Five score and five years ago, the United States intervened to free Cuba from Spanish rule. The conflict against Spain followed growing tension between the two countries for three decades, centering upon Madrid's wretched treatment of Cuba. Images of brutish Spaniards girded support for war, as did the inexplicable explosion that sunk the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbour. The prospect of freeing the benighted Cubans from Spanish tyranny rallied Americans in righteous wrath against "Butcher" Victoriano Weyler and his thugs. Cuba would be free.
That conflict, lasting about three months, became in Secretary of State John Hay's words, " a splendid little war." Cuba fell under American ambit, and the United States -- after vanquishing the so-called sick man of Europe--found itself holding a Pacific empire. The peace treaty gave the republic Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines--making the United States an imperial global power.
That outreach occasioned the first great debate on foreign policy in American history. Opponents of empire lamented that the country's appetite had grown from the original aim of freeing Cuba. How could the conflict end up 8000 miles to the West, with an argument on annexing the Philippine Islands? Opponents of empire rejected Briton Rudyard Kipling's admonition to take up the white man's burden, as England had in Africa, and warned of baleful consequences, especially in the nonwhite Philippines.
The Spanish-American War was in fact a Spanish-American-Cuban-Filipino war. For in annexing the Philippines, which few Americans could locate on the map, the United States also annexed a bloody insurrection. Filipino nationalists led by Emilio Aguinaldo defied American troops for another two years before being subdued. This nationalistic hostility indicated that Americans were not welcome everywhere.
Even before the ink dried on the Paris Treaty that ended the war, similar problems threatened the U.S. presence in Cuba. There, American generals and troops fraternized with the vanquished Spaniards, behaving much as the latter had in their heavy-handed treatment of Cuban patriots. In some instances the Spanish stayed on to do American work. In Cuba, also, anti-American skirmishes might have become more fiery had not the U.S. renounced outright annexation. This would involve shouldering a debt of $400 million--incurred by Madrid in the previous thirty years--and Uncle Sam proved unwilling.
But the self-denying Teller Amendment notwithstanding, the United States found itself intervening through the Caribbean and Central America, to keep order and pre-empt European interference in the Western Hemisphere. Cuba meanwhile moved from one dependency to another. The Cuban sugar monoculture, now dominated by American interests, kept the island dependent and hostile. Anti-American anger expressed by Jose Marti, the bard of stillborn Cuban independence, found echo throughout Latin America in the next half-century--including Fidel Castro's revolution--and it still pops up in Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru, and other areas where Uncle Sam's heavy hand rests today.
A related skein connects the annexation of the Philippines with emerging problems with Japan in the 1920s and 1930s and, later, with problematic assumptions that sent the republic into an unwinnable conflict in Southeast Asia. In the Philippines, as in Cuba, rhetoric and reality clashed, and Filipino and Cuban self-determination never had a chance. Peace carried with it--in both immediate and long-range terms--ugly and problematic unintended consequences.
The point of this truncated history lesson is that military victory offers no guarantees for the peace that follows. Indeed, martial triumph creates unwarranted illusions. American idealism in 1898 soon became something else--an imperialism different from Europe only, Americans argued, because the republic's intentions were better.
A comparable point may be made about American intervention in 1917 in the Great War, ostensibly to make the world safe for democracy, to fight a war to end war, and to usher in a new age of collective security. But with victory Americans rebuffed President Woodrow Wilson's clarion to assume global responsibility, recoiling--in poet Ezra Pound's words--from "an old bitch gone in the teeth, a botched civilization." Many of the points in the Versailles Treaty reflected British and French desire for revenge against Imperial Germany rather than measures to build a constructive, shared future. And rather than serving to heal domestic rifts of class, race, and ethnicity, the war generated unprecedented intolerance of dissenters, climaxing in the first great red scare of 1919-1920.
Within two decades, Europe's lights darkened for a second time. The United States rejected the League of Nations, refrained twice from joining the World Court, and looked on as the Second World War erupted in 1939. With Pearl Harbor, the U.S. again entered full-scale conflict. This time, the republic aimed militarily at unconditional surrender of German, Italian, and Japanese variations on totalitarianism. Unconditional Surrender, punctuated by atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, achieved its purpose and heralded what Time-Life publisher Henry Luce deemed the coming "American Century".
But that reign lasted a mere five years, until the spy cases of 1949-50, the Soviet A-Bomb, the "loss" of China to Mao Zedong and his red hordes, the Korean War, and the emergence of another implacable foe--godless communism. McCarthyism--the second big red scare of the twentieth century--was also an offshoot of the illusion of American omnipotence. Now erstwhile Soviet enemy was adversary, and wartime opponents Germany and Japan were allies. And for the next half-century the world divided into two hostile camps, with the Cold War organizing lives and priorities to meet the military requirements of a garrison state that looked, increasingly, like a garrison state.
The United States "won" the Cold War, too, although Washington did not ponder the constraints that accompanied their victory. As the globe's last superpower, the U.S. again finds the idea of a Pax Americana enticing. But the record over the past century gives pause, suggesting that Washington think again about Iraq and its entire Middle East project. Yes, they might "win" this war in a short time. But we've seen this before. Quick or protracted, military victory carries its own uncertainties and dangers. Triumph begets illusion. War, like water, takes its own course, creating unanticipated and often tragic outcomes.