Remember the Maine?

Cortés, during his campaign to conquer the ancient empire of the Mexica—the word which anthropologists would now have us use when we talk of the Aztecs—wrote to the emperor Charles V that he hoped to offer him an empire as great as the one he already had in Germany. As we know, he was able to do it. His distant cousin, Pizarro, offered the emperor the Inca empire; and other conquistadors, such as Gonzalo de Quesada, were able to fill in territories lying between Peru and Mexico. Thus was founded one of the greatest of European political enterprises.

In its duration and cultural influence, the Spanish empire overshadows the empires of Britain, France, Holland, Belgium, and even Russia. “He who has not seen Mexico does not know Spain,” I once wrote myself, and Spanish linguistic influence over the territory of what used to be considered Anglo-Saxon America is still growing. The Spanish empire in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines lasted till 1898.

Further, though the empires of other European nations came to an end untidily or in disputed circumstances, the empire of Spain ended with a bang, an explosion that caused the destruction of the United States battleship Maine in 1898, and then the war that turned over responsibility for what remained of the Spanish empire to the US, which took over Cuba for four years, the Philippines for nearly fifty, and Puerto Rico indefinitely.

The battleship Maine had been launched in 1890 as one of a new generation of vessels designed to make the United States equal at least to Germany in naval power. It was over 300 feet long, had a beam of nearly 60 feet at its widest, and had a ship’s company of over 350 men. Technically, it was a second-class battleship, being slower than the four first-class ones in the United States Navy, and alongside the battleship Texas.

The Maine steamed into Havana Harbor on January 25, 1898, in order to protect American citizens in Havana, whom President McKinley in Washington, on the advice of his ebullient and nationalistic consul-general in Havana, Fitzhugh Lee, a nephew of Robert E. Lee, thought might be at risk as a result of riots against would-be reformers in Cuba. The Spanish government in Madrid, headed by an elderly liberal prime minister Práxedes Sagasta, reluctantly accepted the arrival of the Maine on the understanding that it was a visit by a warship of a friendly neighbor; and the Sagasta government, for its part, ordered its own modern cruiser, the Vizcaya, to visit New York.

Those riots were unusual ones, for they were directed against the idea that imperial Spain might allow the Cubans to govern themselves under a home rule regime; the rioters were coming to the defense of the Spanish army. Until a few years before, Cuba had been one of the richest of European colonies. Whatever one may think, in the tradition of J.A. Hobson or Lenin, of the effects of empire on economic development at home, Cuba’s wealth had certainly contributed greatly to the prosperity of the madre patria. Scratch a successful late-nineteenth-century bank or shipping firm in Spain and you will find a Cuban fortune behind it.

But great wealth often creates great problems; and there were plenty of Cubans, including many ex-slaves, mulattoes, and also small landholders of Spanish descent, who had been left out of Cuba’s affluence. In 1868 such people had organized a rebellion against Spain which was defeated after a ten-year war. A second rebellion had begun in 1895. In this new war, the rebels resolved to carry the fight to the entire island rather than just establish themselves in a redoubt in the east, as had happened before. They sought to ruin the economy.

The Spanish leaders in Madrid thought that unless they defeated these rebels, their government could not stay in office; and perhaps the Bourbon dynasty could not last either. The colonies in Cuba and Puerto Rico had, after all, enabled the monarchy to survive the disaster of the loss of the rest of the mainland Spanish American colonies in the 1820s. After some hesitation on the part of the government, Valeriano Weyler, a ruthless general of German descent, was assigned to carry out a policy of repression in Cuba that would force large parts of the rural population to live in settlements in the towns.

This brutal strategy had some success from a purely military point of view; the rebels did not hold out in East Cuba, though some of their detachments were still to be found in the west. But otherwise the policy led to a catastrophe. The economy of the island was wrecked, sugar almost ceased to be harvested, and thousands of civilians died of hunger at reconcentrados in the towns which became little more than camps, thereby increasing the appeal of the rebellion. United States business interests, originally very critical of the rebels, became perturbed as they saw their investments of $50 million dwindle.

Even more important, Weyler’s policy played into the hands of the Cuban junta in New York, a group that put itself forward as an alternative government for the island. The junta organized gunrunning into the island on behalf of the rebels, and carried on a successful propaganda campaign against Spain in the United States press and in the labor unions. When some of the gunrunners were stopped by the Spanish navy, and some United States citizens were arrested in Cuba by the Spanish authorities, relations between Spain and the United States became worse.

In the summer of 1897, the conservative Spanish prime minister Cánovas del Castillo was murdered in San Sebastián and his liberal successors announced a change of policy in Cuba. General Weyler was recalled. Segismundo Moret, an able, Anglophile, and English-speaking minister of the colonies, prepared to set up self-government in Cuba beginning on January 1, 1898. Elections were to be held for a Cuban parliament in April. Had that scheme for home rule been tried when it had first been promised, at the end of the first Cuban war, in 1878, it might have been a success. But now it pleased nobody. In Spain, many Catalans were nostalgic for their youth, when they danced habaneras with forgotten mulatas on the Caribbean waterfront. Many Catalan businessmen thought that autonomy would threaten their monopoly of Cuban manufactured goods, especially textiles. Conservatives in Madrid thought that autonomy might lead to similar concessions to peoples within Spain.

The rebels for their part executed a Spanish colonel who came to talk to them about autonomy, while Cuban traditionalists hated the idea as well. It was they who inspired the street riots which led to the dispatch of the Maine. Both Moret and the Queen Regent of Spain, María Cristina, told the American Minister in Madrid, General Woodford, that the two reforming steps they accepted—the removal of “Butcher Weyler,” as he was known in North America, and the grant of autonomy—required the United States administration to close down the Cuban junta in New York. Were it not for the junta, the Spaniards insisted, there would now be no war in Cuba.

The visit of the Maine to Havana began without incident, even though the Americans had given no notice that the ship would arrive. The Spanish authorities and the captain Charles Sigisbee got along reasonably well, and Sigisbee went to the bullfights on two successive Sunday nights.

But then, at 9:40 PM on the evening of February 15, the Maine blew up. A sudden explosion took place, apparently in the ship’s forward magazines, in which gunpowder was stored and which were directly below the crew’s quarters. The entire forepart of the ship was wrecked. The stern began to sink; two officers and 266 men out of the ship’s company of 354 died, and many others were injured. Captain Sigisbee was saved.

How did it happen? The more sensational American newspapers had no doubts: on February 17, for example, William Randolph Hearst’s World carried a headline: “THE WARSHIP MAINE SPLIT IN TWO BY AN ENEMY’S SECRET INFERNAL MACHINE.” Beneath was an alarming drawing of the ship anchored over mines and a diagram, showing wires leading to the Cabaña, the fortress next to El Morro on the far side of Havana Bay. But Captain Sigisbee, in his first telegram from Havana, mentioned the help that the Spanish authorities had given in searching for survivors. He wisely, if unrealistically, advised his superiors that “public opinion should be suspended until further report.”

But that was easier said than done; even a hundred years ago, public opinion could not be turned off. The weeks following the explosion of the Maine were marked by rising hysteria in North America, inflamed by the Hearst press and by comments of younger members of the government, among them Theodore Roosevelt, the brilliant but irresponsible assistant secretary for the Navy. The Journal, for example, happily denounced “eminently respectable porcine citizens” who,

for dollars in the money-grubbing sty, support “conservative” newspapers and consider the starvation of…inoffensive men, women and children and the murder of 250 American sailors…of less importance than the fall of two points in the price of stock.

When the acting Secretary of State, John D. Long, said that official Spanish responsibility for the explosion could be discounted, he was placed on the Journal’s list of those who had sold out to “pacific Wall Street.” The day after the explosion, when President McKinley merely said that he was appalled but was by no means prepared to commit himself immediately to war, Roosevelt exploded, “The President has no more backbone than a chocolate éclair.” On the 18th, Joseph Pulitzer’s World described mass meetings in Buffalo, urging McKinley to declare war against Spain; the same day the World declared: “The whole country thrills with war fever.”

It is now unfashionable among historians to blame the Spanish-American War of 1898 on the so-called “yellow press,” especially the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers. But the public opinion which those newspapers reflected and which could not be “suspended” was certainly chauvinist. Many Americans were beginning to believe that the country had an international mission which went far beyond the caution expressed in Washington’s famous farewell speech a hundred years before. For example, the influential book One Country, by the Protestant minister Josiah Strong, spoke of the United States as having been required by God to extend Christianity.

Two inquiries were made into the cause of the explosion: one by a United States naval court, the other by Spain. The Spaniards sensibly suggested a joint inquiry, but the idea was rejected in Washington.

The United States investigation was conducted by four officers, headed by a senior captain named Sampson, who had once been in command of the Navy’s torpedo station. He and his colleagues took evidence from survivors; they visited Havana and sent down divers to investigate the wreckage. Captain Sigisbee’s testimony was remarkably vague. He was certain that the coal on the Maine had been inspected before it had been brought on board at Newport News, but he could not say when the inspection took place. He didn’t know how much coal had been on the ship. He was sure that the fire alarms worked because he had heard them go off at temperatures below that for which they were set. He thought that he had inspected the magazines sometime during the previous three months but he could not remember exactly when.

The court did not consult outside experts, thinking that as experienced naval officers they would be able to make up their minds for themselves. Thus they did not ask the Navy’s chief engineer, George Melville, to testify, perhaps because he had told the press that he suspected that there had been an explosion in the magazines. And the Navy ordnance expert, Philip Alger, wrote an article in the Washington Evening Star arguing that a fire in the coal bunkers must have started the explosion in the magazines. The members of the court did not summon him either. They did see the reports of divers, but those were not very professional, and they could not really describe what they had seen in the mud thirty-six feet down.

They reported, however, a peculiar damage to the ship’s keel which had been driven upward to form an inverted “V.” At least one member of the court showed by a question he asked that he realized that this catastrophe could have been caused by an internal explosion. But the Court decided, largely because of that inverted “V,” that the Maine had been destroyed by the explosion of a submarine mine which, in turn, caused the partial explosion of two or more of the forward magazines. Though that meant that foul play must have been involved, the report was unable to fix the blame for the explosion upon any person. The American court found a man who was prepared to testify anonymously that he had heard Spanish officers on the ferry between Havana and the little town of Regla on the other side of the bay saying that they wanted to destroy the Maine, whose arrival had been such an insult to Spanish pride. But there was nothing to show that those officers, if indeed they existed, did anything about the matter.

All the same, when the report was published at the end of March, President McKinley decided that the Spanish government could not maintain order in Havana. Many others were even more critical of the Spaniards: an excellent recent historian of those days, John Offner, estimates that nine out of ten members of Congress thought that the Spaniards were directly responsible for destroying the ship. The United States Consul in Havana, Fitzhugh Lee, back in Washington, testified to congressional committees that Spanish officers must have placed 200 or so pounds of the explosive called guncotton in a barrel which was allowed to knock against the Maine; and even Captain Sigisbee began to speculate that before his ship arrived a mine must have been placed in the berth where it was to rest—though he failed to explain how this could have been done since he had given almost no notice of his arrival to the authorities in Havana.

Soon William Jennings Bryan, the defeated Democratic candidate in the presidential election of 1896, was persuaded to say that he thought that the time for intervention in Cuba had arrived. Two months after the explosion, in April 1898, Ernest May of Harvard comments in his famous work, Imperial Democracy, “neighborhoods, suburbs, small towns and rural counties simply caught fire” with war fever. May recalls how Colonel Henry Newman reported from Missouri that “everything is war talk up in our part of the country, and patriotism is oozing out of every boy who is old enough to pack feed to the pigs.” A Methodist bishop told an excited congregation, in terms surely inspired by Josiah Strong, “There are many things worse than war. It may be that the US is to become the Knight Errant of the world. War with Spain may put her in a position to demand civil and religious liberty for the oppressed of every nation.”

The American report of the court of inquiry was followed by the dispatch to Madrid of a document which demanded an armistice in Cuba, the acceptance of the United States as arbitrator between Spain and the Cubans, leading to a form of self-government in Havana which had to include the possibility of independence. With the best will in the world, no Spanish government could accept such a demand; McKinley made some further efforts to avoid conflict—for example, he made another offer to buy Cuba, at least the fourth such offer in the history of Spanish-United States relations, this time for $300 million. But despite his own distaste for a conflict, he allowed himself to drift over the next few weeks into that “splendid little war” with Spain, as the next secretary of state, John Hay, would flippantly call it.

Meantime, what of the Spanish inquiry? The two naval officers who directed it, Captain del Peral and Captain de Salas, were hampered by the need for diplomatic correctness in the examination of a foreign vessel. Their evidence came chiefly from naval artillery engineers who had inspected the wrecked Maine in a small boat. They also had reports from their own divers.

The Spaniards’ conclusion was diametrically opposed to that of the United States. They pointed out that at the moment of the explosion there had been no wind, and the water had been still. If a mine had been responsible, it would therefore have to have been detonated by electricity rather than by contact with the ship. But no wires had been found. A mine was also likely to produce a high column of water but none had been seen. Nor was any tremor felt on shore. The harbor was full of fish but no dead fish were to be observed, as was normal when explosions occurred in the harbor.

The Spaniards cited several European authorities for their conclusion that when mines sank ships, it was unusual for magazines to explode. They also argued that there must have been a danger of spontaneous combustion of coal—as had happened several times on vessels in the United States Navy, though without disastrous results. The Spanish officers pointed to the folly of placing magazines next to the coal bunkers, as had been the case on the Maine. Their inquiry concluded that the explosion must have had an internal origin, although it did not say exactly how it was caused. The report of del Peral and de Salas was hardly mentioned in the United States, and it rarely figures in accounts of the crisis by North American historians, though it has formed the basis for the Spanish official position ever since.

Years after the war of 1898, in 1911, the Maine was raised by the United States Navy from the harbor of Havana, and a new court of inquiry, headed by Charles Vreeland, a United States admiral, examined the vessel. It, too, had no advice from technical experts. The investigation concluded that “a charge of a low form of explosive exterior to the ship” had been detonated, though the officers thought that it had occurred at a point different from that proposed by the court of inquiry in 1898. After that, the Maine was ceremoniously sunk out at sea.

For many years Spanish writers assumed the accuracy of their own report and incompetence, or fraud, on the part of the United States. On the other hand, occasionally articles or books would appear in New York which left open the question of who really blew up the Maine. Larry Rohter, in The New York Times in February, talked of “the still unexplained sinking of the battleship.” Clifford Krauss expressed much the same view a day later in the same paper. The historian of the Lodge family of Massachusetts—Henry Cabot Lodge was in 1898 a very active senator for Massachusetts—wrote, in the 1970s, that no one knew what happened, and even a footnote in the recent transcript of the conversations recorded on tape by President Kennedy at the time of the missile crisis of 1962 over Cuba leaves the matter a mystery.

In my history of Cuba, which appeared in 1971, I was, I must admit, for a time distracted by meeting a gentleman who told me that his uncle, William Astor Chanler, in 1898 a young member of the House of Representatives and a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, had blown up the ship. Chanler and his brothers Winthrop and Lewis were already engaged in gunrunning to Cuba. Was it really possible that they managed to sink the Maine as well?

The Cuban view, I should say, has been summed up by the Cuban writer Miguel Barnet, who, in his Diary of a Runaway Slave, has Eugenio Montejo say: “Any fool here knew that the Americans blew up the Maine themselves so as to get into the war.” This would appear to be the current view of the director of the National Library of Cuba, Eliades Acosta Matos, author of a new study, ‘98, The War That Does Not Cease, just published in Havana. On the other hand, a Spanish historian, Guillermo Calleja Leal, suggested a few years ago that the Cuban rebels could have blown up the Maine in order to cause the United States to enter the war. But that is just a hypothesis, with no evidence behind it.

William Astor Chanler apparently claimed responsibility for precisely this crime (for such, of course, it was) in conversation with William C. Bullitt, US ambassador in Paris in the Thirties. Chanler lived in Paris then and died in a street brawl in 1934 trying to save a woman whom he did not know from being attacked. The Chanler brothers were reckless, brave, and rich. “Without action I am no good,” Chanler once remarked. His family had a “cottage” on Bellevue Avenue, Newport, Rhode Island, from which a yacht could easily have sailed on a mission to attach a mine to the ship in Havana Harbor. But that tale was, I think, confused with an incident in which Chanler blew up a Spanish gunboat off Havana when gunrunning a year before. Although Chanler was obviously ready for anything, he was also a member of the US House of Representatives, and a man “far-gone in chivalry,” as one of his relations had been called. It is impossible to believe he would have risked the death of so many Americans. Everyone in Havana harbor knew that the sailors on board the Maine never went on shore.

In the end, I wrote in my book, after talking to several Spanish authorities, the most likely explanation was that the Maine blew up because it was carrying quantities of new gunpowder required for its heavier guns, a gunpowder that often caused explosions during the first years it was in use. I was on the right track, but not quite accurate. For the situation was changed forever, or should have been, by a meticulous study prepared in the 1970s for the American admiral Hyman Rickover, who was at the time commander of the US nuclear submarine fleet.1

Rickover’s researchers carried out a new inquiry by examining the naval records. He then presented a categorical explanation that the Maine was destroyed by heat from a fire in a coal bunker adjacent to the reserve magazine. He pointed out, much as the Spanish report of del Peral and de Salas had done, that the coal bunkers were then usually on the sides of warships and the munitions in the middle with a metal bulkhead separating them. In an attack, the coal would act as a buffer. Rickover tells us that the coal on the Maine was dangerously close to the magazine and that it was bituminous coal, which burned better than the anthracite which was also used on ships. The coal on the Maine, moreover, had not been inspected for nearly twelve hours.

This conclusion, of course, exonerates Spain. Rickover included some speculation on how it was possible that the US naval court of inquiry of 1898 could not have been told of the coal bunker fires on so many other United States naval ships. His report also recalls that Theodore Roosevelt, as assistant secretary for the Navy, had in 1897 recommended an inquiry to investigate the benefits and disadvantages of various types of coal and the causes of the spontaneous combustion which sometimes happened. Admiral Rickover drily commented that “the natural tendency to look for reasons which did not reflect upon the Navy might have been a predisposing factor in the court’s findings.” An adverse report would have cast doubt on the design of the ship. Rickover added, “Had the ship blown up in an American or a friendly foreign port…it is doubtful that an inquiry would have laid the blame on a mine.”

Rickover’s excellent analysis was published by the Naval History Division, Department of the Navy, which perhaps explains why more attention was not paid to it. I have not seen it mentioned in any of the recent scholarly studies of the Spanish-American War. Ivan Musicant, author of the latest of these, Empire by Default,2 appears not to have heard of it. Yet in Spain a commemorative article on the Maine in the excellent Madrid journal Historia 16 talks of Rickover.3 I find this neglect of Rickover in the United States astonishing. The admiral was certainly a controversial man, who always had the reputation of saying what he thought. Could it be that he was not taken as seriously as he should have been because he was both Jewish and an admiral, a combination so unusual as to inspire skepticism?

The underlying cause of the war in 1898 was not the explosion in the Maine. It was the desire of many North Americans to chase Spain out of Cuba. Roosevelt said, in a letter to Chanler, that he wanted “to oust each European power in turn from this continent.” Perhaps war would have come eventually even if the Maine had remained afloat. But the explosion and the United States report increased the strength of the war party in the United States, and helped to undermine those in favor of peace with Spain. It was a turning point. In Imperial Democracy, Ernest May wrote of President McKinley that “he did not dare to align himself with the elite and defy the popular clamor”; for he “was not a brave man…. He led his country unwillingly toward a war which he did not want for a cause in which he did not believe.” And partly on the basis of a report whose conclusion was false.

McKinley has, of course, had his defenders, who claim he had little choice. Reading transcripts of the tapes of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, one has to be thankful, though, that John Kennedy was able to stand up to his military advisers and public opinion too. Had the decision on US policy been left to the chiefs of staff, it could have led to a war which would have been neither “little” nor “splendid.”

For Spain, the consequence of the war and defeat of 1898 was a famous debate among Spanish leaders over Spain’s future. No doubt we shall be hearing much about it this year, the centenary of the so-called generation of 1898.

For Cuba, the explosion and then the war led to independence in ambiguous circumstances, for it came only in 1902, after four years of occupation by a United States military force. It is hard to avoid speculating whether an autonomous Cuban government might have been a more desirable situation for an island which has since then never really found itself happy as a fully independent country. What Cuba will make of the anniversary in 1998 is a fascinating question. A statement in the Financial Times of March 6, 1997, by the Cuban foreign minister, Señor Roberto Robaina, said that the Uni-ted States intervened to prevent the Cubans from achieving their own independence. He made no mention of the US aim to displace Spain. One wonders if the analysis presented in the Rickover report will gain attention in Cuba.

For the United States, the war of 1898 led directly to the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, and to the emergence of his country as a world power. Kipling wrote his injunction “Take up the white man’s burden” specifically in relation to the United States’ occupation, after the war, of the Philippines. Perhaps since historical apologies are now fashionable, President Clinton, after examining the work of Admiral Rickover, might be persuaded this year to apologize to Spain for his predecessor’s false judgment about the cause of the destruction of the Maine.

Remember the Maine” was for a long time a famous slogan in North America. It has been sometimes used by politicians to warn the public against complacency in international relations. But we should remember the Maine henceforth to remind ourselves that even inquiries carried out by apparently honorable men can succumb to folly and prejudice.

  1. 1

    H.G. Rickover, How the Battleship Maine Was Destroyed (Naval History Division/Department of the Navy, 1976).

  2. 2

    Henry Holt, 1998.

  3. 3

    Juan Pando, “Despierto, El Entierro del Maine,” Historia, Vol. 16, No. 232.