If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

The Spanish-American War

In a conflict lasting only six weeks, the United States defeated Spain and became an empire. 


  • The Cuban movement for independence from Spain in 1895 garnered considerable American support. When the USS Maine sank, the United States believed the tragedy was the result of Spanish sabotage and declared war on Spain.
  • The Spanish-American War lasted only six weeks and resulted in a decisive victory for the United States. Future US president Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt rose to national prominence due to his role in the conflict.
  • Although the United States promised it would not annex Cuba after victory, it did require Cuba to permit significant American intervention in Cuban affairs.
  • As a result of the war, the United States acquired Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines as territories.

The conflict between empire and democracy

In the late nineteenth century, the nations of Europe were competing for overseas colonies in Africa and Asia. Many Americans thought that the United States should enter this game of empires and demonstrate its growing power in the world.1
But the United States had not forgotten its own colonial past. When the American colonies had risen in revolt against the British, their frustration at obeying a government across an ocean had helped to define the American vision of representative democracy. Taking on the role of a distant overlord seemed like an essential violation of those principles.2
At first, it looked as though the United States would not cave into the temptations of empire. When, in 1893, American sugar plantation owners engineered a coup to dethrone Hawaii's Queen Lili'uokalani and annex the Hawaiian Islands, the United States refused to cooperate with the underhanded scheme. But would these scruples last?

Trouble in Cuba

Not long after the Hawaiian coup, disturbing news came from Cuba. In 1895, Cubans rose in rebellion against Spain, which had been in control of the island since the 1500s.
In an attempt to quell the uprising, the Spanish rounded up Cubans and forced them into reconcentration camps, where poor sanitation and disease killed thousands. American newspapers, eager to sell copies, whipped the public into a frenzy against the Spanish by reporting sensational stories (both true and untrue) in a practice known as yellow journalism. The oppressed Cubans, they claimed, were suffering at the hands of European tyrants just as the United States had done before the American Revolution.3
In order to protect Americans and their assets in Cuba during the chaos, the United States sent the warship USS Maine into Havana harbor. Just nine days after its arrival, the Maine exploded, killing 260 American sailors. The Spanish claimed, correctly, that the explosion had been the result of a malfunction aboard the ship, but Americans were convinced that the Maine had been destroyed by Spanish sabotage.4
Painting depicting the sinking of the USS Maine.
Painting depicting the sinking of the USS Maine. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
After a few abortive attempts at mediating the dispute, the United States declared war against Spain on April 11, 1898. In order to prevent the possibility of US annexation of Cuba, Congress passed the Teller Amendment, which proclaimed that the United States would help the Cuban people gain their freedom from Spain but would not annex the island after victory.

A splendid little war

The tired remnants of Spain's New World empire were no match for brand-new American warships. On the seas, US forces quickly dispatched the Spanish fleet. The Spanish were surprised when the Americans captured the Philippines, a Pacific outpost of the empire whose citizens were also rebelling against Spanish rule.5
On land, the contest was not quite so easy. The American military force was composed mainly of volunteers who were ill-equipped for an expedition in the tropics. Future president Teddy Roosevelt, who had assembled a volunteer cavalry regiment known as the Rough Riders, garnered fame for a charge that would have had little success were it not for the support of seasoned African American soldiers serving in segregated infantry and cavalry units.6
Victorious American forces in Cuba. Note Theodore Roosevelt, at center beneath flag, and African American 10th US Cavalry at right. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Nevertheless, in six weeks' time, US forces were in control of the two major remaining Spanish possessions overseas, Cuba and the Philippines. Fearful that Japan might attempt to take control of Hawaii while the United States was distracted by Spain, President William McKinley also signed a resolution formally annexing Hawaii on July 7, 1898.
Weary of war, Spain signed an armistice on August 12, 1898. Fewer than four hundred Americans had died, leading Secretary of State John Hay to declare the conflict a "splendid little war." Less splendid but rarely mentioned were the more than 5000 American deaths from diseases like malaria and yellow fever.7

Consequences of the Spanish-American War

In the fall and winter of 1898, diplomats representing Spain and the United States met to hash out the terms of peace. In the Treaty of Paris, Spain agreed to free Cuba, and to cede the islands Guam and Puerto Rico to the United States. In addition, the United States agreed to pay Spain $20 million for the Philippines (which the Spanish wanted back as the Americans had captured Manila after the August 12 armistice, due to delayed communications). The United States had become an empire.
Tellingly, neither Cuban nor Filipino representatives were permitted to participate in the negotiations. Would the United States uphold its commitment to Cuba's freedom, or would it take Spain's place as a distant oppressor? The answer was a little bit of both: although the United States did not annex Cuba outright, it did force Cubans to recognize American control in their new Constitution. In the Platt Amendment, Cuba agreed to permit American diplomatic, economic, and military intervention and to lease Guantánamo Bay for American use.8
For Filipinos, who had allied with US forces to oust Spain, the outcome of the war was a cruel joke. Although the Americans were unwilling to allow the Philippines to remain in the hands of the Spanish, they were also unwilling to give Filipinos their freedom. US politicians believed that their "little brown brothers" (as future American president William H. Taft called them) were incapable of self-government.9
The Filipinos quickly realized they had traded one imperial power for another, and turned their rebellion against the United States. For two years, the United States fought to put down the Filipino insurrection, ironically resorting to the same tactics that the Spanish had used against the Cubans. In 1901, the United States defeated the rebels, and the Philippines became an American territory.10
What did it mean to be an American territory? It wasn't quite clear; before the Spanish-American War, the United States had never annexed territory without the expectation that it would achieve eventual statehood. For Puerto Ricans, it meant they had American citizenship (eventually) but not self-rule. For Filipinos, it meant neither citizenship nor independence.
One thing was certain: after the Spanish-American War, the United States would never be the same. It had survived for over a hundred years as an isolationist nation, an ocean away from European powers, and emerged as an industrial behemoth in the wake of the Civil War. With its decisive rout of Spain and the acquisition of a far-reaching empire, the United States had arrived as a major player on the world stage.

What do you think?

Why did the United States go to war against Spain? Do you think the United States was looking for a reason to go to war?
Did the United States keep its promise in the Teller Amendment? Why or why not?
Why do you think that the United States annexed Puerto Rico and the Philippines as territories, not states?

Want to join the conversation?

  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Lachesis
    I noticed the term "reconcentration camps" in the second paragraph under the heading "Trouble in Cuba". I looked it up, and, indeed, these camps were designated "reconcentration" not "concentration" camps in 1898, but I couldn't tell if there was any substantive difference between them and the concentration camps of 20th century warfare. Is this merely a temporal linguistic difference, or was there a difference in purpose or practice?
    (67 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Kim Kutz Elliott
      Very good question. I think the substantive difference is that concentration camps in World War II were meant for political dissidents, members of racial and ethnic groups that were under attack, or prisoners of war. They were designed not only to imprison citizens but to extract forced labor. Later in World War II, several of the concentration camps became dedicated Death Camps, designed to murder people outright.

      The reconcentration camps were set up for ordinary Cuban citizens, with the idea that if the civilians could be contained, then it would be possible to cull the guerrilla fighters from their midst. It was still a violation of their human right to move freely, but it didn't involve forced labor or "criminal" status.
      (61 votes)
  • leaf red style avatar for user Shivani  Dattani
    Why DID the United States annex Puerto Rico and the Philippines as territories, not states?
    (26 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • hopper jumping style avatar for user zayaz2016
    I am a little confused, it is said the the USA and Spain signed the Treaty of Paris, but wasn't that the treaty made after the Revolutionary War?
    (13 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Kim Kutz Elliott
      From the author:There are many Treaties of Paris! This one ended the Spanish-American War, but it was a Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War and a Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years' War/French and Indian War.

      Paris has often been the site of international negotiations, and indeed until after World War II (when the United States became the foremost world power) the international language of diplomacy was French.
      (30 votes)
  • starky sapling style avatar for user Joel Forey
    Is the painting of the Maine exploding realistic? It looks rather too dramatic.
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leafers tree style avatar for user escott1
      The reason that the explosion of the Maine looks so dramatic is because at that time, yellow journalism was really popular. Yellow Journalism is when newspapers "stretch the truth" in order to sell more newspapers. This is just an artist's rendition of the Maine explosion, not the actual thing. "you furnish the pictures, I'll furnish the war" - William Randolph Hearst
      (20 votes)
  • female robot ada style avatar for user Syed Abbas 0636115
    Why did the United States go to war against Spain? Do you think the United States was looking for a reason to go to war?
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • starky tree style avatar for user Elise
      It was less of the fact that the US wanted to go to war, and more of the idea that US wished to establish a reputation as an involved national power.
      1) Imperialism and the death of Manifest Destiny helped aid US interference in other skirmishes.
      2) Isolationism, which would be (or would attempt to be) reestablished after WWI, died around this time, many Americans eager to become involved in international affairs.
      3) Power play-- it was a show of power, a display of militaristic strength as well as a reminder that the US was far from capable of defending and attacking other (European) countries.
      4) The US did not feel comfortable with a war on their metaphorical doorstep; the Cuban revolt and American aide drove the Spanish out and gaining other territories was a consequence of that.
      (7 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Chuck the ANGRYBIRD
    Today do we know if the Spanish actually blew up the maine
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • purple pi purple style avatar for user StarryNight
      It's still a controversy. We know that the magazine of the ship exploding is what caused the explosion, but no one knows what caused the magazine to explode. Some say it was an accident inside the ship that triggered the explosion. Others say that the Spanish planted a mine, intending to catch the magazine on fire and explode the ship. Conspiracy theorists believe that the United States caused the explosion in order to have an excuse to declare war on Spain.
      So in conclusion, we still don't know the answer.
      (17 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Rebecca Ran
    Why did the US government think that Philippine did not have the ability to govern itself?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      The American government was run by white people. Filipinos were (and are) not white people. It was difficult in the 19th Century to conceive of people who were not white being able to govern themselves. Just look at Southeast Asia at the time. Only Thailand was self-ruled. The rest was controlled, variously, from France, the Netherlands, Britain and Portugal. A self-governing nation in the area, especially one that had experienced 400 years of European control (as had the Philippines) was inconceivable.
      (9 votes)
  • purple pi purple style avatar for user josh johnson
    Did the U.S. annex the territory but not allow them status of states to prevent representation in Washington?
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leaf green style avatar for user Zhizhong Pu
    Why did "Congress pass the Teller Amendment" "in order to prevent the possibility of US annexation of Cuba"
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Nilufa Akter
    Should the united states have gone to war over the destruction of the Maine?Why or why not ? How else might the situation have been handled?
    (4 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • marcimus pink style avatar for user miriam.grodin
      The destruction of the Maine wasn't the only catalyst of the Spanish-American war, but rather a sort of "last straw" in Americans negative feelings towards Spain and desire to "protect" Cuba. Some of the other causes include:
      - Cuban reconcentration camps formed by the Spanish to try and control the Cuban rebels, yellow-journalism by people like Pulitzer and Hearst invoked sympathy in a lot of Americans for the Cubans and a dislike of Spain
      -De Lome, the current Spanish ambassador in the United States at the time had acciedntally leaked a letter meant for the Spanish, revealing his criticism of McKinley (the current president) as indecisive and weak. Americans were horrified at the attack on their president (even though it was kind of true) and hated Spain even more
      -Some people (like Theodore Roosevelt) also just really wanted to go to war. TR's orders as assistant secretary of the navy to US troops in the South Pacific to move towards the Phillipines because he wanted war with Spain and the Philippines was Spanish territory, led to the first shots of the war being fired when the navy attacked Manila shortly after.
      Because of these multiple reasons, rather than jsut the one, their decision to go to war at least makes more sense, and I believe it was justified. Or at least, their original intention of aiding Cuba was. Once they began claiming territory for themselves, it becomes a more complex question.
      (6 votes)