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Better Late Than Never?: Rickover Clears Spain of the Maine Explosion

On February 15, 1898, an explosion ripped through the American battleship Maine, anchored in Havana Harbor, sinking the ship and killing 260 sailors. Americans responded with outrage, assuming that Spain, which controlled Cuba as a colony, had sunk the ship. Many newspapers presented Spanish culpability as fact, with headlines such as "The War Ship Maine was Split in Two by an Enemy’s Secret Infernal Machine.“ Two months later, the slogan ”Remember the Maine" carried the U.S. into war with Spain. In the midst of the hysteria, few Americans paid much attention to the report issued two weeks before the U.S. entry into the war by a Court of Inquiry appointed by President McKinley. The report stated that the committee could not definitively assign blame to Spain for the sinking of the Maine. In 1911, the Maine was raised in Havana harbor and a new board of inquiry again avoided a definite conclusion. In 1976, however, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Admiral Hyman Rickover conducted a new investigation. Rickover, something of a maverick in the Navy, came to the conclusion that the explosion was caused by spontaneous combustion in the ship’s coal bins, a problem that afflicted other ships of the period.

But controversy over the sinking of the Maine continues; some recent authors have, for example, rejected Rickover’s account and argued that rogue, anti-American Spanish officers used primitive mines to destroy the ship.

The loss of the Maine had to be investigated, but it could have been done differently. The Secretary of the Navy could have chosen the members of the court of inquiry. Instead Long decided to rely upon established procedures, a step consistent with the way he viewed his function. He assigned the task to Sicard. When the Commander-in-Chief of the North Atlantic Squadron proposed a list of relatively junior officers, Long—or someone else in Washington—intervened and changed the membership. By Sampson’s selection, the court had for its president a senior captain, well-known and respected in the Navy, and an officer who had been a vigorous Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance. The Navy Department answered as best it could requests from the court for plans and for a naval constructor. Long also turned to O’Neil, Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, for additional advice. Long erred in his failure to go beyond normal procedures for technical advice.

The court of inquiry presented its results in two parts. The proceedings consisted mainly of transcripts of testimony. The findings were the facts as determined by the court. Between the proceedings and the findings was a broad gap. The court left no record of the reasoning which carried it from the often inconsistent witnesses to the conclusion that an external explosion had destroyed the ship. In other respects the court was also deficient. Curiously, the log of the Maine was never mentioned. In all probability it was lost with the vessel, but an acknowledgment of the fact would have helped complete the record and fulfill Navy Regulations. Thecourt failed to reconcile estimates of the contents of the magazines. It did not explore a significant matter which was part of Sigsbee’s defense. This was the alleged fact that the mooring assigned to the Maine was seldom used. Even if true, a sinister connotation did not immediately follow. The court could have taken up the subject. Captain Frank Stevens, captain of the City of Washington and the individual whom Sigsbee said had made the statement, appeared before the court and was not questioned on this point. Sigsbee’s testimony and his later writing can be criticized in detail but to do so would be lengthy and repetitious. His arguments were necessarily vague and speculative.

The Sampson court failed to call for technical experts. The simplest explanation for this omission is that the court felt no need to do so. All members were officers with years of service at sea. With plans of the ship and assistance of the naval constructor they had requested, and with information from the divers, the court might have believed that no one else could do a better job. From this standpoint, bringing in technical advisors would have meant delay, added nothing, and perhaps endangered control of the court over the investigation. Sampson was working under pressure. The possibility of war was imminent and the nation was clamoring for his report. As it was Sampson had fended off Washington attempts to hurry the court.

The court’s verdict of an external explosion was one that could be expected. The strained relations between the two nations, the warlike and patriotic atmosphere in Congress and the press, and the natural tendency to look for reasons for the loss that did not reflect upon the Navy might have been predisposing factors in the court’s finding. Above all, there was the way in which part of the keel and bottom plating were driven upward to form the inverted V. As the questioning of Converse by Marix revealed, the court was aware of an hypothesis by which an internal explosion accounted for this particular characteristic of the damage. Had the ship blown up in an American or friendly foreign port, and had the same type of damage occurred, it is doubtful that an inquiry would have laid the blame on a mine. The finding of the court of 1898 appears to have been guided less by technical consideration and more by the awareness that war was now inevitable.

The hearings held by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations contained nothing of technical substance and appears to have had no more justification than to compile a record of Spanish misdeeds. Officers who had not even seen the findings of the court were asked for their opinion. Sigsbee was allowed to relate his theories about the makeshift mine without challenge. He even alluded to his possession of certain information too sensitive to reveal. So far as was known no one took up the matter and asked that Sigsbee testify in secret. By the time the committee held its hearings, the time for rational consideration had passed.

The board of 1911 could do its work free from the risk of war. Moreover, its members were better qualified for their task than were those of the court and they could examine the wreck under the best possible circumstances. The order signed by the Secretary of the Navy stated that assignment clearly: "The Board will make an exhaustive examination of the wreck of the Maine and state whether in its opinion there is anything shown, or any new evidence developed, that would indicate the cause of the explosion which destroyed the vessel. The board’s report, ordered printed by Congress on December 14, 1911, is difficult to understand, partly because its exhibits were not printed and partly because the reasoning behind its conclusion was not given. The report can be considered in the following order: first, what the report said about the damage done to the keel and bottom plating near frame 18—the inverted V—which the 1898 court said was caused by a mine: and second, the board’s own explanation for the loss of the ship.

The board stated that the damage done to the keel and bottom plating near frame 18 “ascribed by the court of inquiry of 1898 to the direct effect of an explosion exterior to the ship” was not caused by a mine. In the board’s words: ". . . the condition of the wreckage . . . [in the area of frame 18] can be accounted for by the action of gases of low explosives such as the black and brown powders with which the forward magazines were stored. The protective deck and hull of the ship formed a closed chamber in which the gases were generated and partially expanded before rupture. With these two sentences out of an 11-page report the board negated and overturned the key evidence upon which the 1898 court based its finding that the Maine was destroyed by a mine. The remainder of the report dealt with a description of the wreck and the board’s finding.

Secretary of the Navy Meyer’s orders calling for an “exhaustive examination” gave full authority to the board to say why it did not believe that the inverted V was caused by a mine, and to offer a description of the forces—even if only a hypothetical explanation of how this section of the keel and bottom plating were driven upward. The 1911 board based its finding that a mine destroyed the Maine upon an important discovery in the area of the wreck inaccessible to the 1898 court. After some mud was removed, it was discovered that the bottom of the ship had been damaged between frames 28 and 31 about 45 feet aft of the location of the inverted V. One section of plating was bent inward and folded back with one edge remaining attached to the outer bottom. The exposed edge of an adjacent plate was also bent inward slightly. The board stated that a mine caused this damage.

Why the board took this position is not understood. The displacement of the bottom plating could have been accounted for by an internal explosion and the dynamic effects of the ship’s sinking. More important, the displaced plating did not exhibit the scars which would be expected from a mine explosion. The 1911 board depended upon Ferguson’s photographs and models, the proceedings and finding of the 1898 court, and visits to the wreck so far as the records show, the 1911 board, as did the 1898 court, carried out its investigation without the advice of any outside experts and without the help of available technical information.

Perhaps, but this is only speculation, the 1911 board was willing on technical grounds to overturn the fundamental conclusion of the 1898 court, though unwilling to raise the question whether there had been a mine at all. Only 13 years had elapsed since the nation had gone to war with the battle cry "Remember the Maine." It would have been difficult for the board to raise the issue whether the nation and its constituted authorities had made a grave error In 1898.

In the light of much greater experience acquired since the court and the board investigated the Maine, the Hansen-Price analysis concludes that, in all probability, the damage between frames 28 and 31 was caused by an internal explosion alone. Photographs of this portion of the bottom taken in 1911, and studied by Hansen and Price, show no evidence of the tearing and distortion of plates that would be expected from an external underwater explosion.

In all probability, the Maine was destroyed by an accident which occurred inside the ship. Since the accident could have been prevented, it is proper to ask what would have happened if the Maine had not exploded. The answer to this question is difficult, for it depends on an assessment of the relations between the United States and Spain before the ship sailed for Havana. If war between the two countries was inevitable before the Maine left for the Cuban capital, the destruction of the battleship and the efforts to determine the cause of the disaster are only interesting footnotes to history.

No matter what course McKinley followed he risked war. If he did nothing and the conflict in Cuba continued, congressional sentiment and public feeling might force American military intervention which Spain was bound to resist. If he exerted pressure on Spain to end the fighting, he also ran the danger of war. In this dilemma he chose to act. He warned Spain that fighting on the island must end. He tendered his good offices, but did not become a pawn of Spain by underwriting Spanish efforts to restore peace. The Spanish government in Madrid was weak. Toward the end of 1897 it established an autonomous government in Cuba. Under its terms the inhabitants of the island were to govern their own internal affairs but were to remain under Spanish sovereignty. If autonomy succeeded in winning the support of the civilian population of Cuba, three years of civil warfare would end. The odds against success were great. Years of bitter strife had to be overcome, a deteriorated economy rebuilt, and a population divided by social and racial prejudice brought together.

There were signs of hope. Granting autonomy was itself an indication that a better future for Cuba was possible, for Spain having once ventured along this course could not turn back. Dupuy de Lôme, toward the end of 1897, thought that autonomy was improving the relations between the United States and Spain, for Cuban affairs were no longer attracting American attention to the extent they had a few months earlier. Even the riot of January 12, 1898, in Havana did not necessarily mean the failure of autonomy. The disturbance was not sufficiently dangerous for Lee to call for the Maine, even though the ship was available for that purpose; even though he was convinced that autonomy could not succeed; and even though he was eager to introduce a naval presence into the harbor. It was the officials in Washington who were alarmed. It was they who sent the Maine to Havana.

Ordering the Maine to Havana did not mean that war was inevitable. Probably McKinley was uncertain what he should do. It was essential to prevent the loss of American lives. Nothing could have made his determination clearer than the despatch of a major fleet unit to the Cuban capital. On the other hand, the President, the Assistant Secretary of State, and the Secretary of the Navy, would hardly have sent a battleship into Havana, with its narrow entrance guarded by strong fortifications, if they thought war was imminent. Nor would Spain have sent the Vizcaya to New York. The governments of the two countries were trying to establish normal relations, though recognizing that war was a possibility.

Chances for peace dropped after the explosion of the Maine. From the debates in the Congressional Record and from the pages of the press, a strong sentiment demanded intervention. The court of inquiry carried out its work under these circumstances. Had its members investigated the loss of the battleship with all the resources available to them, they might have reached two possible findings: that the Maine was destroyed by an internal explosion, or that the ship was destroyed by causes unknown. In either case, the result would have been the injection of reason into an atmosphere of emotion. At least the United States would not have found itself adopting an official position which was technically unsound and which increasing numbers of people have questioned over the years. And—although the chance was slim—war might have been avoided.

As a result of the war the United States became an imperial power. The sinking of the Maine did not create the emotional forces that led to American imperialism: it released them. The United States assumed, particularly in the Philippines, obligations to maintain order and to defend territories remote from its shore. The easiness of victory for a time obscured the responsibilities which had been incurred. Exuberant Americans lionized the victor of the easy battle of Manila and celebrated the triumph which carried the flag to new heights of world prestige. Rudyard Kipling uttered a deep and fervent appeal:

Take up the White Man’s burden—

Ye dare not stoop to less—

A bitter struggle took place in the Senate over the treaty which ended the war. Opposition stemmed from several motives, but one was misgivings over the role of the United States as an imperial power. Ironically the United States became an imperial nation just as classic imperialism (symbolized by colonial possessions on a map having the same color as the mother country) was ending. Within a few decades an increasing number of Americans recognized the justice of some of the earlier doubts. In 1935 the Commonwealth of the Philippines was established with the intent that after ten years the islands would become independent. Despite the intervention of World War II, the Philippines obtained independence in 1946, although the United States retained extensive privileges.

In the modern technological age, the battle cry "Remember the Maine" should have a special meaning for us. With almost instantaneous communications that can command weapons of unprecedented power, we can no longer approach technical problems with the casualness and confidence held by Americans in 1898. The Maine should impress us that technical problems must be examined by competent and qualified people; and that the results of their investigation must be fully and fairly presented to their fellow citizens. With the vastness of our government and the difficulty of controlling it, we must make sure that those in “high places” do not, without most careful consideration of the consequences, exert our prestige and might. Such uses of our power may result in serious international actions at great cost in lives and money—injurious to the interests and standing of the United States.

Source: Hyman G. Rickover, How the Battleship Maine Was Destroyed (Washington: Dept. of the Navy, Naval History Division, 1976), 94–97, 104–106.