It happened today - February 15, 2016

Speaking of disasters at sea, remember the Maine? Yes, the battleship U.S.S. Maine, which blew up and sank in Havana Harbor on Feb. 15, 1898 taking hundreds of sailors with her. It precipitated the Spanish-American War even though as far as we can tell it was just one of those deals where stuff explodes all the time.

Well OK. It doesn’t. But badly made war materiel does and despite what you might think given the U.S. navy today, the Maine (ACR-1) was, well, a piece of floating junk.

For starters, she was constructed as an armoured cruiser to match the growing menace of, um, the Brazilian navy and other Latin American forces. Which gives you some idea right off the bat of the decrepit state of the American navy at the time. And if it doesn’t, consider that during the “Corinto Affair” between Britain and Nicaragua the U.S. sent a gunboat that sank ignominiously en route.

Anyway, they built the Maine… slowly and badly. Indeed, she was obsolete by the time she entered service, featuring such trailing edge weapons as a ramming bow. Launched in 1889, she was commissioned in September 1895. And despite conspiracy theories about treacherous Spanish sabotage, she apparently exploded due to a coal fire setting off her magazines.

This conclusion is still disputed by some, but is the consensus now. And it makes sense; the last thing the Spanish wanted was to provoke a war with the United States that even they realized would end quickly and very badly for them. As indeed it did.

“Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!” became a rallying cry that made peace impossible subsequently. And honestly the world was probably a better place for the increase in American power that resulted from the embarrassingly lopsided victory over the decrepit Spanish empire, which couldn’t even defeat an enemy whose ships blew themselves up. Mind you, other outcomes in Cuba than the American protectorate might have worked out better for the U.S. as well as for Cubans themselves.

In any case, in addition to the sad loss of life at the time, it’s disconcerting to reflect on the inflammatorily false nature of a key rallying cry approaching the war. And weird to think that if the Americans had built better warships diplomacy might have settled the Spanish conflict.