The “splendid little war” wasn’t so splendid. Populism’s threat to the stagnating Democratic and Republican parties was foiled; Wall Street monopolism strengthened. No longer was our military restricted to national defense; instead it became a global policeman, righting wrongs overseas. Many of these “wrongs” would be inventions or exaggerations of the press, which honed its skill at reporting phony atrocities during the Spanish-American War. A new Anglo-American alliance subverted the natural isolationism of transatlantic boundaries, entangling the militaries of both countries in common causes to this day.
Teddy Roosevelt acquitted himself well in combat, and swiftly turned his fame to political advantage. By November 1898, he had already been elected New York’s governor, and three years later became president of the United States. His distant cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, followed a hauntingly similar path. Like Teddy, FDR was assistant secretary of the navy during a controversial naval incident (the Lusitaniadisaster) that helped propel us into war. And like Teddy, FDR became governor of New York and then president.
The ultimate loser of the Spanish-American War was Cuba herself. In the 1950s, Marxist revolutionary Fidel Castro emulated Máximo Gómez in trying to seize the island. The American public had still not grown wise to Yellow Journalism tactics. William Randolph Hearst was succeeded by television’s Ed Sullivan, who praised Castro as “Cuba’s George Washington,” and the New York Times, which lauded his “strong ideas of liberty, democracy, social justice.”
After becoming dictator in 1959, Castro converted the island into a communist prison, and soon aimed Soviet nuclear missiles at the United States. Would Americans have fought in Cuba in 1898, had they known it would ultimately lead to deadly threats against their grandchildren? Today it is not so much the Maine we must remember, but history’s true meaning.
Sidebar: What Sank the Maine?
The original Naval Court of Inquiry, headed by Captain William Sampson, concluded that the Mainesank when a mine detonated, causing the ship’s forward magazines to explode. The court of inquiry based this on eyewitness testimony of two explosions, as well as inward bending of part of the hull. However, it did not fix responsibility for the mine.
The Spanish wanted to undertake a joint investigation with the United States. When refused, they conducted their own inquiry, which attributed the explosion to a fire in a coal bunker adjacent to the Maine’smunitions stores. They cited lack of evidence for things normally seen in mine detonation, such as a column of water, dead fish, etc.
In 1911, the Maine’swreckage was raised and subjected to a new court of inquiry headed by Rear Admiral Charles Vreeland. It confirmed Sampson’s conclusion of an external device; the wreck was subsequently taken out to sea and scuttled.
In 1974, Admiral Hyman Rickover conducted a private investigation, finding that a coal bunker fire caused the explosion. In 1998, National Geographic commissioned a study using computer models that blamed a mine. In 2002, the History Channelproduced a documentary in which scientists reconstructed part of the hull. Their verdict was an accidental coal bunker fire, concluding that the hull’s inward bending resulted from inrushing water.
None of these investigations seem totally satisfying, as they explore how rather than who. Although coal bunker fires did occur on some U.S. warships of that era, none blew up. By what coincidence was the Maine the only ship to so explode, while in Havana Harbor, and just when cries for war peaked? The bunker in question had working fire alarms, and the Mainehad a competent crew.
With a crew of 355, a bomb would have been difficult to plant unnoticed. As the explosion occurred after nightfall, it is possible someone used the cover of darkness to float an external mine to the Maine. Who had motive? Spain’s actions and internal documents prove it wished to avoid war at all costs. The primary beneficiaries were the Wall Street establishment and Cuba’s revolutionaries. The latter were using dynamite to destroy trains and bridges. They surely knew that if the ship met disaster, America would likely win their war. In Who Sank the Maine? historian Thomas Fleming noted that 50 to 100 pounds of dynamite, exploding externally, could have sufficed to detonate the Maine’s munitions.