Propaganda of the Spanish American War

Propaganda of the Spanish American War

The Spanish-American War (April-August 1898) was the first conflict in which military action was precipitated by media involvement. The war grew out of U.S. interest in a fight for revolution between the Spanish military and citizens of their Cuban colony. American newspapers fanned the flames of interest in the war by fabricating atrocities which justified intervention in a number of Spanish colonies worldwide.

Several forces within the United States were pushing for a war with Spain. Their tactics were wide ranging and their goal was to engage the opinion of the American people any way possible. Men such as William Randolph Hearst, the owner of The "New York Journal" was involved in a circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer of the "New York World" and saw the conflict as a way to sell papers. Many newspapers ran articles of a sensationalist nature and sent correspondents to Cuba to cover the war. Correspondents had to evade Spanish Authorities, usually they were unable to get reliable news and relied heavily on informants for their stories. Many stories were derived from second or third hand accounts and were either elaborated, misrepresented or completely fabricated by journalists to enhance their dramatic effect. Theodore Roosevelt who was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy at this time wanted to use the conflict to help heal the wounds still fresh from the American Civil War, and also to increase the strength of the US Navy, while simultaneously establishing American as a presence on the world stage. Roosevelt put pressure on the United States Congress to come to the aid of the Cuban people. He emphasized Cuban weakness and femininity to justify America's military intervention.


The situation prior to the Spanish-American war was tense, several members of the media and military were calling for intervention by the United States to help the revolutionaries in Cuba. Early incidences involving the Allianca and Competitor both American non-combatant ships being attacked by the Spanish military were purposely misrepresented by the U.S. media to emphasize Spanish guilt. American opinion was overwhelmingly swayed and hostility towards Spain began to build. American newspapers ran stories of a sensationalist nature depicting atrocities committed by the Spanish. These stories often reflected on how thousands of Cubans had been displaced to the country side in concentration camps. Many stories used depictions of gruesome muders, rapes, and slaughter. During this time there was a riot in Havana by those sympathetic to the Spanish. The printing presses of newspapers that had criticized the actions of the Spanish Army were destroyed.

Due to these riots General Fitzhugh Lee of the United States sent a letter to Washington saying that he feared for the lives of Americans living in Cuba. This led the government to send the USS Maine to Havana harbor to protect their citizens living in Cuba. On February 15, 1898 the USS Maine sank due to an explosion. The following day before a formal investigation had been performed U.S. newspapers were running stories claiming Spanish involvement in the destruction of the ship. One month after the explosion the United States Sent troops to Cuba as well as several other Spanish colonies across the world.

Propaganda and the media

Edison films catalog description: "A file of Spanish soldiers line up the Cubans against a blank wall and fire a volley. The flash of rifles and drifting smoke make a very striking picture." Duration: 0:22 at 34 fps.
Before the sinking of the USS Maine one American media correspondent stationed in Cuba was quoted as saying that the American people were being greatly deceived by the reporters sent to cover the revolution. According to him an overwhelming majority of the stories were obtained through third hand information often relayed by their Cuban interpreters and informants. These people were often sympathetic to the revolution and would distort the facts to shed a positive light on the revolution. Routinely small skirmishes would become large battles. Cuban oppression was depicted through inhumane treatment, torture, rape, and mass pillaging by the Spanish forces. These stories revealed heaps of dead men, women, and children left on the side of the road. Correspondents rarely bothered to confirm facts, the simply passed the stories on to their editors in the states where they would be put into publication after further editing and misrepresentation. This type of journalism became known as yellow journalism. Yellow journalism swept the nation and its propaganda helped to precipitate military action by the United States. The United States sent troops to Cuba as well as several other Spanish colonies throughout the world.

Hearst and Pulitzer

The two newspaper owners credited with developing the journalistic style of yellow journalism were William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. These two were fighting a circulation battle in New York City. Pulitzer owned the "New York World", and Hearst the "New York Journal". These two, through their disregard for responsible journalism, are commonly credited with leading America into the Spanish-American War. Their stories swayed US public opinion to believe that the Cuban people were being unjustly persecuted by the Spanish; and that the only way for them to gain their independence was through American intervention. Hearst and Pulitzer made their stories credible by self assertion and providing false names dates and locations of skirmishes and atrocities committed by the Spanish. Papers also claimed that their facts could be substantiated by the government.

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The sinking of the USS Maine

In the days following the sinking of the USS Maine, Hearst ran a story with the heading "The, War Ship Maine was Split in Two by an Enemy's Secret Infernal Machine". The story told how the Spanish had planted a torpedo beneath the USS Maine and detonated it from shore. Hearst soon followed this article with one with diagrams and blueprints of the secret torpedoes used by Spain. This Article was so convincing that even Captain Sigsbee of the USS Maine who put in his official report that judgment and opinion should be suspended until further report now believed the Spanish were responsible for sinking his ship.

Many stories like the one published by Hearst were printed across the country blaming the Spanish military for the destruction of the USS Maine. These stories struck a cord with the American people stirring public opinion up into a frenzy. A large group of Americans wanting to attack and others wanting to wait for confirmation. The Americans that wanted to attack wanted to remove Spain from power in many of their colonies close to the U.S. Those sympathetic towards the Cubans eventually overcame and American troops were sent to Cuba.

Theodore Roosevelt and the war

Theodore Roosevelt was the assistant secretary of the Navy during the time leading up to the Spanish-American War. He was for a war not particularly caring who it was against, as he felt it would be good for the nation. Roosevelt thought a war would help re-unite the North and the South as the American Civil War was still fresh in peoples minds. Roosevelt saw the revolution going on in Cuba as a perfect opportunity for this.

Staying with this opportunistic view he also wanted to use this conflict to increase the size and strength of the U.S. military. Roosevelt felt that this increase in military strength and a demonstration of its power would greatly increase the Unites State's presence on the world stage. Also Roosevelt was looking to give the country a foreign policy, something which it had been lacking.

Roosevelt also saw this as an opening to increase his political power by demonstrating his abilities in battle. Once the war began Roosevelt petitioned for the position of Lieutenant Colonel of a regiment of volunteer cavalry deemed the Rough Riders by the media. The media reporting depicted Roosevelt as a national hero and helped pave his road to the White House. However the action that received the most attention was his charge on San Juan Hill. The media depicted Roosevelt as leading a heroic charge to take the hill that was held by a large Spanish force. However in reality Roosevelt and his Rough Riders showed up after most of the work had already been done by two African American regiments [] that suffered heavy casualtiesFact|date=January 2008. Propagandist writing such as this took place throughout the war, for Roosevelt this meant that often his accomplishments were misrepresented.


*Cule, Nicholas J., Culbert, David., Welch, David. "Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia. 1500 to the Present". Oxford: ABC CLIO, 2003.

*Hoopes, Roy. "The Forty-Year run." "American Heritage"43.7 (1992): 46. Accessed 30, October 2007 from EBSCO Database.

*Millis, Walter. "The Martial Spirit". Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1931.

*Sumpter, Randall S.. "Censorship Liberally Administered: Press, U.S. Military Relations in the Spanish-American War." "Comm. L. & Pol'y" 4 (1999): 463-481. Accessed 30, October 2007 from EBSCO database.

*Wilkerson, Marcus M. "Public Opinion and The Spanish-American War: A study in war propaganda". Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1932.

*Wisan, Joseph E. "The Cuban Crisis as Reflected in the New York Press". New York: Octagon Books, Inc., 1965.

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