By: Mickey Gussow (Waterford)
At 9:40 PM on the night of Feb. 15, 1898, the American battleship USS MAINE exploded and sank quickly in the harbor of Havana, Cuba. The sunken ship was standing upright on the bottom. Its stern superstructure was above the water with the mainmast nearly vertical; amidships was a twisted wreck; and the forward part, about one third of the ship’s length, was completely below the water.
There were 2 possible explanations for the disaster: the ship had been sunk by an accident or by a de-liberate act. If it were an accident, the commanding officer CaptainSigsbee had to explain how it occurred on board since he was responsible for the safety of the ship. If it were a deliberate act performed by the crew, Sigsbee was still responsible. However, if the act had been carried out by the Spanish authorities in Cuba, by dissident Spaniards acting against their government, or by Cuban insurgents, Spain then was at fault because she was responsible for the safety of the ship in the harbor provided the ship obeyed port regulations.
If the explosion originated inside the ship, then the sinking was probably accidental and Spain was guiltless. If the explosion originated outside the ship, then it probably was deliberate and Spain was to blame. Given the strained relations between the U.S. and Spain, determining the cause of the disaster was a very serious matter.
Politics became rampant as to what sunk the MAINE. The Spanish Minister of Colonies cabled “…it would be advisable for Your Excellency to gather every fact you can to prove the MAINE catas-trophe cannot be attributed to us.” Captain Sigsbee cabled Secretary of the Navy, John Long: “Probably the MAINE destroyed by mine, perhaps by acci-dent. I surmise that the berth [moored to a buoy] was planned previous to her arrival, perhaps long ago. I can only surmise this.”
In Washington, people were taking positions even when there were no technical facts upon which to base a conclusion. Some who felt the U.S. should stay out of Cuba were certain that the MAINE was destroyed by an accidental explosion. Their view was that the Spanish did not have an opportunity to sink the ship. And others who believed the U.S. should intervene were convinced that the Spanish had destroyed the ship. They were confident that adequate precautions were taken by the Navy to make an accident impossible. With no knowledge of technology, Secretary Long was inclined that the cause was an accident because he viewed that a modern warship with explosives was liable to sudden destruction.
Popular opinion was fanned by inflammatory articles blaming Spain printed in the “Yellow Press” by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. The phrase, “Remember the MAINE, to Hell with Spain,” became the rallying cry for action. Yellow Press is considered unprofessional journalism by presenting little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead using eye-catching, sensational headlines to sell more newspapers.
The sinking of the MAINE was the dominant topic of discussion in the Navy bureaus. Possibility of an accident seemed to have the most adherents. Lieutenant Frank Fletcher on duty at the Bureau of Ordnance wrote that “…Everybody is gradually set-tling down to the belief that the disaster was due to the position of the [ammunition] magazines next to the coal bunker in which there must have been spon-taneous combustion.” Engineer-in-Chief George Melville suspected a magazine explosion.
Phillip Alger, the Navy’s leading ordnance expert, in an interview published in the Washington Evening Star on Feb., said: “When it comes to seeking the cause of the explosions of the MAINE’s magazine, …the most common cause of these is through fire in the bunkers…I shall again emphasize the fact that no torpedo to our knowledge can produce an explosion of a magazine within.” He also pointed out that a fire on board the CINCINNATI’s coal bunker actually set fire to the fittings and wooden boxes within her magazine. He predicted that if the fire had not been discovered in time, the result would have been an explosion similar to one on the MAINE.
Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, was upset. He was convinced that there had been no accident. Roosevelt, therefore, considered Alger’s comments very disturbing because he was taking the “Spanish side.”
Roosevelt was concerned that such views would weaken the Navy’s standing before Congress. He was shocked to hear some Republican congressional leaders state that the MAINE disaster demonstrated the U.S. must stop building battleships. Roosevelt argued that the advanced naval powers also had accidents and that the loss was the price the U.S. paid in its role as a great naval power.
Note: Primary reference is HOW THE BATTLE-SHIP MAINE WAS DESTROYED by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, 1976.