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USS Maine: Who Furnished the War?

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Good morning. It’s February 15. On this date in 1898, it was a sweltering evening in Cuba. In Havana harbor, the 354 officers and enlisted men aboard the USS Maine began to settle in for the night.

President McKinley had ordered the battleship to sail from its naval base in Key West literally to show the American flag in Havana. Although urged by some to intercede on behalf of Cubans fighting for independence from Spain, McKinley wanted to keep the United States neutral. Dispatching the Maine was seen as a cautionary way of demonstrating Washington’s willingness to protect Americans living in Cuba.

To avoid provocation, ship’s Capt. Charles Sigsbee did not allow the enlisted men to go ashore. The officers who did so were received with courtesy by Spanish officials, and U.S. consul Fitzhugh Lee -- a former Confederate cavalry officer and nephew to Robert E. Lee -- reported to his superiors that the Maine was achieving its desired effect, and that another battleship should replace it when it was time for the Maine to be rotated home.

That time, of course, never came.

At 9 p.m., on February 15, 1898, Capt. Sigsbee ordered his ship’s bugler, C. H. Newton, to blow taps. As the visually impressive warship bobbed peacefully at anchor, the men on board quieted down, reading, writing letters, or drifting off to sleep in their bunks. Suddenly, at 9:40 p.m., the Maine was destroyed by a tremendous explosion that sank the ship immediately.

Of the 354 men on board, 266 sailors and U.S. Marines perished. Capt. Sigsbee and most of the officers escaped, but that was only because their quarters were in the aft, and the enlisted men were sleeping in the front of the ship directly over the point of the explosion.

Its cause was determined at the time to be a Spanish mine or torpedo, although the evidence was never conclusive, and in 1976, retired Navy Admiral Hyman G. Rickover conducted a new inquiry, which pointed to a different cause: spontaneous combustion of coal in the bunker next to the magazine.

This revisionist theory itself was challenged on the centennial of the ship’s demise by a study conducted for National Geographic magazine by a firm called Advanced Marine Enterprises. Basing their work on new computer modeling, the AME report stated that “while a spontaneous combustion in a coal bunker could 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.”

While reach no definitive conclusion, the consultants reported to National Geographic that their research “does strengthen the case in favor of a mine as the cause.”

By that time, all the survivors had gone to their own graves; the U.S. had long since routed Spain and seized Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico; and Cuba (and, later, the Philippines) had achieved sovereignty -- and the episode had entered the murky waters of history.

Yet conspiracy theories about the Maine still abound, including the official version of Cuba’s Communist Party -- that Americans blew up their own ship for imperialist designs. Not only odious, this claim is ludicrous. The United States fought for Cuban independence.

The goofiest fable of all, however, is told on these shores by people who ought to know better, and it simply won’t die: This is the legend of William Randolph Hearst’s suppose exchange of cables with illustrator Frederic Remington.

According to the hoary tale, in January 1897 Remington cabled the famous newspaper publisher that no war would be taking place in Cuba and that he wished to return to New York.

By way of reply, Remington is alleged by have received the following cable from Hearst: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”

Despite being a staple of modern journalism, there is no evidence whatsoever for any such exchange, as the incomparable W. Joseph Campbell notes in his superb book on media myths. Nor does the yarn comport with any of the known facts. For one thing, war was already raging in Cuba in January 1897, which is why Remington was sent there in the first place. Second, he returned home more than a year before the Maine was sunk.

The fictional exchange first appeared -- approvingly -- in a 1901 book by a blustery and unreliable Canadian journalist. But after the faux anecdote appeared in the Times of London, Hearst himself angrily denied any such communication, calling it “frankly false” and “ingeniously idiotic.”

This one time, let’s give him the last word:

“This kind of clotted nonsense,” Hearst added in his missive to the Times, “could only be generally circulated and generally believed in England, where newspapers claiming to be conservative and reliable are the most utterly untrustworthy of any on earth. In apology for these newspapers it may be said that their untrustworthiness is not always due to intention but more frequently to ignorance and prejudice.”

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