Puerto Rico in Lieu of Indemnities

Puerto Rico in Lieu of Indemnities

U.S. Army General Nelson A. Miles’ carefulness in not aggravating the Puerto Rican population responded to U.S. designs for the island. On May 26, Captain Alfred T. Mahan,[i] Secretary of War Alger, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long, and  Miles held a war council. The U.S. had considered invading Puerto Rico before Cuba to force the Spaniards to support the war in Cuba from their own home shores. The navy, however, discarded this plan because it did not need Puerto Rico to win the war in Cuba. Furthermore, the navy was concerned with dividing the fleet between Cuba and Puerto Rico which could lead to an unfortunate sea fight that could alter the balance of maritime power in Spain’s favor. Thus, the U.S. decided to mount two expeditions in the Caribbean, but not simultaneously. Santiago in Cuba would be the first target, and Fajardo, Puerto Rico would follow. Once Santiago had fallen, and with it Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete’s fleet, there would be no need to attack Havana.[ii]


On May 1, 1898 U.S. Admiral George Dewey’s command destroyed the Spanish fleet in the Philippines. On July 3, the U.S. Flying Squadron destroyed Cervera y Topete’s fleet when it attempted to escape the American blockade, and on July 13, the 35,000 troops who made up the Spanish garrison in Santiago de Cuba and its department surrendered. At that moment the war was practically over. Even Mahan conceded that there was nothing else for the Spaniards to do but surrender.[iii] There was no need to invade Puerto Rico to win the war.

The U.S. had achieved such military superiority over Spain that Admiral William T. Sampson opposed Miles’ request for armored vessels to escort his transports to Puerto Rico.[iv] Still, Miles received the order to proceed to Puerto Rico on July 18, and the island was invaded seven days later. The motive for such action was to occupy the island before the end of hostilities prevented the U.S. from doing so.

Quickly after the destruction of the Spanish fleet in the Pacific Assistant Secretary of the Navy and future veteran of the Cuban campaign and U.S. president, Theodore Roosevelt, wrote a personal letter to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge urging him not to make peace until ”we get Porto Rico.” Lodge assured Roosevelt that the administration was “fully committed to the larger policy we both desire.”[v] President McKinley’s administration had decided to annex Puerto Rico “in lieu of indemnities” and the physical presence of the U.S. military in the island would undoubtedly strengthen the U.S.’ position.

That Puerto Rico came to be a colonial possession of the United States did not stem from historical accident but rather from a calculated design. The United States did not become an empire by default.[vi]


On July 18, the Spanish asked the French government to approach the United States with a request for a cease of hostilities as a preliminary to peace negotiations. The French ambassador to the U.S., Jules Cambon, communicated the Spanish request to the White House in the afternoon of July 26. President William McKinley rejected the offer for it did not say anything about Puerto Rico or the Philippines. On July 30, through the office of the French ambassador, McKinley delivered armistice terms to Spain demanding that it relinquish control of Cuba and cede Puerto Rico, other islands in the Caribbean and the Ladrones in the Pacific. Spain answered on August 1, inquiring if any other territorial indemnification could be substituted for Puerto Rico to which Washington responded negatively. Defeated in the Philippines and in Cuba and unable to win in Puerto Rico, the Spaniards agreed to American terms, and an armistice went into effect on August 12, 1898.[vii]


By virtue of the Treaty of Paris of December 10, 1898, which officially ended the state of war between the United States and Spain, the former gained full control over Puerto Rico, Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines, and control limited by the Teller Amendment over Cuba. Spain officially relinquished control over Puerto Rico and on October 18 of the same year the change of sovereignty was completed with the evacuation of the last Spanish troops and the raising of the American flag in all public buildings. That day witnessed the inauguration of a military government which lasted until May 1900.

[i] If someone could claim responsibility for the U.S. readiness to accomplish its project of extra-continental expansion, that would be Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan. The impact of Mahan on the development of U.S. foreign policy was enormous. Congressmen, presidents, diplomats and high-ranking military personnel, were well acquainted with his work and many even studied under him and/or befriended the prolific strategist. Among Mahan’s friends were: Theodore Roosevelt, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and John Hay, Secretary of State under President William McKinley. In addition, in 1902, Mahan was elected President of the American Historical Association, the most coveted position for a historian. American leaders were divided between two expansionist theories, that of entrepreneur Andrew Carnegie, who applied Herbert Spencer’s survival of the fittest theory to commerce and business, and that of Mahan. Carnegie deferred from Mahan in that he saw an industrial competition, not a military one. For Mahan, however, the fittest often gained ascendancy through military power. What is more, the industrial and commercial competition and expansion proposed by Carnegie would lead to rivalry for markets and raw materials, and thus sea power was needed. Mahan argued that in order to maintain economic power the U.S. should control vital sea lanes militarily. This approach required securing territorial bases to guarantee its dominion of the regions important to its commerce. Moreover, military sea power was needed to ensure that the nation enjoyed peace and industry uninterrupted by wars. Furthermore, he was convinced that merely utilitarian arguments would never convince nor convert mankind to join the great mission of the west, the uplifting and remaking of lesser races. Thus, military preparedness and civilizational discourse were fused in Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History. See; Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1783, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1890), 83-84. And; Alfred Thayer Mahan, Naval Strategy: Compared and Contrasted with the Principles and Practice of Military Operation on Land. Lectures Delivered at the U.S. Naval War College, Newport, R.I. Between the Years 1887 and 1911, ((Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1911), 100-101. Also see; LaFeber, The New Empire, 97; and, Anders Stephanson, Manifest Destiny: American Expansionism and the Empire of Right, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), 88.

[ii] At least on paper, Mahan explained, the Spanish Navy seemed almost the equal of its U.S. counterpart, to the point that even some American naval officers considered that after losing the Maine in Havana the American edge over Spain had shifted in Spain’s favor. Mahan, Lessons of the War with Spain, 30-34: and, Gould, Spanish-American War and President McKinley, 74.

[iii] See, Mahan, Lessons of the War with Spain, 30-34.

[iv] Trask, War with Spain in 1898, 348-350.

[v] Influential industrialist Andrew Carnegie was of the same opinion. Karl Wagenheim and Olga Jiménez de Jiménez de Wagenheim, eds., The Puerto Ricans, a Documentary History, Updated and Expanded ed.,(Princeton New Jersey: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2002), 89; citing, Selections from the Correspondence of Theodore Roosevelt and H.C. Lodge, 1884-1918, Vol. I (New York: Scribner’s, 1925), 299.

[vi] Since 1890, Mahan had been stressing the need to secure and preserve naval bases in the Caribbean to protect the American sea lines. According to Mahan, the interest of the U.S. in the Caribbean was to enforce the Monroe Doctrine and preclude a strong naval European power to gain a hold on Cuba. Mahan understood the purchase of Louisiana and the Florida as part of the Jeffersonian idea to exclude European powers from the Americas, a philosophy that later extended to Cuba, Puerto Rico and Hawaii, and finally to Panama. Following Mahan’s doctrine, the main reason for the United States to intervene in the Cuban Revolution was to secure important bases in both Cuba and Puerto Rico. These islands undoubtedly enticed the imagination of American entrepreneurs, but they were more important to defend the projected isthmian canal, which had been an American concern since the United States reached the shores of the Pacific. See; Mahan, Influence of Sea Power upon History, 83-84; and Mahan, Naval Strategy: 349-50, 368.

[vii] The Cuban Rebels, who had been excluded from American front lines operations, were also excluded from the armistice’s deliberations and the signing of the Treaty of Paris, as were the Philipino rebels and the Puerto Rican delegates to the Spanish Cortes. General Calixto García, the principal rebel leader in Cuba, and his troops were not allowed in Santiago. Even the Spanish General, Valeriano Weyler, had expected the Cuban insurrectos to conduct the last part of the campaing after the taking of San Juan Hill. See; Pérez, The War of 1898, 94, quoting Valeriano Weyler, Mi mando en Cuba, (Madrid,1910-11). In the case of Puerto Rico, Title VII, Article 43, of the Carta Autonómica of 1897, guaranteed the veto power of the Puerto Rican parliament over decisions reached by the Spanish Cortes where over a dozen Puerto Rican delegates sat with both voice and vote. Article 2 declared that the “present constitution shall not be amended except by virtue of a special law and upon petition of the insular parliament.” Since the U.S. military disbanded the Insular Parliament, and there were no Puerto Rican delegates present to sign the Treaty of Paris of December 10, the passing of sovereignty over Puerto Rico to the United Sates was in violation of the legal relationship between Spain and Puerto Rico and thus illegal. This position would become the most compelling legal argument embraced by the independence movement some thirty years later.

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