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What caused the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine?
Transcript of What caused the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine?
The Theories to be Examined:
The Spanish blew up the ship through the use of a mine.
Design flaws sparked a fire which caused the explosion.
Sensationalist journalist William Randolph Hearst may have caused the explosion to start a war.
The Facts: What Historians DO Know
February 15th, 1898, 9:40 p.m.
In Cuba's Havana Harbor
The US battleship, the USS Maine, suffered an explosion, killing 260 out of the 400 men aboard.
Why was it there:
The USS Maine was there to protect any American people in Cuba since a rebellion had broken out there in January against the rule of the Spanish government.
How did it explode/why:
The answer as to what caused the explosion remains unknown and theories remain divided.
The US Naval Court of Inquiry
ruled in March that the ship had been blown up by a submerged mine, not placing blame on the Spanish but implicating it.
The US Congress and general American public strongly believed the Spanish were at fault.
For this reason, the
a team of American Naval Investigators researched and concluded the explosion was caused by a fire that ignited the ammunition stocks (not by a Spanish mine/act of sabotage).
a National Geographic investigation came up with unconclusive results, tied between the mine, ammunition, and design flaws theories.
The History Channel concluded that a coal bunker fire caused the explosion.
Explanation 3: Sensationalist journalist William Randolph Hearst may have caused the explosion to start a war.
Some conspiracy theorists fabricated the idea that journalist William Randolph Hearst planted the explosion on the USS Maine himself to start war.
According to the theory, an illustrator named Frederic Remington allegedly received a cable from Hearst that said, "You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war."
Evidence that disproves this theory: War was already raging in Cuba by the time the message was sent.
The conversation between Hearst and Remington first appeared in a 1901 book by an untrustworthy Canadian journalist who was likely just trying to stir up trouble and publicity. Hearst responded to the conversation that was printed, calling it “frankly false” and “ingeniously idiotic," through the Times. (primary source)
“This kind of clotted nonsense,” Hearst said, “could only be generally circulated and generally believed in England, where newspapers claiming to be conservative and reliable are the most utterly untrustworthy of any on earth. In apology for these newspapers it may be said that their untrustworthiness is not always due to intention but more frequently to ignorance and prejudice.”
Explanation 2: Design flaws in the ship caused a fire which sparked the explosion.
Elise Garner, Period 8, 1/19/15
Explanation 1: The Spanish blew up the USS Maine through the use of a mine.
The Spanish were naturally the ones the Americans initially and most vehemently blamed due to the resentment the two nations felt towards one another. Many came to believe the Spanish blew the ship up through the use of a mine.
A common newspaper title was, "Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain!"
How the Spanish reacted to the tragedy:
They were extremely compassionate and respectful of the victims, enough so that the Captain of the Maine himself told the Navy that "public opinion should be suspended until further report."
The Navy hastily formed an inquiry to investigate the explosion. However, their investigation did not end up being as meticulous as investigations that would come in the future due to lack of competence and the dismantled state of the wreckage.
Despite the carelessness of their investigation, the Inquiry determined that a mine had blown up the ship. Although the Spanish were not directly blamed, the Inquiry did implacate the Spanish could be responsible.
This is important evidence because it is the main reason people believe(d) that the Spanish were responsible and a mine caused the explosion--note that the Inquiry's investigation may not have been credible. People readily believed it anyway due to their hatred for the Spanish.
Primary source and the evidence the Inquiry found suggesting the explosion was caused by a mine: “… [T]he vertical keel [of the ship] is broken in two and the flat keel is bent at an angle similar to the angle formed by the outside bottom plating. This break is now about six feet below the surface of the water, and about thirty feet above its normal position.
. . . . In the opinion of the court, the MAINE was destroyed by the explosion of a submarine mine, which caused the partial explosion of two or more of her [ammunition storage rooms] . . . . The court has been unable to obtain evidence fixing the responsibility for the destruction of the MAINE upon any person or persons.” -the statement released by the Inquiry in March, 1898
Investigators found that the bottom hull plates were curved inward and back, which would be conclusive with the theory that a submerged mine underneath the ship caused the explosion. The Navy accepted this solution, but experts at the time had their doubts.
Admiral Hyman G. Rickover decided in 1976 to reopen the case of the USS Maine and discovered that a spontaneous combustion as a result of poor ship design could have been the reason for the Maine's destruction.
Interested in seeing whether or not the use of modern science could solve the enigma of the USS Maine, Rickover reopened the case, calling upon two experts on explosions, as well as analyzing the documents from prior inquiries. He also looked at information on the construction of the USS Maine during his investigation. Rickover and his team determined the damage done to the ship did not seem to have been done by a mine; instead, they believed the explosion was caused by a combustion of coal in the bunker next to the magazine. Primary source: Rickover's book, "How the Battleship Maine was Destroyed."
Just a few days after the explosion, the the Navy’s leading ordnance expert, Philip R. Alger, was quoted: (primary source)
"...Magazine explosions ... produce effects exactly similar to the effects of the explosion on board the Maine.... seeking the cause of the explosion of the Maine’s magazine, we should naturally look not for the improbable or unusual causes, but those against which we have had to guard in the past. The most common of these is through fires in the bunkers. Many of our ships have been in danger various times from this cause ... a fire in the Cincinnati’s bunkers actually set fire to fittings, wooden boxes, etc, within the magazine and had it not been discovered at the time it was, it would doubtless have resulted in a catastrophe on board that ship similar to ... the Maine."
A common problem in the late nineteenth century within coal-fired warships such as the Maine was their design. The coal rooms were right next to the magazines, separated only by a bulkhead. If temperatures got too high, coal could spontaneously ignite, causing an explosion.
The Commander of the Maine was known for being extremely cautious and following safety procedures. For this reason, the staff of the Maine regularly checked the rooms' temperatures. However, one bunker, A-16, had poor ventilation and was full of coal, making it a likely canidate for the source of the explosion.
The most probable of all the three theories examined
is the theory adressing the design flaws in the USS Maine
and other ships of the time. Each investigation done, 1976, 1998,
and 2002 all hold in common one theory: the design flaw theory. The fact
that other ships of the time had the exact same problem also just goes to further support the explanation that the temperatures rose
too high, causing the coal to combust and sparking the explosion. Rickover's investigation was trustworthy due to the experts placed on the case and the use of scientific advancements.
I believe it is very unlikely the Spanish sabotaged the ship based on the empathetic way they responded to the victims' pain. It may have been one of the most popular theories of the time, but only for an irrational reason: hatred. Of course Americans would be quick to demonize and blame the Spaniards for such a terrible crime against humanity because of all of the tension between the two nations that already existed. The Inquiry that did the investigation was not credible, either, and experts of the time had their doubts about the theory.
The third theory regarding Hearst blowing up the ship himself is not only hard to believe but obviously fabricated as well by a journalist looking to garner attention. Hearst, if he really was evil enough to do such a deed, would most likely be proud and boastful of his actions but was instead blatantly disgusted
by the allegations against him.
Overall, the most consistent, scientifically plausible, and realistic theory is
the combustion one.
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McMorrow, Edward P. "What Destroyed the USS Maine-An Opinion." Maine. The Spanish American War Centennial Website, n.d. Web. 21 Jan. 2016. <http://www.spanamwar.com/Mainemo1.htm>.
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Fissure, Louis. "Destruction of the Maine (1898)." Sci Am Scientific American 19.5 (1898): 67. Destruction of USS Maine. Web. 21 Jan. 1.