Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Who Sunk The USS Maine?

American nationalists stoked the flames of foreign adventurism and empire in the late 19th century through the sensational yellow journalism alleging to document the evils of Spain on the backyard island of Cuba. These flames soon engulfed the island when the USS Maine sank amidst an explosion on February 15, 1898. Many investigations followed over the years which sought to identify the perpetrator but those efforts failed to find a culprit. We believe that the most likely culprit is the fox guarding the chicken coup.

The splendid little war which followed the sinking of the Maine launched the USA on an imperial adventure which continues to this day. Leading Americans wished to see the country take its place among the great powers lest she lose advantages to European states. If war were required to bring the fruits of empire then let it be done and done quickly.

A causus belli requires convincing proof. Thus an investigation into the sinking of the Maine was quickly launched under the direction of Captain William T. Sampson whose investigation concluded, without the advice of outside experts, that the Maine sunk from a mine explosion which in turn triggered an explosion in the ship's magazines. The commission failed to assign responsibility although that was but a detail to Theodore Roosevelt who resigned his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to lead the Rough Riders up San Juan Hill.

In 1911, after excavating and extensively documenting the remains of the Maine, a court of inquiry headed by Rear Admiral Charles E. Vreeland examined the site before the Maine was sent to its final repose. Its findings corroborated much of the Sampson inquest but noted that a smaller explosive was used to cause the damage.

Still not satisfied with the findings of earlier courts of inquiry the US Navy commissioned Admiral Hyman Rickover in 1976 to investigate the explosion after which his commission concluded that an internal fire in the coal room caused by spontaneous combustion ignited the magazines in a conflagration.

Not to be outdone, the National Geographic conducted its own investigation in 1999 after which it concluded that both internal coal room fires and external explosion conspired to sink the Maine.

Foreign commentators have viewed the sinking in less sympathetic terms among whose ranks include many who believe that the United States or US nationals deliberately sunk its battleship as a pretext for war with Spain. Enter Captain Jorge Navarro Custin, a Cuban naval historian who defected from Cuba in 1961 to the United States, who has published a book offering a more original thesis implicating US industrialists and Cubans.

The logic ot the collaboration rests upon mutually beneficial politics which provided the Cubans a benefactor who could deliver them from Spain and the United States a convenient pretext to declare war on colonial power. He further details the work of Frederico Blume, born in Denmark, who worked his way to Peru in service to the country in its wars against Chile. His specialty was naval explosives.

Blume is credited with inventing wave, battery, and clock activated mines which attached to ships. The explosive power of the devices was not great but it was sufficient for sinking ships among whose first targets were Chilean naval vessels. The designs for the explosives were sent to New York through the mediation of Cuban patriots where they were fabricated into working mines and then sent to Cuba where Cuban revolutionaries worked with the Americans to sink the Maine. The Cubans sunk other Spanish ships with these devices including the gunboat Rel├ímpago.

The explanation makes the most sense of those offered to date. The exploding coal theory has been debunked sufficiently elsewhere that it has no credibility as an explanation of the sinking of the Maine. The two earliest inquiries each concluded that external explosions caused the destruction. Custin has now extended those findings by attaching to the Maine event names and a web of connections from Peru to America to Cuba. And what a tangled web it is.

When considered with the heated rhetoric of the times, when the Hearst and Pulitzer papers were inciting agitation and war against Spain, the story of Custin fits very nicely with the political maneuvering of Roosevelt and other jingoists of the day who fought McKinley in his preferences to avoid war.

References:
Apuntes Hist├│ricos Sobre la Historia de Cuba - Volumen I
CUBA: The Spanish American War - the sinking of the "Maine"

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