Causation of the Spanish American War

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The Meaning of theMaine: Causation and the Historiography of the Spanish-American War

At 9:40 p.m. on February 15, 1898,the U.S. battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor.The explosion occurred in the forwardpart of the vessel, near the port side, and almostdirectlyunder the enlistedmen's quarters.The loss of life was staggering:out of a complementof 354 officers and a totalof 266 perished in the explosion. men, The destruction theMaine had immediateinternational of These were troubledtimesbetweenthe United repercussions. Statesand Spain, a period of increasingtensionsand deterioratingrelationsduring whichmutual suspicionswere becomas ing at least as much a source of estrangement conflicting national interests.In the United States officialimpatience with Spain's conduct of the war in Cuba was increasing. So was popular support for Cuba Libre. For almost three years public officials and public opinion had acted upon one another in such a fashion as to make the rebellion in Cuba one of the more controversialissues of domesticpolitics. In this they were very much aided by the excesses of "yellow in abouttheCuban journalism," whichsensationalnewsstories withgratitude helpfulcomments The authorwishesto acknowledge the provided by JulesR. Benjamin,Thomas P. Dilkes, Nancy A. Hewitt,RobertP. and RebeccaJ.Scott. Ingalls,M. FraserOttanelli, PacificHistorical Review ? 1989by the PacificCoast Branch AmericanHistoricalAssociation

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Pacific Historical Review

had become the stockin trade of the circulation insurrection Journal rivalrybetweenWilliam Randolph Hearst's New York and Joseph Pulitzer's New York World.Anti-Spanish sentiin ment was on the rise--withinthe government, the press, the public. Only one week beforethe destructionof among the Maine, ill-will toward Spain flared anew when a private letter writtenby Spanish ambassador Enrique Dupuy de PresidentWilliam McKinley as a "cheap L6me, characterizing was purloined and subsequentlypublished in the politician," New York Journal. But the impact of the Maine was not only a matterof timing.The explosion was also a question of circumstances. That the vessel exploded inside Havana harbor,watersnominally under Spanish jurisdiction, invited immediate and obvious conclusions. "The Maine was sunk by an act of dirty on treachery the part of the Spaniards,"Theodore Roosevelt the concluded the day after tragedyl--asuspicionthatgained in many quarters. widespread currency Events moved quickly afterFebruary 15. On the following day PresidentMcKinleyconveneda naval courtofinquiry to investigatethe cause of the explosion. Two weeks later Congress appropriated $50 million forwar preparations.On March 25, the naval courtof inquirycompleted its investigation and released its findingsthree days later. Two explosions were responsible for the loss of the Maine, the naval court of inquiry concluded. An initial external explosionone that"could have been produced only by the explosion of a mine situatedunder the bottomof the ship"--detonated a secondinternal blast"oftwoor moreoftheforward magazines."2 The naval reportdeclined to fix responsibility the tragfor edy, but the conclusion that the firstexplosion originated attributed externally, explicitlyto a submarinemine, invited one of twocorollaryconclusions:the explosion was the result Elting E. Morison, ed., The Lettersof Theodore Roosevelt(8 vols., Cambridge,

1. Theodore Rooseveltto Benjamin Harrison Diblee, Feb. 16, 1898,in

Mass., 1951-1954), 775. I, 2. "Message fromthe Presidentof the United StatesTransmitting the of Report of the Naval Court of Inquiry Upon the Destruction the United StatesBattleship Maine in Havana Harbor,February 1898,Together with 15, 55 theTestimony TakenBefore Court," Cong.,2 sess., the Sen.Doc.207(1898), 281.

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