On February 15, 1898, the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana Harbor. Although the spontaneous combustion of coal dust in the bunker beside the powder magazine probably touched off the explosion, a faction of Americans insisted that Spanish officials in Cuba had deliberately mined the ship. Three months later, having little choice, Congress declared war on Spain and launched America onto the world stage.
The journey to war marked a split in the Republican Party, pitting President McKinley and the older generation against rising men led by Theodore Roosevelt. The McKinley faction abhorred the idea of war, in part because they had seen one up close (“I have been through one war,” McKinley said; “I have seen the dead piled up, and I do not want to see another”) and in part because they backed the interests of Cuba’s sugar industry on Cuba. Sugar growers liked the order and security of property under Spanish rule.
Roosevelt and his comrades hated the big business interests that stopped Americans from helping their neighbors. Two years before, Spanish authorities had tried to end Cubans’ thirty-year fight for independence once and for all by instituting a “reconcentration” policy that required everyone to move to fortified towns surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by soldiers. These crowded concentration camps had too little food and too many people. Starvation and disease did their work all too efficiently.
Still, McKinley refused to step in, and Roosevelt steamed that big businessmen were selling out American values. At a public dinner, he stood up and shook his fist at one of McKinley’s right hand men, snarling: “We will have this war for the freedom of Cuba in spite of the timidity of the commercial interests!”
The Roosevelt faction won. Americans were increasingly angry at the big businessmen who colluded to keep wages low and prices high while they divided their time between their town homes on Fifth Avenue and their seventy-room “cottages” at Newport, and the powder keg on the Maine set off the powder keg at home. On April 25, Congress declared war. Seventeen thousand U.S. troops landed in Santiago on June 30; the next day 7,000 of them, including Roosevelt, charged up San Juan and Kettle hills to take the high ground around the city. On July 3, the U.S. Navy sank all seven ships in the Spanish fleet as they tried to run out of the harbor. Spanish officers surrendered to American officers on July 17.
It had been “a splendid little war,” a friend of Roosevelt’s wrote him, and it committed Republicans to the foreign intervention backed by the younger firebrands. In 1900, the party’s platform declared: it is “the high duty of the government… to confer the blessings of liberty and civilization upon all.”
The sinking of the U.S.S. Maine was the crisis that allowed an internal fight in the Republican Party to launch the nation into internationalism. “Remember the Maine!” indeed.