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Remember the Maine

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One hundred and nine years ago today, the pretext for an imperial war was laid as the USS Maine was obliterated by five tons of its own gunpowder. Two days later, Josph Pulitzer’s New York World reported on the following “confidential” insight from the captain of the vessel, Charles Sigsbee:

WASHINGTON, Feb. 16 [1898].— A suppressed cable despatch received by Secretary Long from Capt. Sigsbee announced the Captain’s conclusion, after a hasty examination, that the disaster to the Maine was not caused by accident.

He expressed the belief that whether the explosion originated from without or within, it was made possible by an enemy.

He requested that this intimation of his suspicions be considered confidential until he could conduct a more extended investigation.

William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal was no less circumspect in an editorial that ran the same day. Calling for war regardless of the cause behind the disaster, the editors blustered that

we have endured [the Cuban troubles] long enough. Whether a Spanish torpedo sank the Maine or not, peace must be restored in Cuba at once. We cannot have peace without fighting for it, let us fight and have it over with. It is not likely that the entire Spanish navy would be able to do us as much harm in open battle as we suffered in Havana Harbor in one second for a state of things that was neither peace or war.

The explosion of the Maine marked a watershed, so to speak, in the history of the US. To use a less wholesome metaphor, the effect was comparable to that of a ruptured sewer pipe, as the foulest national impulses — bad poetry, bad music, bad art, bad journalism, and bad policy — poured forth in a towering fountain.

To humanity’s good fortune, nothing like this ever happened again.

. . . The Spanish-American War was the first to be captured to a meager degree in motion pictures . . . I’ve uploaded a short, uneventful, but kind of interesting film of the sailors’ funeral here.

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