America's five best wartime presidents

William McKinley and the Spanish-American War:

McKinley doesn’t occupy a prominent position in the nation’s historical consciousness, and neither does the Spanish-American War. But both were highly consequential to the American story.

McKinley was a war hero himself during the Civil War, rising from private to brevet major largely as a result of battlefield exploits. After an impressive political career in the U.S. House and as Ohio governor, he captured the presidency in 1896 amid growing tensions between the United States and Spain over the chaos in nearby Cuba resulting from Spain’s cruel and abject management of the colony and a resulting island insurgency. This bloody situation threatened American lives and property in Cuba and threatened also stability throughout the Caribbean region, considered by America to be a crucial sphere of influence.

McKinley sought to find a diplomatic solution through negotiations with Spain designed to leverage American influence to settle matters on Cuba. But ultimately he concluded that Spain, declining fast as a global power, could never bring stability to the island. He sent the battleship Maine to Havana harbor to ensure protection for U.S. citizens and their property. When it blew up and sank in the harbor, the resulting anti-Spain passion in America rendered war inevitably. McKinley, still hoping for a diplomatic solution, actually got himself behind public sentiment on the matter. But he soon perceived where public opinion was, and moved smartly to get ahead of it.

It was a short and glorious war for America– “a splendid little war,” as described by John Hay, McKinley’s ambassador to Britain who later became his secretary of state.