S5:E10 Social Darwinism and the Spanish-American War

S5:E10 Social Darwinism and the Spanish-American War

Social Darwinism and the Spanish-American War

The 1800s were an era of big questions, many of which we answered in cruel and selfish ways.

  • Is one race better than another?
  • Is one religion? If so, which one? In what ways?
  • Is one economic system better than another?
  • Is one system of governance like a democratic republic like the US, or socialism, monarchy, theocracy, communism, best?

Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Social Darwinism

Some people answered these questions with a resounding “yes”. But if we think our people and ways are better than anyone else’s, what responsibility do we have to spread those things? Men like Henry Cabot Lodge and Theodore Roosevelt were firm believers in social Darwinism, though their vision of it meant teaching those less “civilized” people our ways. And they were okay with the United States taking power over them.

Meanwhile, there were men like William Jennings Bryan who refused to think of others in social Darwinism terms. He spent years fighting that dark philosophy, ultimately prosecuting the Scopes Monkey trial to stop the spread of social Darwinism. But the seeds of eugenics were planted.

Cubans held in concentration camps by Spain

Caught in the middle were the people of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Phillippines, and other colonies of the Spanish empire. Spain was busy imprisoning Cubans in concentration camps. Their ruthless behavior toward America’s neighbors caught the attention of the US Senate, which was already champing at the bit for a fight. Men in the United States were worried about their waning influence on society. Groups bellyached about how men were not men anymore thanks to cities and offices. In the minds of some, war was the answer to weak-willed men. And Spain provided that war.

Our guest today is Paul T. McCartney author of “Power and Progress: American National Identity, the War of 1898, and the Rise of American Imperialism”. He teaches at Towson University.

**CORRECTION – In the original version of this story I referred to the USS Maine as the HMS Maine. That was incorrect. HMS stands for “Her Majesty’s Ship”, which makes no sense for American ships. The current version was changed for accuracy.**

Discussion Questions:

  • Do you believe your people are somehow superior to another people group? Why?
  • Does that sound like an attitude Jesus would have?
  • If you are somehow superior, what is your responsibility to other people?
  • Should the US help people who are being oppressed around the world? When should we intervene?
  • Do you think that men are in decline? If so, what is the answer to that?
  • Do you better relate to Teddy Roosevelt or William Jennings Bryan when it comes to war? Or are you a pacifist?
  • How would Jesus have responded to the cruelty of Spain?
  • What do you think about social Darwinism?

Helpful Links and Sources:

S3:E19 Teddy Roosevelt and the Guano Islands

S3:E19 Teddy Roosevelt and the Guano Islands

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When we were done conquering the west, done warring with Mexico, done fighting Native Americans, we looked out across the Pacific Ocean and said… “huh… I wonder what’s over there?” The truth is that the United States is an empire. We accomplished that by fighting wars and by seeking out resources.

In the 1800s the United States faced a very real problem: we were running out of nitrogen. Not in the air. There is plenty in the air. We were losing it in our soil. Plants need nitrogen. Where were we going to get it?

The answer we came up with was: bird poop. It’s rich in nitrogen and makes a great fertilizer. The trouble is that we didn’t have any way to get large quantities of it. Until American businesses took over islands off the coast of our country.

This is the story of greed, a different kind of slavery, a Supreme Court battle, and the worst job in the 1800s.

Our guest this episode is Daniel Immerwahr, author of the book “How to Hide an Empire” and an associate history professor at Northwestern University. In his book, he argues that the United States has been an empire since it’s inception.

Helpful Links:

  • New York Times review of a book on the Spanish American War where I first learned about German plans for the Philippines.
  • Helpful info about President McKinley’s declaration of war against Spain.
  • New York Times archived article about the German plans to attack the US otherwise known as Operation Plan III.
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book The Bully Pulpit which provided some background on Teddy Roosevelt and the Spanish American War. It’s a good book, but its main focus is on Roosevelt’s relationship with Taft.

Special thanks to: