Instigating an Empire

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This glass slide includes an illustration of the explosion of the USS Maine. While no photographs were actually taken of the incident, this did not stop the press from commissioning and publishing images inspired by dramatic witness testimony. Courtesy of Highland Park Historical Society via Illinois Digital Heritage Hub.

The late nineteenth century was a time of crisis and confidence in the US. A financial panic left industries in search of new markets to sell their goods, particularly in Asia and Latin America. Meanwhile, as immigration rates to the US soared, a wave of nationalism inspired citizens to define what it meant to be an American. For example, the 1890s saw the creation of patriotic traditions like the Pledge of Allegiance. Others thought more strategically. Captain Alfred Mahan Thayer published The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, which argued for the US to invest in its navy and take control of international waters.

On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine, an American naval ship, exploded in Havana, Cuba leaving 262 American soldiers dead. Although an official investigation named no perpetrator, newspapers quickly blamed Spain. The "yellow press," sensational journalism that relied more on fabrication than fact, transformed the USS Maine into a national spectacle as reporters circulated dramatic accounts of the explosion and made allegations about Spain's involvement in the attack. "Remember the Maine!" became an inescapable cry. Americans demanded retribution.

Vengeful public sentiment mixed with economic interests and rising nationalism compelled the US to take action against Spain. As one man recalled, "Whenever the battleship Maine is mentioned, my memory leaps...to the excitement aroused by the word 'war.'"