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This Day in History: Puerto Rico becomes a part of the United States

On this day in 1898, an American flag is raised over Puerto Rico. The island was no longer a Spanish possession. It was under the control of the United States.

Did you ever stop to think about how Puerto Rico became a part of the United States? It all started with Spain. And Christopher Columbus, who landed on the island during his second trip to the Americas.

Spain remained a major power on this side of the Atlantic for centuries. But by 1825, it was beginning to lose its grasp on much of its territory overseas. Nevertheless, it still retained Cuba and Puerto Rico. On the other side of the Pacific, it retained islands in and around the Philippines.

Charge of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, by Frederic Remington

By the 1890s, even those interests were in trouble. Cubans were fighting for their independence. Puerto Ricans were split between those who wanted autonomy and those who wanted to join the United States. Filipinos, too, were chafing under Spanish rule.

Meanwhile, American trade interests were being affected, and many Americans sympathized with the plight of Cubans. It hadn’t been *that* long since the American Revolution, and many felt they saw similarities between the two fights for independence. Tensions between Spain and the United States began to increase.

It didn’t take much to light a blaze in that tense atmosphere! On February 15, 1898, USS Maine exploded while docked in Havana Harbor. Many Americans immediately suspected Spanish involvement, and a Naval Court of Inquiry seemed to confirm these suspicions when it reported that Maine was destroyed by a submerged mine.

A few weeks later, President William McKinley sent a message to Congress. “The present condition of affairs in Cuba,” he wrote, “is a constant menace to our peace and entails upon this Government an enormous expense.” He asked “Congress to authorize and empower the President to take measures to secure a full and final termination of hostilities between the Government of Spain and the people of Cuba . . . and to use the military and naval forces of the United States as may be necessary for these purposes.”

Congress complied. It approved a resolution recognizing Cuban independence and demanding that Spain do the same. Congress also clarified that the United States had no intention of annexing Cuba. Spain promptly severed diplomatic relations.

Future Secretary of State John Hay would describe the war that followed as a “splendid little war.” Americans won an early naval battle at Manila Bay. In July, the Battle of San Juan Hill was fought—with the well-known assistance of Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders! Unconditional surrender was soon made in Cuba and Puerto Rico. For its part, Guam surrendered with little fanfare. On August 12, a ceasefire was signed. Peace negotiations began soon thereafter, and a treaty was signed in December.

By the terms of the treaty, Cuban independence was recognized. Puerto Rico and Guam were ceded to the United States, and the Philippines was sold to the U.S. for $20 million. In a separate but simultaneous move, the United States annexed Hawaii.

Today, of course, Puerto Rico is a United States territory. It never became a state, as Hawaii did. Should it become one? The question has been controversial in the past and no doubt will remain so.


Primary Sources:

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