Book Review: Empire By Default

Empire By Default:  The Spanish-American War And The Dawn Of The American Century, by Ivan Musicant

As someone who grew up near Tampa, one of the most important cities in the waging of the Spanish-American War, I have always been fascinated by the absence of mind that led the United States to strive to compete with the empires of the world at the time and then, almost as quickly, to forget that they were an empire and to hypocritically condemn other imperial nations while managing to the present day to more or less preserve our empire.  And let us clearly understand that this book demonstrates pretty clearly that the imperialism that possessed the American people at the turn of the 20th century was not forced on it from above but rather demonstrated that the American people were pushing for more war and more demands and more territory and America’s leaders were often far more shy and timid about making the demands that the people wanted, although by and large what the American people wanted the United States ended up getting at the bargaining table, largely because politicians feared the consequences of not responding to America’s dangerously bellicose mood despite their own fears and concerns.

This book is more than 600 pages long and is divided into eighteen mostly sizable chapters.  After acknowledgments the author discusses the end of the frontier in 1890 (1) and the longstanding problems of Cuban desire for independence from Spain (2), the fateful trip of the Maine to Havana harbor (3), and the efforts after the Maine’s explosion for the US to get to a war footing (4), just before the US won a smashing naval victory at Manila Bay (5) and then engaged in the difficult task of raising up an army for invading Spanish territories (6).  After that the author discusses the dangerously bellicose Spanish mood (7), the American efforts to hunt Spain’s Atlantic squadron (8), American empire builders (9), the blockade of Cuba (10), the beginnings of the Santiago campaign (11) as well as San Juan Hill (12), and the present of the destruction of the Spanish squadron near the 4th of July (13).  After that the author discusses the capitulation of the Spanish forces in Santiago (14), the American conquest of Puerto Rico (15), the Manila Campaign (16), the peace negotiations that ended the war in American victory (17), and the scandal of canned meat and sickness after peace (18).  The author closes the book with a discussion of America’s empire as well as the usual notes, bibliography, and index.

If you are looking at a history of the Spanish-American War that gives a lot of context, this book is definitely a worthwhile one if it is a fairly heavy read.  Blending military, diplomatic, and political history together and looking at the point of view of Americans, Cubans, Spaniards, Filipinos, and others (like the diplomatic community of other European nations), this book does a good job at pointing out with a dry and ironic sense of humor the pride and absence of mind that led to warfare between the United States and Spain and that led American to stumble its way into the possession of a global empire.  It is a great shame that America did not have the sort of soul searching that should have resulted from the acquisition of an empire.  It is almost as if we forgot that we had an empire, and do not recall today that we still have it, even as we have acquired the swagger and the bad reputation that empires have without having acquired the self-awareness as to our state.  This is lamentable, and has led to a growing divide between the self-image of Americans and the way that we are seen by others, which was already the case in 1898 and has only increased to this day.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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