On 15 February 1898, the USS Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor. Hostilities between Spain and Cuban revolutionaries had been escalating for some time and the Maine had been deployed to Cuba to guarantee the safety of American citizens on the island. The Maine’s sinking led to the Spanish-American War, a war that lasted about ten weeks and resulted in a stunning American victory, a war that John Hay, United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom deemed “a splendid little war.”
In The Cross of War, Matthew McCullough argues that the war’s brevity belies its importance. Historians have tended either to study the Spanish-American War for its impact on diplomatic relations or overlook it because it ended quickly with minimal losses. In point of fact, McCullough argues that the war was vitally important for its far-reaching domestic and international implications. He makes a compelling case.
Initially, few wanted war with Spain, but Americans became increasingly horrified to learn of military atrocities in Cuba and the Philippines. At this point, McCullough maintains that American Protestantism became crucial to the war. Preachers from all denominations called for what he terms “messianic interventionism,” the logic of which followed a standard format. If Christ died for the oppressed—and American missionaries had given ample testimony to the benighted state of people around the world—then it behooved “Christian America” to intervene on their behalf. It was a useful concept that tempered radical Americanism and anti-imperialists alike. After all, Americans wanted to extend democracy to the rest of the world. Who could argue with that? Further, American intervention amounted to an errand of mercy, not a plundering power grab. With such swift victory and minimal losses, few could deny that God appeared to be on America’s side.
In many ways, McCullough demonstrates that the “splendid little war” was also an “ironic little war.” Consider, for instance, the war’s healing effect at home as Civil War veterans watched soldiers from the north and south march off to war under a common banner. In the international arena, the war soothed a number of longstanding controversies between Great Britain and the United States even as American soldiers in Cuba and the Philippines were learning that a fine line separates liberator from oppressor. True, the war pitted Protestant America against Catholic Spain but even here, rival prelates managed to lay aside their differences and rally American Catholics to be Americans first. Through it all, African Americans could not help but experience their own special sense of irony. Jim Crow legislation and racism on the local, state, and national levels increasingly relegated African Americans to second-class status even as white America embarked on a mission to save the world with the same Jesus that African Americans preached. One might wish that McCullough had addressed this point in greater detail because his analysis begs the question, did the nation come together in the name of religion, racism, or both? He might also have delved deeper into “messianic interventionism” as it related to the Open Door Policy and the Monroe Doctrine. Perhaps he will develop these themes in his next work.
The Spanish American War also proved to be a “useful little war.” If McCullough is correct, “messianic intervention” actually synthesized religion and nationalism into one of the most powerful cultural forces America has ever known. Beyond the Spanish-American War, messianic interventionism helped frame America’s involvement in World War I, the war Woodrow Wilson claimed would make the world safe for democracy. It also helped furnish a rationale for America’s involvement in World War II, a war that would keep the world safe from Nazism/fascism.
In the eyes of most late nineteenth-century Americans, the world needed a messianic hope and the United States stood ready to deliver it. This is a story that McCullough tells well. Of course, that synthesis began to break down after World War II, with the United States and the Soviet Union emerging as global super powers, each with nuclear weapons. The Cold War precipitated a number of “police actions” where American service personnel engaged numerous foes, ostensibly to defend the downtrodden, even though foreign policy makers were more concerned about the “Domino Theory” than ultimate moral rectitude. By the twenty-first century, post-Vietnam Americans question whether or not America can engage an alleged enemy and claim any imperative apart from pure self-interest. Such issues are beyond McCullough’s immediate scope in The Cross of War, but readers will likely wonder.