Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/A Case of Self-Sacrifice

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Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz by Carl Schurz
A Case of Self-Sacrifice
From Harper's Weekly, Vol. XLII, No. 2157 (April 23, 1898), p. 387. This was Carl Schurz's last editorial for Harper's Weekly.



If we go to war with Spain it is of high interest to the American people that their motives should be correctly understood by the civilized world. To what harsh and unjust imputations we are exposed appeared recently from an utterance of one of Prince Bismarck's press organs in Germany, which, among other very ill-natured flings, attributed the popular desire in the United States to put an end to Spanish misrule in Cuba to an “ignoble greed for territorial aggrandizement” on our part. Nothing could be more unfair. True, we have among us a number of noisy Jingoes who have long been “spoiling for a fight,” who desire a war for war's sake, and to whom a pacific composition of the Spanish quarrel would therefore be most unwelcome. There are also unscrupulous speculators who clamor for war because they see in it promising opportunities for enriching themselves at the expense of the public; politicians who think that an exhibition of warlike patriotism will further their interests; and journals eager to inflame warlike excitement for the purpose of spreading their circulation. There are also a few persons in the United States who would annex to this republic Cuba, or any other island in any quarter of the globe. But it may with perfect assurance be affirmed that all these classes combined form only a very small minority of the American people, and that an overwhelming majority of them are inspired by motives absolutely generous and unselfish. Their sympathy has been warmed by the spectacle of the Cubans fighting for independence and liberty. Their indignation has been aroused by the atrocities of the Weyler regime and by the destruction of the Maine; and all they wish to do is to aid the struggling, to succor the suffering, and to put down the power of the oppressor. It is not too much to say that if the government of the United States manifested any design to annex Cuba as a result of the conflict, such a declaration would very seriously chill the popular feeling for the “liberation” of that island. How completely foreign to that feeling any motive of self-interest must be will at once be understood when we soberly consider the question, who will profit and who will lose by that war for Cuban independence.

It may seem paradoxical, but it is nevertheless true, that the most certain gainer will be Spain herself, because she will lose Cuba. What is Cuba to her? Years ago the colony was a source of revenue, a valuable financial asset. But it has long ceased to be that. It is now an utterly ruined province, wasted and desolate. Instead of yielding revenue, it causes incalculable expense. For years past it has cost Spain annually millions upon millions of money. It has cost, moreover, a hundred thousand soldiers. As one of our contemporaries recently expressed it, “Spanish mothers know of Cuba as a place to which their conscript children go, and from which they do not return.” Nor is there the slightest prospect that to Spain the colony of Cuba will ever become a valuable asset again. Even under the most favorable circumstances it would require years to lift Cuba from her present desolation into a moderate state of prosperity. And it is vain to hope that if, under Spanish rule, another attempt were ever tried to make Cuba again a source of large revenue to the mother-country, it could possibly succeed. For a long period Cuba has been the theatre of chronic insurrection and turmoil, and there is not the least doubt that so long as Spain seeks to draw any income worth counting from Cuba, it will remain so. This is probably well understood by sensible statesmen in Spain, who would be glad to get rid of the incubus if they only could “let go” without irritating the national pride to their own disadvantage. To lose Cuba in consequence of a war with the United States, which would spare that national pride, would actually mean to Spain a “good riddance.” Neither would it involve any loss of prestige, for Cuba has long ceased to be an element of prestige to Spain, having rather brought disgrace upon her. And to be defeated in a war by the immensely superior resources of this republic is a thing which Spain will never have to be ashamed of. Thus, in losing Cuba, Spain will lose nothing of real value, but gain much, by being delivered, in a manner saving her national pride, of a dreadfully burdensome incumbrance.

The next beneficiary of that war will be Cuba. How much Cuba will be benefited by its results will depend upon the ability of the Cubans, when set free, to maintain an independent, stable, and orderly government, or to find a paternal power or person that will maintain such a government among and for them. While we may not be very sanguine in this respect, it is reasonable to assume that the Cubans will at least no longer be exposed to any dictatorships like that of Weyler, and their government, good or bad, will, at any rate, be their own.

What, then, are the advantages the American people may expect to derive from this war with Spain? If they were really instigated by anything like a selfish impulse, they would, of course, carefully calculate beforehand whether the possible profit would be in proportion to the certain sacrifice to be made for it. Of this sacrifice the blood item cannot be easily computed in advance. Even if our sea power is greatly superior to that of Spain, we cannot hope to disable the Spanish fleet without the loss of many lives. And we cannot put a land force on the soil of Cuba to drive out the Spaniards and to establish an independent and a “stable” government there, without dooming many more young Americans to die, not only on the battle-field, but, worse than that, in the hospitals of that unwholesome country. American mothers, too, may know Cuba as the place to which their valiant sons go, never to return. As to the money item of the sacrifice, we have already made a beginning. The grant by Congress of the $50,000,000 for war preparations is, no doubt, wellnigh exhausted. A war loan is now contemplated of $500,000,000, and war taxes on bank checks, tea, coffee, beer, and tobacco are expected to yield about $100,000,000 annually. But as the war may last longer than we now anticipate, and as our ways of making war are rather expensive, the present figures fixed for loans and taxes may soon be found sadly inadequate. This, however, is not all. The pension roll will be largely increased, and thus an additional load be put upon the people, to burden them for generations. Furthermore, the loss we suffer through the business disturbances, and the interruption of the revival of prosperity, and the retardation of the necessary monetary reform, which are caused by the war and its uncertainties, can hardly be estimated. Nor should it be overlooked that inasmuch as Spain, through her cruisers and privateers, may sweep our commercial flag from the seas, partly by actual capture or destruction, partly by means of greatly increased rates of insurance, we substantially make a present of the larger part of our carrying trade on the ocean to other maritime nations, such as Great Britain, Germany, Norway, and others.

But even here the list of our probable sacrifices is not closed. For to what moral and financial responsibilities, in what political complications, in what international embroilments, a war undertaken to give Cuba independence and a “stable government” will involve us nobody can foresee. Historic experience as to the establishment and maintenance of stable republican governments in tropical regions is certainly most discouraging; and if we undertake the task, we may, after much sore tribulation, find ourselves exposed to very costly disappointments.

What, then, may we expect to gain as a compensation for our sacrifices and risks? Certainly not glory, for there is no glory to a robust young giant in kicking a poor old cripple. The annexation of Cuba must be considered out of the question, for, as the President said in his message, it would “by our code of morality, be criminal aggression.” Nor could it be called an advantage, for it would be like the annexation of a house infected with an inexterminable contagious disease. The only business benefit we could realize would be the restoration of our trade with Cuba. But that trade would necessarily be limited, and if its net annual profits became as large as ever before, they would not amount to as much as the increase of our pension roll and of the army and navy budget in consequence of the war, not to speak of the cost in blood and treasure of the war itself. Thus all our real compensation for our sacrifices and risks in that war will consist in our moral consciousness of having delivered Cuba of Spanish misrule, of having given the Cubans an opportunity for showing how fit they are for free institutions. Now, in view of all this, the world may indeed say that we would have been much wiser had we patiently tried to secure to the Cubans the best possible government, and an honorable adjustment of the Maine affair, without a war. But it can certainly not be said that we have made that war from any selfish motive, or even with a careful consideration of our own welfare. There can be no clearer case of self-sacrifice.

This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz - 1898-04-23 - A Case of Self-Sacrifice.PNG