Cuba had exerted a hold on the American imagination for many years, at least since Thomas Jefferson wrote of his hope that it would one day become part of the United States. The Philippine Islands were quite another matter. Few Americans had the faintest idea of where they were. Nonetheless, as a result of Commodore Dewey’s victory at Manila, the United States suddenly exercised power over them. No one had planned this. President McKinley had to decide what the United States should do with the vast archipelago.
McKinley was known above all for his inscrutability. He gave almost all the people he met the impression that he agreed with them, and rarely allowed even his closest advisers to know what he was thinking. Historians have described him as an “enigma” whose inner mind was “well concealed” and who “obscured his views by a fog of phraseology, conventional or oracular.”
At first, McKinley seemed to want only enough territory in the Philippines to build a naval base at Manila. Then he considered the idea of granting the islands independence, perhaps under an international guarantee. In the end, less worldly considerations dictated his decision.