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A War in Perspective, 1898-1998: Public Appeals, Memory and the Spanish-American Conflict



The traumatic impact in Spain of the military defeat of 1898 started a chain reaction of public criticism and intellectual introspection that had a major influence on Spain’s evolution throughout the twentieth century. The constitutional monarchy of the Restoration (1875–1923), and the domestically powerful military establishment, survived the first wave of accusations of incompetence in handling what became widely known in Spain as "El Desastre del 98" (The Disaster of 1898). However, among the general public and especially the organized working class and in regionalist quarters, the resentment and dissent fomented by the events of 1898 increased. For their part, intellectuals sought to understand Spain's "decadence" and to find ways to "regenerate" it. This collective attempt at regeneration was called the "regenerationist" (regeneracionista) movement. Although grouped collectively as the "Generation of 1898," the intellectuals responded in various ways, from extreme conservatism to extreme radicalism. The events of 1898 had thrown Spaniards' nineteenth-century identity and self-confidence out of balance, and the country’s democratic aspirations had been seriously damaged.

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In the immediate aftermath of the Spanish-American War, public debate flared in the United States between advocates of expansionism and of anti-imperialism. Expansionists presented a scenario of military conquest. They warned of pending domestic political disaster, of negative international consequences for the future of the nation, if a firm policy was not pursued for the "new possessions."

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The anti-imperialists were a motley group opposed to annexation of the former Spanish colonies for several, often contradictory, reasons. Some anti-imperialists (Carl Schurz, Andrew Carnegie) argued that the former Spanish colonials were culturally or racially unfit to participate in the U.S. form of government. Others (Edward Atkinson, Samuel Gompers, Edward Ordway) cited the transgression of U.S. constitutional, political, and moral traditions, and still others (Mark Twain) opposed the adoption of a European-style, abusive imperialism.

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This movement grew considerably at the time of the Philippine-American War, but anti-imperialists were no match for the popular expansionist thrust after the reelection of President William McKinley, with Theodore Roosevelt as Vice-President, in November 1900. Other postwar debates concerned heroic actions, medals, and the public image of major military and political figures.


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The negative aspects of a war eventually blur in the collective memory of the victorious nation. The selective process of public memory of the Spanish-American War began with the ritual celebrations by masses of citizens who experienced the war from afar but expected to share in its rewards.

thumb-postcards.gif (12115 bytes)Public memory was reinforced by the creation of symbolic "sacred" spaces in the form of public memorials and monuments. These basic, time-tested, and powerful demonstrations of successful patriotism served a long-range purpose: to capture the patriotic imagination of future generations and to instill in them a distinct and, ideally, permanent sense of the significance of the war and its heroes for the nation. Some of these symbols stood the test of time to remain relatively dominant in the collective psyche, as in the case of the Maine and its monumental and cultural representations. What makes communities remember these but not other symbols of the war? Patriotic and, in general, human behavior, so well explored by public appeals campaigns during the war itself, are at the root of this consolidation of public memories.

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IntroductionChronology | Part I: Antecedents, 1895-1898 | Part II: Public Appeals, 1898 | Part III: Popular Participation, 1898-1899 | Part IV: Public Memories Part V: Historical PerspectivesAudiovisual Components | Exhibition Checklist | AcknowledgmentsSuggested Reading /About the Library Shop | Related Exhibits/Spanish American War Websites of Interest | Exhibition home page | NYPL Exhibitions

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