One hundred years ago, United States celebrated victory in the Spanish-American War. Popular songs and headlines popularized Commodore Dewey's victories at sea and Theodore Roosevelt's ride up Kettle Hill. Although the Spanish-American War sparked unprecedented levels of patriotism and confidence, the defeat of the Spanish also raised new questions about the nation's role as a world power.
CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE: THE SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR, narrated by award-winning actor Edward James Olmos, examines the colorful characters and historic events surrounding this 100-year-old war and its relevance to the twentieth century. When a declining Spain, beset by rebellion abroad, fell to American expansionism, the United States inherited her colonies and suddenly emerged as a world power. The experience and questions that the Spanish-American War raised about foreign intervention echo throughout the 20th century—as recent events in Kosovo show. Even in its own time, the war with Spain was understood as a turning point in American history.
As the twentieth century ends, it is instructive to note the complexities and significance of this very brief war that began this century. In the words of noted historian Walter LaFeber, "The 1898 war literally as well as chronologically ushered in the United States as a major shaper, soon the major shaper, of twentieth-century world politics and commerce." In the process, it also unified a nation still embittered by Civil War divisions; debuted the media in its role as catalyst of U.S. intervention; built up the navy and inspired a re-evaluation of the army; and vastly broadened the powers of the president in wartime and foreign affairs. Clearly, the Spanish-American War was more than the war that ended the nineteenth century; it was also the war that launched the American century.
Using original footage and period photographs, newspaper headlines, more than a dozen popular songs from the 1890s, and interviews with some of America's most prominent historians, CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE tells how issues of race, economy, technology, yellow journalism, and public opinion propelled America into this war. Four 1990s Senators bring to life the 1899 Senate debate on imperialism: Patrick Leahy (VT), Frank Lautenberg (NJ), Paul Simon (IL), and Alan Simpson (WY). The film also features Larry Linville (Major Frank "Ferret Face" Burns of "M*A*S*H") as the voice of Rough Rider Theodore Roosevelt, Laurence Luckinbill as President William McKinley, and Lou Diamond Phillips as Philippine revolutionary Emilio Aguinaldo.
"With the frontier gone, there was something akin to a panic among people…We had to find some new outlet for our energy, for our dynamic nature, for this coiled spring that was the United States," says historian Stephen Ambrose. As the dramatic events of 1898 unfolded, the United States did find a new outlet in its first overseas war. Americans were outraged by Spain's brutal use of concentration camps to suppress Cuba's rebel army. Fanned by intense media coverage, public support grew for a war to rid the Cubans of their Spanish oppressors.
The Spanish-American War was the first "media war." CRUCIBLE OF EMPIRE explores the role sensationalist journalism played in the war and pays particular attention to William Randolph Hearst. Hearst, then the upstart editor of The New York Journal, understood that a war with Spain over Cuba would not only sell newspapers, but also move him into a position of national prominence. Hearst's propaganda offensive, the first in modern media history, demonized Spain for its brutal suppression of the Cuban rebellion and fueled pro-war feeling. With the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor in 1898, Hearst had the perfect pretext for war. The Hearst press saw to it that Spain shouldered the blame and a reluctant President McKinley capitulated.
Although pro-war fever swept through the nation during the late 1890s, not all Americans applauded the cause. African-Americans, epecially, were divided on the war. Some African-Americans argued that an oppressed people should not take up arms on behalf of their oppressors. Others maintained that impressive fighting by African-American soldiers would improve the standing of their race. African-Americans who answered the calls to duty and did enlist, found themselves among white racism in the Army and the victims of anti-black violence.
The U.S. went to war with Spain, winning in a matter of weeks. When the conflict was settled by the Treaty of Paris, Spain relinquished its sovereignty over Cuba, and ceded Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam to the United States. Although, rebels in the Philippines and Cuba had looked to the Americans as saviors, the U.S. victory only replaced one imperial power with another. Months after the Spanish surrender, America was fighting its own colonial war against Filipino rebels. Intervention in Cuban affairs lasted until 1934 and left a residue of anti-Americanism.
The new territory promised markets, military bases, and influence overseas. It also enlisted the U.S. into the ranks of Europe's imperial powers--surely a difficult position for a nation not only founded in opposition to British imperialism, but also fostered on the tenets of the Monroe Doctrine, which asserted that Old and New World systems were so contrary that they should operate on different halves of the globe. The Spanish-American War would spur U.S. policy-makers to reinterpret the Monroe Doctrine and reassess American leadership as it extended from the Western Hemisphere to the world.
Content by Great Projects Film Company, Inc. Copyright © 1999