The explosion that sank the battleship U.S.S. Maine.
Waged a century ago, the nation’s fling with imperialism offered alumni adventure and made Woodrow Wilson ’79 an internationalist…

Editor’s note: This story from 1998 contains dated language that is no longer used today. In the interest of keeping a historical record, it appears here as it was originally published.

Paul Kramer *98, who wrote his doctoral dissertation for the history department on the U.S. occupation of the Philippines from 1898 to 1916, will teach at Johns Hopkins this fall.

Fought exactly a century ago, the Spanish-American War lasted just four months, resulted in minimal American casualties, and catapulted the United States into the ranks of colonial powers. What began as an effort to help free Cuba from Spain ended with the U.S. acquisition of the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. The war had a messy aftermath in the Philippines, where the U.S. reneged on a promise of immediate independence, and revolutionaries who had started out battling their Spanish overlords wound up fighting American troops.

Taken together, these foreign conflicts spawned political conflict at home, pitting opponents of U.S. expansion abroad against imperialists who saw events as the logical extension of Manifest Destiny. Academics, including members of Princeton’s faculty, debated the war and its consequences. Professor of jurisprudence Woodrow Wilson, for one, felt ambivalent about American colonialism but accepted it as a reality that placed the U.S. firmly – and rightfully – on the global stage. As he told an alumni group in 1899, “The nation has broken its shell and bids fair to run a momentous career.”

Wilson’s academic detachment was in marked contrast to the passion of students during the months preceding Congress’s declaration of war, on April 25. Fanned by outrage over an explosion (allegedly the result of Spanish perfidy) that sank the U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, jingoism ran rampant on the campus and throughout the nation. Jesse Lynch Williams 1892, an author of popular stories about college life, in one of his tales described a mob of drunken students converging on Cannon Green to burn in effigy the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII. A freshman at the time later recalled speeches and torchlight parades, and “how our patriotic blood boiled with indignation” about the Maine. Students contributed to a Maine Monument Fund to show that “if patriotic spirit abides anywhere it is in the colleges.” Drill units were formed, and by April, 300 students were marching in ranks on Brokaw Field (today the site of the tennis courts south of Dillon Gym). Many Princetonians answered the call to arms: 170 served in the Caribbean and Pacific wars; the eldest was a graduate of 1856, but the majority were drawn from classes between 1894 and 1900. With an eye, perhaps, on future enlistees, the makers of Allen’s Foot-Ease powder advertised their product in The Daily Princetonian, claiming, “All the regular army troops and navy men used it.”

Princeton men mainly enlisted in the infantry, artillery, and cavalry, but smaller numbers served as surgeons and chaplains. Five died in uniform. The cause of death is unknown for two; of the remaining three, one was a casualty of combat, and two died of disease. Ralph W. Simonds 1899 was killed in an attack by Filipino independence fighters in Manila. Edward Yeomans Thorp 1893 contracted fever in Cuba, and Harold P. Smith 1898 took ill on a transport ship, after service in Puerto Rico. The Princeton numbers reflect in microcosm the fatalities suffered by American forces in the Caribbean, where 400 were killed in action and 4,600 succumbed to disease, chiefly yellow fever.

When the U.S. declared war on Spain, Cuban nationalist Evaristo de Montalvo ’98 (pictured) determined to enlist. “It was Cuba’s fight, my fight,” he wrote later. “Duty stared me in the face.”
Princeton Alumni Weekly. June 10, 1998.
One window on the Princeton man’s experience is the story of Evaristo Vincente de Montalvo 1898. De Montalvo was something of an oddity at the waspy, insular Princeton of his day, one of two Catholics in his class and the only Cuban. But in class and breeding he was every bit a Princetonian, according to a classmate, “the scion of a prominent family of Cuban planters, educated at the Browning School in New York, an aristocrat, one whom we admired for his genuinely gentlemanly qualities.”

When the U.S. declared war on Spain, de Montalvo determined to enlist. “It was Cuba’s fight, my fight,” he wrote later. “Duty stared me in the face.” He enlisted in the Utah Light Artillery and was sent to a training camp where the barracks swarmed “with the greatest crowds of all kinds and conditions of men.” The majority were “hoboes,” but the eager Princetonian found “a few fellows worth talking to.”

De Montalvo hoped to fight in Cuba, but instead the Army ordered his unit to Manila, where in May the U.S. Pacific Squadron under Commodore George Dewey had destroyed the Spanish fleet. While waiting to board the troop ship S.S. Zealandia in San Francisco, he found himself an object of curiosity. Many well-wishers “wanted a souvenir or to see the ‘Cuban’ (that was me.) Some were surprised because I looked very much like anybody else.” As the Zealandia steamed into the Pacific, de Montalvo felt like “Columbus…sailing into the unknown.”

The explosion that sank the battleship U.S.S. Maine in February 1898 stirred American passions and led, two months later, to a declaration of war against Spain. On campus, students formed drill units and practiced on Brokaw Field.
Princeton University Archives.
Upon arrival in the Philippines in late July, de Montalvo was pressed into service as an interpreter. Spanish troops and the Filipino revolutionary army were fighting for possession of Cavite, a key strategic port. The young Cuban was sent to negotiate with Filipino troops regarding provisions and to engage in reconnaissance. In the battle for Manila he found himself with a group of artillerymen, waist deep in mud and struggling to keep their heavy guns aimed at the Spanish lines. In an echo of Princeton’s sporting culture, he noted how one soldier “acted more like an umpire at a baseball game than anything else. When a shell struck home he yelled at the top of his voice, ‘One strike!’” U.S. troops took the city and occupied the former governor’s palace, where de Montalvo was “kept on the run interpreting for two or three days, till I was unstrung and as slow as a tired horse.”

U.S. forces forbade the Filipino army to enter the city, and tensions mounted between the two nominal allies. De Montalvo recalled how a friend with “shooting proclivities” took some errant shots at Filipino soldiers and was gunned down in retaliation. By then, de Montalvo was interpreting for the U.S. commander. A Princeton friend encountered him “sitting at a table in the coolest corner of the inside balcony of the palace, clothed in spotless white duck, translating some regulations or other, which seemed as easy to him as the Spanish exercises he did for the fellows at college.”

The war brought adventure to other young Princetonians. Gordon Johnston 1896, the son of a former Confederate general, fought in Cuba as a member of Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Transferred to the Philippines, he “distinguished himself for bravery,” according to a class note in the first (April 7, 1900) issue of PAW, “by putting to rout with a small band over a thousand armed Filipinos.” PAW later published a letter to a classmate from Lieutenant Cleveland Hilson 1899, who with youthful bravado described leading a 75-mile reconnaissance through deep jungle which resulted in the capture of “eight insurrectos.” The next day, he commanded a detail that captured a rebel lieutenant. During this same action, Hilson recalled, a Filipino colonel charged from a house the Americans had surrounded and “made a lunge at me with his bolo [machete], but my revolver shot caught him in the heart, killing him instantly.”

Debating Imperialism

Back at Princeton, the impact of the war and Philippine insurrection was marginal. The student body, which like the alumni was overwhelmingly Republican and supported the party’s platform favoring expansion, seems to have accepted with little questioning America’s new role as an imperial power. Some of the faculty felt differently, however. In 1904, 18 professors, including Dean of the Graduate School Andrew Fleming West, signed a nationwide petition calling the war in the Philippines an embarrassment in the eyes of “civilized mankind” and demanding the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

In 1900 the university introduced a short-lived course, The Expansion of Europe, that examined how European nations administered their colonies. According to the course description, discussion included “questions involved in the government of recent acquisitions of the United States.” IN 1904 it was succeeded by a second course, The Government of Tropical Dependencies, which the curriculum listed until 1908.

In August 1898, in his keynote address at the dedication of the Chancellor Green Library, Daniel Coit Gilman, the president of Johns Hopkins University, urged students to use the new library to participate in the national debate about annexation.

Above is the bell for the gunboat U.S.S. Princeton, commissioned in May 1898 at the height of the war, was presented by patriotic alumni, who also gave 1,000 books to the ship’s library.
Princeton University Archives.
One group that took up Gilman’s challenge was the undergraduate intercollegiate debating team. Debate competitions were central to the institutional pride of Princeton and its rivals, Yale and Harvard, and formal debates between these schools were reported in the press and followed as eagerly as intercollegiate football and baseball games. When Princeton and Yale debaters met in New Haven in December 1898, their contest centered on the resolution that “the United States should annex Cuba.”

Siding for Cuban annexation, the Princeton team argued that the issue “is not a new one, but has for a century been before the minds of the American people.” While Congress had pledged not to annex the new island nation, “the circumstances resulting from the war have thrust upon the country a moral obligation greater than that embodied in the congressional pledge.” Yale responded by predicting Cuba’s “eventual success in self-government,” while claiming that annexation would lead to “dissensions between the natives and the controlling power,” because the Anglo-Saxon and the Latin American cannot assimilate nor can they co-operate…for good government.” Of equal concern was the specter of Cuban representatives in Congress, trying to “understand the problems” of a mature democracy.

Debaters on both sides reflected the class and racial assumptions of their era. When the Yale men worried about granting full U.S. citizenship to Cubans, the Princetonians suggested that the island’s “lower classes” might rightfully be denied the vote, just as blacks had been disenfranchised in the South. In closing remarks, the Princeton team challenged Yale to name “a single instance where government by the Latin race has succeeded.” Moved in part by the argument that enfranchising Cubans would weaken American democracy, the judges awarded the debate to Yale.

One person who might have lamented Princeton’s loss was one of the team’s coaches, Woodrow Wilson, who nonetheless probably agreed with the arguments against annexation made by the men of Yale. In 1898, the future president of the university and of the nation was a 42-year-old professor in his eight year of teaching at Princeton, and a popular lecturer on the alumni circuit.

Although an authority on the practical operations of government, Wilson wasn’t greatly concerned with contemporary events. The Spanish-American War, however, forced him to think about the nation in a new way. In an unpublished essay he wrote in the summer in 1898, he reflected on the conflict and its impact on American politics and society. “A brief season of war has deeply changed our thought,” he noted, “and has altered, it may be permanently, the conditions of our national life.” Once the treaty with Spain was settled, he said, “We cannot return to the point whence we set out. The scenes, the stage itself upon which we act, are changed. We have left the continent which has hitherto ben our only field of action and have gone out upon the seas, where the nations are rivals and we cannot live or act apart.”

Wilson voiced skepticism about the benefits of acquiring colonies. “It was my personal wish…that we should not take the Philippines,” he stated in 1899. Likely there were several reasons for his view. Wilson was a Democrat, and it was mainly Republicans who favored annexation, which he and other conservative Democrats opposed for reasons that ranged from racial bias to concern that protecting an empire would lead to a dangerous increase in state power.

Such reservations notwithstanding, Wilson found his way into the imperialist camp. According to a reporter summarizing an address in November 1898, however, “Dr. Wilson did not align himself with the expansionists of the extreme type.” Rather, “his remarks indicated a preference for the more liberal policy in this respect, in that he did not seem to possess any fears for the alleged perils of such policy.” By 1899 he was organizing a series of lectures by visiting speakers on the administration of “tropical dependencies.”

Wilson arrived at his embrace of liberal imperialism by the light of two questions of political theory that had long preoccupied him. He turned to the first question – How was a great and powerful nation to be built through politics? – in several addresses he made during the Caribbean phase of the conflict. The war, he believed, signaled a shift in the balance of power toward the executive – a shift he regarded as crucial to national greatness. Although “not an imperialist or expansionist,” Wilson said, he “welcomed the new state of affairs, as it furnished the necessity of a foreign policy and gave to the executive of the Nation a national character…As long as we have only domestic subjects we have no real leaders.” Echoing his call for Princetonians to act in the nation’s service, and perhaps foreshadowing his own presidential bid in 1912, Wilson concluded that “Princeton must come to the aid of the country with a trained hand and a man equal to the occasion.”

The second question – What is the relationship between governmental power and individual liberty? – was more problematic. For Wilson, the American system of self-government depended on the balance “between liberty to the individual and control by the government under a system of laws.” But for Wilson and many of his contemporaries, this system was far from inclusive. “Freedom is not giving the same government to all people,” he stated confidently, “but wisely discriminating and dispensing laws according to the advancement of a people.” Wilson, a Southerner by birth and breeding, would make his clearest statement of this principle after taking up residence in the White House when he imposed racial segregation throughout the federal government. Yet even as a professor, he made clear that self-government was not an ideal applicable to all peoples, particularly “the undisciplined Filipinos” fighting U.S. troops.

In seeking a balance between individual liberty and state power, Wilson turned to metaphors of education: in his paternalistic view, students stood for unbridled freedoms, while professors and administrators represented the forces of stability and law. In the “school” of self-government, the subject of instruction was “liberty”: Americans had been “schooled for centuries to the use of our liberties,” but the lessons had to be learned through obedience rather than conflict. The occupation of the Philippines would be something like a Princeton education, in which unequal partners entered into a relationship of traditional learning and discipline. In “these deep matters of government and justice,” he argued, teachers (i.e., colonial administrators) “may be arbitrary, self-opinionated, impervious, impossible,” just as children (Filipinos) “must be foolish, impulsive, headstrong, unreasonable.”

Wilson defended the U.S. occupation only so far as it instructed Filipinos to be something like student debaters, active critics of their imperial “tutors.” “We shall have to stand criticism,” he stated. “…If you enable the people of our dependencies to speak to us as of ourselves, they will ultimately get the self possession of experienced critics.”

Ultimately, however, Wilson seemed to liken self-government less to a debating society than to a private eating club, with strict codes of dress and manners. Succeeding at democracy was not unlike learning to wear the well-cut clothes of a gentleman: “If we sent to the Philippines our institutions in manuscript they would suffer the same fate which befell a dress suit once captured by the savages. The coat was appropriated and worn by one savage, the vest by another, and the trousers by a third. Each savage had part of the suit and all were somewhat unconventional.” Like the grooming of a Princeton man, the American occupation would be a long process of “training” the Filipinos in the ways of democracy.

The Imperial President

After assuming the Presidency in 1912, Wilson took his observations on empire onto the global stage. Even as he sought to keep the United States out of World War I, he extended foreign policy “lessons” within the American orbit of Latin America, ordering several military interventions (including, most famously, his pursuit into Mexico of the revolutionary Pancho Villa).

Above is Wilson in 1898, four years before he assumed the presidency of Princeton. The war caused the future U.S. president to assess for the first time America’s responsibilities as a global power.
Princeton University Archives.
Wilson also came to support imperialism for its beneficial effect on the United States. While bringing Filipino “children” to obedient “adulthood,” he argued, overseas engagements would restore a certain virility to America’s foreign policy and national character: For Wilson, the United States would grow into its “manhood” through aggressive competition for territories. This country, he said, “has young men who prefer dying in the ditches of the Philippines to spending their lives behind the counters of a dry goods store in our eastern cities. I think I should prefer that myself. The Philippines offer an opportunity for the impetuous, hot-blooded young men…to serve their country according to the measure of their power.”

One such young man was Evaristo de Montalvo, who, after service in the Philippines and working in New York City for several years, returned to his native Cuba. There, as a member of an establishment that supported American hegemony over his nation’s affairs, he went on to a prosperous life as a sugar planter, molasses manufacturer, and engineer. Years before, as a junior at Princeton, he might have heard and taken to heart Wilson’s “Princeton in the Nation’s Service” speech, delivered in 1896 at the university’s sesquicentennial celebration. During World War I, as de Montalvo later recalled, he served as a “confidential agent” in Cuba, looking out for the interests of the United States.

This was originally published in the June 10, 1998 issue of PAW.