Briefing - Spain's Missed Strategic Options in 1898
Spain did badly in its war with the United States in 1898. She could have done better. Much better. In fact, it is difficult to disagree with the belief of many Spanish officers, including Vice-Admiral Pascual Cervera, who commanded the squadron sunk off Santiago, that their government had given little thought to strategic planning beyond the notion of losing the war quickly.
The shattering defeats inflicted upon the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay and at Santiago were both avoidable.
Had the squadron in the Philippines been dispersed, rather than concentrated at Cavite, Commodore George Dewey would not have secured so signal a victory at the very outbreak of the war. With the Spanish ships dispersed among the archipelago's seven thousand islands scattered over 100,000 square miles of ocean, they would have posed a threat - a "fleet in being" - to the safety of an American expedition to seize Manila. Dewey would have found the task of searching all those potential hiding places tedious, time consuming, and potentially dangerous, yet necessary despite the relative worthlessness of the Spanish vessels in question. It would certainly have taken months to winkle out the last of the Spanish fleet. Of course, the Philippines were a side-show. The critical theater was the Atlantic.
In the Atlantic Admiral Cervera offered a much better strategy than merely sending his squadron to the Caribbean to be sunk. The U.S. could not safely invade Cuba until the Spanish fleet had been neutralized. Cervera proposed keeping the fleet concentrated in the Canary Islands. There it would continue to pose a threat to American maritime movements and at the same time be available to intercept possible American raids on the Spanish mainland. Spain's resources were adequate for this strategy. At the start of the war Spain had four major warships in commission, three Maria Teresa class armored cruisers plus the new armored cruiser Cristobal Colon, the ships that formed the core of the squadron that Cervera took to Santiago. Had Spain adopted this strategy, these vessels would have shortly been joined by two other major warships that were soon available, the battleship Pelayo, completing a refit, and the armored cruiser Carlos V, a very powerful vessel just entering service.
Even had they remained relatively inactive, these six heavy ships concentrated in the Canary Islands and supported by the available smaller cruisers and various lighter warships could easily have proven extremely worrisome to the United States Navy, constituting a relatively powerful fleet in being. From the Canaries, one or two of the armored cruisers and some of the half dozen or so smaller cruisers could have been sent to raid U.S. maritime commerce and threaten the East Coast, already experiencing something of a panic even before Cervera's squadron actually sailed. Such a strategy would have prolonged the war in several ways.
Had Spain adopted this course of action, the U.S. Navy would have been forced to divert resources from the Caribbean to chase the Spanish commerce raiders, and guard the Atlantic coastline. An American descent on Cuba or Puerto Rico would have been delayed, due to the shortage of escorts. Given that the U.S. Army was extremely concerned about the danger of operating in the Caribbean during the fever season, a landing in Puerto Rico or Cuba might easily have been delayed until the fall, assuming a decision was made to undertake one at all, given the potential danger from the Spanish fleet in the Canaries. Indeed, precisely what the U.S. would have done in such circumstance is difficult to determine. An expedition against the Canaries was actually considered by the U.S., but only after Cervera's defeat, and primarily as a means of preventing Spain from attempting to reinforce the Philippines. Moreover, it seems unlikely that the U.S. Navy could have done much more than undertaken a massive raid, lacking the logistical train to support a more serious expedition at such distance from North America.
Assuming that Cervera's squadron was sent to the Caribbean, the Spanish Navy could have supported it by creating a new fleet in being. Even as Cervera was sailing westwards, the Spanish government had begun concentrating a second squadron at Cadiz, comprising Pelayo, Carlos V, several cruisers, and three destroyers. This squadron was supposed to escort several troop transports to the Philippines in order to wrest control from Dewey's little squadron. Had this force instead been concentrated in the Canaries after Cervera's departure for the Caribbean, it would have limited the U.S. Navy's flexibility. As it was, the potential use of this second squadron the Atlantic caused the U.S. Navy some concern until mid-May, when it became clear that the squadron was bound for the Philippines, whereupon the Navy began spreading rumors of imminent raids on Spanish soil, to convince the Spaniards to recall it.
Even the American success in capturing the outer defenses of Santiago on July 1, in the battles of El Caney and San Juan Hill, was not necessarily decisive. If, instead of essaying a sortie, Cervera had been permitted to remain in Santiago, and committed all his manpower, weapons, ammunition, and supplies to the defense, resistance might have been prolonged. As it was, the final days of the siege saw something of a race between the American ability to keep the place invested in the face of increasing disease and privation and the Spanish ability to hold out, in the face of increasing disease and privation.
Of course Cervera did sortie, and Santiago did surrender. But even these losses did not mean that Spain retained no further options. Her army in Cuba remained virtually intact despite the loss of Santiago, and the Cuban guerrillas did not pose a significant threat. Most Spanish officers in Cuba believed they could deal with an American expedition against Havana, particularly given that, following the disastrous collapse of the victorious U.S. V Corps due to fever, such an undertaking would certainly be postponed for several months. While their optimism may be questioned, there is some validity to their logic. A defeat - or even a serious reverse - before Havana might have resulted in greater American willingness to seek less than total victory.
Of course, Spain ultimately was gong to lose the war. Nevertheless, by prolonging the war, American patience would have been tried, particularly given long casualty lists from disease. A more favorable international climate might have arisen, one in which the Great Powers might have lent their good offices to a negotiated settlement. Cuba would certainly still have been lost, but the Philippines and Puerto Rico might have been salvaged.