WikiLeaks exposed the private communications of American diplomats to public scrutiny. While we flatter ourselves with the conceit that leaked cables are a new problem, they aren’t. One hundred and thirteen years ago today, Enrique Dupuy de Lôme discovered the perils of assuming that private correspondence will stay private. In his case, the breach of confidentiality helped propel the United States into the war that marked its emergence as a global power.
De Lôme was the Spanish ambassador to the United States in the 1890s. It was a time of great tension in U.S.-Spanish relations. The object of their dispute was Cuba, then a Spanish colony. In 1895, Cubans revolted. Madrid responded with brutal force to put down the insurrection. Spanish atrocities stirred up public passions in the United States and rekindled the longstanding desire of many American imperialists to lay claim to Cuba. President Grover Cleveland pressured Madrid to grant autonomy to Cuba, while fighting off demands at home that the United States intervene in the conflict. His successor, William McKinley, did likewise.
In December 1897, McKinley wrote in his annual message to Congress—what we today call the State of the Union address—that U.S. annexation of Cuba would be a “criminal aggression.” But he implied that if Spain did not travel the “honorable paths” of reform in Cuba that the United States might intervene “with force.”
McKinley’s remarks did not settle well with de Lôme. He wrote a letter to the Spanish foreign minister belittling the American president. In his view, the address:
Once more shows what McKinley is, weak and a bidder for the admiration of the crowd, besides being a common politician who tries to leave a door open behind himself while keeping on good terms with the jingoes of his party.
To de Lôme’s great misfortune his letter was intercepted by Cuban revolutionaries and passed on to William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. It published a translated copy of the letter on the front page of the February 9, 1898 edition under the banner headline: “Worst Insult to the United States in Its History.” (The Journal was the Fox News of its day and even more prone to hyperbole.)
As insults go, de Lôme’s remarks hardly amounted to much. Indeed, many Americans shared his low opinion of McKinley. Political cartoonists lampooned the president as a “goody-goody” and drew him wearing women’s clothes. The running joke of the day went: “Why is McKinley’s mind like a bed?” Answer: “Because it has to be made up for him every time he wants to use it.” Theodore Roosevelt told friends that McKinley had “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.”
But as is often the case in life, what was said mattered less than who said it. (Or if you prefer, the messenger determines the message.) Americans across the political spectrum took offense at a Spanish diplomat criticizing their president. McKinley might have been a waffling, backbone-free leader, but he was our waffling, backbone-free leader.
De Lôme immediately resigned his ambassadorship in a bid to stave off further damage to U.S.-Spanish relations. His faux pas might have passed into obscurity if not for the fact that he violated another cardinal rule of politics—timing is everything. Six days after de Lôme’s letter became public, the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana harbor, killing 266 American sailors. By late April, the United States and Spain were at war. America’s emergence as a major global power had begun.