Remember the USS Maine? It was the U.S. ship that blew up in Havana in 1898, and was the casus belli for a tectonic-plate shifting war that has become surprisingly obscure (maybe there were a couple of slightly larger wars after it that got a little more attention). This war would see an unlikely country elevated to Darth Vader-level evil enemy status: Spain! That’s right, a little over a century ago Spain was America’s number one boogeyman. Why? Let’s find out.
Spain was the preeminent European power at the dawn of the age of discovery, but had fallen into disrepair and backwardness, and it would never restore its old glory. Most of its colonial holdings were long gone, lost to France and Britain and others, but one big one remained: Cuba. It might be surprising, but Cuba was a Spanish holding as recently as around the turn of the 20th century, and some sources suggest that Spain considered it more a province than a colony. Nonetheless, the vast majority of Cuban commerce was with the United States, and Americans had significant business and real estate interests there, primarily sugar cane plantations.
It’s funny how history has a way of repeating itself, so if you know anything about Cuba in the 50s and 60s you’ll be very unsurprised to learn what happened at the end of the 1800s. The Cubans got all uppity and decided that they didn’t like being controlled by an alien power, and therefore launched (from bases in other Caribbean countries) an armed independence movement to overthrow the regime and liberate the island. Exactly like Castro and company half a century later. And much like what happened in the 50s, the freedom fighters of the 1890s quickly realized that they could not defeat the Spanish in open battle, and instead retreated to the mountains and jungles from whence they waged a long term guerrilla campaign.
Considered very simply, guerrillas – especially those operating for long periods of time – invariably depend on at least some level of support from the local populace (this doesn’t mean voluntary support either, guerrillas will often adopt a “help us or we kill you” approach to civilian relations). Food, shelter, medical supplies, fuel; all of these things are critical for the waging of guerrilla war, and can’t be foraged for in remote areas. The Spanish, like many before and after them, realized this and adopted a pretty classic counterinsurgency strategy: deny the rebels access to the resources on which they depend. How do you do this? Well, you round up everyone into concentration camps, burn crops, interrogate people, and generally behave in a brutal and merciless manner until you’ve choked the life out of your hard-to-find adversary. This happened in the Boer War and Vietnam just to name a couple, and it can work, but only if you adopt this strategy to a horrible, utterly ruthless degree.
Slowly but surely, then, Spain started to become the ultimate bad guy of the planet, at least according to inflammatory reports in U.S. newspapers. This was the infamous yellow journalism era (fact-free sensationalist reporting designed to sell papers and inflame passions rather than inform, so basically modern television but on paper), and the competing Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers went berserk writing terrible tales of Spanish abuses of power. And don’t get me wrong, the Spanish were brutal. Their policies caused widespread starvation and rampant disease, and they were extremely harsh on helpless civilians simply caught in the crossfire. But that didn’t stop the papers from embellishing an already nasty record to extremes. Here are some images from the era.
Day after day there continued a relentless stream of stories about the horrors of Spanish-ruled Cuba. We’ve certainly never encountered such things in our lifetimes.
U.S. commercial interests were threatened, yes, but even more so at this time there emerged a war fever which I think any post-WWI and WWII generation would find difficult to understand. The prevailing idea here being that a nation almost needed a war to exercise its might, and that war was good for soldiers as it gave men a chance to test themselves and do something heroic, even if that something was dying. This was particularly interesting in the United States, whose founding mythos and early statesmen made staying out of foreign wars and empire an essential tenant of American policy for over a hundred years. The little angel and devil on Uncle Sam’s shoulders were having quite a debate. From the Spanish perspective that debate looked much simpler.
Eventually the U.S. decided to send a ship over to hang out in Havana harbour, so as to project power and show the evil Spanish that they meant business. They weren’t at war but the U.S. wanted to send a message. That ship was the USS Maine, a top of the line battleship (actually it had several design flaws and lagged behind European designs). Take that, Spain! And then? At around 10 o’clock at night on February 15th, 1898, while most of her crew was sleeping, the Maine was rocked by a gigantic explosion under her bow which destroyed the ship and killed 260 crewmen. 89 men survived the blast.
The captain, who along with many officers survived, because their quarters were astern, sent this telegram informing his superiors of what happened.
But what the hell actually happened? Spain convened an inquiry quickly which concluded that a fire on board had ignited coal and munitions and caused the explosion. This was treated with as much credulity as a Saudi review of 9/11, and these conclusions weren’t even reported in U.S. papers. The newspapers in America went absolutely berserk, devoting seas of ink to the incident, and publishing any outlandish rumour or supposition as fact. Hearst and Pulitzer competed with one another to come up with the most sensational and ridiculous stories. Fortunately we’ve learned from this and live in much more sophisticated and nuanced political times.
Next the Americans undertook their own investigation and concluded that the explosion was caused by… an undersea mine. The kind that only the Spanish could have deployed. Uh oh. But what really happened to the Maine? Were the Spanish actually so stupid or crazy as to provoke a war they absolutely did not want to fight? The simple answer is: no one really knows. There have been several re-investigations of the facts, but the truth remains a mystery. Was it an accident? Did Spain do it? Did the Cubans do it to provoke the U.S.? Did U.S. war mongers do it? Based on my own reading its seems utterly ludicrous that the Spanish would do this, and most of the other theories seem far fetched too. Given how dangerous and combustible ships were at the time, I think it’s difficult to conclude anything but that it was a terrible accident put to excellent political use.
Here’s an infamous Fair And Balanced image from that time.
Or this one:
Shortly thereafter the U.S. launched what would come to be known as the Spanish American War. A war which saw the plucky upstart USA absolutely demolish an overmatched dying European colonial power. Running from only April to August of 1898 the war saw the utter defeat of Spain’s navy and the collapse of her empire forever. The U.S. won Cuba (temporarily), Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. This war also featured future President Teddy Roosevelt resigning from his post as Assistant Secretary to the Navy, forming his own military unit called the Roughriders, and leading them into combat. For fun. He led a crazy life. Roosevelt is that rare ultra war hawk who advocated for a war so that he could personally participate in it; can you picture Dick Cheney firing birdshot into Tikrit? I can’t. Here are the Roughriders in action:
And the ultimate horrible irony? The U.S. was immediately involved in a brutal counterinsurgency of its own against freedom fighters in the Philippines which killed tens of thousands of filipino civilians, and included rounding up the locals into concentration camps. Almost instantly Americans transformed into the oppressive colonial power they had just gone to war to defeat. Weirdly, the Philippines would be freed from Japanese rule by our man Douglas MacArthur, in an interesting trick of being freed (from Spain), oppressed, and then liberated by the very country that ground you under its boot. The Philippines are basically the Poland of the Pacific. Here’s a great Winsor McKay cartoon summarizing the situation, as a filipino donkey coils Uncle Sam around the tree of imperialism while Spain waltzes off into the background.
But victory makes for great politics! Here’s an amazing old school attack ad from 1900, showing the wonder of a McKinley administration. I love the utter urban wasteland of a Democratic America.
Because I obviously love old posters, here’s this one from WWI, which might be the craziest I’ve seen in a while, and is a descendent of the Spanish brute featured above.
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