Saturday, February 20, 2010

Remember The Maine!

This week marked the anniversary of the sinking of the USS Maine. The 1898 incident was a rallying point around which support for the Spanish-American War coalesced, and thus marked the beginning of a period in which US power would increasingly be projected overseas. But even today, what really happened to the Maine remains a mystery.

The Maine had been sent to Havana to protect American interests at a time when local Cubans were increasingly restive at the hands of the colonial Spanish authorities. The forward third of the ship was destroyed by explosions in the vessel's own powder magazine, killing more than 270 sailors. The Navy's investigation at the time -- and a 1908 follow-up-- faulted a mine, but what really caused the initial explosion remains controversial to this day. Subsequent investigations and theorists have cited both the mine hypothesis (who laid or set off the mine being a whole separate can of worms) and the idea that spontaneous combustion in the vessel's coal storage areas provided the first spark. This latter was the conclusion of a Spanish investigation conducted at the time. It has even been suggested that conspirators -- on or off the ship -- from the US set off the explosion in an attempt to foster support for a war against Spain.

Admiral Hyman Rickover convened another investigation in 1976 that supported the coal bunker explosion hypothesis, while a 1999 National Geographic analysis supported the external explosion theory.

See a short 1898 film by Thomas Edison showing the wreckage of the Maine on YouTube here.

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