Five Presidents Who Went to War & Killed Themselves For It: McKinley (Part 2)

President McKinley's  Cabinet meeting during the Spanish-American War

President McKinley’s Cabinet meeting during the Spanish-American War

This is the second part of a three-part series looking at five U.S. Presidents whose own lives were forever altered, for the worse, as a result of engaging the U.S. military in combat missions, whether it was a matter of starting a war, entering one already in progress or escalating troops in an occupation of another nation.

William McKinley and the Spanish-American War & Filipino-American War

Willliam McKinley in 1897 and after  four years of leading continuous war.

William McKinley in 1897 and after four years of leading continuous war.

Despite the reports of atrocities being committed against the Cuban people by the Spanish military forces which held the island nation as a colony, President William McKinley tried to use diplomacy, resisting pressure to invade.

Wreck of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor.

Wreck of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor.

When Spain indicated that it would accede to McKinley’s demand to remove its troops as a move toward Cuban self-determination, however, Spanish soldiers rioted in Havana and threatened retribution on U.S. sugar and other business properties there. In a move that the president claimed was intended to protect American interests in Cuba, he ordered the battleship Maine into Havana’s harbor on January 25. A month later, when it exploded in Havana Harbor, killing some 260 American sailors, most of them asleep at the time, most Americans presumed the Spanish had blown it it. McKinley again resisted the war drumbeats pushing him into military action, “until I am sure that God and man approve.”

McKinley.

McKinley.

It was not a game of bravado to him. “I have been through one war,” this veteran of the Civil War explained. “I have seen the dead piled up; and I do not want to see another.”

Although McKinley’s investigation committee did not find irrefutable proof that Spain had blown up the Maine, he finally requested a $50 million defense appropriation, which Congress quickly approved. Still, he hesitated, greatly fearing that necessary preparations for conducting a U.S. war on foreign soil weren’t in place.

The sweeping and dramatic landscaped oil painting of Dewey with the crew of the Olympia looking down the Spanish fleet.

The sweeping and dramatic landscaped oil painting of Dewey with the crew of the Olympia looking down the Spanish fleet.

While the Navy Secretary was out of town, Commodore Dewey got an order, cabled by Assistant Navy Secretary Theodore Roosevelt, to gather the navy’s Asiatic Squadron at Hong Kong and prepare to advance on the Philippines, also held by Spain.

In May, Dewey easily decimated the Spanish fleet.

Instead of celebrating, however, the news that several hundred Spanish sailors had been killed sunk the President into a somber mood. “Poor devils! Poor devils!” he kept repeating.

From the confines of a relatively small space consisting of his office, the adjoining Cabinet room and a telegraph room across the hall, McKinley micro-managed what would be two fronts on two sides of the world, Cuba and the Philippines.

He was immediately worn out physically and emotionally, unable to sleep and still extremely anxious about the lack of armament and troop supplies.

McKinleys take carriage drive

McKinleys take carriage drive

The First Lady became extremely concerned about the dark circles that began to appear under his eyes, and never disappeared. She tried to get him out for the daily carriage rides in the fresh air they usually took, but he made no time for this. Instead, to keep awake through the long nights so he could receive telegraph messages in real time from Asia, he began drinking a commercial product popular at the time with cocaine as a primary ingredient.

McKinley worked incessantly through the nights, seen here in his Cabinet Room with an aide, and used a drink with cocaine as an ingredient to get him through many nights without sleep. (LC)

McKinley worked incessantly through the nights, seen here in his Cabinet Room with an aide, and used a drink with cocaine as an ingredient to get him through many nights without sleep. (LC)

Meanwhile, the First Lady and the President’s Secretary were receiving a flurry of alarming letters signed anonymously, all of them threatening the President’s life for taking the country to war. They both urged him early on to be accompanied by a member of the White House police force or Treasury Department detective in the Secret Service unit, which focused on counterfeiting and other plots subversive to the government. In late March, McKinley authorized a White House night watchman to secure the hallway of the family quarters. In reality, he refused any protection.

According to journalist Winfield Scott Larner, there were times when the president furtively slipped from the house to stroll downtown streets late at night, once he was certain that Ida was asleep and unable to prevent him from taking such a risk.

A White House aide noted that, “Mrs. McKinley was greatly distressed because her husband was worried, and of course this added to his anxiety.” The Major often worked as late as two in the morning, but when he got to their bedroom, Ida was wide awake with worry, waiting to see if he was all right. McKinley was worried as he knew that lack of sleep could provoke her epileptic seizures.

President McKinley and his wife entering Camp Mead

President McKinley and his wife entering Camp Mead

McKinley also felt it was his duty to meet with as many soldiers and sailors as possible.

After his call for volunteers, over 1 million signed up and he went to visit 12,000 troops training at Camp Alger in Virginia, followed by a trip to Pennsylvania’s Camp Meade and then to meet returning troops at Camp Wickoff at Montauk Point, on the tip of Long Island. The “splendid little war” was a matter of only several weeks of active battle, but the problems McKinley feared soon enough took hold.

Soon came word of mismanaged transportation of troops by rail to training camps and by vessel to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines and the lack of sanitary conditions in camps. In July, yellow fever had broken out in an American camp in Cuba, affecting three hundred soldiers.

With Spain capitulating and calling a ceasefire on August 12, 1898, peace treaty talks began. McKinley began to introduce a religious tone to his justifications for retaining the Philippines, rather than giving them independence as their leaders believed the Americans had promised when they first joined to fight the Spanish. He presented the situation as if it had been accidental, the fate deemed by God to assume responsibility for 8 million people.

In this movie still, the President is seen out among the public, unguarded.

In this movie still, the President is seen out among the public, unguarded.

“We accepted the Philippines from high duty in the interest of their inhabitants and humanity and civilization. Our sacrifices were with this high motive,” McKinley declared, “We want to improve the condition of the inhabitants.” While the reasons were “shrouded for the time being in impenetrable mystery,” he was certain that “providence had made us guardians.” The Filipinos were “people whose interest and destiny, without us willing it, had been put into our hands. . . .” It required him to “respond in a manly fashion to manly duty . . .” and “accept all the obligations which the war in duty and honor imposed on us. . . . Duty determines destiny.” He did so “not to subjugate . . . not to rule in the power of might,” but provide a “freedom” they did not have.

McKinley had tremendous support for “expansionism” from industrial capitalists, eager to open the vast markets of Asia to American products, ramping production, increasing employment, and enriching the nation. To forge a U.S. global power, political militarists urged him to make the islands its colonial foothold in Asia. Naive military reports claimed that the Filipino majority would welcome U.S. sovereignty.

McKinley is depicted as watching the peace treaty with Spain being signed in a massive canvas now in the White House Collection.

McKinley is depicted as watching the peace treaty with Spain being signed in a massive canvas now in the White House Collection.

On February 6, the Senate ratified the McKinley’s treaty with Spain, but by nightfall of the day the treaty had been signed, he received a cable from Manila. His worry while preparing for war and anxiety in managing it now gave way to the horror of a bloody resistance to his imposing control on a foreign land. Two Filipinos had defied an order to halt as they approached an encampment of U.S. troops at Santa Mesa, an outpost of Manila. An American fired, another Filipino gave a signal, and then native forces launched a simultaneous attack at three points. A new, unexpected and far bloodier war now began.

Native outrage resisting the mighty U.S. military presence was manifested in guerrilla warfare, aided by previously indifferent Filipinos. American soldiers reported the Filipinos’ unimaginably horrific attacks. In retaliation, they used bayonets, burned villages, water-boarding, killed the wounded, and tortured complicit citizens. Going on for four years, some 5,000 American lives were lost in what McKinley called an insurrection. The surviving Filipinos, with 200,000 of their population decimated, called it the Filipino-American War. Taking the Philippines had also quadrupled the War and Navy department budgets from the prewar figure to $200 million.

McKinley reviewing the 1899 Peace Jubilee Parade in Chicago.

McKinley reviewing the 1899 Peace Jubilee Parade in Chicago.

William Howard Taft believed the new war caused McKinley “great grief.” A judge appointed to head the civil government set up there concurred, adding that because McKinley’s “motives were benevolent,” it caused the president “tremendous struggle with his own conscience.”  He, however, faulted McKinley for refusing to even acknowledge that it also meant eventual industrial profit for the United States, concluding, “Philanthropy for pecuniary profit is a paradox. Duplicity ever follows deviation from principle.”

Americans now voiced outrage over McKinley’s two wars. Soldiers jeered officials about the tainted beef the Army fed them in canned rations, which sickened thousands of soldiers during the war. Their anger encompassed more than that, however, after having endured fevers, watched comrades die from diseases contracted in unsanitary camps, and suffered on overcrowded transports to fight in the tropics wearing wool uniforms.

McKinley’s health further deteriorated. He took no time to even walk and became grossly obese. While sick in bed and cancelling all appointments in the spring of1899, he got word that Filipinos captured 140 American troops on April 20 and killed a colonel three days later. He tried to rest on a vacation in Virginia but cut it short and returned to Washington on May 20 with news of more violent attacks against American servicemen.

Americans fighting in the Philippines.

Americans fighting in the Philippines.

By summer, the war’s first gunboat battle erupted. Over 10 percent of the U.S. forces in the Philippines were sickened with tropical fevers. An American general now declared that the threat to holding Manila was “very serious.” A former peace commissioner and friend of McKinley’s denounced his policy. U.S. citizens writing home from the Philippines protested the Administration’s censorship of their outgoing letters, calling it a deception of the American people. Desperately needed cavalry horses and some 40,000 more troops could not now be transported to the flooded islands. The rainy season had begun. McKinley increased his already heavy cigar-smoking and soon a story broke that his addiction had caused “tobacco heart.”

Meanwhile, the First Lady grew concerned as the papers exploded with news that the king of Italy had been assassinated. Soon after, the State Department contacted the President’s Secretary about an anarchist en route to the United States “for the purpose of attempting the President’s life.” In the process of investigating and deporting the convicted criminal, an international network was uncovered, including another man “chosen by his fellow anarchists to assassinate the President.” Another death threat arrived for McKinley, this one cryptically signed, “Jack the Ripper.”

The greatest security threat of all, however, was McKinley himself. As Leslie’s Weekly stated, “no previous President has so exposed himself to possible harm.” He did away with a sentry box that Cleveland had installed on the White House grounds, and recklessly insisted that he not be trailed when he was out as he found guards to be a pretension of monarchy, a waste of public funds, and an impediment to the people. “Who will attack me?” he chuckled at a friend’s plea that he have a guard. “I haven’t an enemy in the world.”

His secretary insisted that the President must not shake hands with the general public at the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition which he visited in September of 1901. McKinley ignored this, displaying the hubris one might imagine not uncommon to a victorious war leader.“Why should I?” McKinley argued, “No one would wish to hurt me.”

McKinley was assassinated while shaking hands.

McKinley was assassinated while shaking hands.

And when he extended his hand to a clean-cut fellow who appeared to be a hard-working laborer, McKinley received a bullet to his gut from the fellow who was an anarchist. None of McKinley’s vital organs were hit, however. He nevertheless died from gangrene. He had grown so corpulent that the bullet lodged at his far back and was unable to be removed. His lack of exercise due to his incessant war work left his overall system in such a poor condition, his body could not survive the trauma.

McKinley died several days after being shot. He seemed to have no regrets about any of his decisions, “If anything happens to me,” he told a friend, ” I am prepared to meet my God.” In a chilling way, it almost seems as if McKinley had something of a death wish after leading his nation onto the world stage through bloody war. As he confessed, “I would prefer to go as Lincoln went.”


Categories: History, Presidential wars, Presidents, The McKinleys, Wartime Presidents, William McKinley

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