On the evening of Feb. 15, 1898, the USS Maine resided peacefully in Cuba’s Havana Harbor as it had for nearly a month. Suddenly, a colossal explosion erupted from the hull of the American battleship, demolishing the vessel’s structure and sinking it.
At approximately 9:40 p.m., an estimated five tons of gunpowder inexplicably combusted and exploded from within ship’s ammunition stocks, generating the blast. 260 men perished as a result of this tragedy and several others suffered injuries, according to History.com.
Close to one month later, on Mar. 21, 1898, the U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry stated in their official investigation report, archived by the Library of Congress, that the incident could have been caused “only by the explosion of a mine situated under the bottom of the ship.” This investigation attempted to determine causality, but the lack of concrete evidence left the American dissatisfied. Thus, speculation began.
The American media used the explosion of the Maine as the poster child for their anti-Spanish sentiment. Newspaper giants William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer lead this charge with their “yellow journalism,” a style of reporting that the U.S. Department of State defines as “reporting that emphasized sensationalism over facts,” often in order to evoke certain emotional responses.
Hearst and Pulitzer printed countless articles and photographs about the Maine in their respective publications, attempting to artificially advance the story.
For example, a transcript of Hearst’s New York Journal, archived on TeachingHistory.org, reads “Naval Officers Think the Maine Was Destroyed by a Spanish Mine.” This headline ran just days after the explosion, yet neither evidence of a mine nor of Spanish involvement had surfaced.
According to the U.S. Department of State, both Hearst and Pulitzer published many more unsubstantiated claims blaming Spain for orchestrating the explosion of the Maine, misleading many of the American public into supporting war against the Spanish.
The USS Maine initially docked in Havana Harbor on Jan. 25, 1898, on orders from U.S. President William McKinley.
Spanish reign in Cuba was known to be harsh, and the American “yellow journalists” published both factual and fictional accounts of Spanish atrocities committed against Cubans, hoping to exacerbate the public’s disdain for the Spanish.
For example, the New York Journal published a story with little corroboration about a young Cuban woman who had allegedly been unjustly imprisoned by the Spanish, a story that Hearst used to rally American support for Cuba, according to the Vanderbilt Historical Review.
After reading these horrors, many came to the support of Cuba, and took particular interest in its well-being.
Therefore, in 1898, the Maine docked in Havana, “ostensibly on a friendly visit to protect the interests of Americans there,” according to History.com.
This decision was made by the U.S. three years after the Cuban War of Independence began in 1895, and because the United States unofficially backed the Cuban cause, President McKinley felt some form of American military presence was necessary in Cuba.
Prior to the explosion of the USS Maine, anti-Spanish sentiment in America was alive and well; the often doctored tales of Spanish oppression and brutality in Cuba made their way into America.
Thus, many Americans already held unsavory opinions about the Spanish.
Then, Hearst and Pulitzer began directly blaming Spain for the Maine “attack,” using their own information as “evidence.” According to the U.S. Department of State, “yellow journalism helped to create a climate conducive to the outbreak of international conflict,” and contributed immensely to “creating public support for the Spanish-American War”
The resulting Spanish-American War was a short-lived conflict lasting less than four months, concluding in a decisive American victory.
The 1898 Treaty of Paris was signed between the two belligerents, and “Puerto Rico and Guam were ceded to the United States, the Philippines were bought and Cuba became a U.S. protectorate,” according to History.com.
In the decades following the explosion of the Maine, several other investigations tried determining its cause.
In 1976, a naval research team concluded that the explosion was probably the result of a fire that had likely ignited in the ship’s coal bunker.
In 1998, National Geographic began an investigation and analysis of the Maine’s explosion using computer modeling software.
Although the investigation was largely inconclusive, the National Geographic Society decided “either a mine or an accident was plausible,” and that other external forces could have been responsible for the explosion, according to a CNN article written about the investigation.
To this day, historians remain unsure of the exact causality of the explosion which sunk the USS Maine all those years ago, yet it endures as one of the pivotal moments in American history.
It was the first time the United States acted as the “defender of democracy” for an oppressed nation, a role that would be reprised often following this first occasion.
As History.com puts it, the U.S. had “a new stake in international politics that would soon lead it to play a determining role in the affairs of Europe.” United States relations with Cuba forever changed as a result of the war.
America’s guarantee of post-war Cuban independence was only partially honored, for the U.S. kept “the island under US protection” and “the right to intervene in Cuban affairs intent on staying involved with Cuban affairs,” according to BBC.com.
The relationship soured over this provision, and had major implications in the future of U.S. relations with Cuba and their allies.
The end of the Spanish-American War also marked the beginning of American imperialism, as overseas territories had been acquired from Spain.
The way the media covered the Maine completely altered American journalism.
“Yellow journalism” became a journalistic standard for many because of its effectiveness in terms of sales and reaction.
The media almost single-handedly precipitated the Spanish-American War, a phenomenon virtually unheard of prior.
In fact, the phrase “How do you like the Journal’s war?” headlined William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper in its first edition following Congress’s declaration of war, according to a Huffington Post article.
Above all else, the consequences resulting from the tragedy of the USS Maine warn about the dangers of baseless group-think.
The American public was led to believe that Spain was responsible for countless atrocities that were all sensationalized to a degree, including the “attack” on the Maine, by journalists with ulterior motives.
The public’s support for a war was the driving force behind Congress’s eventual declaration of war.
As PBS.org puts it, “The press fueled the public’s passion for war and the U.S. press proved its influence.”
Kyle McNamara can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org