Remember the Maine!

In terms of rallying cries, perhaps only “Remember the Alamo!” is more engrained in our historic consciousness than is the cry “Remember the Maine!,” which became a national call to arms in the wake of the explosion that sank the battleship the USS Maine, this week (Feb 15) in 1898, as it sat in a harbor in Havana, Cuba.  Some 260 American sailors died in the explosion.

President William McKinley sent the Maine to Havana in response to an increasingly volatile war between Cuban rebels fighting for independence and Spain, which considered Cuba part of its overseas empire. And although the Maine went to Havana solely to protect American commercial interests — Americans owned many of the island’s sugar plantations — Spanish authorities considered its presence in Havana provocative, and when the ship blew up, Americans quickly blamed Spanish saboteurs. Later, when a U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry ruled that an underwater mine had caused the explosion, suspicions were confirmed and war fever broke out across America.

President McKinley initially was reluctant to fight with Spain, but “Remember the Maine!” became the headline of every newspaper in America, and Congress and the American people demanded retribution.  War soon followed, but Spain’s naval forces in Cuba were no match for American military might, and Spain was quickly defeated. Spain agreed to withdraw from Cuba and ceded Puerto Rico, Guam and (for $20 million) the Philippines to American control.

The fate of Cuba, however, was more complicated. Calls for America to annex the island in order to “stabilize” the country and protect American property were well received at home but — unsurprisingly — not in Cuba where the Cuban rebels, having recently fought for independence against Spain, saw no advantage in being taken over by “Yanquis.”  As a result, after extensive negotiations, Cuba drafted a constitution compatible with U.S. political sensibilities, and when Cuba also agreed to let America establish a naval base at Guantanamo Bay (which — as most Americans know — we still occupy), it was agreed that Cuba would gain independence.

But there are two postscripts. First, it is now accepted that the Maine’s explosion was not due to sabotage, but due to an accidental fire that ignited its ammunition room.  Second, thanks to his heroics at the “Battle of San Juan Hill” in Cuba, the young Teddy Roosevelt became McKinley’s second-term vice-president, and when he became president after McKinley’s assassination, that war experience influenced his establishment of the “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine.

This corollary subtly but significantly shifted the defensive nature of the Monroe Doctrine to a more active, interventionist foreign policy in which America would play policeman/peacekeeper in Latin America.

As the 20th Century approached, America was becoming a world power.