On February 15, 1898, a mysterious explosion destroyed the American battleship Maine in Havana Harbor and helped propel the United States into a war with Spain. The USS Maine was in Cuba, officially, on a mission of friendly courtesy and, incidentally, to protect American lives and property in the event that Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain might escalate into full-blown warfare. “Yet,” writes author Tom Miller, “the visit was neither spontaneous nor altruistic; the United States had been eyeing Cuba for almost a century.”
On board the Maine that sultry Tuesday night were 350 crew and officers. Shortly after 9 p.m. the ship’s bugler, C. H. Newton, blew taps. The ship bobbed listlessly, its imposing 100-yard length visible from stem to stern. “At 9:40 p.m.,” writes Miller, “the ship’s forward end abruptly lifted itself from the water. Along the pier, passersby could hear a rumbling explosion. Within seconds, another eruption–this one deafening and massive–splintered the bow, sending anything that wasn’t battened down, and most that was, flying more than 200 feet into the air…. In all, 266 of the 350 men aboard the Maine were killed.”
The American press was quick to point to an external explosion–a mine or torpedo–as the cause of the tragedy. An official U.S. investigation agreed. On April 25, 1898, Congress formally declared war on Spain. By summer’s end, Spain had ceded Cuba, along with the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam, to the United States.
In 1976, Adm. Hyman Rickover of the U.S. Navy mounted yet another investigation into the cause of the Maine disaster. His team of experts found that the ship’s demise was self- inflicted–likely the result of a coal bunker fire. There are those, however, who still maintain that an external blast was to blame. Some people, it seems, just won’t let you forget the Maine.
–Source: Smithsonian Magazine, February 1998.