We are grateful to again welcome David Silbey, author of The British Working Class and Enthusiasm for War, 1914-1916, and A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899-1900. Don’t blame him for the title. Many thanks, David.

Historical Friday cat-blogging: from Harper’s Weekly, 3/26/1898, p. 296.

It really should have been a conspiracy. The timing was simply too perfect for it to be anything else. When the armored cruiser Maine blew up in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898, killing 260 American sailors, it came at such a dramatic moment that it had to have been a deliberate act: sabotage, attack, conspiracy. An accident would have been so deflating.

The Maine had sailed to Havana Bay as a symbolic assertion of American influence. The fighting between Cuban insurrectos and the Spanish crown had been ugly and President William McKinley thought that sending a thoroughly modern embodiment of American might to the island would protect the interests of the United States. Instead, it provoked a war.

The response within the United States to the ship’s explosion was immediate and angry. No one doubted that the Spanish had blown it up somehow. Few stopped to consider that the last thing the Spanish would want to do was provoke the United States to intervene in a civil war that Spain was already losing. The Spanish had done it, and the Spanish must pay. “This means war,” exclaimed the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who quickly set his papers to foment militarism. However yellow the journalism Hearst and his colleagues practiced, Americans were more than willing to go along with it.

McKinley appointed a court of naval inquiry, ostensibly to investigate, but also to give him time to consider. Passions ran too high. When Wall Street slid on the prospect of war, a newspaper article, in a remarkable display of public venom, referred to the financial community as the “colossal and aggregate Benedict Arnold of the Union and the syndicated Judas Iscariot of humanity.” The naval inquiry reported back that the ship had been blown up by person or persons unknown and McKinley sent a message to Congress recommending that the United States intervene in Cuba. The Spanish-American War was about to start, a war between an ancient empire, living off past glories, and a new and thrusting power.

More than a hundred years later, it looks as though the reality of the sinking was indeed deflatingly prosaic. Investigation in a less fevered time and place suggests that the Maine blew up because of a build-up of gas in a coal bunker. Improperly vented, such gas could ignite with explosive force. Most tellingly, the external armor plates of the ship were bowed outward, not inward as they should have been for an external explosion.

But perhaps not so prosaic after all, as it suggests that going to war over mistaken perceptions is not so rare in American history. The Spanish had nothing to do with the Maine; the Iraqis had nothing to do with 9/11. Neither fact saved either from war with the United States.