Kirkus Reviews QR Code
EMPIRE BY DEFAULT by Ivan Musicant


The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century

by Ivan Musicant

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-8050-3500-1
Publisher: Henry Holt

 Historian Musicant (Divided Waters, 1995) offers a detailed examination of the American war that catapulted the nation to imperial status. Beginning with the political conflicts that brought William McKinley to the presidency, Musicant offers a portrait of a nation increasingly torn between the desire for isolation and the yearning for a place on the international stage. That conflict was at first fought out in the nation's newspapers, which, by focusing on Spanish atrocities against Cubans fighting for independence, managed to gradually sway public opinion toward involvements abroad. The sinking of the American warship Maine in the harbor of Havana (blamed, without much evidence, on a Spanish mine), pushed America over the edge, and a reluctant McKinley was compelled to declare war on Spain. The war itself lasted less than a year (from April 21, 1898, to March 19, 1899) and featured only a few large-scale battles, but Musicant is able to wring considerable drama from this thorough narrative of events. He draws heavily on primary American and Spanish sources, including the memoirs of Teddy Roosevelt, who led the famous charge up San Juan Hill. As Musicant points out, that charge was far bloodier than suspected; indeed, raw American troops often found themselves facing well-entrenched foes. At sea it was a different story: Admiral Dewey demolished an entire Spanish squadron at Manila Bay, securing the Philippines as American troops were seizing Cuba. While his narrative of the war is thorough, clear, and vivid, Musicant seems to scant the war's larger meanings, such as Roosevelt's 1900 election as vice president and a festering guerrilla war in the Philippines. The conclusion is only weak by comparison, however, as Musicant offers a meticulous yet exciting narrative of a small war that carried large implications for the nation's future. (8 pages b&w photos, 8 maps, not seen)