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"Suspended Judgment": A Times Editorial on the Maine Tragedy

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. By April, 1898, 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. Most historians have focused on the role of sensationalist newspapers in fomenting public support for U.S. entry into war with Spain, and perhaps even causing it by deliberately misleading the American public about the Maine explosion. But not all newspapers engaged in sensationalist coverage of the incident. This New York Times editorial, dated February 17, 1898, sounded a note of caution about blaming the Spanish government for the explosion.



Capt. Sigsbee Reports the Number of Dead as 253 and of Survivors as 96.




All the Information at Hand Tends to Indicate That the Loss Was Due to an Accident.


Most of the Rescued Men Sent to Key West on the Ward Line Steamer Olivette.


Nothing has been learned of the cause of the loss of the battle ship Maine. She is a burned and broken wreck, resting on the bottom of Havana Harbor, and two officers and 251 sailors have perished. There is no evidence to prove or disapprove treachery. Naval men tell of many ways in which the disaster could have been caused by accident which could not have been guarded against.

It is not yet known how most of the dead men were killed. The supposition is that in most cases the shock of the explosion, which shook Havana, caused direct death or such injuries that the victims were unable to escape from the quickly following dangers of fire and water.

The meager accounts gathered from curt official dispatches and censored press messages indicate that the officers and men who were left alive behaved themselves like American sailors, stuck by their ship and comrades, and were brave, cool, and efficient in the presence of dreadful and sudden disaster.

The Spanish authorities in Havana and Madrid have profusely expressed regret and sympathy, have tendered kindly offices, and have bestowed them whenever possible. The people of Havana are reported to have done all they could to help the survivors and to show their sorrow for the dead. The newspapers of Madrid reflect in their utterances the course of the Government.

Of the survivors of the Maine, 59 have been sent to Key West, 12 remaining to look after the bodies of the dead, and 25 being hurt so badly that they cannot be removed.

An investigation of the condition of the vessel will be made immediately, and until that has been done nobody can know whether it will be possible to raise and refit her. The inspection is expected to give a clue to the cause of the disaster and to show either the explosion was within or from without. The officers are reticent. Expressions by some of them indicate their opinion that there was an accident to one of the dynamo engines.

Resolutions expressing the sorrow and sympathy of Congress were introduced in the House of Representatives yesterday, Prominent members of both houses express suspicions that the Maine was destroyed by foul play, but say they will await evidence.

The one thing clearly evident is that it was some form of high explosive that destroyed the Maine. In her torpedo heads and in her magazine she carried enough of these compounds to wreck a navy. While awaiting the first definite statement from Havana as to the probable cause of the explosion, naval experts have ranged over a wide field of conjecture. It seems to is that it is almost wholly profitless to speculate on the causes of any explosion that may have occurred aboard the Maine, since it must be impossible to determine what it was that set off the magazine explosives. If we knew that the Maine was destroyed by her own ammunition the Navy Department could do little more than devise new safeguards for the care of guncotton and nitro compounds, and the safeguards now in use seem to be as complete as they can be made. If they have now failed it is the first time.

It can be determined with certainty, however, whether the Maine was destroyed by an explosion from within or from without. That is the all-important question, on which the American people have calmly suspended judgment. Until an inspection of the wreck by divers has shown whether the Maine was destroyed by her own ammunition exploding within or by the ammunition of an enemy applied without, mere guesswork is idle and may be more than idle.

Of course, nobody is so foolish to believe that the Maine was destroyed by Spaniards with the knowledge and connivance of their Government. A fanatical partisan of BLANCO might have done the deed at the prompting of his own private hatred of the United States, but the crime of an irresponsible wretch cannot be justly charged against his Government. Spain has just now too many reasons for avoiding cause of offense to us to make it permissible to suppose that she would not exercise due diligence to protect a ship of our navy visiting her waters.

Aside from the terrible loss of life and of property, the gravity of the disaster arises from the fact that it might occur in Spanish waters at a somewhat critical moment before the uneasiness over the de Lôme incident [which had arisen over a provocative letter written by Spanish diplomat Dupuy de Lôme in 1897] had been allayed. Undeniably it imposes upon both Governments the obligation of a wise calmness and courtesy in their necessary communications, and upon the people of both countries the duty of not allowing themselves to become excited by criminally sensational newspapers or otherwise.

We could ill spare the battleship Maine. Considering the necessarily slow construction of naval vessels we should suppose the Administration and Congress would deem it wise to buy immediately two or more ships of her class if any shipbuilder or nation can be found willing to sell. We see no force in the objection that such a move might be looked upon as a preparation for war. On the contrary, it would have a reassuring effect if our Government in that unmistakable manner evinced its determination to maintain the full sense of our navy.

Source: New York Times, 17 February 1898.