Thursday, 17 December 2015

The sinking of USS Maine, 1898

On 15th February 1898 the battleship USS Maine exploded and sank off the coast of Cuba, thus precipitating the Spanish-American War. However, the facts seem to suggest that this event was just the excuse that a bellicose American government needed to launch hostilities that would bring it new colonies at a time when the world’s great powers all seemed to be intent on grabbing what they could.

Cuba was a Spanish colony but it was undergoing considerable unrest at the time with native Cubans rebelling against their lamentable conditions. There was also a sizable American population living there, and it was in order to reassure them that President McKinley sent the Maine to lie off Havana and show the Spanish that any aggression against American citizens would not be tolerated.

During the evening of 15th February a massive explosion ripped through the front half of the ship which then sank to the bottom of the harbour, leaving only the bridge and stern above water. Of the ship’s complement of 350 men, 260 died.

Blame for the explosion was immediately assigned to the Spanish, not least by the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. With absolutely no evidence to support his claim, he lambasted the Spanish colonisers for their act of war against the United States, even publishing artists’ impressions in his newspaper, the New York Journal, that showed Spanish saboteurs placing mines on the hull of the Maine.

Hearst sent reporters and a war artist to Cuba to report on the war then taking place between the colonisers and the Cuban rebels, despite the fact that there was no such war. When the artist told Hearst that this was the case, his reply was, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war”.

Hearst soon persuaded the vast majority of the American people that the Maine had been blown up by Spanish terrorists out of contempt for the United States, and Congress duly demanded that Spain withdraw from Cuba. When this did not happen, war was declared in April 1898.

The hostilities were very one-sided and Spain was forced into a humiliating peace treaty within eight months. As a result, the United States gained control of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.

Behind it all lay the ominous figure of William Randolph Hearst, who had engineered a war that cost tens of thousands of lives, most of them from disease rather than actual combat. Hearst’s motive, although cloaked in patriotism, was simple naked greed – he merely wanted to increase the circulation of his newspapers. Hearst’s way of doing business would become a byword for the criminal manipulation of world affairs by corrupt and immoral capitalists.

Hearst’s methods were satirised very competently by the British novelist Evelyn Waugh in his 1938 novel Scoop, although it was British newspaper owners such as Northcliffe and Beaverbrook that were his principal targets. However, the idea that powerful press barons could turn fiction into reality by telling downright lies and persuading gullible people to believe them, to the extent of world history being changed, surely owes its origin to Hearst.

As for the USS Maine, the most likely explanation for its demise was an accidental detonation in a coal bunker, caused by an oversight on the part of a crew member. One simple mistake was to lead to devastating and far-reaching consequences.

© John Welford