In 1898, elites within the United States government falsely accused Spain of blowing up the USS Maine in order to stoke the American people into a flag-waving frenzy that resulted in the Spanish-American War.
Death of the Spanish Empire
The Spanish Empire was the first truly global empire, reaching its territorial height in the late 1700s.
As evidence of Spain’s once vast footprint, the Spanish language is still the 3rd most spoken language in the world. (Even if you don’t think you speak Spanish, you probably know some Spanish words: Can you say tornado? Bonanza? Patio? Quesadilla? Enchilada? Taco grande supreme?)
But nothing lasts forever, and like every empire since the beginning of time (save the USA, which is still young…) Spain’s status as the world’s greatest power was not to last.
By 1898, Spain was regularly losing territories. Although Spain still ruled Cuba, it, too, was becoming increasingly hard to control, and a minor revolution had broken out. This wasn’t welcome news to people in the United States who owned Cuban sugar, tobacco, and iron industry properties valued at over $50 million (which was a chunk of change in the 1890s!)
The mainstream media, then dominated by newspaper magnates Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, exaggerated–and outright fabricated–stories of horrible conditions under Spanish rule.
Following the age-old maxim, “If it bleeds, it leads,” the newspapers published stories about Spanish death camps, Spanish cannibalism, and inhumane torture. Americans ate it up and asked for more gravy.
So the newspapers sent more reporters to Cuba.
When they got there, however, the reporters found a different story. Artist and correspondent Frederick Remington even wrote back to Hearst, “There is no war. Request to be recalled.” Hearst’s famous reply: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.”
And he did. His newspaper, continually screaming how Spanish Cuba was going to hell in a handbasket, convinced big business interests in the U.S. to put pressure on anti-war President William McKinley to protect their Cuban investments.
McKinley, in response, sent the USS Maine battleship to Havana Harbor as a calming show of force.
Instead, the battleship exploded…
USS Maine Explodes in Havana Harbor
Three weeks after arriving, on the night of February 15, 1898, the USS Maine exploded.
There are two theories for the explosion: Some believe the explosion was caused by an external mine that detonated the ship’s ammunition magazines. Others say it was caused by a spontaneous coal bunker fire that reached the ammunition magazines. Currently, the evidence seems to favor the external mine theory.
One thing, however, is almost certain: if the explosion was caused by a mine, it wasn’t planted by Spain.
Nevertheless, the explosion killed 266 men. Without waiting on an investigation, America’s mainstream media blamed the tragedy on Spain and beat the drums for war. By April, McKinley yielded to public pressure and signed a congressional resolution declaring war on Spain.
Wars and Taxes
To help pay for the Spanish-American War, congress enacted a “temporary” tax of 3 percent on long-distance telephone bills. This was essentially a tax on the rich, as only about 1,300 Americans owned phones in 1898.
Although the Spanish-American War ended in 1898, the temporary tax was only abolished in…2005.
Over its lifetime, the 107-year-old tax generated almost $94 billion–more than 230 times the cost of the Spanish-American War.
The Birth of an American Empire
The Spanish-American War put a large nail in the coffin of Spain’s global empire. And by the end of 1898, the United States, which was founded in opposition to imperialism, found itself in control not only of Cuba, but of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Hawaiian Islands as well.
Not a bad catch for one second-class battleship.