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Remember the Maine

February 15, 2008, 10:33 pm

In a thoughtful and provocative comment below, PorJ discusses politicized memories of the Maine. Well, it just so happens that on this day in 1898, as Silbey has been kind enough to remind us, the Maine exploded and sank in Havana’s harbor.

The Maine was in Cuba in the first place, ostensibly protecting American interests — again, please see Silbey’s post, as he, um, actually knows something about this material — because pro-independence Cubans, rallying around the memory of writer/poet/activist José Marti, were trying to throw off the yoke of Spanish colonial power. Or something. Anyway, a little before 10 pm on February 15, the Maine blew up, killing more than 260 people on board.

The cry for war went up immediately in the U.S., drawing on years of popular sympathy for the plight of the Cubans, who had suffered terribly under a brutal Spanish administration. The Hearst newspapers, which had been stoking their readers’ passions for months, painted the Maine incident as an act of Spanish aggression, running huge headlines like, “MAINE BLOWN UP BY TORPEDO,” and only qualifying such claims in much smaller type beneath.

President McKinley, despite the pressure to rush to war, dispatched investigators to Cuba. They determined that the Maine went down because its forward magazine batteries had exploded after the ship struck a mine of unknown origin. Skeptics argued that the ship sank because of an internal explosion within one of its coal bunkers. Spontaneous combustion! War mongers in the press, and, increasingly, in Congress, ignored the skeptics and continued insisting that the Spanish had destroyed the Maine. And McKinley eventually ordered a Naval blockade of Cuba on April 21. Spain declared war on the United States just two days later. And Congress responded in kind two days after that, formally beginning the Spanish-American War.

But, as Silbey suggests, that wasn’t the end of the uncertainty surrounding the Maine. Naval investigators returned to Havana’s harbor in 1911, building a huge coffer dame (see above) around the shattered remains of the ship. They concluded, again, that the Maine had struck a mine. But some experts remained unconvinced. So, in 1976, Admiral Hyman Rickover launched another investigation, finding that an internal explosion had caused the damage. Then, in 1998, around the centennial of the sinking, National Geographic magazine remembered the Maine by sponsoring still another inquiry, using computer modeling this time. The final (maybe) word? The National Geographic team found “a major problem” with the internal explosion theory, determining that a mine was the more likely cause of the disaster. Oh. Okay.

The day after the Maine blew up, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Teddy Roosevelt said, “we shall never find out definitely” who or what was responsible for the ship’s destruction — though Roosevelt blamed the Spanish. Roosevelt’s words, it seems, support the case that PorJ is making in his comment: certitude, when dealing with memory fights, is misplaced. This is probably especially true when those fights center on high-stakes episodes from American military history — the causes of the Civil War, the Maine episode, Pearl Harbor, the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Gulf of Tonkin — in which our cultural fault lines are laid bare. And so, when scholars pass along their interpretations, or interpretations of other scholars, as absolute, they diminish their credibility — both in the classroom and in print. At least I think that’s what PorJ is suggesting. Right? PorJ?

And that all seems right enough to me, though I’m also persuaded by something a senior researcher at National Geographic, David Woodell, said during a remarkable debate (see the link above) about the magazine’s findings in the Maine controversy:

Each of these perceptions of history says very different things about our country, about our Navy, and about our national character. So maybe it is important that we ask the question until we feel we have gained more than just a perception.

In sum, we should keep inquiring what contested memories can tell us about the past and the present. But I also think that we should strive for certitude, not because we believe that we can find objective truths about the past in the archives, but because we believe that the process of striving is the essence of historical inquiry. So, I’ll remember the Maine, acknowledging that my memories are contingent. But I’ll also keep wondering what really happened in Havana harbor on this day in 1898.

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