Propaganda in the Spanish-American War

[Die Propagandaküche kocht]

In the history of propaganda, the Spanish-American War is a very significant event. It may very well have been started largely due to the influence of propaganda and the practice of yellow journalism. From the very beginning of the second Cuban rebellion against Spanish rule (in 1895), both the yellow press and the "honest" press rushed to send correspondents to document the elevating level of active hostility in Cuba. Regardless, only a small number actually made it to Cuba and among the rebels; the vast majority only made it as far as Florida, or, if they were lucky, the Hotel Inglaterra in Havana, Cuba. They would usually simply make up their stories of "personal experience" or based them on slanted press releases from the Cuban Junta. The result of this was an endless supply of glorious Cuban victories in battles that never actually occurred, along with severely embellished stories of Spanish brutality and cruelty.

Although Spanish mistreatment of Cuban locals was certainly a more common occurrence than was remotely acceptable, it was greatly over-exaggerated and over-used by reporters. During the first half of the revolution, at least, the press mostly targeted Cuba's military governor, General Valeriano Weyler, the inventor of the concentration camp. Although he seemed quite deserving of the hostility that was directed at him by the general public, reporters often printed untruths about his personality, or simply warped versions of the truth.

Historically, one of the most infamous incidents with regard to the influence that yellow journalism practices had on the Spanish-American War is a short dialogue between William Randolph Hearst and his hired illustrator/Cuban correspondent, Frederick Remington. Upon his arrival in Cuba in January of 1897, Remington noticed that none of massive reported battles were actually happening. He cabled to Hearst: "Everything is quiet. There is no trouble. There will be no war. I wish to return." Supposedly, although he denied it afterwards, he quickly wired back: "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war." While this story may or may not be true, it became one of the main factors that helped to propagate the myth that the war was created solely by the newspapers. While it seems very probable that propaganda, used in the form of yellow journalism, did influence the public and the American government to enter into the Spanish-American War, it is certain that it was not a war created for the sole purpose of media hype.

Regardless, Frederick Remington did eventually furnish the pictures Hearst had hoped for. In fact, he created what is often thought of as being one of the most famous illustrations of Spanish cruelty. The headlines were as follows: "Does our flag shield women?" "Indignities Practiced by Spanish Officials On Board American Vessels" "Richard Harding Davis Describes Some Startling Phases of the Cuban Situation" "Refined Young Women Stripped and Searched by Brutal Spaniards While Under Our Flag on the Ollivette". Accompanying such flash headlines was an illustration of this young Cuban woman being gauchely strip-searched by grubby looking Spanish officials. This illustration encouraged chivalry in readers, bringing yet more American outrage towards the Spanish.

However, the single most influential and newspaper-exploited event in the process of bringing the United States into a state of war was media coverage of the mysterious and unexplained explosion of the U.S.S. Maine. Immediately after, many newspapers (particularly those such as Hearst's Journal that commonly practiced certain aspects of yellow journalism) carried headlines such as "Remember the Maine!" and articles immediately accusing the Spanish for the destruction. Some even went so far as to make up detailed stories, stressing that it must have been a mine or torpedo (delivered by, of course, the Spanish) that caused the deaths of 252 American soldiers. Within days, headlines became so blunt as to say "War? Sure!" With pressure on the government from the people, the press, and eventually even on certain parts of the government itself, a state of war came into effect on April 25, 1898 (made retroactive to April 22, 1898). Armies were mobilized, emergency funds were allocated, and ports were blockaded, marking the beginning of the Spanish-American War.

While the truth about what happened the U.S.S. Maine is still unknown (theories range from completely accidental internal explosions to Spanish torpedo fire to a mine set by agents of the "yellow press"), one can be relatively sure that this war may very well have not happened without the encouragement of the propaganda put out by newspapers all over America. To make this point more blatant, imagine what would have happened if the "yellow kids" (Hearst and Pulitzer) had strongly disapproved of the war, for whatever reason. Spanish brutality would be toned down, seen as a non-issue, and the destruction of the Maine would have been promoted as an accident. Basically, due to the public opinion that they had such thorough control over, propaganda was the decisive factor in starting this war. So, overall, this becomes one of the most significant and representative events in the history of modern propaganda.

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