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Explore the ruins of the battleship “USS Maine” in Havana harbour, Cuba
Wreck of the battleship USS Maine in Havana harbour, Cuba.
Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Washington, D.C.See all videos for this article
In the fall of 1897 a new Spanish ministry offered concessions to the insurgents. It would recall General Weyler, abandon his reconcentration policy, and allow Cuba an elected cortes (parliament) with limited powers of self-government. These concessions came too late. The insurgent leaders would now settle for nothing short of complete independence. The war went on in Cuba, and a series of incidents brought the United States to the brink of intervention. Riots in Havana in December led to the sending of the battleship Maine to that city’s port as a precaution for the safety of U.S. citizens and property. On February 9, 1898, the New York Journal printed a private letter from the Spanish minister in Washington, Enrique Dupuy de Lôme, describing McKinley as “weak and a popularity-hunter” and raising doubt about Spain’s good faith in her reform program. De Lôme immediately resigned, and the Spanish government tendered an apology. The sensation caused by this incident was eclipsed dramatically six days later. On the night of February 15, a mighty explosion sank the Maine at her Havana anchorage, and more than 260 of her crew were killed. Responsibility for the disaster was never determined. A U.S. naval board found convincing evidence that an initial explosion outside the hull (presumably from a mine or torpedo) had touched off the battleship’s forward magazine. The Spanish government offered to submit the question of its responsibility to arbitration, but the U.S. public, prompted by the New York Journal and other sensational papers in the grips of yellow journalism, held Spain unquestionably responsible. “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!” became a popular rallying cry.
Prints and Photographs Division/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (digital file no. LC-USZ62-61877)
Popular pressure for intervention was reinforced by Spain’s evident inability to end the war by either victory or concession. McKinley’s response was to send an ultimatum to Spain on March 27. Let Spain, he wrote, abandon reconcentration in fact as well as in name, declare an armistice, and accept U.S. mediation in peace negotiations with the insurgents. In a separate note, however, he made it clear that nothing less than independence for Cuba would be acceptable.
The Spanish government was caught upon the horns of a cruel dilemma. It had not readied its army or navy for war with the United States, nor had it warned the Spanish public of the necessity of relinquishing Cuba. War meant certain disaster. The surrender of Cuba might mean the overthrow of the government or even the monarchy. Spain clutched at the only straws in sight. On the one hand, it sought support from the principal European governments. Aside from the British, these governments were sympathetic to Spain but were unwilling to give it more than weak verbal support. On April 6 representatives of Germany, Austria, France, Great Britain, Italy, and Russia called upon McKinley and begged him in the name of humanity to refrain from armed intervention in Cuba. McKinley assured them that if intervention came, it would be in the interest of humanity. An effort at mediation by Pope Leo XIII was equally futile. Meanwhile, Spain was going far in the acceptance of McKinley’s terms of March 27—so far that Minister Woodford advised McKinley that, granted a little time and patience, Spain could work out a solution acceptable to both the United States and the Cuban insurgents. Spain would end the reconcentration policy. Instead of accepting U.S. mediation, it would seek the pacification of the island through the Cuban cortes about to be elected under the autonomy program. Spain at first stated that an armistice would be granted only on application from the insurgents but on April 9 announced one on its own initiative. Spain, however, still refused to concede independence, which McKinley evidently now considered indispensable for restoration of peace and order in Cuba.
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Yielding to the war party in Congress and to the logic of the position that he had consistently taken—the inability to find an acceptable solution in Cuba would result in U.S. intervention—the president, reporting but not emphasizing Spain’s latest concessions, advised Congress in a special message on April 11 that “the war in Cuba must stop.” From Congress he asked authority to use the armed forces of the United States “to secure a full and final termination of hostilities between the government of Spain and the people of Cuba.” Congress responded emphatically, declaring on April 20 that “the people of Cuba are, and of right ought to be, free and independent.” It demanded that Spain at once relinquish authority over Cuba and withdraw its armed forces from the island and authorized the president to use the army and navy of the United States to enforce that demand. A fourth resolution, proposed by Sen. Henry M. Teller of Colorado, renounced for the United States any idea of acquiring Cuba. The president beat back an attempt in the Senate to include recognition of the existing but insubstantial insurgent government. Recognition of that body, he believed, would hamper the United States both in the conduct of the war and in the postwar pacification, which he clearly foresaw as a responsibility of the United States. Upon being informed of the signing of the resolutions, the Spanish government at once severed diplomatic relations and on April 24 declared war upon the United States. Congress declared war on April 25 and made the declaration retroactive to April 21.