Explosion of the USS Maine

The USS Maine was an American battleship on a peaceful visit to Havana, Cuba, when it suddenly exploded at 9:45 P.M. on February 15, 1898, killing all 274 American sailors aboard. The ship was at anchor at the place assigned by port authorities. The exact cause of the disaster was never determined, but most speculation at the time and subsequent investigations pointed to the explosion of an external mine that set off five tons of gunpowder in the ship’s magazines. The explosion came during escalating tensions between the United States and Spain regarding Spain’s maladministration of Cuba, one of its last colonial possessions, and harsh suppression of the island’s independence movement.

Two months after the event and largely because of it, the United States declared war on Spain. Immediately after the explosion, Spain offered its regrets and helped the survivors. The Maine’s captain said he could not explain what had happened. President William McKinley and most American opinion leaders called for a suspension of judgment until the navy reported on its inquiry a month later.

USS Maine

The Maine had been commissioned as a battleship (although it was originally classified as an armored cruiser) on 17 September 1895. Her captain in 1898 was Charles D. Sigsbee, who sent the note to Washington informing them of the disaster. In part it read: “Maine blown up in Havana Harbor and destroyed. Many wounded and doubtless more killed and drowned. . . . Public opinion should be suspended until further report”.

Despite Sigsbee’s plea against jumping to conclusions and the refusal of the U.S. government to speculate on the cause of the explosion, public opinion began to make its own judgment, inflamed by the “yellow press” of Hearst and his rival, Joseph Pulitzer.

Pulitzer’s New York World of 17 February 1898 ran the headline, “Maine Explosion Caused by Bomb or Torpedo?” with a graphic illustration of the Maine exploding (complete with bodies being thrown from the ship) beneath. Articles quoted “experts” speculating that “a torpedo was used,” and the wounded survivors of the Maine expressed their opinion that it was “a deep laid plot of Spaniards.”

Three days later, Sigsbee himself was quoted as believing “a submarine mine blew up the Maine” (New York World, 20 February 1898). By 24 February, not even ten days after the explosion, headlines ran in the World that left no doubt that the papers believed that it had been no accident: “Experts at Havana Say Some Great Exterior Force Rent and Sunk the Ship” and “Fifty Physical Proofs that Maine Was Blown Up by a Mine or Torpedo.”

The speculation in the press in the first days after the explosion was based on little actual evidence, but fed into the growing public clamor for action against the Spanish. The government continued to refuse to comment, instead waiting for the results of the official investigation that had been launched immediately after the disaster. Divers and armor experts were sent to investigate the physical evidence of the wreck, and a Naval Court of Inquiry was held. The public believed that it would provide concrete evidence of Spanish guilt. At the same time, the Spanish conducted their own investigation (as the Maine had blown up in their territorial waters) and concluded that it was caused by an internal explosion.

On 28 March, the official report was submitted: “In the opinion of the Court, the Maine was destroyed by the explosion of a submarine mine, which caused the partial explosion of two or more of her forward magazines. The Court has been unable to obtain evidence, fixing the responsibility for the destruction of the Maine upon any person or persons”.

The U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry interrogated survivors and eyewitnesses, and several navy divers explored the sunken wreck. The explosion of the forward ammunition magazines, they determined, obviously had caused the sinking. Divers said the ship’s bottom plates were all bent inward, consistent with an external mine. (If an internal accidental explosion had occurred, the bottom plates would have been bent outward.) On the floor of the harbor, a large cavity was seen, presumably from the explosion. On hearing the report, many groups demanded war.

Public opinion in the United States had been hostile to Spain for several years as that country tried to suppress growing rebellions in Cuba and other colonies. The Maine was sent to Havana to protect American citizens in case of rioting and to show the intense American interest in resolving the crisis. The Maine explosion so dominated headlines and public attention that quiet diplomacy became extremely difficult. Although opposed to war, McKinley demanded that Spain immediately end the chaos. Madrid repeatedly stalled for time, making promises that never took effect, hoping perhaps to gain diplomatic support from European powers that never came.

Cuban insurgents advised McKinley that their insurrection would fall apart if Spain granted an armistice. The American business community, although opposed to war, warned that further months of uncertainty were intolerable. Finally, McKinley told Congress to make the decision, knowing that the war hawks dominated Congress.

On April 25, 1898, Congress declared war on Spain. “Remember the Maine” became a popular rallying cry and song. The United States quickly won the Spanish-American War, and Cuba gained its independence from Spain. But the mystery of what caused the Maine to explode continued.

A thorough investigation in 1911 by the navy pointed to an outside mine as the source of the initial explosion. Sixty-five years later, U.S. Admiral Hyman Rickover reanalyzed the data and concluded it might have been an accident.

The latest inquiry, completed in 1999, was sponsored by the National Geographic Magazine. It commissioned an analysis by Advanced Marine Enterprises (AME), using computer modeling that was not available for previous investigations. The AME analysis concluded that “it appears more probable than was previously concluded that a mine caused the inward bent bottom structure and the detonation of the magazines.”

Multiple theories have circulated as to what happened. The first theory is that it was an accident, caused by spontaneous ignition of the bituminous coal in the coal bunkers, located near the powder room, that could have heated the gunpowder to 450°F and set it off. There was no direct evidence for this hypothesis. The blast effects on the hull seem o show the causal force was outside, not inside; the coal bunkers were inspected daily, had never shown problems before, and the coal used was not known to spontaneously ignite. The alternative theory held that an external mine was detonated underwater on the port side by experts who knew what they were doing. Spain had recently purchased mines that could easily have done the job. One could have been seized by Cuban insurgents and set off to incite Americans into declaring war, or a mine could have been detonated by rogue Spanish officers angry at the intervention of the Americans. Perhaps Spanish authorities had ordered the mine placement, or one could even have been placed by American authorities seeking to escalate the conflict.

Historians agree that it is highly unlikely that the Spanish government or the American government ordered the sabotage. The most likely suspect, for most historians, are the insurgents or rogue Spanish officers, but there is no direct evidence to implicate either group. Spain’s reluctance to negotiate in 1898 was caused by its own internal crisis. Spain was itself on the verge of civil war, but simply withdrawing from Cuba would have worsened its crisis. One honorable solution was to lose a short war to a much more powerful country, which is what happened. A new generation came to influence in Spain (the “Generation of 98”), and civil war was averted for another 35 years.

Historians have debated whether American public opinion was deliberately inflamed by the sensationalistic “yellow journalism” of newspaper publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer in New York City. Early 20th-century historian James Ford Rhodes concluded that the press “had manipulated the real news, spread unfounded reports, putting all before their readers with scare headlines.” By contrast historian John Offner has insisted, “there is no evidence” to indicate that the “sensational press” influenced McKinley’s policy, suggesting that “its impact on changing public opinion may have been limited.” When the war came—“a splendid little war,” one official called it—it lasted only six months and drew Americans together, especially the southerners whose patriotism had been in doubt since the Civil War a generation earlier.

Sources:
Conspiracy Theories in American History: "An Encyclopedia" edited by Peter Knight;
Disasters, Accidents, and Crises In American History by Ballard C. Campbell

Pic Source:
Conspiracy Theories in American History: "An Encyclopedia" edited by Peter Knight page 701
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