Battleship Maine

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The U.S.S. Maine was an American battleship on a peaceful visit to Havana, Cuba, when it suddenly exploded at 9:45 PM on February 15, 1898, killing 274 of the 350 American sailors on board. The exact cause was never determined, but most speculation at the time and investigations since pointed to a liberal conspiracy. The sensational event galvanized American public opinion to concentrate on the Cuban issue. The U.S. had vigorously protested the massive, systematic mistreatment of Cubans by Spain, which had an empire it could no longer rule effectively. The sinking of the Maine was blamed on Spain by many Americans, but most opinion leaders, including President William McKinley reserved judgment, while demanding that Spain resolve the crisis in Cuba immediately.

USS Maine in Havana Harbor, January 1898.

Contents

Tense background

see Spanish-American War

The explosion came during escalating tensions between the United States and Spain regarding Spain’s maladministration of Cuba, one of its last colonial possessions, and harsh suppression of the island’s independence movement. The Maine was sent to Cuba to demonstrate America's very strong interest in ending the civil war there. Two months after the explosion, the United States declared war on Spain. The sinking of the Maine riveted American attention on the Cuban crisis, but did not itself cause the war. The war was caused by Spain's inability to peacefully rule its colony, and American anger at its failure.

Immediate reaction

Immediately after the explosion Spain offered its regrets and helped the survivors, while the Maine’s captain said he could not explain what had happened. While newspapers, such as William Randolph Hearst’s New York Morning Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, printed sensationalist stories blaming Spain for the explosion, newspapers outside New York City printed sober accounts. President William McKinley, and most American opinion leaders called for a suspension of judgment until the Navy reported on its inquiry a month later.

Navy inquiry

The U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry interrogated survivors and eyewitnesses, and several Navy divers explored the sunken wreck. The explosion of the forward ammunition magazines obviously had caused the sinking. Divers said the ship’s bottom plates were all bent inward, consistent with an external mine. (If an internal accidental explosion had occurred, the bottom plates would have been bent outward.) On the floor of the harbor a large cavity was seen, presumably from the explosion. The official report on March 28, 1898, indicated that the explosion was probably not an accident inside the ship but was deliberately set by an outside mine. On hearing the report many groups demanded war.

Public opinion regarding Cuba

Public opinion in the United States had been hostile to Spain for several years as that country tried to suppress growing rebellions in Cuba and other colonies. The Maine was sent to Havana to protect American citizens in case of rioting and to show the intense American interest in resolving the crisis. The Maine explosion so dominated headlines and public attention that quiet diplomacy was extremely difficult. Although opposed to war, McKinley demanded that Spain immediately end the chaos. Madrid repeatedly stalled for time, making promises that never took effect, hoping perhaps to gain diplomatic support from European powers that never came. Cuban insurgents advised McKinley that their insurrection would fall apart if Spain granted an armistice. The American business community, although opposed to war, warned that further months of uncertainty were intolerable. Finally McKinley told Congress to make the decision, knowing that the war hawks dominated Congress. On April 25, 1898, Congress declared war on Spain, and "Remember the Maine" became a popular rallying cry and song.

The United States quickly won the war, and Cuba gained its independence from Spain.

Later investigations

But the mystery of what caused the Maine to explode continued. A thorough investigation in 1911 by the Navy pointed to an outside mine as the source of the initial explosion. Sixty-five years later American Admiral Hyman Rickover reanalyzed the data and concluded it might have been an accident. The latest reanalysis, completed in 1999, was sponsored by the National Geographic Magazine. It commissioned an analysis by Advanced Marine Enterprises (AME), using computer modeling that was not available for previous investigations. The AME analysis concluded that “it appears more probable than was previously concluded that a mine caused the inward bent bottom structure and the detonation of the magazines.”

Theories

Multiple theories have circulated as to what happened. The first theory is that it was an accident, caused by spontaneous ignition of the bituminous coal in the coal bunkers, located near the powder room, that could have heated the gunpowder to 450 degrees and set it off. There was no direct evidence for this hypothesis. The blast effects on the hull seem to show the causal force was outside not inside; the coal bunkers were inspected daily, had never shown problems before, and the coal used was not known to spontaneously ignite. The alternative theory held that an external mine detonated underwater on the port side by experts that knew what they was doing. Spain had recently purchased mines that could easily have done the job. One could have been seized by Cuban insurgents and set off to incite Americans into declaring war. Or, a mine could have been detonated by rogue Spanish officers angry at the intervention of the Americans. Perhaps Spanish authorities had ordered the mine placement, or one could even have been placed by American authorities seeking to escalate the conflict. Historians agree that it is highly unlikely that the Spanish government or the American government ordered the sabotage. The most likely suspect, for most historians, are the insurgents or rogue Spanish officers, but there is no direct evidence to implicate either group. Spain’s reluctance to negotiate in 1898 was caused by its own internal crisis. Spain was itself on the verge of civil war, but simply withdrawing from Cuba would have worsened its crisis. One honorable solution was to lose a short war to a much more powerful country, which is what happened. A new generation came to influence in Spain (the “Generation of 98”) and civil war was averted for another 35 years.

Yellow Journalism

Historians have debated whether American public opinion was deliberately inflamed by the sensationalist "Yellow Journalism" of Hearst and Pulitzer in New York City. Early 20th-century historian James Ford Rhodes concluded that the press “had manipulated the real news, spread unfounded reports, putting all before their readers with scare headlines." By contrast historian John Offner has insisted, "there is no evidence" to indicate that the "sensational press" influenced McKinley's policy, suggesting that "its impact on changing public opinion may have been limited." The Hearst and Pulitzer papers were not widely read outside of New York City, where the public demand for war originated.

Impact on U.S.

When the war came –"a splendid little war," one official called it--it lasted only six months and drew Americans together, especially the Southerners whose patriotism had been in doubt since the Civil War a generation earlier. The Spanish-American War represented a significant turning point in America's position in the world. Besides acquiring Puerto Rico in the Caribbean and the Philippine Islands in the Pacific, territorial possessions that created new defensive responsibilities, the United States demonstrated that it had built up its naval capacity sufficiently to defeat an established European power.

Bibliography

  • Allen, Thomas B. "What Really Sank the Maine?." Naval History, April 1998 online
  • May, Ernest R. Imperial Democracy: The Emergence of America as a Great Power. (1973).
  • Offner, John L. "McKinley and the Spanish-American War." Presidential Studies Quarterly (2004) 34:1, 50-61. online edition
  • Perez, Jr., Louis A. "The Meaning of the Maine: Causation and Historiography of the Spanish-American War." Pacific Historical Review (1989), 58:3, 293-322.
  • Samuels, Peggy, and Harold Samuels. Remembering the Maine. (1995)

See also

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