This Week in History

An Explosion that Inspired a War: 

February 15, 1898

This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America. Please visit our webpage to peruse sample chapters of our book. For ordering information on Lands of Hope and Promise and our other texts, please click here.

Chief Justice Melville Fuller swears William McKinley in as president. Former president Grover Cleveland stands at McKinley’s left.

It was not because he opposed foreign intervention on principle that McKinley opposed intervention in Cuba. For instance, McKinley wanted to annex the Hawai’ian Islands, where wealthy owners of pineapple plantations (themselves the descendants of New England missionaries) had overthrown the last queen, Liliuokalani. In 1893, when the revolution that ousted Liliuokalani took place and Hawai’i became a republic under President Sanford Dole, President Harrison had introduced an annexation treaty into the Senate. President Cleveland withdrew the treaty after he discovered that the Hawai’ian revolution was not a popular uprising but the work of a few Americans with the aid of United States troops. Cleveland called the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani an unlawful subversion and declared the United States could never countenance it. Such scruples did not bother McKinley. In 1897, the Republican president submitted to the Senate a second treaty for the annexation of Hawai’i.

Cartoon depicting President McKinley as Mark Hanna’s toy, by Homer Davenport of the New York Journal

For Mark Hanna, for American business and, therefore, for President McKinley, the big difference between Hawai’i and Cuba was that the Hawai’ian islands, almost 2,500 miles off the western coast of the United States, were a prof­itable center of trade. Cuba, on the other hand, held no business interest. American businessmen, and their politicians were for the most part uninterested in heeding the cry of the oppressed.

But in McKinley’s favor, it must be remembered that never had the United States, by a formal declaration of Congress, intervened in a war between foreign powers, for ideals or anything else. Except for the Mexican War, the United States had maintained the role for which Jefferson had hoped — to be an isolationist power. What’s more, by late 1897, even idealistic reasons for entering the Cuban struggle were seemingly gone. The Spanish gov­ernment, having decided to become more conciliatory, recalled Weyler and released Cuban citizens detained in Weyler’s concentration camps. What’s more, Spain offered Cuba a measure of home rule. The worst abuses had been abolished, and Americans should have rested easier.

A pro-intervention cartoon from Judge magazine. Columbia reaches out to Cuba, while Uncle Sam sits blindfolded

But they didn’t. War fervor remained strong with Pulitzer, Hearst, with the Cuban exiles in America, and with the American consul to Havana, Fitzhugh Lee. Fearing the collapse of Spanish power would expose American citizens in Havana to danger, Lee asked that Captain Charles Sigsbee and the battleship Maine be dispatched to Havana harbor. The steaming of an American battleship into Havana harbor, foreign territory, was technically an act of war, though Spain carefully ignored the provocation. Spain did not want war with the United States.

The USS Maine entering Havana harbor, January 1898

Then, on February 15, 1898, the Maine exploded, with a great loss of life. The event stirred up war fervor in the United States to a fever pitch. Though there was no proof the Spanish were responsible, pro-war Americans used the explosion to whip up public animus against Spain. Hearst’s sensational headline on February 18 — “Whole Country Thrills with the War Fever yet the President Says, ‘It Was an Accident’” — lambasted the still vacillating McKinley. The people’s cry, “Remember the Maine!” began to move Republicans in the direction of war — not so much for patriotic reasons but because they feared that if they ignored the popular clamor, Democrats might take control of Congress in the election of 1898. Finally, the decision of a naval court of inquiry that an external submerged mine destroyed the Maine convinced most Americans that the Spanish were responsible. McKinley now had no choice but to cry, however feebly and reluctantly, “Remember the Maine!”


A Cuban Patriot Sings Verdi

Rosalia Chalia (1864-1948) was a Cuban operatic soprano who gained fame, not only in her native Havana, but in Mexico, the United States, and Europe. A member of a prominent Cuban family, who objected to her undertaking a singing career, she was a supporter of Cuban independence from
Spain. Here is a recording, made around 1900, of Chalia singing Ah, fors’ e lui from Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata.