On this day in 1898, President William McKinley asked Congress to declare war on Spain following the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana.
The slogan, “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain,” became a popular manifest for Americans to chant for war.
Stationed in Havana Harbor to protect U.S interests during the Cuban revolt, The U.S.S Maine peacefully docked in the harbor until the late hours on February 15, 1898, when an unexpected explosion destroyed the massive ship and claimed the lives of over 300 men on board.
At once, many in the US, particularly a young Theodore Roosevelt, blamed the Spanish for instigating a war. Teddy Roosevelt was determined to fight for Cuban independence and highly advocated in favor of war. When war was later declared, Roosevelt enlisted as colonel and leader of the “Rough Riders,” emerging as a patriotic hero as the battle of San Juan Hill.
Two major publishers at the time, William Randolph Hurst in California and Joseph Pulitzer in New York, used the dreadful event to spark a fierce competition to drive paper sales. Sensationalized and inflammatory headlines dominated the press, largely swaying public opinion over the issue of the USS Maine. “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!” was a popular slogan used to demand revenge.
At first hesitant to start a war, President William McKinley soon felt political and public pressure to ask Congress to declare war on Spain over two months later.
The term “yellow press” soon began to reference the exaggerated, eye-catching headlines which were splashed across the page without substantial evidence. Today, the operative term for “yellow press” is called “clickbait.”
Although there was scant evidence of Spanish involvement in the bombing, leading some to believe it was a strange coincidence, the damage from the headlines had already inked its message indelibly into the minds of the families of the fallen, and the American public at large.
The Spanish-American war had begun. Although it lasted only three short months, the war was instrumental in reuniting the United States after the Civil War. Instead of fighting against each other, northerners and southerners united against a common enemy.
Most importantly, the three month war elevated the United States’ position as a leading world power, evolving into American imperialism. After 1898, Americans viewed themselves as “defenders of democracy,” a title many brave men and women uphold to this day.