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To people who study the rationale that led to our fight with Spain in 1898 it confuses many or them to know that the war's first major battle was a naval battle of great significance that did not occur off Spain or off Cuba. The first battle of the Cuban-Spanish-American War was the Battle at Manilla Bay on May 1, 1898. Manilla Bay, if you are unaware, is the harbor outside the capital city of the Philippine Islands in the Pacific Ocean. It is hardly a strategic spot for the start of a war centered (supposedly) in the Caribbean and Atlantic.
But the Battle of Manilla Bay was the brain-child of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the McKinley Cabinet, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt had been a leading advocate for intervention in Cuba (he would resign eventually, and help form and lead the Rough Riders with his friend Dr./Lt. Col. Leonard Wood). T.R. was the real live wire in the Navy Department for the first two years of McKinley's Administration. He had a love for the U.S. Navy (one of his best historical works was THE NAVAL WAR OF 1812), and his chief, John Long, was understanding enough to allow Roosevelt to be as dynamic and innovative as he wanted to be.
For example, reading of the success in experiments with a model that Professor Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian Institute had in flying his machine, T.R. got further Congressional financing for building a man carrying version. Although in the long run Langley fell short of the success he initially seemed to be headed for, Roosevelt's actions was the first time the U.S. Congress funded aviation experiments.
In the case of the war, Roosevelt saw it as an opportunity to strengthen American interests in the Pacific and the Caribbean. In 1898 the former Kingdom (now Republic) of Hawaii voted to join the United States, and the McKinley Administration pushed for the annexation. But how to protect the largest island group in the center of the Pacific (not to mention our West Coast and Alaska). T.R. noted Spain's imperial holdings in the Pacific, the Philippines, Guam, and the Caroline Islands. He knew the Japanese and the German Empire were both interested in these islands, and we had to make sure we staked our claim first. He ordered Dewey to the Pacific (to Hong Kong) on a war footing. Then on April 28, 1898 Dewey was ordered to sail for Manilla.
Ariving on the morning of May 1st, Dewey found the Spanish fleet peacefully at anchor. The Spanish had no expectation of any action here (why should they? - they weren't near Spain or Cuba). Turning to his flag officer on board his ship, the U.S.S. Olympia, Dewey entered the Navy "heroic sayings" book by the statement, "You may fire when ready Gridley*." The battle was not a really difficult one - not like Jellicoe's fight against Scheer at Jutland in 1916, but it was effective enough to demolish the Spanish fleet, and turn the city over to Dewey.
[*Tragically, Charles Gridley got ill shortly after the battle and died within a month of playing a role in it.]
It made Commodore George Dewey a national hero (for the next two years Dewey would be treated as the greatest thing since sliced bread - cigars, chewing gum ("Dewey Chewies"), and other items were named for him. He was to have an heroic arch built in Manhattan for his honor. By 1900, however, all this was demolished. Dewey got a Presidential bug that year, put into his head by Joseph Pulitzer. But he made an ass of himself in a public interview (with a non-Pulitzer newspaper, by the way), in which he admitted not having any political affiliation (so he could run for either party), and feeling that he could certainly "wing it" as President (it didn't seem to be too hard a job to him). After that, the arch (a life-size model was made of plaster) was allowed to slowly deteriorate.
Yet Dewey actually still proved a useful sailor - he had been serving since the Civil War (he was from Vermont), and had fought under Farragut at Mobile Bay. He would have a notorious confrontation (in 1899) with Admiral Von Dietrich of the Kaiser's new navy in Manilla. We still are uncertain if the Germans were planning a surprise assault on Dewey's fleet or not, but Dewey did put the German Admiral on notice that he was being watched. In 1902 then President Theodore Roosevelt used Dewey to lead the American fleet to the coast of Venezuela, in a show of force against German threats on that country regarding loan debts. Dewey remained in the Navy, dying in 1917 as Admiral of the Fleet just before the World War.
As for the tangible results, at the 1898 Treaty of Paris the U.S. got the Philippines and Guam and Puerto Rico from Spain to add to Hawaii. Cuba's independence (de jure independence) was assured. But Spain, in a moment of anger and need for cash, sold the Carolines to an eager Kaiser Wilhelm II. Still it meant we were now considered a "great power". America had come of age.
The gaining of Guam was not a bad thing (we still own it), but the Philippines was a complicated matter. An independence movement led by Emilio Aguinaldo felt betrayed by American actions from May 1, 1898 forward. So from 1899 to 1902 (when Aguinaldo was captured by General Frederick Funston) we had a jungle guerrilla war that took more American lives than the 1898 war did. In the end, we promised to leave the Philippines once they were ready to rule themselves. The vague date was to be in the 1940s. The invasion of the Philippines by Japan, and the long war to retake them, prevented us from leaving those islands until 1946.
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