie “Filipinos Retreat from Trenches.”

Activity Four

During the course of the war, the United States Congress passes two amendments related to the war. The first is the Teller Amendment, passed in 1898:

The second is the Platt Amendment, passed in 1903:

You have been reading the newspapers and are interested to see that some people think that U.S. foreign policy has changed between the passage of the two amendments.

What is your opinion?

Write a four page essay which answers the following question;

Before you begin writing, go over the paragraphs you have written and the notes you have taken on imperialist and anti-imperialist viewpoints.

To help compose your essay you may want to consider the following questions:

Post your essay on the course's Blackboard site and respond to one classmate's essay, asking that person a question or further developing a point in that person's essay, either by arguing with it or by suggesting its implications.

Instructor's Annotations

The objectives for this module are to:

  1. Help students develop an understanding of the debate over American imperialism as related to the events of the Spanish American War and to understand how ideas about race are connected to this debate
  2. Give students several opportunities to analyze primary source material
  3. Give students an opportunity to practice a range of writing genres in the interest of broadening their skills as writers and to use less formal assignments to prepare for a more formal one.
  4. Give students an opportunity to think about news media critically

The module is designed to be taken apart; it can be used either in individual pieces or in its complete form.

Here are some suggestions for how to take it apart:

Activity Two can easily be separated from the rest of the module and used to supplement a more traditional coverage of the war.

Activity Three can potentially stand alone as a learning module for covering American involvement in the Philippines.

A variation on Activity Three that involves more group work:

  1. Make groups of six. Assign each student two letters (with pictures, if using Tell the groups that they should imagine they are all meeting casually at a local saloon or street corner. Each should summarize the position of his or her soldiers, imagining that they are male relatives or friends.
  2. After discussion within the groups, a representative from each group should tell the class about the range of perspectives represented by the soldiers within the group.
  3. Now work in pairs, writing to a soldier. Follow the requirements listed above and post your letter on the course's Blackboard site. Read the other letters posted there and comment on what you see.

Activity Four could potentially be used on its own if background information from Activity One and Three (the first site mentioned) were consulted first. The essay question could be altered to read:

  1. Given what you have read on the web sites provided, do you think that American foreign policy changed between 1898 and 1903? If so, how? And what events contributed to this shift? If not, explain consistency between the Teller and Platt amendments.
  2. OR
  3. Imperialist and anti-imperialist perspectives from Activity Four could be added to background materials for a more complex essay

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