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The Spanish American War (1898-1901)

The Maine Explosion: 1898

Yellow Journalism and the Rise of American Anger: 1895-1897

US Goes to War: 1898

Summary

Concerned with the situation in Cuba, in January 1897 the US sent a warship, the USS Maine, to Cuba under captain Charles D. Sigsbee. The Maine's mission was purportedly friendly, its job to investigate the situation and provide an escape for American should things get out of hand. Shortly after the Maine set out, Hearst's newspaper intercepted a letter from Spain's minister in Washington, Dupuy du Lome. The letter spoke rudely of President McKinley. Of course, Hearst did not refrain from publishing the scandalous Lome letter. The letter appeared in the February 9, 1898 of the New York Journal. The letter outraged Americans and embarrassed Spain. Dupuy du Lome was forced to resign over the matter, and tensions between the US and Spain increased.

Six days after Hearst published the Lome letter, the USS Maine sailed into Havana harbor. The surprised Spanish, who had only been given a few hours notice that the Maine was coming, were quite upset. Although the Maine claimed to be on a friendly mission, it was a powerful warship. The Spanish authorities felt that the US was trying to intimidate them and was interfering with Spanish sovereignty by trying to affect Spanish policy toward the Cuban insurrectos.

On February 15, 1898, in an event that still remains a mystery, the Maine suddenly exploded as it sailed around Havana harbor. This was a tragedy for the United States, as 260 out of 350 American sailors and officers died in the explosion. Hearst's newspaper immediately published a story with the headline, "The Warship Maine Was Split In Two By An Enemy's Secret Infernal Machine!'' The destruction of the Maine created an uproar in America, which, influenced by Hearst, immediately held Spain responsible. In fact, the details of the explosion were still not clear. Investigations by both the US and Spain began, and not surprisingly, they disagreed. While the Spanish investigation team claimed that the explosion was only an accident caused by some internal problem on the ship, the American investigation said the explosion must have been caused by a Spanish mine in the harbor. The yellow press exploited this story, whipping the US into an anti-Spanish frenzy. Newspaper circulation soared as the public demanded war with Spain. War would come, and when it did, the cry of "Remember the Maine" would be heard frequently.

Commentary

Why did the US send the Maine to Cuba? Officially the claim was that it was simply a normal patrol, more of a friendly fact-finding mission than anything else. The real mission of the Maine was probably geared towards protecting US interests. Should a crisis approximating the 1897 riots by insurrectos break out, the US wanted a warship in the vicinity ready to evacuate American citizens in Cuba. And of course, the US had long been interested in increasing American influence in Cuba. Perhaps the Maine was a first step in this direction.

The true nature of the USS Maine explosion has long been one of the great mysteries of American history. At the time, Americans already had a negative view of Spain and almost instantaneously concluded that the explosion was caused by Spanish treachery. For a while after the Spanish-American War, most people accepted the answer that the American investigative commission gave: that a Spanish torpedo or mine blew up the Maine. The Spanish investigative commission, which was never allowed very close to the Maine's wreck anyway, disagreed. According to the Spanish side of the story, some internal problem with the ship caused the explosion. Perhaps a boiler or a combustion engine exploded, they said. It turns out that they Spanish interpretation may well have been correct. In the 1970s, Admiral Hyman Rickover of the US Navy took another look at the Maine. According to Rickover's investigation, it appeared most likely that an internal mechanical problem had caused a stockpile of ammunition and gunpowder stored nearby to explode. Rickover's conclusion was almost identical to the Spanish claims. A third possibility, that the US intentionally exploded the Maine in order to give the nation a reason for going to war, seems to be an unlikely conspiracy theory with little supporting evidence. Nonetheless, some in Cuba hold this theory today. And despite Rickover's study in the 1970s, the case is still not settled. A later investigation by the Smithsonian turned up numerous plots against the Maine, suggesting a mine or some type of sabotage. Computer modeling studies financed by National Geographic have demonstrated that, based on the wreckage, the explosion could have been caused by either a mine or an internal mechanical accident. Most likely, the causes behind the explosion of the USS Maine will never be known with complete certainty. But whatever the reason for the explosion, the event played directly into the hands of pro-war hawks, jingoists, and yellow journalists like Hearst.

Was the Maine explosion an unfortunate accident that pushed the US into a war that might otherwise have been avoided? Possibly, but given US actions prior to the explosion (such as the Maine's voyage to Cuba or Theodore Roosevelt's orders to Commodore George Dewey to attack the Spanish fleet at Manila in the case of a war with Spain), it seems that the United States had been gearing up for war prior to the explosion. The Maine explosion just provided the impetus.

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