Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Guest Post: Black Warrior Affair leads to an earlier Spanish-American War

This article first appeared on Today in Alternate History exploring a theme from a number of related articles including WI: America Buys CubaWI: The US acquired Cuba as a Slave State? and WI Cuba acquired by US in 1854?. The point of divergence is that the U.S. Minister to Spain Pierre SoulĂ© maintains the secrecy of his meetings as per the expressed wishes of US Secretary of State William L. Marcy.

May 19, 1854 - 

The acquisition of a Cuban slave state saved the Union from disintegrating into Civil War.

Southern expansionists seized this fleeting opportunity to break a political deadlock with abolitionists. It was a moment perfectly crafted for them by the timing of "Bleeding Kansas" occurring during the presidency of Franklin Pierce, a pro-Southern Democrat. A dystopian vision of a future Civil War, this outbreak of violence centered on the question of whether Kansas, upon gaining statehood, would join the Union as a slave state or a free state.

The situation in Cuba was vastly different than newly settled Kansas: the majority of the population were slaves, an institution that had been part of the island for centuries. In the 1800s, independence attempts were underway to overthrow colonial authorities and Africanize the island. Southerners were apprehensive that events in the Republic of Haiti would repeat in Cuba. They cynically used this fear to turn the tables on Northern abolitionists. In so doing, they brought a fresh problem which had been hotly discussed in relation to Mexico: the assimilation of Catholic-faith, Spanish-speaking citizens. A secondary issue was that Cuban statehood would likely destroy the mainland domestic sugar industry, especially in nearby Florida. A further obstacle was the suspension of the neutrality laws being demanded by the Democratic majority on the foreign relations committee, Senators Mason, Douglas, and Slidell.

The biggest problem was Spain would never sell Cuba as it was its last province of its once great empire in the Americas and much Spanish pride and stability depended on holding Cuba. Disregarding these problems, the Southern expansionists' official rationale for annexing the island was recorded in the Ostend Manifesto. National security was the documented reason "justified in wresting" the island from weak Spanish hands. This was intended to prevent Britain or France from adding to Cuba their Caribbean possessions. Trade and sovereignty became the primary issues when Cuban authorities in Havana seized the steamer Black Warrior on a regular trading route from New York City to Mobile, Alabama. Ironically, or fittingly, cotton was the commodity in dispute with the consignees, Charles Tyng and Co. The larger truth of course was that it was trade and sovereignty were driving a wedge inside the Union.

The voyage of the Black Warrior followed customary practices, but a new factor was the over-zealousness of the recently appointed governor, Juan de la Pezuela. A regressive, conservative figure out of time, he insisted upon imposing the peculiarly Spanish methods of navigation laws in Cuba to American shipping, demanding a cargo manifest that the captain refused, having never been asked it before. Cuban authorities seized the ship in response. While this international dispute was symptomatic of the political conditions at the time, the intransigence of Pezuela and the machinations of Southern expansionists clicked into place to ensure the outbreak of war.

The ultimate American war aim was the control of trade across the Gulf or even Caribbean, but her naval forces were ill-equipped for this task. Pezuela was confident, and American victory was far from assured. War dragged on, but as the tide turned toward newly built American ironclads, Spain became interested in a peaceful settlement before it lost more holdings, perhaps even to the Philippines in the Pacific. Victory satisfied not only doves in Congress but also Southerners feeling their ports more secure with American Cuba. Abolitionists eager for statehood in Minnesota were satisfied in 1858 with the addition of another free state, required for maintaining Congressional parity per the Missouri Compromise crafted by Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky in 1820. 

The genius of the Southern expansionists' solution was to be found in their knowledge of the superior strength of the naval forces under Queen Isabella II. As they had correctly anticipated, the Union was forced to build a large navy in order to recover from a series of humiliating defeats. For ease of access from Florida, these new ships were operated from Southern ports and usually were commanded by Southern officers, creating a new military balance across the Mason-Dixon Line. These heavily armed vessels would prevent a Northern army from attacking should Dixie threaten to secede from the Union.

Author's Note:

In reality, while the Black Warrior Affair was resolved peacefully, it fueled the flames of Southern expansionism. Whereas the lack of secrecy surrounding the Ostend Manifesto led to exposure, denunciation, and creation of rallying cry for anti-slavery Northerners. Marcy himself summed this up in a letter to Senator Mason dated July 23, 1854, "To tell you an unwelcome truth, the Nebraska question has sadly shattered our party in all the free states and deprived it of that strength which was needed and could have been much more profitably used for the acquisition of Cuba."

Provine's Addendum (with inspiration from comments by Philip Ebbrell):

The Spanish-American War turned to favor American victories just in time to assure Franklin Pierce his bid for reelection in 1860. Culture shock followed the war with Cuban representatives in Washington, leading to a surge in the xenophobic and populist Know Nothing Party, who rallied for such things as an official national language and defense of religious freedom from alleged "Romanist" conspiracies. Catholic immigrants who had typically voyaged to cities on the northern Atlantic Coast began shifting the immigration pattern to Cuba as local Know Nothings carried out campaigns promoting "American-only" ideas.

The debates in Congress took a sharp turn in 1862 with the French invasion of Mexico. While Emperor Napoleon III had anticipated potential friendship in the United States as partners in recolonizing Latin America, Americans rallied behind the Monroe Doctrine. The US demanded France leave the occupation zone, which was an impossibility for Napoleon since the entire matter had been one of honor due to unpaid debts to begin with. The Franco-American War started soon after, lasting several months until it was obvious that the French Navy could not compete with a modernized American fleet thousands of miles closer to home. Mexico became liberated, yet it felt tremendous influence from the US and its ships massed in the Yucatan Channel. Britain would prove the ultimate winner of these nineteenth century wars in which it did not participate, establishing far-reaching colonies in the Pacific that expanded its political and economic footprint.

War had distracted America at large from the issue of slavery for years more, but peace brought promises of change. After much effort from numerous factions in Congress, a final reform in the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery while also instilling legal groundwork for a racial code that kept much of the same institutions in place. Slaves were freed, but many of them ended up working in "plantation towns" or, in industrialized cities, "factory towns" where the populace lived in rented property and shopped in stores controlled by wealthy land-owners. Racial tensions kept the working class frequently pitted against each other until the Workers Revolution of the early twentieth century.

Monday, May 13, 2024

Guest Post: Roger Mudd Anchors

This post first appeared on Today in Alternate History.

The famous Roger Mudd interview undermined the presidential hopes of Senator Edward M. Kennedy in 1979. Kennedy later accused him of stumping him to boost his chances of succeeding Walter Cronkite as CBS Anchor. In this alternate scenario, Mudd does a 'Perry Mason' on Kennedy with far-reaching changes at CBS over the next 24 years.

March 9, 1981 -

The ageing Evening News anchorman Walter Cronkite was approaching his 65th birthday, the mandatory retirement age at CBS. After 19 years in the seat, he had gained the authority of a religious leader or founding father. Now he would have to make way for one of his younger colleagues, either his fellow Texan Dan Rather, Roger Mudd, or Mike Wallace. At a precipitous moment for the fourth estate, it proved to be an impossible choice to replace the pillar of American broadcast journalism, and so CBS chose both Mudd and Rather.

On the eve of his retirement, Cronkite appeared on The Tonight Show hosted by Johnny Carson. In his farewell statement, he announced, "This is but a transition, a passing of the baton. A great broadcaster and gentleman, Doug Edwards, preceded me in this job, and two others will follow. And that's the way it is: Friday, March 6, 1981. I'll be away on assignment, and Roger Mudd will be sitting in here next week. Good night." The following night, Carson did a comic spoof of his on-air farewell address.

Mudd and Rather combining forces made sense as the credibility threats to instant news coverage were immense. It might well have been the end of an era, but perhaps even more significantly, the beginning of a new one under President Reagan. As the "most trusted man in America," Cronkite had reported events from 1937 onwards, a distant, more innocent time, when the mainstream media was much tamer. Even if he was a throwback to that era, he had been at the very front of a new generation of reporters who held the US government to account. Since Johnson and Nixon, a third transition was underway in which the US government fought back. There was a pause in this power struggle with the fourth estate during the troubled terms of their lackluster successors, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, both of whom experienced low approval rates. However, Cronkite's replacement(s) would have to report on the recently elected Ronald Reagan, a charismatic and articulate former actor who was arguably even more media-savvy than journalists. After two decades of crises in the US government, it was that the wave of popularity would usher in a new dawn for America.

Although Rather had been favored, Mudd was certainly a formidable reporter with a strong personal connection to history and American's lived experiences. He was a direct descendant of the doctor imprisoned for treating Lincoln's assassin. Mudd's first live TV studio interview was with Dorothy Counts, a black teenage girl who had suffered racial harassment at her otherwise all-white high school in Charlotte, North Carolina. He also anchored the coverage of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom for CBS. However, his trajectory really took off after one of the most famous moments in the history of television, the so-called "Roger Mudd Moment." This occurred when he stumped the Democrat candidate Ted Kennedy with the question, "Senator, why do you want to be President?" If this was a low point for the Kennedy family, it was followed by a remarkable moment of solidarity in journalists as Mudd and Rather unexpectedly agreed to co-host the show.

To satiate Rather's ego, he would be prime, promoted to the top-tier position of managing editor. Signing off on his first broadcast, Mudd explained that Rather would be on air the following week, quoting from the Book of Proverbs 27:17, "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another." This arrangement, while testy in its toughest moments, added an extra weight of credibility and was proven to pass the test of time. Audiences and producers alike were impressed as Mudd insisted Rather stay on air to present the news seven minutes late after a delayed tennis match featuring Stephie Graff.

Mudd's record of hard-hitting interviews contributed in the power struggle with the Bush dynasty, from the 1988 Iran-Contra interview with the then-vice president to the later Abu Ghraib scandal and ultimately Dubya's disputed service record during the Vietnam War. The Bush family would join the Kennedy family in castigating CBS, with Dubya blaming Mudd in particular for stopping his re-election in 2004. Following Mudd's passing in 2021, Rather's summary was customarily monosyllabic. "Courage," was all he said.

Author Note:

In reality, CBS awarded the job to Rather and Mudd chose to leave CBS News and he accepted an offer to join NBC News.

Provine's Addendum:

Commentators at the time and historians alike long debated the outcome of the close 2004 election, whether it was a widespread temperament or a handful of Ohioan voters that sealed the election for Kerry. Either way, many agreed with George W. Bush that the turning point in the campaign stemmed from another "Roger Mudd Moment." The Electoral College was heavily criticized as Kerry did not win the popular election by millions, leading to the 28th Amendment assuring an overall popular election for the presidency.

While largely uneventful through the years of working to disentangle the United States from the Middle East, the Kerry administration proved incredibly unpopular as the national economy fell into steep decline in 2008. Although many Democrats argued that Kerry's recovery plans would have worked given more time, there was no time before the election in November that swept John McCain into office. McCain would return in 2012, narrowly defeating Hillary Clinton. The Democrats returned to the White House in 2016 with the election of Barack Obama, whose longtime service in the Senate had established connections that led to major reforms in healthcare, immigration, and bank regulation. Obama's handling of the 2020 COVID pandemic became widely praised, part of a list of credentials that would win him the Nobel Peace Prize.

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