Memorial Day Reflections on the Spanish-American War and World War II

This month, the Wolfsonian librarians provided special access to two war-related collections in our holdings. Early in May, Judith Berson-Levinson, the daughter of a Second World War veteran, called to let us know that her long-awaited book, South Beach at War: Sun, Sand and Soldiers during WWII, had been published. As a local NBC affiliate contacted her about participating in a Memorial Day special, she asked us if we would host the interview so that she could include some of the “Sand in their Boots” memorabilia she had donated to our collection. Her timing could not have been better, as we had just de-installed an installation of some of her rare materials from a student-curated display at Florida International University.

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Unconstrained by the limitations of cases, we laid out some of these same items and others that demonstrated Miami Beach’s importance as an Army Air Forces Technical Training Command center during the Second World War. Gleaned from WWII veterans and their families, the Judith Berson-Levinson Collection includes such diverse materials as photograph albums, matchcovers, membership cards, menus, magazines, postcards, pamphlets, and military graduation yearbooks.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gifts of Judith Berson-Levinson

This collection also includes a sound recording and numerous pillowcases made for the AAF servicemen stationed in Miami Beach to send home to relatives, sweethearts, and wives before being transferred to the combat zones.

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As noted in an earlier post about the student installation, the materials in this collection document Miami Beach’s transformation from a winter vacation destination into an Army Air Corps training camp. Hundreds of Art Deco hotels had been converted into barracks, mess halls, and education centers.

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he Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Judith Berson-Levinson

The transformation of Miami Beach did not end in 1945; having exposed so many GIs to the beauty and recreational opportunities of South Florida, many of these veterans returned with their families to vacation here at the war’s end, while many others decided to return to spend their golden years in the Sunshine State as retirees.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gifts of Judith Berson-Levinson

After completing her interview, Judith was gracious and generous enough to donate several more items to be added to the “Sand in their Boots” archive, including a group photograph, photograph album, an AAF Officer Candidate and Officer Training School dinner program, and some additional decorated pillowcases and handkerchiefs (sent as mementos to loved ones by GI shipping out overseas).

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gifts of Judith Berson-Levinson

Be sure to catch Judith’s interview on NBC or visit the website links to her interview.

Later on in May, we were contacted by Tania Caragol, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Ms. Caragol had scheduled a research visit last November and had examined a number of historical bindings related to the Spanish-American War (1898) for possible inclusion in an exhibition about that conflict. She returned this month with Kim Sajet, the first woman to serve as the director of the National Portrait Gallery and eleven other Smithsonian enthusiasts touring South Florida. After a meet and greet with our own director, Tim Rodgers, the visitors were conducted up to the library to see a display of rare books and sheet music covers selected by Ms. Caragol documenting the three-month war.

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Ms. Caragol led discussions about the materials on the tables and we jointly talked about some of the propaganda campaigns used to stir up animosity towards Spain to justify American intervention in Cuba’s war for independence.

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In waging a newspaper circulation war to sell their papers, Joseph Pulitzer (publisher of the New York World) and William Randolph Hearst (publisher of the New York Journal, and Pulitzer’s competitor) greatly contributed to war hysteria by printing lurid, exaggerated, and sometimes fabricated Spanish atrocities committed against Cuban civilians. In fighting an insurgent population, the Spanish General Valeriano Weyler decided to separate the rebels from potential supporters. By 1897, General Weyler had forced more than 300,000 civilians from their homes into “reconcentration camps” where thousands died of disease and starvation. While such legitimate atrocities helped mobilize American opinion in favor of the rebels, the yellow press deployed sensationalized headlines and followed with dramatic and lurid stories to demonize Spain and to personalize the plight of the Cuban people.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

William R. Hearst seized upon the case of eighteen-year-old Cuban girl, Evangelina Cisneros, the beautiful daughter of a Cuban revolutionary. Hearst’s New York Journal published a serial diary of her trials and tribulations as she fended off the lascivious advances of a Spanish official who alternated between promises of protection and prosecution and subjected her to an indefinite stay in a Havana prison. Not content to report the news, Hearst ordered his reporter, Karl Decker, to help organize a prison break, get her to the port in disguise, and smuggle her out of the country. After spiriting her to the United States, Hearst organized parades and a media blitz which culminated in a visit with the president. Afterwards, the serialized news stories and interviews describing her imprisonment and daring rescue and escape were published in book format.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

In an anecdote disputed by some historians, the famous illustrator Frederick Remington (sent by Hearst to Cuba to document the battles) cabled the publisher to report that there was no war to cover. The publisher allegedly responded by telling him, “You furnish the pictures. I’ll furnish the war.” Whether or not the words attributed to Hearst were spoken or cabled, most historians agree that the “yellow press” certainly contributed to the call for U.S. intervention in the war. Ultimately, though, it was the mysterious explosion of the warship USS Maine while anchored in Havana’s harbor that provided the pivotal piece of pro-war propaganda. Just as “Remember the Alamo” became the rallying cry in the war for Texas independence in 1836, it found an echo in 1898 in the slogan “Remember the Maine.” With little or no evidence to back up their claims, irresponsible journalists and publishers reported that a Spanish mine or torpedo had killed the 260 sailors and sunk the American battleship. Popular patriotic sheet music covers combined the colors of the flag, with images of the Maine to rally and call Americans to arms.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Joseph K. Albertson Collection, Gift of the Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Fla.

While an official American investigation at the time confirmed the claims of jingoistic journalists and their publicity-minded publishers, subsequent underwater investigations of the sinking by U.S. Navy experts made in 1976 concluded that an internal explosion was at fault and postulated that a coal bunker fire was the most likely culprit. Based on the contemporary evidence and the war hysteria raised by the yellow journalist press, Congress declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

The Wolfsonian Library holds a large collection of beautifully bound books published to promote and to celebrate the brief war with Spain, donated by the late collector and amateur historian Frederic A. Sharf. Many self-congratulatory titles praised the American people for extending the blessings of liberty and freedom to Spain’s oppressed colonies.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

Other books and memorabilia celebrated Admiral Dewey’s spectacular naval successes at Manila Bay with the Asiatic Squadron and created a hero of Teddy Roosevelt, who had resigned his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to form his “Rough Riders” volunteer cavalry regiment that participated in the Battle of Kettle Hill.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Purchased with Founder’s Fund

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

Although there were influential anti-imperialists at work in the nation, other publications were designed to instill a sense of pride in America’s new colonial possessions. Americans were also “introduced” to the peoples of their new possessions in the Philippines at “human zoo” pavilions established at subsequent world’s fairs in the United States.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Colleciton

Other items on display for the group included sheet music covers and ephemera covering similar propagandistic themes. Hundreds of these musical scores from the Joseph K. Albertson Collection were donated to our library by the Monroe County Public Library in Key West, Florida—a gift facilitated by Anne Layton Rice.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Joseph K. Albertson Collection, Gift of the Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Fla.

Other ephemeral items came from Vicki Gold Levi as a promised gift to The Wolfsonian Library. One of our summer volunteer interns, Julia Ricks, has been helping us catalog these items.

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The Wolfsonian–FIU, Promised gifts of Vicki Gold Levi

Be sure to visit our museum’s digital image catalog to see these and other items regularly being catalogued, digitized, and uploaded.

~ by "The Chief" on May 27, 2019.

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