Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Maine Event

December 7 was so memorable to my parents’ generation that my father used 12-07-41 as the combination to the brief case where he kept important papers. (I still have the case, but I don’t keep anything in it.) June 6 was a close second. My grandparents’ generation felt the same about November 11. A couple generations prior, the 9th of April 1865 was unforgettable. I think you see where I’m going with this. In recent years, December 7 has gotten little more than an “on this day in 1941” mention at the end of the nightly news and a showing of the movie Pearl Harbor on the AMC Channel. It’s the rare young person who can identify the date of D-Day without Googling it. The origin of Veterans Day in the end of the Great War is widely forgotten. What’s an Appomattox?

This is to be expected. It is human nature to consider anything before we were born to be ancient history, and therefore not very memorable. There is no finer presentation of this than 1066 and All That, the marvelous history of England published in 1930 and still in print. The authors argued that anything they couldn’t remember about English history without consulting sources must not be very memorable, and therefore not worth including. There are only two dates in the whole book.

Events that occur in our own lifetimes are always different. Americans my age and older remember November 22, 1963 – also, for more positive reasons, July 20, 1969. September 11, 2001 is and always will be unforgettable for anyone who was more than a toddler at the time. For generations born afterward (already including 10-year-olds), though, it will be ancient history. For them, the monument in lower Manhattan, at present so emotional for so many, will be one more historical curiosity like the USS Arizona or the Alamo (when was that exactly?).

Yet, there really is value to remembering such things, even if we personally weren’t around to experience the loss. We might have saved ourselves much additional grief after 2001, for example, had we stopped to “Remember the Maine.”

In 1898 the Spanish were conducting a very nasty counterinsurgency in their colony of Cuba. Sympathies in the U.S. were entirely with the rebels. When rioting threatened American lives in Cuba (according to American newspapers), President McKinley dispatched the battleship USS Maine to Havana as “a calming influence.” 10-inch guns can be calming, I suppose, but sometimes they aren’t. Spanish authorities could have refused the ship entry, but surprisingly they allowed it. On February 15 at 9:40 PM a massive explosion lifted up the Maine and tore the bow to pieces. The ship went to the bottom. 274 sailors were killed, 89 survived.

From the beginning it was clear that the major force of the explosion came from the ship’s own ammunition. The question was what had set it off. There were two obvious candidates: a coal fire or a mine. Left to itself, a coal pile can heat up enough from oxidation to combust spontaneously. The Maine’s coal bin was adjacent to the ammunition bay, separated by a bulkhead. The navy, however, was aware of the hazard and didn’t leave coal piles to themselves. The temperature of the ship’s coal was checked only a few hours before the explosion: it was 59 degrees Fahrenheit (15 C). Once they start, coal fires typically spread very slowly. The speed of the event and the way the bow lifted up out of the water made American naval officers suspect a mine. Divers reinforced their view by reporting that the hull was bent inward, indicating an outside explosion. But who would have a motive to mine the Maine? The hawkish Hearst newspapers had a theory: the Spanish, without openly declaring war, had sent a message that any U.S. intervention in Cuba would be costly.

A joint U.S. and Spanish investigation quickly produced two contradictory reports. The Americans on the commission concluded that a mine sank the ship. The Spanish said the cause was a coal fire. The Senate, choosing to believe in the mine, retaliated by passing an ultimatum demanding that Spain withdraw from Cuba. The Spanish ignored the ultimatum, so President McKinley announced a blockade of Cuba on April 22. Spain responded with a declaration of war on April 25, 1898. In a sharp but short campaign, US troops prevailed in Cuba and Dewey’s Asiatic Squadron destroyed the Spanish fleet in the Philippines.

Formally, the Spanish-American War lasted four months. John Hay (ambassador to the UK) called it “a splendid little war.” Cuba got its independence, and the U.S. got Guam and Puerto Rico, but it proved far too early to declare “mission accomplished.” Rebels in the Spanish colony of the Philippines were no more receptive to the Americans than they had been to the Spanish. At the outset, the U.S. had no plans for the Philippines beyond attacking the Spanish fleet. (The Kaiser, looking to expand his Pacific holdings, had clearer ideas: the German Asiatic Squadron paid a courtesy visit to Manila immediately after the naval battle, and it stayed there while the Americans dithered about what to do next.) The McKinley Administration at length decided to occupy the islands, irking Wilhelm and infuriating the rebels. The rebels fought against the Americans as they had against the Spanish. For a decade the insurgency beleaguered the 70,000-strong American force, which often resorted to brutal countermeasures. The U.S. intent was to build local institutions that would make the Philippines “capable of self-government.” Mark Twain objected that the argument erroneously presupposed that there ever was a people somewhere, some time or other, that wasn’t capable of it, but his was a minority view. The occupation (interrupted by a four-year Japanese occupation) lasted until 1946.

The loss of life on the Maine was real and tragic, but as a cause for war with Spain it was dubious, and it had no connection at all to the Philippines. It’s unfortunate that by 2001, the cost of an overreaching response was largely forgotten.

What really happened to the Maine, by the way? In 1911 the Navy conducted a Court of Inquiry while the wreck of the Maine was still available for study. The investigation concluded a mine had sunk the Maine; the engineers were convinced by hull plates bent inwards around a hole into the ammunition compartment. In 1976 Admiral Hyman Rickover re-opened the investigation. His report, How the Battleship Maine Was Destroyed, concluded that a coal fire had caused the explosion; his experience with wrecks from World War Two convinced him that water pressure could have bent the hull inward after an internal explosion. In 1999 National Geographic said the hull plates were still the smoking gun, and that Rickover’s analysis was wrong; NG decided a mine sank the Maine. In 2007 the documentary series Unsolved History looked again. Computer analyses showed water could have bent the hull plates inward without a mine. Conclusion: coal fire.

I think it’s fair to say that the physical evidence really is, and always was, inconclusive. Investigators find in it what they want to find. In the end, we have to consider motive. Is a Spanish plot credible? Is an even more devious rebel plot credible, since the rebels actually benefitted? My own inclination is to answer that either plot is credible but neither is likely. Given the human tendency to boast, I suspect that someone involved in the plot, if only in a diary or journal, would have claimed credit. In the absence of that, an accident seems to me more probable, but I could be wrong.

Cuban perspectives on the incident have varied over time. In 1926 a memorial to the casualties of the Maine was raised in Havana. They were regarded as heroes who had died for Cuban independence. In 1961 an inscription was added to the monument, identifying them as victims of American “imperialist voracity in its eagerness to seize the island of Cuba.”

Every war has its music, and the hit of the Spanish-American War was A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight


  1. I think I actually saw that "Unsolved History" episode. The Spanish American war is like the War of 1812. It gets glossed over in school and most of us rarely remember it unless we read it in blogs or happen to catch a special on television. And yet I find these "minor" wars very interesting.

  2. Yes, the Civil War and WW2 loom large in most history classes (as they should) to the extent of crowding out other conflicts (as they shouldn't). The smaller ones are often key turning points. The Mexican War, for example, made the modern US and the Spanish American War (not WW1 as is sometimes said) turned the US into a global player instead of just a North American one. Sometimes parallels with modern issues are eerie.