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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The USS Maine Explosion, February 15, 1898

Today in 1898, the USS Maine, a small battleship then known as an armored cruiser, suffered an enormous explosion and sank in the harbor of Havana, Cuba. The cause of the explosion has never been clearly determined, but the initial investigation of the matter gave cause for what many in the United States wanted: a war with Spain. “Remember the Maine” became the war’s rallying cry. By the time hostilities ended in August of that year, Spain was no longer an empire and the United States had her first overseas territories.

The Maine was sent to Havana in January, 1898 to show the flag and defend Americans living and working in Cuba. This was deemed necessary because the guerilla war which had smoldered in Cuba for decades was heating up as the Spanish slowly lost control of the island nation. Stories began to circulate about Spanish cruelty with regard to Cuban prisoners and others who fell out of the good graces of the government in Madrid. William Randolph Hearst, an American newspaper publisher, wanted the United States to intervene militarily in Cuba and the Philippines, a Spanish territory in the Pacific. He used his newspapers to stir up public opinion against Spain and even published illustrations of Spanish atrocities which probably never occurred. According to legend, Hearst ordered his lead illustrator, Frederic Remington, to stay in Cuba longer than planned, telling him, “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war”. The newspapers were the nation’s only news source in 1898, so Hearst’s assertions were met with anger in most places.

Thus, Cuba was a tinderbox ready to go up in flames when the Maine arrived soon after the first of the year in 1898. Immediately after the explosion, a US Naval Court of Inquiry was formed and in March came to the conclusion that a mine caused the explosion, which killed 260 men immediately and mortally wounded six others. The US Congress declared war on Spain at the end of April.

Over a decade later, in 1910, the Army Corps of Engineers raised the Maine and removed her from Havana Harbor as she was thought to be a hazard to navigation. Before the ship was sunk in the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico, another Court of Inquiry convened to examine the remains of the vessel firsthand. After photographing most of the ship and building models based on the examination, the court declared that the sinking had been caused by the explosion of the ships magazines which was triggered by an external blast.

It was not until 1976 that the mystery of the Maine would again be examined. This time, the man behind the investigation was Admiral Hyman Rickover, the no-nonsense father of the US nuclear navy. The Admiral and several other naval officers looked at evidence gathered by the two previous investigations and applied what had been learned about explosions aboard ships during World War Two. Rickover’s conclusion was that a coal fire began aboard the Maine which, in turn, caused the magazine explosion. There was, he said, no evidence that a mine caused the sinking.

Finally, in 1999, National Geographic conducted an analysis based on computer modeling. Their conclusion was that there was an inward bend to the hole in the bottom of the hull, pointing to an external explosion. The findings were met with disagreement from those who served on Rickover’s panel.

The exact cause of the sinking of the Maine remains a mystery to this day and will probably always remain so. In one of the surest proofs that perception is reality, an accepting public bought into an theory and thus triggered the events that led to a Spanish defeat in both Cuba and the Philippines.

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