Race and the Spanish-American War

Santiago, Cuba—In America's tortured history of race, the shameful event that occurred between Cubans and Americans in this grand old, if faded, city over a century ago is an overlooked chapter that still reverberates in U.S.-Cuban relations. The finale of the Spanish-American War, or the War of Independence as the Cubans call it, is a story of wounded pride and a tragic misunderstanding rooted in racial prejudice.

For most Americans the Spanish-American War is dimly recalled as the conflict that made a hero out of Teddy Roosevelt, charging up San Juan Hill with his Rough Riders. John Hay, Roosevelt's friend and later secretary of state, called it a "splendid little war," and, indeed, the action in Cuba lasted barely a month and cost fewer than 500 combat casualties. (Almost by accident, the United States also won the Philippines after a brief and one-sided naval engagement against a sorry Spanish fleet. Subjugating the Philippines sucked America into a guerrilla war that cost the lives of 4,000 more American soldiers.)

Almost forgotten in the glory that showered over Roosevelt and other stalwarts of '98, like Adm. George Dewey, hero of Manila Bay, was the original raison d'être of the war, the liberation of the Cuban people from Spanish rule.

By 1898 the Cubans had been fighting, off and on, for three decades for their independence from Spain. The Cuban population was more than half black or mulatto, and the rebels had, over time, created a fighting force that was ahead of its time—truly integrated at all ranks, with black as well as white officers. (The Liberation Army was roughly 60 percent black; 40 percent of the officers were black.) The rebels' number two general, Antonio Maceo, a mulatto known as the "Bronze Titan," declared that there were "no whites nor blacks, but only Cubans." The rebels had worn out a Spanish occupying force of some 200,000 and were close to driving the Spaniards from the island when the Americans intervened in 1898.

The Americans went into Cuba for a number of reasons, mostly humanitarian, but also because some businessmen saw economic opportunity. The immediate spark was the destruction of an American warship, the Maine, in Havana Harbor in January 1898 (thought to be the work of a Spanish torpedo, actually the fault of a badly designed coal bunker). Crying "Remember the Maine!" America was swept by war fever. More than three decades had passed since the Civil War, and a new generation of young men was eager to prove itself in action. Roosevelt and other hawks were driven to demonstrate that in the "survival of the fittest," as the Social Darwinists saw the struggle of races around the world, the white races would come out on top. (Roosevelt's light reading, as his Rough Rider troop made its way from Texas to its pushing-off point in Florida, was a French volume called "Superiorité des Anglo-Saxons," a work typical of its time.)

When the Americans landed near Santiago, Cuba, early that June, they joined forces with the rebel army. The Americans were shocked by their new allies. After years of fighting on the run against a superior force, the Cubans wore rags and avoided frontal assaults. A few stole the Americans' food and weapons. And many of the Cuban soldiers were black. This was just the time, after Reconstruction and with the rise of Jim Crow in the South, when American racism was peaking, and many of the American soldiers used the N word to describe their comrades in arms (American as well as Cuban: the American force included a large detachment of black soldiers, deployed to Cuba under the false hope that their race made them immune to yellow fever).

Thanks to Cuban insurgents, the Americans landed unopposed in Cuba and Spanish relief columns were pinned down and kept from the fight. But the Americans gave the Cubans little credit for the ultimate victory against the Spaniards. Incredibly, the American commanders barred the rebel army from attending the Spanish surrender ceremony in Santiago. Ostensibly the reason was to safeguard against reprisals, but the greater motivation, revealed by letters and diaries of the time, appears to have been the disdain with which the Americans regarded the Cubans as a mongrel army. The Spaniards (an all-white force) wanted to preserve their honor by surrendering to the Americans in Santiago. In the end most of the Spanish soldiers scattered elsewhere around Cuba, where there were no American forces, surrendered to the Cuban rebels without suffering recrimination. The vanquished Spanish soldiers were allowed to keep their arms and embark for Spain. But the Americans disbanded and disarmed the victorious Cuban army.

America refused to end its occupation of Cuba until 1902, not until the American commanders were satisfied that the Cubans were sufficiently "civilized" for self-rule. (But the republic's constitution allowed Washington to send in American troops at any time.) Black officers and leaders were purged as uneducated and uncultured. Slavery had been abolished only in 1886, and blacks had not attained the social standing of whites, despite the egalitarian philosophy of rebel heroes like José Martí, who preached that there was no such thing as race, only humanity. Eager to appease the Americans (and get them out of the country), many Cubans became embarrassed and confused and lost sight of their own progressive principles. Before long, the Cuban leaders were guilty of their own racial prejudice, violently suppressing a political party formed by discarded and disenfranchised black veterans in 1908.

Over the years the memory of the humiliation of 1898 rankled the Cubans. "Of course, we felt betrayed," Rafael Izquierdo, the president of the Cuban Historical Society, told me as we sat in his Havana office last Tuesday, discussing the Cuban point of view for a book I am writing about the Spanish-American War. (Modern Cuban officials, steeped in socialist ideology, suspect a plot by wealthy American businessmen to annex Cuba.) In the 1940s and '50s, among those nursing a grudge against "los Norte Americanos" was Fidel Castro. When his guerrilla force of rebels came out of the mountains and took Santiago from the corrupt Batista regime in January 1959, Fidel exulted, "This time the manbisas [rebels] are going to come into the city." He was recalling the day 60 years earlier when the Americans had blocked the Cubans from celebrating their own freedom. It is interesting to think how history might have been different if the Americans had been as racially tolerant as the Cuban Liberation Army in 1898, or if they had just had the common sense to show the Cuban freedom fighters some dignity.