The “Spanish-American War” Was Based on a Bloody Lie

USS Maine: Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

This week in 1898, the United States screamed for what became one of the most consequential imperial wars in world history—based on a lie.

On February 15, the Battleship Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor. According to the US Navy, 267 sailors were killed.

Led by the new-born mass circulation “yellow press,” and by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, the “dastardly Spanish” were at fault.

Imperial Spain was at the time brutally suppressing a popular rebellion in Cuba. The sickening slaughter was picked up by the American press, which ignited a popular uproar. Among other things, its front pages featured line drawings of naked white women being assaulted by swarthy Spaniards, evoking the same kinds of racist shrieks spread by the Ku Klux Klan in the unreconstructed post-Confederate South.

Never mind that the US had just brutally suppressed a similar resistance in Hawaii. There pineapple and sugar plantation owners, led by the Dole family, crushed a long-standing constitutional monarchy presided over by the legendary songwriter (“Aloha Oe”) and globally recognized Queen Liliuokalani.

The Hawaiian people had a deep loyalty to their well-established indigenous government, considered the archipelago’s legitimate authority by nations throughout the world. The genuinely content Hawaiian people had zero interest in becoming vassals to the United States.

President Grover Cleveland had refused the plantation owners’ demands that the US take over the archipelago. But Ohio Republican William McKinley, elected in 1896, had “gone down on my knees” to ask God for His approval, which was apparently divinely granted. Quickly annexed, the islands later became the flashpoint for war with Japan. Indigenous Hawaiians to this day deeply resent the US conquest and would like their country back.

When the Maine sank, “conspiracy theorists” throughout the United States argued that there was no proof Spain had done the deed. Most ships at the time were powered by coal. Dust explosions inside their hulls were not uncommon. Prompted in part by such disasters, Winston Churchill in 1911 began converting the British fleet to oil.

But itching for a fight, and lusting for empire, Theodore Roosevelt would hear none of it. He quit his government post and convened a rag-tag volunteer army of “Rough Riders” who invaded the island. “I killed a Spaniard with my own hands,” TR later screeched. “Look at those damn Spanish dead.”

Untold indigenous died in the “freeing” of Cuba…not to mention Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. The war in the Philippines dragged on until 1904, where we crushed an indigenous resistance that had previously been fighting the Spanish. The death toll there was well in excess of 3,000. Anti-imperialists like Mark Twain and a wide range of Socialists, intellectuals and activists bitterly opposed the war.

But firm in his belief that the US had a divine mission to conquer “inferior races” in the building of a global empire, the Spanish War became a springboard for Theodore Roosevelt’s imperial career. He became president in 1901 when McKinley was assassinated. In 1906 he sent a “Great White Fleet” around the globe to proclaim the new American hegemony. He became a firm advocate for the disastrous US entry into World War I—until his youngest son Quentin was killed flying a fighter plane.

Thus, following the conquest of Hawaii, the Spanish War became the springboard of America’s global empire.

And it was based on an outright lie, in which the “conspiracy theory” that Spain had NOT sunk the Maine was proven beyond doubt.

The ship, lying at the bottom of Havana Harbor, was not hard to find. Many years later, the US Navy sent divers and exploratory equipment to inspect the Maine. The Navy’s conclusion was definitive: the boat had blown up from the inside. Neither a torpedo nor a mine was involved. Instead, most likely, a coal dust or other type of internal explosion had blown the ship apart. Spain was not a guilty party. The “conspiracy theory” that we had gone to imperial war based on a lie was all too true.

Like previous assertions (by Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln, among others) that President James K. Polk had used a fake battle to justify war with Mexico, like later assertions about the sinking of the Lusitania used as a pretext by Woodrow Wilson to enter World War I, about the Gulf of Tonkin incident that never happened….the “conspiracy theories” about our wars were right on the tragic money.

So all these years later, the screams for the Spanish war were tragic, bloody nonsense.

For the next one that will surely come …fore-warned is fore-armed.

Harvey Wasserman wrote THE PEOPLE’S SPIRAL OF US HISTORY: FROM JIGONSASEH TO SOLARTOPIA.  Most Mondays @ 2-4pm PT, he co-convenes the Green Grassroots Election Protection Zoom (www.electionprotection2024).  The Mothers for Peace ( could use your help in the struggle to shut the Diablo Canyon nukes.