This is a special edition of The Long Version by Jonathan M. Katz. To get the next one in your inbox, sign up right here:
When the Pentagon accused Iran of attacking oil tankers in the Gulf of Hormuz yesterday, it sounded like a song we’ve heard before. A lot of U.S. wars seem to begin the same way: A mysterious incident at sea is blamed on a rival. Americans are enraged. An invasion ensues. Only later it turns out the president, Congress, the intelligence apparatus, and/or media lied about the whole thing.
Examples weren’t hard to come by, especially on journalism/history/military geek Twitter: The Lusitania in World War I. The Tonkin Gulf incident in Vietnam. I certainly wasn’t above playing that game:
Secretary Pompeo @SecPompeoIt is the assessment of the U.S. government that Iran is responsible for today's attacks in the Gulf of Oman. These attacks are a threat to international peace and security, a blatant assault on the freedom of navigation, and an unacceptable escalation of tension by Iran. https://t.co/cbLrWNU5S0
The grandaddy of all those incidents came on February 15, 1898, when the battleship U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana Harbor. As you might recall from high-school history, the result was the Spanish-American War. It was America’s first major overseas conflict and our entry into a long century of American empire.
As it happens I’m in the middle of writing a book that kicks off, more or less, with the Maine explosion. So in the interest of making sure we go into this new crisis with the right analogies in mind, here are some facts and myths about what really happened the first time a shipboard explosion helped lead us into a foreign war, and what it might (and might not) mean for this week:
FACT: The Maine disaster was a legitimately big deal
It usually gets lost in the jokes and recriminations how horrific the explosion of the Maine was. Two hundred sixty-six sailors and Marines were blown apart, burned alive, or drowned. Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, was at a desk in Old Havana looking over the harbor when it happened. The 77 year old ran to a nearby hospital to pitch in. She later described the scene:
Their wounds are all over them—heads and faces terribly cut, internal wounds, arms, legs, feet and hands burned to the live flesh. The hair and beards singed, showing that the burns were from fire not steam.
It was also a strategic disaster. The Maine was one of the first two steel battleships the U.S. Navy ever commissioned. Before it, the United States didn’t even have the strongest naval presence in the hemisphere: a decade earlier, U.S. forces had been forced to back down by a single Chilean cruiser, which a Washington newspaper observed could have destroyed “our entire navy, ship by ship, and never be touched once.” The Maine’s destruction was a blow to American interests and pride. No one needed to exaggerate the incident to stir up public anger or sympathy.
This latest incident in the Gulf of Hormuz doesn’t seem to come close to that level of tragedy. So far it appears only one crew member sustained a light injury, according to CNN. And, of course, neither of the ships attacked were even American: one belongs to a Norwegian company based in Bermuda and the other in Japan. (The Kokura Courageous’s owner also seems to have contradicted the Trump administration’s description of what happened.)
Myth: The U.S. government immediately blamed Spain
In fact, the U.S. government never formally blamed anyone.
At the time, Cuba was a Spanish colony. The island had been in revolt for three decades and looked close to winning independence. The Maine went to Havana in a show of force to protect U.S. investments on the island, especially in sugar and railroads, and to assist humanitarian efforts for Cuban civilians. (The latter is why Barton was there too.)
Why the ship blew up was a legitimate mystery. It took a month for a naval board of inquiry to determine there had been two explosions—an internal one, caused by an external one—which they based on a rough understanding of the damage to the outer shell and vertical keel. To the investigators, this suggested the ship was struck by a mine.
No one had seen a mine. The board didn’t even guess whose mine it had been. Maybe Cuban independence fighters mined the harbor. Or some other foreign power had come in to stir up trouble. The official U.S. government conclusion was that the board was “unable to obtain evidence fixing the responsibility for the destruction of the Maine upon any person or persons.”*
Over 120 years later, we still don’t really know. (Admiral Hyman Rickover, the “Father of the Nuclear Navy,” did his own investigation in 1974. He theorized that it must have been caused by a spontaneous coal fire. But many others still weren’t convinced.)
It was also widely reported at the time that the first rescue efforts were undertaken by Spanish authorities. Similarly, Iran also participated in the rescue in this week’s incident; which Fox News is spinning as a “kidnapping.”
The lesson: Policy is made on the basis of what you think you know, and what you’re willing to risk for what possible gain. McKinley didn’t declare war on Spain because he was sure they’d sunk his battleship, or because he knew the real answer and was concealing the true cause. He declared war despite having no clue.
Definitely something to watch when it comes to the current Oval Office occupant.
(*Also, I’m sorry to tell some of you that there is no credible evidence that the battleship was destroyed in a “false flag” operation as a pretext for war. If you bought a “The Maine Was An Inside Job” T-Shirt, ask for a refund.)
Myth: Yellow journalists tricked everyone
Another favorite myth is that the public (or even the president) was fooled into the Spanish-American War by malicious newspapers. There’s no doubt that newspapers helped drive public opinion, or that several publishers had learned by then that jingoism sold copies.
But by the same token, newspapers had been playing up Spanish atrocities for years before the Maine sailed to Havana. And neither those issues nor coverage of the explosion itself proved enough to start a war on their own.
Also, while journalistic standards were low (in a sense they hadn’t been invented yet), and there were plenty of examples of erroneous stories, the papers were also broadly describing something real: Spanish oppression in Cuba was horrific. As I noted in a previous edition, the first-ever concentration camps were built by Spanish authorities to demoralize the Cuban population and isolate the insurgency in 1895. Hundreds of thousands of people died in them.
The reality is that there were lots of people in the United States, both inside government and out, who had a variety of reasons to want war, which sometimes worked at cross-purposes. A cadre of rising political stars, led by then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, were looking for a way to put the U.S. on an international military stage and start colonizing foreign lands. There had been American designs on Cuba since before the United States was a country.
And a young generation of Americans that had grown up hearing stories of Civil War battles from their parents was hungry for its own chance at glory. Many were convinced that they would be moral crusaders, freeing a benighted people they likened to the colonists in the American Revolution. (We’d be greeted, Americans were told, as liberators. And we were. Until we decided not to leave.)
Just like today, when it’s tempting to look back at the start of the Iraq War and think the whole thing was a trick played on well-meaning Americans by Judith Miller and the New York Times, the reality was complicated. Millions of early Iraq War supporters—like Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, and Glenn Greenwald—didn’t need to be sold very hard. In the the wake of 9/11 and a decade of relatively painless war (for them) in the Middle East, shooting over the heads of Arabs with “smart bombs” (as we were promised) and taking out a dictator seemed like a no-lose proposition. As Amy Kaplan, a leading expert on U.S. imperialism, has written of 1898, “Acknowledging the importance of the media curiously denigrates the political significance of the war itself.”
In other words: Beware of Americans who just want to go blow shit up. There are always a lot of them.
FACT: It’s never really about a ship
That brings me to the last point, which sums up the others. The Maine was probably more of an excuse for the Spanish-American War in retrospect than it was the overarching casus belli in real time—a way to provide “plausible explanation for a war that otherwise appears to lack both clear reason and compelling national purpose,” as the historian Louis A. Pérez, Jr., has written.
It was much easier to blame hundreds of tragic deaths, an inconclusive naval inquiry, and excitable newspapers than to admit the reality: American leaders wanted a war of territorial expansion, and the American public was happy to fight that war for them.
Trump and his Iran-baiting advisors like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo appear to want a war with Iran. They might even get one. But if they do, it won’t be because of some magic historical formula in which an explosion on a ship leads inexorably to a U.S. invasion. It’ll be because we let them have that power, and raced in front of them to battle.
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