On this date – in 1898 – an explosion sinks the USS Maine in Havana Harbor
First, some facts. On February 15, 1898, a massive explosion aboard a U.S. battleship – the Maine – killed 260 American members of the approximately 400-member crew and sank the ship in Havana Harbor. The USS Maine was one of the first commissioned American battleships in what would become the world’s largest Navy. It cost more than $2 million to build (back when a cool million was a lot of money) and weighed 6,000 tons.
Ostensibly on a “friendly” visit, the Maine was parked in the Cuban harbor as a kind of Big Hello to Spain that American “interests” – meaning, of course, almost 100% private American business interests – would be protected during the ongoing Cuban revolution and its suppression by Spain.
In 1976, a team of expert investigators concluded that the Maine tragedy was most likely caused by a below-decks fire that ignited the battleship’s own ammunition stocks. At the time, it was announced that a mine had sunk the Maine and the blame put on Spain. The full version of the public battle cry was, “Remember the Maine! The Hell with Spain!”
So why did we really go to war? Well, and I’m only slightly exaggerating, because then Assistant Secretary of the Navy Teddy Roosevelt (and assorted friends and politicians) wanted to go to war. With somebody. Somewhere. And Teddy (I’m again only slightly exaggerating) wanted to go to war for the same reason he liked to shoot big animals. And stick his chest out. ‘Cause, you know he’d been sickly as a child and he didn’t want anyone to think he was … you know. Read the wonderful recent political history by Evan Thomas called The War Lovers (2010) for a fuller and more responsible explanation.
The result was a three-and-a-half-month charade called the Spanish-American War that set the mold both for 20th and 21st century American imperialism and for the attendant series of mostly bullshit wars by which U.S. business and domestic political interests have been served. The pretexts for these wars are grossly exaggerated or made up altogether, the real reasons for the wars are not the stated reasons, U.S. businesses nearly always make shitloads of money at public expense, and politicians earn Street Cred or Buy Time to weather a crisis in the polls by distracting a significant portion of the population (which always now includes FOX viewers) from America’s real problems, generally caused by the same folks who beat the war drums. And if a current war is lacking, politicians and pundits make do with Soon-to-Be Wars and Rumors of War.
Spain wasn’t much of a combatant in 1898: yellow fever and the heavy losses already sustained from the Cuban revolt had pretty much done them in by the time Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders set foot on Cuban soil with their hand-picked embed reporters and their film crews. Which also established a pattern for future American history: go to battle with great fanfare against an outgunned and outmanned opponent you know you can whip in your sleep (at least to the point where you can declare “Mission Accomplished”) … act like it was really, really hard and created lots of Real American Heroes … hand out shiny medals and make speeches and do musical tributes. And don’t forget the flags and the fireworks. All that patriotic stuff helps drive away the doubt.