Remember the Maine

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Interesting historical tidbit. The US has a long tradition of using fake news to provoke war.

By the end of the 19th century all that was left of the Spanish Empire: Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippine Islands, was challenged by pro-independence movements. The Spanish responded to these challenges using extreme methods, including rounding up alleged rebels, including children, and placing them in internment camps.

At the same time there was a circulation battle between newspaper magnates William Randolph Hearst, owner of the New York Journal, and Joseph Pulitzer who owned the New York World. The circulation battle was waged through publishing sensationalist headlines and drawings to draw readership.  The Journal’s front page shouted about the boy who bit into a stick of dynamite thinking it was candy and leading to an “awful death” and a tale of a deranged girl running down a street with her hair “all ablaze”, and other stories of violence, sex, catastrophe, and mayhem.

Hoping to find a topic that would keep the public’s attention over time Hearst became interested in the revolution in Cuba. He sent writers and illustrators to try to find sensational stories. When it became apparent that the revolution was faltering and there was little to report, illustrator Frederic Remington cabled to Hearst, “Everything quiet.  There is no trouble here.  There will be no war.  Wish to return.”  In response to Remington’s message, Hearst reportedly replied, “Please remain.  You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”

Less than 3 weeks later the US Battleship Maine exploded in Havana harbor. The cause was and would remain a mystery for almost a century, but Hearst and Pulitzer both immediately published accounts that blamed the Spanish for deliberately destroying the vessel. In the 1990s US Admiral Hyman Rickover led an investigation that concluded the ship was destroyed by an internal explosion, probably triggered by a coal bunker fire.

The public outcry, fueled by the sensationalist press, led President McKinley to ask for a declaration of war, and the United States quickly defeated the Spanish, taking possession of Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam and establishing de facto control over Cuba.