Remember the Maine

Remember the Maine    - by Mike Creasy



 You may have heard the phrase "Remember the Maine", especially if you've read any American history. ​​ The USS Maine was a 6,600 ton armored cruiser of the pre-dreadnought era, launched in 1890. ​​ The coal-fired Maine sported 10" guns and could make 16 knots - already slow by the standards of the day.

 On February 15, 1898 she blew up and sank while at anchor in Havana, Cuba. ​​ The reason for the sinking was unknown, and early messages from her Captain to US Navy HQ make no mention of suspicious circumstances. ​​ In fact, Captain Sigsbee pointed out that local Spanish authorities had been most helpful during the aftermath, and requested that speculation as to cause should be avoided. ​​ Good advice, carefully disregarded!

 The Maine had been sent to Cuba to "protect" American interests, after Cubans had begun to rise up against their Spanish colonial rulers. ​​ The Spanish had reacted to the uprisings with brutality, sending hundreds of thousands of Cubans to concentrations camps and executing thousands more. ​​ At the same time their colony in the Philippines had begun to rebel, putting the squeeze on a declining Spanish monarchy. ​​ Stories out of Cuba were full of grim details about how the overbearing Spanish rulers were abusing the civilian population, along with tales of how the Cuban insurgents were growing in strength throughout the island.

 In America, popular opinion generally favored the insurgent side in keeping with the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which has defined American foreign policy ever since. ​​ Briefly, President Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams devised a policy which defined the Western Hemisphere as American territory - no "foreign" powers welcome. ​​ Within the West, the American saw it as their mandate to spread Anglo-Saxon civilization amongst the backward races (I'm not making this up!). ​​ 

 By the time of the Cuban rebellion in the 1890s, America had been through the Mexican War (after American annexation of Texas) and then their very own Civil War. ​​ Small wars with various Indian tribes continued after the Civil War, as America expanded westwards towards the Pacific. ​​ The Oregon Territory was acquired by treaty from a disinterested British Government in 1846, and the Alaska Territory was purchased from Russia in 1867. ​​ The Indian Wars pretty well ended with the 1890 slaughter at Wounded Knee, leaving a large military establishment without an opponent.

 Theodore Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy when the Maine blew up. ​​ TR and his circle of powerful friends were keen to prove the superiority of America, especially so close to America's back doorstep. ​​ There was little doubt amongst this group that America should intervene to save the Cubans from their colonial masters. ​​ There was limited support for American action - after all, this was a civil war in another country and the insurgent rebels looked to be gaining ground, so why risk American lives? ​​ But then the Maine blew up, and it just had to be the result of a Spanish attack!  ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​ ​​​​ 

   ​​​​ America immediately began a major re-armament campaign to include new Naval battleships and expanded Army units. ​​ By 1898, the Americans were ready to launch an attack on Spanish colonies in the Caribbean (Cuba and Puerto Rico) as well as the Pacific (Philippines and Guam). ​​ The war lasted only 4 months, ending in a resounding defeat for the Spanish and a continuation of American expansion, leading almost immediately to the Philippine-American war in which over 300,000 Filipino civilians died - a story for another day.

 If you were wondering about the cause of Maine's sinking? ​​ American Admiral Hyman Rickover was wondering too. ​​ In 1974 he commissioned a private investigation, which concluded that spontaneous combustion in a coal bunker had set off one of the forward magazines. ​​ In other words, it was an accident.






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The Spanish War, G.J.A. O'Toole, Norton & Co., 1984

The Imperial Cruise, James Bradley, Back Bay Books, 2009