On February 15, 1898, a mysterious explosion sank the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, Cuba killing 260 of the men aboard. The event was grasped upon by influential figures as a pretext to intervene in Cuba, where Spain was fighting to prevent the Cubans from gaining their independence. The media served as propaganda, blaming the explosion on Spain and calling for war and empire. “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!” was the rallying cry across the country of the newspapers and war-hawks.
A Navy court of inquiry concluded on March 28 that there had been an external explosion which had ignited the forward magazines, but stated that the investigation was “unable to obtain evidence fixing responsibility for the destruction of the Maine upon any person or persons.” Moreover, no motive existed for Spain to have done so. Indeed, needless to say, provoking the U.S. to intervene was hardly in their interests. That did not stop the Congress from responding affirmatively to President McKinley’s subsequent request for a declaration of war against Spain.
In short, the United States went to war using the pretext of an unlikely conspiracy theory.
A subsequent investigation into the Maine explosion in 1911 upheld the former conclusion that an external source was the cause. But a third investigation in 1975 organized by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover concluded that “the available evidence is consistent with an internal explosion alone…. The most likely source was heat from a fire in the coal bunker adjacent to the 6-inch reserve magazine.” This explanation has been popularly accepted as part of the official history, despite the conclusions of the two former investigations.
However, the National Geographic Society commissioned an analysis of the explosion in 1998 and concluded that “while a spontaneous combustion in a coal bunker can create ignition-level temperatures in adjacent magazines, this is not likely to have occurred on the Maine, because the bottom plating…would have blown outward, not inward.”
Rickover’s theory necessitated explaining the inwardly bent hull plate. His explanation “that the inrush of flooding water somehow could have not only reversed the downward bent plates and attached structural support to an inward position 180° from its original location, but to have done so without similarly affecting adjacent plating is also deemed implausible. The most plausible explanation for the position of this plating is that non-shock-wave loading from an underwater mine, located beneath this plate section, caused the rivet connections to fail and pushed the plate section up into the ship….”
“This study strengthens the arguments in favor of a submerged mine as the cause of the sinking….” The study recognizes both as possibilities: either “a magazine explosion induced by proximity to a coal bunker fire” or “a magazine explosion induced by an under-ship mine”, but adds that “it appears more probable than was previously concluded that a mine caused the inward bent bottom structure and detonation of the magazines.”
So the question remains, if a mine was used to sink the Maine, as appears to have been the case: Who placed the mine and why?
It’s interesting to note that the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during the Kennedy administration, proposed creating a false pretext for war against Cuba. One of their proposals proposed that “A ‘Remember the Maine’ incident could be arranged…. We could blow up a US ship in Guantanamo Bay and Blame Cuba.”
It is questionable whether the media of the day represented the public mindset or sought to create it anew. Either way, the message often given is instructive. There was, of course, the breed known as “yellow journalism”, epitomized by the competition between Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, which had openly called for intervention, and which were not unwilling to propagate deliberate deceptions in order to convince the American people of such a necessity. In one incident, Hearst sent the artist Frederick Remington to Cuba, who cabled, “There is no war. Request to be recalled.” Hearst famously replied, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.”
Calls for empire echoing the “manifest destiny” declaration were heard. An editorial in the Washington Post just prior to the war declared: “A new consciousness seems to have come upon us—the consciousness of strength—and with it a new appetite, the yearning to show our strength…. Ambition, interest, land hunger, pride, the mere joy of fighting, whatever it may be, we are animated by a new sensation. We are face to face with a strange destiny. The taste of Empire is in the mouth of the people even as the taste of blood in the jungle….”
The possibility that Cubans might gain their independence if the U.S. did not intervene was at times expressed as a negative prospect. An article appearing in 1896 in The Saturday Review explained that although Spanish rule was bad, Cuban independence was worse: “A grave danger represents itself. Two-fifths of the insurgents in the field are negroes. These men …would, in the event of success, demand a predominant share in the government of the country…the result being, after years of fighting, another black republic.” The reference was to Haiti.
Other times, openly imperialistic views, inherently opposed to the notion of an independent Cuba, were expressed. While Congress had passed the Teller amendment to the declaration of war, promising not to annex Cuba, the Journal of Commerce declared that “The Teller amendment … must be interpreted in a sense somewhat different from that which its author intended it to bear.”
Often, lip-service was paid to the ideal of liberty. The intervention, it was said, was a just cause. The U.S. was going to “liberate” Cuba. But other intentions were not deeply hidden behind this thin veil. The New York Commercial Advertiser called for intervention for “humanity and love of freedom, and above all, the desire that the commerce and industry of every part of the world shall have full freedom of development in the whole world’s interest.”
On March 21, 1998, Henry Cabot Lodge wrote to McKinley to say that he had spoken with “bankers, brokers, businessmen, editors, clergymen and others” and that “everybody”, including “the most conservative classes” wanted the Cuban problem “solved” and that “for business one shock and then and end was better than a succession of spasms such as we must have if this war on Cuba went on.”
Four days later, McKinley received a message from an adviser that “Big corporations here now believe we will have war. Believe all would welcome it as relief to suspense.” The next day, the U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry issued its findings on the sinking of the Maine, and the day after that, McKinley issued an ultimatum to Spain demanding an end to the conflict.
On April 20, the Congress passed a joint resolution “for the recognition of the independence of the people of Cuba, demanding that the Government of Spain relinquish its authority and government in the island of Cuba and to withdraw its land and naval forces from Cuba and Cuban waters, and directing the President of the United States to use the land and naval forces of the United States to carry these resolutions in to effect.”
Spain responded the next day by terminating diplomatic relations with the U.S. On the 23rd, a decree was issued noting the “War status existing between Spain and the United States”. This is often referred to as a Spanish “declaration of war” (allowing historians to say that Spain first declared war on the U.S.) On the 25th, McKinley wrote to Congress that “It will be perceived therefrom that the Government of Spain, having cognizance of the joint resolution of the United States Congress, and in view of the things which the President is thereby required and authorized to do, responds by treating the reasonable demands of this Government as measures of hostility, following with that instant and complete severance of relations by its action which by the usage of nations accompanies an existent state of war between sovereign powers.” He requested that Congress recognize that a state of war existed between the U.S. and Spain.
The Congress responded by declaring “That war be, and the same is hereby, declared to exist, and that war has existed since the 21st day of April, A.D., including said day, between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Spain.” In other words, the U.S. officially regarded the Spanish withdrawal of diplomatic relations as an act of war, even though that act was itself a response to a Congressional resolution calling for armed forces to be used to ensure Spain’s withdrawal from Cuba.
Thus it was that the U.S. intervened in the name of “liberating” the Cuban people. But the Cuban rebels, not trusting in the rhetorical mask of benevolent U.S. intentions, reasonably feared that the U.S. simply desired to replace Spain. They issued a statement to the U.S.: “In the face of the present proposal of intervention without previous recognition of independence, it is necessary for us to go a step farther and say that we must and will regard such intervention as nothing less than a declaration of war by the United States against the Cuban revolutionists….”
When Spain surrendered, the U.S. acted as though the Cubans didn’t exist. They were not allowed to participate in negotiations or to sign the surrender. The Cuban revolutionary leader General Calixto Garcia wrote a letter of protest, saying “I have not been honored with a single word from yourself informing me about the negotiations for peace or the terms of the capitulation by the Spaniards.” The Cubans were prevented from entering Santiago, the capital, and the U.S. kept the Spanish authorities in charge. Garcia wrote, “I cannot see but with the deepest regret that such authorities are not elected by the Cuban people, but are the same ones selected by the Queen of Spain.”
The U.S. then informed the Cubans that its army would not leave until certain terms were adopted into the new Cuban Constitution. Specifically, the U.S. wanted Cuba to incorporate the Platt Amendment, which gave the U.S. “the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty,” while specifically rejecting any such “right” or any other “foreign power” and regardless of anything the Cubans might have to say about the matter. The resolution also declared that “Cuba will sell or lease to the United States lands necessary for coaling or naval stations” (Guantanamo Bay is a legacy of the Platt Amendment).
Cubans naturally protested this encroachment upon their liberty, leading the head of the occupation forces to write McKinley: “The people of Cuba lend themselves readily to all sorts of demonstrations and parades, and little significance should be attached to them.”
The Constitutional Committee responded to the U.S. with a report saying:
For the United States to reserve to itself the power to determine when this independence was threatened, and when, therefore, it should intervene to preserve it, is equivalent to handing over the keys to our house so that they can enter it at any time, whenever the desire seizes them, day or night, whether with good or evil design…. A people occupied militarily is being told that before consulting their own government, before being free in their own territory, they should grant the military occupants who came as friends and allies, rights and powers which would annul the sovereignty of these very people. That is the situation created for us by the method which the United States has just adopted. It could not be more obnoxious and inadmissible.
However, the Convention eventually bowed under continued pressure from the U.S. under the military occupation and the refusal to allow any Cuban government to exist unless they acquiesced to the U.S. demands.
As a result of the war, the U.S. took possession of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Wake Island, Guam, and the Philippines. McKinley spoke of the decision to take the Philippines:
I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way… That we could not give them back to Spain… That we could not turn them over to France or Germany… That we could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government… That there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed and went to sleep and slept soundly.
The Filipinos did not take kindly to God’s instructions, or the manner in which McKinley implemented them. They rose up in revolt, and the U.S. sent forces to prevent them from gaining their independence. True to the desires of many, despite empty rhetoric to the contrary, the U.S. had emerged from what Secretary of State John Hay called a “splendid little war”, as an imperialistic world power.
 Kenneth C. Davis, “Don’t Know Much About History” (Avon Books, New York 1995), p. 220
 “USS Maine” entry from Ships of the World: An Historical Encyclopedia, a Houghton Mifflin online publication found at http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/ships/html/sh_000106_shipsofthewo.html
 Ships of the World: An Historical Encyclopedia
 “What Really Sank the Maine”, Naval History, April 1998
 “Pentagon Proposed Pretexts for Cuba Invasion in 1962”, memorandum for the Secretary of Defense from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, March 13, 1962
 Kenneth C. Davis, p. 219
“The Spanish-American War”, from the online resource Small Planet
 Howard Zinn, “A People’s History of the United States” (HarperCollins Publishers, New York 2003) p. 299
 Ibid., p. 303
 Ibid., p. 304-305
 Ibid., p. 304
 Ibid., p. 305
 Ibid., p. 305
 The Project Gutenberg e-book compilation of the messages and papers of President McKinley: http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/1/3/8/9/13893/13893-h/13893-h.htm
 Spanish “declaration of war”, April 23, 1898, found online at:
 The Project Gutenberg e-book compilation of the messages and papers of President McKinley
 Congressional “declaration of war”, April 25, 1898, found online at:
 Howard Zinn, p. 305
 Ibid., p. 309
 Platt Amendment (1903), from “100 Documents that Shaped America”, U.S. News
 Howard Zinn, p. 311
 Ibid., p. 311-312
 Ibid., p. 312
 Ibid., p. 313