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The Post-Standard Syracuse, NY
'Remember The Maine' A Cautionary Echo In Rush To War
By Douglas R. Egerton
March 17, 2003
Those on board, like those in the twin towers, never saw it coming. Without warning, the USS Maine exploded in Havana harbor Feb. 15, 1898. Almost the entire crew of 266 sailors perished. Navy investigators cautioned that the most likely cause of the disaster was the new oil-fired boilers, but no matter. Furious Americans demanded revenge, and a malfunctioning machine proved an insufficiently satisfying culprit. William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal ran a picture showing the battleship being destroyed by a "sunken torpedo." Two months later, as ambitious politicians chanted "Remember the Maine and to Hell with Spain," Congress approved a war resolution against Spain.
Recently, a shopper at Crossgates Mall near Albany was arrested for trespassing when he refused to remove a T-shirt bearing the words "Peace on Earth." The following day, more than 100 protesters gathered at the mall in the cause of free speech. An angry observer, screaming "Remember 9/11," threw a punch at one of the marchers.
And no wonder. The irate patron may have been unusual in his willingness to win a debate with his fists, but his view that those opposed to an invasion of Iraq have turned their backs on the victims in the World Trade Center is shared by millions of Americans. According to a recent CBS News poll, an astonishing 42 percent believe that Saddam Hussein was personally culpable in the September attacks. A full 55 percent - or the equivalent of 154 million Americans - think his secular regime has given active support to the fundamentalist al-Qaida terrorist network.
How could Americans, who have access to hundreds of daily newspapers and 24 hour cable news programs, be so misinformed? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Americans, whether living in 1898 or 2003, wish to believe their leaders would not knowingly mislead them. But during his March 6 news conference, President George Bush attempted to make his case for this nation's first ever pre-emptive attack by referring to 9/11 no less than eight times. Although his administration has proven completely unable to link Saddam with Osama bin Laden, Bush hinted darkly at Iraq's ties to "al-Qaida types" and "terrorist networks like al-Qaida," phrases carefully crafted to suggest what he cannot honestly say.
Americans rightly oppose Saddam's brutal dictatorship, just as they were once incensed by Spain's cruel imperial rule in Cuba. In response to the Cuban independence movement, Gen. Valeriano Weyler herded thousands of noncombatants into barbed-wire camps. Now, as Bush careens from one rationale to another in his efforts to justify war against Iraq, the administration tries to appeal to democratic ideals by suggesting a second war in the Gulf will lead to a new birth of freedom in the Arab world.
Unhappily, that proved not to be the case in the Spanish empire seized by American forces in 1898. Congress retained Guam and Puerto Rico as naval bases, and Filipino pleas for liberty fell on deaf ears in Washington. As Theodore Roosevelt famously put it, the Filipino people "had no right to govern the land they happen to be occupying."
Nations rarely, if ever, go to war for strictly humanitarian reasons. For all of their talk of human rights, the McKinley administration was motivated by economic investment in Cuba and a desire to obtain a stepping-stone to the Asian mainland.
Today the president's advisers insist this is not a war for oil. But these same advisers were slow to admit that Halliburton Corp., the company headed by now-Vice President Dick Cheney, signed contracts with Iraq worth $73 million during the time he ran the firm. Even members of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's' Labour Party, the president's staunchest ally on the Iraq question, suspect an American invasion is nothing more than a thinly veiled grab for resources.
The Bush administration hopes to ensure the Iraqi oil "will be accessible to U.S. oil companies," observed British politician Alice Mahon Jan. 22. "A different and more compliant government in Iraq would make that possible."
McKinley hoped to move slowly against Spain, but that proved difficult. When the president counseled restraint, Roosevelt publicly charged that he had "no more backbone than a chocolate eclair." Soon even William Jennings Bryan, leader of the timid Democrats, began waving tiny American flags at political rallies, lest voters caught up in "war fever" regard his party as unpatriotic.
Eager to divert attention away from a weak domestic economy, McKinley demanded Madrid pay an indemnity for the Maine. But as one editor declared, since so many political careers required hostilities, "no explanation by the Spanish government could prevent a declaration of war." And so, mouthing slogans that falsified fact and masked administrative intent, American sailed off for battle.
Douglas Egerton is professor and chair of the history department at Le Moyne College in Syracuse.