It was on Tuesday 15 February 1898 that the United States Battleship Maine violently exploded in Havana Harbor with a loss of 260 American sailors. In the aftermath of the tragedy The United States went to war with Spain and gained for itself a far-flung overseas empire. The war also firmly established The United States as a global power.
In early 1898, Spain still ruled Cuba and Puerto Rico, her last two colonial holdings in the New World, and Spain’s rule was brutally oppressive. Cuba had experienced several rebellions in the last half of the 19th Century, and Spain struggled to suppress these revolts with harsher and more violent measures. In the United States there was a great deal of popular sentiment in support of the Cuban rebels, and there was also a strong business interest heavily invested in Cuba. As Spain tried to end the latest rebellion, the United States determined to send a major warship to monitor developments in the rebellion and to protect American citizens and American interests.
The battleship Maine was anchored in Havana harbor with the express permission of the Spanish government. The Spanish government was outraged at the U.S. request, but realized that it would be necessary to comply in order to keep the U.S. from directly intervening in the revolt.
The precise causes of the explosion and sinking of the battleship are still hotly debated. The initial investigation launched by the U.S. Navy immediately after the event concluded that a mine or shell had struck the ship and ignited the much larger and devastating secondary explosion in the powder magazine. The Navy’s report never proposed to identify the culprits responsible for the mine or shell, but it was widely believed in the U.S. that the Spanish government was behind the attack. Many ardent nationalists in Spain had proclaimed Maine’s visit an unbearable insult to Spanish dignity, and a nationalist news paper had even suggested that Spain should blow up the offending battleship.
The Navy’s initial report was based on the findings of two deepsea divers whose primary mission was the recovery of bodies. The water of Havana harbor was murky and difficult to work in, and the much of the information reported by the divers was based upon feeling their way around the wreckage. In 1911 the Navy conducted a thorough and detailed investigation. A coffer dam was constructed around the wreck and water was pumped out so that the ruined ship could be properly examined. This second investigation concluded that a mine had been detonated directly underneath the powder magazine. At the conclusion of this investigation, the wreckage, which had presented a navigational hazard, was floated out of Havana harbor and resunk about four miles off shore.
In 1976, Admiral Hyman Rickover – famed as the “Father of the Nuclear Navy” – headed yet another formal investigation into the cause of the sinking. This time the actual physical evidence was re-examined and subjected to modern technological assessments. In addition, computer models were employed to study each of several proposed possible scenarios. Rickover’s report concluded that an internal fire in a forward coal bunker had ignited the magazine, and that no external explosive device had been involved.
Most recently, in 2001, divers visited the actual wreckage once more. Based upon current photographs of the wreckage and some metallurgical analysis, the most recent conclusion is that there *was* indeed an external explosion, most likely caused by a small mine.
In the end, none of these investigations would have mattered at all. The popular press in America of 1898 – most notably William Randolph Hearst’s immense newspaper empire – whipped up public resentment against Spain. Many powerful business interests looked forward to freeing Cuba from Spain and bringing it into the United States one way or another. U.S. designs upon Cuba were first expressed by Alexander Hamilton during the revolutionary war, and were commonplace topics throughout the whole 19th Century. The administration of Franklin Pierce was greatly embarrassed by the 1854 “Ostend Manifesto,” written by key American diplomats in Europe, which asserted that the U.S. had a right to buy Cuba from Spain, or to go to war if Spain would not sell. The fallout from that episode effectively prevented the U.S. from directly involving itself in Cuban political affairs for almost a generation. But by the 1890s, the internal upheavals within Cuba and Spain, and a growing sense of the need for American Expansion revived the notion of making Cuba a part of the United States. Thus a pretext for the use of armed force was widely welcomed across America. By April of 1898, Congress made impossible demands of Spain and authorized President McKinley to send troops to Cuba. Finally, on 25 April Congress passed a declaration of war with Spain as of 20 April, though only after the “Teller Amendement” had been passed which guaranteed that the war would free Cuba and not make it a part of the U.S. (Other Spanish possessions in the Caribbean and the Pacific, Puerto Rico, The Philippines, and Guam, were not covered by such a clause; Guam and Puerto Rico remain U.S. territory.)
In hindsight, the war was obviously an easy win for the United States. Admiral Dewey completely destroyed Spain’s Pacific Fleet in Manila Bay, without the loss of a single American life (one elderly engineer may have died of a heart attack, but there were no battle casualties.) At Santiago, Cuba, Spain’s Atlantic Fleet was similarly devastated. American troops formed up in Tampa, Florida and made landing in Cuba near Guantanomo Bay. Future president Theodore Roosevelt led a wild charge of “The Roughriders” up San Juan Hill, and Spanish resistance was quickly overcome.
But in April of 1898, an easy American victory was by no means certain. The night before Dewey’s fleet sailed from Hong Kong Harbor on 27 April, the Royal Navy hosted a farewell party for the American officers. One British captain noted in his log that he expected that it was the last time he would see any of the Americans alive, as they had the impossible task of sailing into Manila Bay under the guns of “The Gibraltar of The East,” Corregidor. Spain’s navy was not quite so modern as America’s, but it could be expected to fight fiercely. In the end, the Spanish Navy underestimated the capabilities of the U.S. Navy. Dewey evaded Corregidor by sailing into the bay by night, relying on expert navigation and 200 year old charts; he was therefore able to catch Spain’s Pacific Fleet untirely unawares.
When the fighting stopped in August, Spain had no navy to speak of, and no way to control her wide-spread empire. Peace terms forced Spain to cede The Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico to The United States. The war also forced Europe’s Great Powers to re-evaluate the United States and to seriously consider its role in global power politics. A new Great Power had joined the club.
The lasting legacies of this war are many – possibly even including the lengthy dictatorship of Fidel Castro – but one of my favorites is just a wee footnote: the first American troops landed on Cuba at a small town between Guantanamo Bay and Santiago; in the wake of the successful landing, a cocktail of rum and lime juice became quite popular among military officers and later with the American public. The cocktail was named in honor of the landing. That small town’s name? Daiquiri!
Flower Mound, Texas
“Don’t cheer boys! Those poor devils are dying.”
– Order of Captain John Phillip to U.S. Sailors
at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba