The most famous events from that 1898 conflict were in Cuba, the island that caused American newspapers to rail about the evil occupation of Spanish imperialists. It was America’s duty to kick them out of our doggone hemisphere, many journalists implored. It was in Cuba that Colonel Theodore Roosevelt led his mighty Rough Riders on a fierce charge up San Juan Hill that brought him the fame that led to the Presidency. The first battle of the war, however, was in another island nation on the other side of the world, the Philippines, another place where the dastardly Spanish imperialists controlled the native population.
The attack on the Philippines was ordered by Theodore Roosevelt, which is of no surprise, but it was ordered when he was merely the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, which is a big surprise. The Executive Branch does have the power to order military attacks, but such decisions are unlikely to be entrusted to the lowly Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Roosevelt’s boss, Hilary Herbert, was prone to lengthy vacations in the wealthy suburbs of southeastern Massachusetts, and Theodore was free to exercise full power over the Navy in his absence. In doing so Roosevelt increased the size and activity of the Navy, ordering fully armed flotillas to sail across the globe and it was one of these flotillas that attacked the Spanish Navy in the port of Manila. Admiral George Dewey was the officer who initiated the attack, telling his adjunct the memorable line “You may fire when ready, Gridley,” as the imposing metal boats built by Theodore Roosevelt demolished the far weaker wooden ships of the Spanish Navy. No Americans seemed to notice how unusual this military decision was, and Admiral Dewey became so popular that he had a short lived run for the Presidency.
It was Theodore Roosevelt who had a far more stable march to America’s highest office, though it was the bullet that killed President McKinley that gave him the Presidency. But even without that bullet it seems clear, in retrospect, that he would have been destined to lead the America of his day. For the young nation then wanted greater power on the international scene, and Theodore Roosevelt’s actions, including ordering the attack on the Spanish Fleet in Manila, helped quench that national thirst. America found in Theodore Roosevelt, one of America’s most popular Presidents, a man who made his nation feel that they were as powerful as those darn Europeans.