Thursday, February 15, 2007

February 15

Shortly before 10:00 pm on 15 February 1898, the USS Maine was obliterated by a mysterious explosion in Havana Harbor; whatever the cause of the initial blast, the battleship was ultimately destroyed by five tons of its own powder. The ship had been sent to Cuba for the purpose of guarding American lives and property as the colony’s insurrection against Spanish rule plunged the island into greater violence. Over 260 American sailors died in the explosion. They were initially buried at Colon cemetery in Havana; a year later, the sailors were disinterred and laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The Maine itself remained at the bottom of Havana Harbor until 1912, when it was raised and res-sunk in the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

The aftermath of the Maine disaster was propitious for those Americans who had been plumping for a war against Spain for the previous year. William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal quickly judged that no matter what the cause of the explosion, whether by accident or sinister design, the United States was obligated to make war against the Spanish:
But while we must wait for definite evidence before formally charging Spain with the shameful treachery, which all the world is ready to suspect her, we need wait for nothing before instituting such a change of policy as will relieve us of the fear of future troubles. The anarchy in Cuba, which for three years has reached the sympathies of all Americans but the dehumanized stock-jobbers of Wall-Street, has become an intolerable evil to American interests. It has destroyed three hundred seamen. We have endured it long enough. Whether a Spanish torpedo sank the Maine or not, peace must be restored in Cuba at once. We cannot have peace without fighting for it, let us fight and have it over with. It is not likely that the entire Spanish navy would be able to do us as much harm in open battle as we suffered in Havana Harbor in one second for a state of things that was neither peace or war.
The explosion of the Maine established the momentum for an eventual American declaration of war against the Spanish crown. It also inspired a flood of bad music, art, and poetry. In one wretched piece of verse, long-forgotten poet and songwriter Arthur MacOwan urged his countrymen to
Lend your ear to the whisper, ‘tis growing more strong
‘Tis a whisper no longer, ‘tis sweeping along
Through the length and the breadth of this land of the free
From city to mountain, from mountain to sea,
And that voice of America tells thee, O Spain,
That the men of our country “Remember the ‘Maine’.”
Few remember the Maine today. It has been decades since an American president mentioned the ship directly.