Today marks the anniversary of the sinking of the USS Maine, which went down in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, and sparked the Spanish-American War. Though the war is less remembered today than perhaps it should be, it was very important to the United States territorially. By the end of the conflict, America had gained control of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam, and had established a military presence on Cuba that remains to this day.
The war is also famous in New York for ratcheting up the so-called "yellow journalism" of Joseph Pulitzer's World and William Randolph Hearst's Journal American. Together, these two newspapers whipped up the reading public's frenzy for war and against Spanish imperialism. (Though not often quoted today, the full slogan of the war was "Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!")
As we write in Inside the Apple:
As Cuban citizens struggled for their independence from Spain, the U.S. sent the battleship Maine to Havana to patrol and protect American commercial interests. On the night of February 15, 1898, the Maine’s forward ammunition magazines exploded and the ship sank. Two days later, Pulitzer’s World asked: “Maine Explosion Caused by Bomb or Torpedo?” Hearst’s Journal didn't bother to frame it as a question, merely stating that the “Destruction of the War Ship Maine Was the Work of an Enemy.” (A hurried investigation by a U.S. Naval board of inquiry determined that the Maine had been felled by a Spanish mine; in truth, the cause of explosion will likely never be known, but may have been caused by a spontaneous explosion in the coal boiler.)
Two days later, Hearst upped the ante by announcing a “National Maine Monument Committee” to raise funds to commemorate the 258 men who’d died in the explosion. With the rallying cry “Remember the Maine!” on everyone’s lips, the United States officially called on Spain to leave Cuba. A month later, Spain declared war on the United States.
Hearst's "National Maine Monument Committee" took 15 years to do its work (even though the war only lasted four months), but in 1913, the Maine monument was unveiled at the Columbus Circle entrance to Central Park.The most famous example of yellow journalism is also probably apocryphal. As tensions in Cuba were mounting, Hearst sent artist Frederic Remington to create illustrations for the Journal. Bored at the lack of action, Remington is said to have telegraphed: “There is no trouble here. There will be no war. I wish to return.” Hearst allegedly blasted back: “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Though this story was reported as early as 1901, the telegrams in question no longer exist and many scholars believe the incident was created.
The figural group at the front of the statue (pictured above) is called The Antebellum State of Mind: Courage Awaiting the Flight of Peace and Fortitude Supporting the Feeble (we kid you not), and represents America preparing for war. Once upon a time, the young man on the prow of the ship would have clutched a sword; it was stolen years ago.
Around the back of the monument is The Post-Bellum Idea: Justice Receiving Back the Sword Entrusted to War (though, again, the sword is missing).
Atop the monument, covered in gold, is the goddess Columbia emerging triumphant from the sea. Underneath the gold leaf, the statue is made from the munitions from the USS Maine that were dredged from the bottom of Havana harbor.
(This post is adapted from one that appeared on February 15, 2011)
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