With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

The United States and Cuba: Here We Go Again

USS Maine entering Havana Harbor January 1898

A mix of love and hate has characterized America’s relations with Cuba from the start.  President Obama’s solution, ignoring the crimes of the Castro brothers’ six decades of dictatorship, has stunned those who feel some kind of justice is called for. Perhaps it will ease this understandable wrath if we look back at how many lies and deceptions have been entangled in the story from the start.

I have tackled perhaps the most startling of these prevarications in my book, Who Sank the Maine?  Most people who read this question will reply: “The Spanish, of course. That’s why we went to war with them in 1898.” Others, more sophisticated, will say: “No one. It was an internal explosion caused by the carelessness of the battleship’s captain and crew.”  This was the explanation advanced by Admiral Hyman Rickover in 1976, with the help of two subservient pseudo-experts. Both answers are wrong.

Then there is the story of Cuba’s favorite hero, Jose Marti. From an early age, this mustached poet and propagandist devoted his life to freeing Cuba from Spain’s imperial grip.  He spent not a little time in the United States, where he soon developed an admiration for America’s freedom and wealth – and a loathing for her readiness to invest her money in countries such as Cuba and become their virtual rulers.  Publicly, Marti campaigned relentlessly to persuade Americans to help him free Cuba.  Privately, among his small band of followers, he called the United States “The Monster.” Marti encouraged men with military experience to recruit an army to launch a revolution in 1895. When some of these leaders sneered at his hesitation to risk combat, Marti rushed to Cuba and died in a totally reckless charge during one of the first skirmishes.

The Spanish declined to surrender Cuba.  The country’s conservative prime minister, Antonio Canovas, sent their best general, austere Valeriano Weyler, to take command of an army of 200,000 men.  By mid-1897, the rebels were reeling.  Then came a move that reveals much about the real nature of the Cuban Revolution.  The Cuban agent in Paris gave an Italian anarchist named Miguel Angiolillo 500 francs and sent him to Spain with orders to kill Canovas.  The anarchist shot the prime minister before the eyes of his horrified wife.

The prime minister who succeeded Canovas was a liberal who recalled General Weyler and tried to end the uprising through the creation of an autonomous local government and negotiation with the rebels.  Simultaneously, he tried to persuade the United States to support this policy. In spite of violent opposition from two powerful newspaper publishers, President William McKinley seemed willing to listen.

The publishers were William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.  They saw the civil war in Cuba as a marvelous opportunity to sell newspapers. The truth about the war soon became irrelevant. The Spanish were portrayed as cruel butchers. The Cubans were repeatedly hailed as unbeatable heroes. In fact their army soon dwindled to a defeated remnant, most of them black ex-slaves, who occupied the lowest rung in Cuban society.

The soft-hearted President McKinley offered Spain $300,000,000 for Cuba. But not a single Spanish politician was willing to accept this magnificent sum.  They all blindly clung to Cuba as the last remnant of Spain’s centuries of imperial power, when she ruled all of South America. By this time Jose Marti had been dead almost three years. But his followers retained his view of the United States as “The Monster.”

Another player in this tangled game was the American consul in Havana, Fitzhugh Lee. A nephew of Robert E. Lee, Fitzhugh was a frustrated man. He had joined Hearst and Pulitzer in urging the United States to intervene in Cuba. He hoped a foreign war would reunite the nation in patriotic fervor and cleanse the lingering hatred that persisted between North and South since the Civil War.  He had persuaded President McKinley to send the battleship Maine to Havana’s harbor, supposedly to protect American lives and property from the hostile Spanish.

The truth about Cuba was beginning to emerge in books and newspapers.  George Bronson Rea had been so disgusted by the barrage of lies from Hearst and Pulitzer, he published a book, Facts and Fakes About Cuba.  He was one of the few reporters who tried to tell the American people that the Spaniards were winning the war.  By February 15, 1898, the rebel armies had dwindled to shadows.  Antonio Maceo, the only rebel general who did any sustained fighting, had been killed.  As part of the policy to pacify the island, the Spaniards had just conducted elections for an autonomous legislature, which would give Cuba the kind of dominion status the British gave Canada.  Edwin Atkins, an American who had operated a sugar plantation on the island since 1885, reported that among Cubans, he found “no opposition to autonomy anywhere.”

More and more, it looked as if the revolution was going to end the way several previous Cuban revolutions had ended – in a fizzle. Then came that fateful night, Feb.15, 1898, when a tremendous explosion tore apart the USS Maine, killing 266 officers and men. Hearst and Pulitzer accused Spain of the crime and called for war. Dozens of other newspapers joined the chorus, along with Consul Fitzhugh Lee.

McKinley crumpled under the pressure.  He abandoned his policy of negotiating with the Spanish and sent a message to Congress in which he avoided calling for war but made it clear that he no longer resisted the idea.  The House of Representatives promptly voted for war by a huge majority, but the Senate, less vulnerable to popular frenzy, barely agreed.  The vote was 34 to 28.  Nevertheless, war had been declared and the question of who had sunk the Maine became more or less moot.  As far as the American public was concerned, the Spaniards were guilty of the dirty deed.  “Remember the Maine!” became the nation’s battle cry.

More than 100 years after this frenzy of emotion and deception, blaming the Spanish for the Maine’s destruction has become a very dubious proposition. The Spanish were doing everything in their power to persuade the Americans to join them in their proposal to give Cuba dominion status. There was simply no motive for any Spanish soldier to destroy the ship.

Equally unsatisfactory is Admiral Rickover’s explanation –an internal explosion caused by the ignorance of American deck officers who did not understand the Maine’s complex machinery.  He and his two experts desperately tried to explain why the Maine’s hull was blown inward – evidence of an external explosion. They cooked up a scenario in which the internal explosion pushed the plates outward –and water rushing in reversed this direction.  I asked George Petrie, Associate Professor of Naval Architecture at the Webb Institute for Naval Architecture, to comment on the scientific value of this explanation.  Professor Petrie said it was “positively ludicrous” to imagine that water at the modest depth which the Maine drew – 22 feet – would exert enough pressure to bend steel.

Summarizing his opinion of Rickover’s  argument, Professor Petrie said:  “This is clearly not an objective report.  The authors started with a preconception of what happened and tried to prove it.  In fact, after reading it, I concluded that the weight of the evidence, even as they presented it, is more consistent with an external explosion.”

There was only one group of men on the island of Cuba who had the motive and the expertise to destroy the Maine – the Cuban rebels. They had demonstrated their daring and desperation in the assassination of Canovas. When the Spanish defeated the rebel army, the Cubans had begun a murderous campaign of terrorist bombing. They blew up trains, bridges, and sugar mills all over Cuba. They undoubtedly knew how to build an underwater mine, which is essentially a bomb. Viewing the United States as Marti’s “monster,” – as much an enemy of Cuba as Spain – the rebels were unbothered by killing 266 sleeping Americans.

Thereafter, with immense momentum toward war in their favor, Cuban operatives in Washington DC became unbelievably arrogant.  They borrowed $2 million from a New York banker and bribed enough members of Congress to pass the Teller Amendment, which declared that when the Americans had driven the Spaniards out of Cuba, they would give the island its independence.  This was the ultimate triumph of Jose Marti’s propaganda machine.

The heirs of Jose Marti, driven by the same fear-ridden hatred of the United States, rule in Havana today – the aging Castro brothers. Their fifty-six year dictatorship has reduced Cuba to an economic shambles. Fidel Castro is already in a dementia daze.  Raul Castro will soon follow him into the shadows. Is there any hope of a new beginning for both countries? Perhaps we should look to that seminal figure, Jose Marti.  In his complex mind and heart, he yearned for the peace and prosperity that America’s free economy created, along with Cuba’s independence.

In one of his many moving poems, Marti wrote:

I cultivate a white rose

In July as in January

For the sincere friend

Who gives me his hand frankly

And for the cruel person who tears

Out the heart with which I live.

I cultivate neither nettles nor thorns.

I cultivate a white rose.

Perhaps both Cubans and Americans can learn from Jose Marti’s white rose.