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William McKinley's Values and the Origins of the Spanish-American War: A Reinterpretation


Nick Kapur is a doctoral candidate in history at Harvard University, where he is completing a dissertation on U.S.–Japan relations during the John F. Kennedy administration.


Prevailing interpretations of the causes of the Spanish-American War emphasize the role of yellow journalism, business interests, or congressional politics in forcing President William McKinley into a war that he neither sought nor wanted. This article reexamines McKinley's decision making in the months leading up to the Spanish-American War in the context of “Victorian” values, such as arbitrationism, pacifism, humanitarianism, and manly self-restraint, and argues that McKinley's actions were based more on these values than on external pressures. A closer look at the evidence suggests that McKinley's speech before Congress on April 11, 1898, may have been more a moment of unprecedented presidential power than a showing of personal weakness.