At 9:40pm, on the evening of 15 February 1898, an explosion obliterated the U.S. battleship Maine stationed in Havana Harbor. Most of the crewmen had been sleeping in their quarters when the blast ripped through the front portion of the ship, destroying one-third of the vessel instantly. The remaining wreckage slid quickly to the harbor floor. Two hundred and sixty men lost their lives that night, and six more died soon after from injuries.
The disaster occurred at a time when tensions brewed between the United States and the Spanish government. Spain had been engaged in a fierce conflict with Cuban insurgents who sought to expel the colonial power from their land. Many Americans, moved by sensational accounts of Spanish brutality and Cuban suffering, had chosen to side with the insurgents and called for U.S. intervention on their behalf. Mutual suspicion had weakened the already-strained relationship between the U.S. and Spain.
Just one week before the tragedy in Havana Harbor, the New York Journal published the full text of a private letter written by Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, a Spanish Minister, to a Spanish official in Cuba. In it, the minister attacked President William McKinley, calling him "weak," and "a low politician," and forewarned of American intervention in support of Cuban insurgents. The American public fumed over the De Lôme letter, and demands for war against Spain increased.16
The exact cause of the explosion of the battleship Maine was unclear. Had it been a malicious act on the part of the Spanish navy? Or had something gone terribly wrong in the ship's hull? The surviving captain of the ship reported no attack and no Spanish vessels in sight that evening. In fact, Captain Sigsbee and the other survivors had been rescued and cared for by Spanish crewmen aboard a civilian steamer. "The Spanish officers and crews did all that humanity and gallantry could compass," Sigsbee remarked.17 Aware of the tensions flaring between the United States and Spain, the Captain urged the American public not to jump to conclusions before investigations could be conducted.
But many fixed blame. "The Maine was sunk by an act of dirty treachery on the part of the Spaniards," Navy Secretary Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the day following the disaster.18 Navy Lieutenant Ensign Worth Bagley, in a letter to his mother, wrote that the fact that the U.S. sailors had been "blown up at night while asleep," was "evidence in itself sufficient to show that a contemptible Spaniard did it. The blood almost fills my head when I think of this; it makes me almost wild with anger."19
Under the direction of President McKinley, the U.S. Navy formed a committee to determine who or what had been responsible for the destruction of the battleship. The official inquiry left many questions unanswered and did not assign blame. Still, the American public responded to the committee's report with outrage. Mass-circulated newspapers such as the New York World and the New York Journal reflected and exacerbated popular anti-Spanish sentiments. Headlines declared, "Destruction of the War Ship Maine Was the Work of an Enemy," "Maine Blown Up By Torpedo," and "The Spirit of War Pervades." Many people throughout the country repeated the rallying cry, "Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!" By April it seemed that strong public demand for war had forced President McKinley and the United States Congress to issue an official declaration of war against Spain.
Immediately following the conflict of 1898, many historians concluded that the destruction of the U.S. battleship Maine had rendered war with Spain inevitable. "But for the destruction of the Maine," one scholar wrote in 1900, "war might have been averted."20 Another historian concluded that, "in all probability, there would have been no war, had our battleship not been destroyed."21 To this day, some American historians cite the tragedy in Havana Harbor as the key explanation for United States aggression. The sinking of the Maine, one recent account stated, "contributed to the outbreak of the Spanish War and thus to the rise of American imperialism."22
But in recent years historians have begun to argue that the destruction of the Maine did not cause war with Spain, nor did the American public or the press force the United States government into transforming its foreign policies. Instead, these scholars have suggested, the tragedy only accelerated plans already in motion to expel the European power from the American sphere of influence. Expansionists hoped for war, they note, long before the night of 15 February 1898.
Records of United States foreign policy prior to 1898 reveal a long history of expansion and growing interest in Latin American, the islands of the Pacific, and, even, China. The urge to spread American power and influence began not with Cuba, but with the Western frontier and Mexico. The roots of the Spanish-American conflict run much deeper than the floor of the Havana Harbor where much of the USS Maine wreckage remains today.