What did the sinking of the USS Maine have to do with the Spanish-American War?

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larrygates eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The sinking of the USS Maine was the immediate cause of war between the U.S. and Spain, although there was substantial belief at the time (and conclusive proof now) that the sinking was entirely accidental. At the time the Maine arrived in Havana Harbor, two newspaper editors, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer were in a bitter competition for newspaper sales. The competition was so savage that truth often was less important than sensationalism, and headlines were somewhat similar to those of a grocery store tabloid. For weeks before the Maine sinking, the newspapers had run lurid stories of Spanish atrocities in Cuba, none of which could be substantiated. When the Maine sank in an explosion, the papers carried stories decrying the "dastardly act," offered rewards for conviction of the perpetrators, and often carried headlines screaming "Remember the Maine." The entire country was whipped up into war fever at a time when there was substantial sentiment in Congress for an independent Cuba. Although Spain offered numerous concessions, tantamount to surrender, none were acceptable, and war was declared.

The true cause of the explosion was ignition of coal dust in a bin located too near the ships powder magazine. It was entirely accidental, and was later proved to be such; but it was too good an opportunity for the newspapers to ignore, so it became the casus belli of the war.