On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine erupted in a fiery explosion of unknown origin and sank, killing 260 American sailors in the Havana Harbor and igniting the Spanish-American War. On September 3, 2016, I passed through Columbus Circle anticipating a nice stroll through Central Park. Just before I entered the park, I walked by a rather imposing yet somewhat generic monument adorned with gaudy and seemingly extraneous statues. It was surrounded by families and tourists enjoying the weather, eating messy food, and posing for silly pictures, not even bothering to take note of what the monument was memorializing. After finishing my relaxing walk through the park, I passed by the monument again; however, this time, my eyes were immediately drawn to the inscription on the monument that read “To the valiant seamen who perished in the Maine by fate unwarned in death unafraid.” This serious statement adorning the comically epic, sensational structure that is the USS Maine National Monument, coupled with the careless, casual atmosphere surrounding the monument, struck me as an interesting reflection of the overlooked controversy that surrounded the sinking of the USS Maine and the subsequent construction of the monument made in the event’s memory. Although in theory the monument was built to commemorate the 260 American sailors that died in the unexplained sinking of the Maine, as it stands in present day the monument better reflects the controversial yellow journalism of the time that helped to ignite the Spanish-American War.
The events surrounding the sinking of the USS Maine, although objectively significant in United States history, are more obscure in the popular conscience. Nevertheless, understanding the history and context of the sinking of the USS Maine is crucial to appreciating the monument itself. During the mid- to late-1890s, Cuba was fighting Spain for its independence. Many American newspapers used sensational language and graphic imagery to report on Spain’s brutal tactics of repressing Cuban rebellion (cite? Or examples?). This publicity eventually pressured the U.S. to intervene in Cuba in some way. After rioting occurred in Havana, Cuba, the United States preemptively took action to protect American citizens in Cuba by stationing the USS Maine in Havana Harbor (Trask). The Maine would eventually sink, killing 260 American sailors. The United States was quick to claim that a mine or a torpedo caused the explosion, yet, nearly one hundred years later, a private investigation conducted by Hyman Rickover concluded that the explosion most likely originated from within the ship itself (Miller). Rickover suggested that perhaps a coal bunker fire was the source of the explosion. Further investigations seem to back this conclusion; still, a definitive cause for the explosion has not been reached (Miller).
While the context of the situation may lead one to think that Spain could have been behind the sinking, there was no evidence backing such a claim. This lack of evidence, however, did not stop many large American newspaper publications, such as William Randolph Hearst’s New York Morning Journal, from capitalizing on the event by insisting that Spain was behind the sinking. Hearst even went as far as offering a $50,000 reward for the person who could capture those responsible for the explosion (“February 15 1898: Battleship U.S.S. Maine Explodes”). Such publication tactics are referred to as yellow journalism. Yellow journalism became common practice among newspaper publications at this time for one reason: it was profitable. The more shocking the headline, the more likely a person is to buy the newspaper, regardless of its validity. This morally questionable practice resulted in overwhelming public demand for not only intervening in Cuba but also declaring war on Spain (cite?). The public’s demands, fueled by the controversial practices of yellow journalism, were satisfied when the U.S. officially declared war on Spain two months after the sinking of the Maine, thus marking the start of the Spanish-American War.
Given the public’s sensational view of the destruction of the USS Maine, it is disappointingly appropriate that the monument reflect such sensationalism. Just as the headlines of the newspapers consisted of flashy, accusatory words, the most noticeable aspect of the monument consists of a bright, golden statue of Columbia Triumphant riding a chariot pulled by three sea horses asserting themselves atop the enormous, imposing concrete pylon that supports them. This aspect of the monument is clearly designed to be the center of attention; however, the allegorical character Columbia Triumphant in no way pays respect to or memorializes the sailors that perished in the USS Maine. For a monument supposedly built to pay respect to hundreds of American lives lost in a tragedy, it is rather disappointing that Columbia Triumphant, a symbol of American dominance and victory, claims the center of attention. At either side, marble statues representing the concepts and values of courage, fortitude, and justice flank the monument. These statues serve to embellish the monument visually and conceptually. By presenting the statues justice, fortitude, and courage together in a triad, the creator of the monument implies that war is a means of achieving justice and peace. While the sailors who died did indeed exemplify courageous virtues through their commitment to the Navy that ultimately took their lives, the statues’ assertion of justice as a product of war fails to commemorate any of the sailors who died. In actuality, this assertion of justice is indicative of the lies created by news publishers to incite the American people to call for a war that seeks justice against those responsible for the tragedy. The sailors aboard the USS Maine died in a tragic event that probably did not have an intended culprit. Rather than memorializing the dead, the monument perpetuates a series of untruths backed by the journalistic exploitation and bastardization of a tragedy.
The only aspects of the monument that serve the purpose of memorializing the dead are paltry and appear dilapidated in their present conditions. The rear side of the pylon supporting the statue of Columbia Triumphant reads “To the valiant seamen who perished in the Maine by fate unwarned in death unafraid.” Additionally, on the other side of the monument perpendicular to this inscription, the names of those who died in the sinking of the ship are listed in order of military rank. Even when the monument was dedicated in 1912, these two elements were simply not sufficient in memorializing the sailor’s deaths. Over 100 years later, one must have keen eyesight to decipher these inscriptions, for many years of weathering have rendered them all but illegible. In fact, they are the least discernable parts of the entire monument. What was once insufficient in memorializing the sailors has now become an insulting indication that the memorial’s sensational nature took priority over its actual purpose of commemorating the dead.
The history behind erecting the USS Maine National Monument offers insight as to why this monument fails at the simple task of memorializing the sailors that died in this tragedy. Four days after the sinking of the Maine, William Randolph Hearst called on his subscribers to donate money to erect a monument honoring the sailors that died. For several years Hearst’s New York Morning Journal received thousands of gifts and donations from its subscribers (NYC Dep. of Parks & Rec.). Hearst could have easily afforded to fund the construction of the monument himself; however, remaining consistent with his practice of exploitation and sensationalism, Hearst decided to once again use his publication’s audience to create a demand for an outcome from which he could profit. Through these donations, Hearst was able to take partial credit in the construction of the monument without having to spend his own money. Hearst’s influence is clearly seen on the monument itself. Besides mirroring Hearst’s yellow journalism by flaunting extravagant and sensational decorations, the monument bears his name as the chairman of the private committee responsible for erecting it.
In the same year as the unveiling of the USS Maine National Monument, the Maine itself was re-sunk to its ocean grave. The re-sinking of the Maine, while striking in its own right, stands in contrast to the dedication of the USS Maine monument in that it actually succeeds in memorializing the deaths of the sailors and the ship itself. As the New York Times stated, “80,000 persons were gathered along the length of Havana’s waterfront to watch the ship as she was guided to her grave” (“The Maine Sinks To Ocean Grave”). The paper goes on to refer to the event as a “funeral ceremony.” By definition, funerals are ceremonies honoring a dead person or, in this case, dead persons. This ceremony was overseen by the United States government and approved much earlier by President McKinley. No sensational news journalist had any official jurisdiction over this ceremony’s proceedings.
Monuments dedicated to memorializing people who died for the United States typically aim to be respectful, thoughtful, and subtle; however, when the construction of a monument is overseen by a sensational news journalist, it is no surprise that the end product was anything but thoughtful, respectful, or subtle. William Randolph Hearst’s influence over the Maine monument resulted in the monument being imposing, striking, and altogether disrespectful. With the context of the sensationalism portrayed by the monument completely lost in modern times, people who pass the monument simply see it as just another gaudy structure in New York. Rather than paying respect to the sailors who died, people casually sit on or around the monument going about their carefree business. The casual, careless atmosphere around the monument is not the result of people’s behaviors, for the monument itself created this atmosphere by failing to adequately represent the tragedy of the lives lost. Its creators claimed that it was built in honor of the 260 American sailors that died in the unexplained sinking of the USS Maine yet, since its inception, the monument has served more as a reflection of the controversial yellow journalism that helped to ignite the Spanish-American War.
Bailey, Michael. “USS Maine Monument: Imperialist Architecture.” YouTube. YouTube, 7 Dec, 2014. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.
“February 15 1898: Battleship U.S.S. Maine Explodes.” Crucible of Empire. PBS. 1999 web. 25 Oct. 2016.
“Maine Monument.” NYCGovParks. New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.
“The Maine Sinks To Ocean Grave.” Editorial. New York Times 17 Mar. 1912: 1. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times. Web. 24 Oct. 2016
Miller, Tom. “Remember The Maine.” Smithsonianmag. Smithsonian, Feb. 1998. Web. 17 Jan.
Trask, David. “The Spanish-American War.” Library of Congress. Hispanic Division Library of Congress, 22 June 2011. Web. 25 Oct. 2016.