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By Nancy Mitchell


The War of 1898: The United States and Cuba in History and Historiography
By Louis A. Perez, Jr.
(Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Pp. xvi, 168 . $16.95 paper.)


Rarely has history been as tidy as it was in 1898: Like the fireworks that open the State Fair, the Spanish American War inaugurated the American Century. It was such a good story: We burst upon the world in a frenzy of do-goodism and, lo and behold, we inherited an empire!

Synthesizing the work of previous historians, David Traxel retells this noble tale. Outraged by Spain’s persecution of the Cubans and by the sinking of the Maine, Americans launched a war to give Cuba independence, dragging a reluctant president behind them. Although we had not anticipated it and did not want it, we got Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines as a result. Traxel’s 1898 (Knopf, $28.95, 365 pages) is an entertaining, well-written romp through the year that was dominated by the war.

The problem is Louis Perez, a professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill. His new book, The War of 1898, is a brilliant frontal assault on the generations of scholars who have offered this modern American creation myth as history. Perez forces us to see what we have doggedly refused to see. His basic question is : “Why have we forgotten the Cubans?” It is such an obvious question that the fact that it has not ben asked before is embarrassing—and revealing. But it is not unprecedented. Historians long ignored the Native Americans who populated our “empty and virgin land,” and they have marginalized the role of women until very recently. Similarly, although every history textbook mentions that the Cuban rebels fought for three years and the U.S. soldiers for only 60 days, historians have insisted on calling the struggle the Spanish-American War and airbrushing the Cubans out. Why?

The Cubans mess up the myth. If we took the Cuban role seriously, we would have to face facts that challenge the dominant interpretation of the war: U.S. entry might have been triggered not just by the sinking of the Maine but also by Washington’s desire to snatch victory away from the Cuban patriots; as U.S. soldiers disembarked, they were not welcomed as liberators, but eyed warily as potential oppressors, and Cuban suspicions grew rapidly; Spain was defeated not just by its own ineptitude or by U.S. prowess, but also by its long encounter with the Cuban patriots; the war, and the resultant empire, were not accidents, but rather the culmination of Washington’s century-long quest to control the strategically located, sugar-rich gem of the Caribbean, Cuba.

One of the strengths of Perez’s study is that, using old-fashioned gumshoe detective work and new-fangled theoretical insights, he shows how the myth was created and maintained. Key to this analysis is his thesis that Washington successfully hijacked public opinion to mask its raw pursuit of national interest. Perez is not the first to notice this tension between policy and opinion, but his analysis is the most thorough, persuasive, and nuanced to date.

He lays the foundation by meticulously demonstrating that American presidents from Jefferson to McKinley openly expressed their desire and expectation that the United States would eventually control Cuba. Then he shows that the American people in 1898 were sincerely outraged by the reports of Spanish abuses of the Cubans. The American people wanted a war to free Cuba. But Washington did not go to war to free Cuba, but to control it, dressing its purpose in the colorful outrage of the American people. The people at the time, and historians ever since, bought it hook, line, and sinker. This matters: If we believe that the United States fought for Cuban freedom, then the last century of Cuban history is either bafflingly ironic or proof of Cuban incompetence. And the Cubans are ingrates.

This is a stunning example of the power of myth. How easily history is hijacked! It is humbling, as an historian, to see how captive we are to our assumptions. Perez shows that by emphasizing the rhetoric of the press, by assuming that the government is responsive to public opinion, and by considering the Cubans cowardly and backward, historians have unwittingly skewed the record to buttress the myth. Perez—a Cuban-American and perhaps less seduced by the myths—simply pulls back the curtain, and there sit the presidents, all saying how important Cuba is to U.S. security. There sit the Cubans, oppressed by the Spaniards before the war; and by an American protectorate afterward—not free.

Our selective recall not only serves a purpose; it also has repercussions. It creates a chasm between us and the Cubans: We share a past, but we have not shared memories. Upon ousting Batista, Castro alluded bitterly to the U.S. role in 1898 and proclaimed the final fulfillment of the Cuban patriots’ struggle against imperialism. President Eisenhower was baffled. “Here is a country that you would believe, on the basis of our history, would be one of our real friends,” he muttered. Eisenhower meant, of course, as Perez shows to such devastating effect, “on the basis of our memory,” not of our history.
This distinction between memory and history is, unfortunately, exemplified by Traxel, who, as Perez shows, is writing about the former; not the latter. This is one reason Traxel’s 1898 is so palatable—it disturbs none of our assumptions about ourselves; it confirms our myths. In it the Cubans disappear as soon as the Americans, in all their youthful energy, arrive. It’s easier that way.

It is also dangerous. Now, at this moment of unprecedented opportunity and power; we need to follow Perez’s lead, to challenge historians who have coddled our faulty memories and fostered our myths, and to see our past clearly. Otherwise, while we might be armed to the teeth, we will not be secure, because we will not understand why others see us as they do, and we will not understand ourselves.  

This review originally appeared in the 1 November 1998 issue of The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC). Republished by permission.

Nancy Mitchell teaches American history at N.C. State University.

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