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Cables, Crises, and the Press

The Geopolitics of the New Information System in the Americas, 1866-1903

John A. Britton

Publication Year: 2013

In recent decades the Internet has played what may seem to be a unique role in international crises. This book reveals an interesting parallel in the late nineteenth century, when a new communications system based on advances in submarine cable technology and newspaper printing brought information to an excitable mass audience. A network of insulated copper wires connecting North America, the Caribbean, South America, and Europe delivered telegraphed news to front pages with unprecedented speed.

Britton surveys the technological innovations and business operations of newspapers in the United States, the building of the international cable network, and the initial enthusiasm for these electronic means of communication to resolve international conflicts. Focusing on United States rivalries with European nations in Latin America, he examines the Spanish American War, in which war correspondents like Richard Harding Davis fed accounts of Spanish atrocities and Cuban heroism into the American press, creating pressure on diplomats and government leaders in the United States and Spain. The new information system also played important roles in the U.S.-British confrontation in the Venezuelan boundary dispute, the building of the Panama Canal, and the establishment of the U.S. empire in the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Published by: University of New Mexico Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-x

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Introduction: Main Themes and Organization of the Book

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pp. xi-xiv

The flood of in formation that has inundated the internet in the last few decades has played a large role in both internal and international crises on what may seem to be an unprecedented scale. A close examination of events in the late nineteenth century, however, reveals an interesting parallel. The new communications system that emerged in the 1860s and...

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1: Introduction to the New International Information System

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pp. 1-28

The use of the term “information system” suggests recent developments in computers and fiber-optic cables that allow the movement, storage, and analysis of large quantities of information from stock market prices to breaking news on political crises. The focus of this study is not on the first years of the twenty-first century, however, but the last decades of the nineteenth...

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2: Building the International Cable System

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pp. 29-50

Cyrus Field gain ed wide acclaim in 1866 as the entrepreneur who spanned the North Atlantic with a functioning submarine cable. His earlier failures were overshadowed by this technical triumph that linked Britain and continental Europe with North America. Field’s cable formed the northernmost connection in the information system under study here. The...

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3: Raising False Hopes: International Communications and International Crises in Latin America, 1866–1881

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pp. 51-66

The young telegrapher stood with his back to the electric key as he faced the Spanish soldiers who guarded the cable office. With his hand concealed behind his back, he quietly tapped out his message of distress: “There’s the devil to pay in Santiago. They’re butchering men of all nations.” This startling alert would have traveled over the submarine cable from the...

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4: War, Diplomacy, and Propaganda: Chilean-U.S. Relations, 1866–1880s

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pp. 67-84

Chile faced a difficult situation. Valparaíso, its major port, was blockaded by warships of the Spanish Navy. The blockading force, inspired by its earlier success against Peru, demanded a financial indemnity and threatened the economic well-being of the entire country. In need of weapons and diplomatic support in what had become an open war with Spain...

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5: European Intrusions, Domestic Disorder, and U.S. Armed Intervention: Central America in the 1880s

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pp. 85-108

Emperor Pedro II of Brazil expressed his enthusiasm for technological advancement in a telegraphed message to President Chester Arthur of the United States on September 26, 1883. The Brazilian emperor hailed the opening of the submarine cables laid by James Scrymser’s Central and South American that tied southern South America to the United States by...

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6: Confrontation via the Information System: Chile and the United States, 1889–1892

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pp. 109-132

A quick perusal of a world map reveals that Chile is one of the world’s most remote nations. Its main port, Valparaíso, is much closer to the South Pole than San Francisco, New York, or London. While its geography implies international isolation, its history speaks otherwise. In the last decades of the nineteenth century two major developments brought Chile into close...

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7: Popularization of the Imperial Mentality: From Border Crisis to Hemispheric Hegemony

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pp. 133-152

President Harrison’s aggressive approach to the Chilean-U.S. crisis of 1891–1892 departed from Washington’s post–Mexican War diplomacy. Supported by Benjamin Tracy, secretary of the navy, several senators and congressmen, and a cross section of the nation’s urban newspapers, Harrison made public statements that implied that the use of naval and military...

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8: Propaganda, Public Uproar, and the Threat of War: The United States, Great Britain, and the Venezuelan Boundary Controversy

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pp. 153-172

President Harris on mastered the use of international telegraphy in his dealings with Chile, but the new international information system had the potential to move messages and circulate news at a speed and intensity that frustrated and confused most government officials. This chapter explores the role of the information system in the Venezuelan boundary...

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9: Information Flow and Revolution: Cuba, Spain, and the United States

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pp. 173-198

The Venezuela–British Guiana boundary controversy shared the news columns and editorial pages with another crisis—that of the Cuban rebellion for independence from Spain. The two events unfolded simultaneously in 1895 and early 1896, so that coverage of the Venezuelan affair often appeared alongside stories about Cuba in many metropolitan...

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10: Diplomacy Under Stress: Washington, Havana, and Madrid

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pp. 199-228

John Long, secretary of the navy, found himself awakened by his daughter at 1:30 a.m. on February 16, 1898. She had just returned from a ball, the highlight social event in Washington on that evening, but such pleasantries were quickly forgotten when Secretary Long read the contents of the telegram that she handed him. The message from Captain Charles...

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11: Information Flow, the U.S. Press, and the War with Spain

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pp. 229-256

An obscure cross roads in the tropical wilderness in eastern Cuba became the point of intersection in the careers of the leading journalist of the United States and a rising political star, who, within three years, would become that nation’s president. Richard Harding Davis, the experienced but still youthful reporter was on the front line of the first important land conflict...

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12: The Panama Conspiracy

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pp. 257-280

The press coverage of the Cuban revolution for independence and the Spanish-American War established that reporters from the United States were capable of probing into the internal affairs of a Hispanic political entity (Spain’s colony of Cuba) and tracking the course of naval and military conflict in the West Indies, albeit often with a sensationalist and patriotic slant...

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13: Celebrations of Heroism and Power

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pp. 281-314

Newspapers, cables, and correspondents provided a steady stream of headlines and front-page stories that depicted the triumphs of the U.S. armed forces in the Caribbean and the Philippines. The public response to battlefield heroics was adulatory, and the market for publications was vigorous. In the afterglow of these victories several writers used the medium of the...

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Conclusion: The Ominous Triumph of Popular Culture

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pp. 315-336

The creation of the new information system at first seemed to offer many advantages to powerful institutions and few opportunities for ordinary citizens. Profit-making companies operated cable lines, and publishers printed newspapers. Governments and private corporations—especially newspapers—had the financial wherewithal to send messages. Ordinary...


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pp. 337-412


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pp. 413-448


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pp. 449-473

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780826353986
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826353979

Page Count: 472
Publication Year: 2013