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Remembering the Maine

USS Maine
USS Maine  

100 years after ship exploded in Havana, mystery remains

February 15, 1998
Web posted at: 10:02 p.m. EST (0302 GMT)

HAVANA (CNN) -- A century has passed since the USS Maine exploded in Havana's harbor, triggering war fever in the United States and eventually bringing the curtain down on Spain's colonial empire in the New World.

And yet today, no one knows for sure what happened at 9:40 p.m. on February 15, 1898, when a blast killed 266 of the 350 men on board what was then the most powerful warship in the U.S. fleet.

vxtreme 'Remember the Maine'

At first, President William McKinley considered the blast an accident. But then the public, fueled by sensational newspaper headlines, started pointing a finger toward Spain, which stood accused of blowing up the Maine with one of its mines. At the time, Cuba was a Spanish possession.

Just two months after the sailors were laid to rest -- two dozen in Key West, Florida and most of the rest in Arlington National Cemetery outside of Washington -- the U.S. Congress declared war on Spain.

At the Maine monument in Havana, Cuban officials lay a wreath in honor of the 267 Americans who died in the explosion  

The rallying cry was "Remember the Maine," and when the smoke had cleared from the 144-day war, the United States had seized many of Spain's colonial holdings, including Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines.

Yet subsequent investigations say an accident on board, not a Spanish mine, might have been responsible for the explosion on the Maine. A study commissioned last year by the National Geographic Society, which used computer simulations, concluded that either a mine or an accident was plausible.

A hundred years ago, though, such distinctions didn't get in the way of what one American diplomat of the time termed a "splendid little war."

"It was used as a pretext to get involved," says Tom Miller, a writer and scholar on the Maine incident. "We really had been drooling over Cuba."

But unlike Puerto Rico and the Philippines, which became American territories after the war, Cuba became an independent country, albeit one over which the United States retained much influence.

Today, Cuba and the United States are intractable foes, and that has put the way Cuba views the Maine incident in a different light.

In the 1920s, a monument was built in Havana to commemorate the sailors who died and to honor U.S.-Cuban friendship. Perched on top was an eagle, a U.S. national symbol.

But in 1961, Cuban communist revolutionaries toppled the eagle from the top of that monument. Its mangled remains are proudly displayed in a downtown museum.

Some Cuban officials argue that the United States may have deliberately blown up the Maine to create a pretext for military action against Spain. And today, the wording on the monument describes the Maine's sailors as "victims sacrificed to the imperialist greed in its fervor to seize control of Cuba."

In Havana Sunday, Cuban Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina and other dignitaries laid a wreath at the monument honoring the sailors who died on board the ship.

Across the Strait of Florida in Key West, U.S. Navy and Marine honor guards hoisted a flag above the sailors' graveyard, which the Navy spent $200,000 sprucing up in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the Maine incident.

Little girls, escorted by Navy cadets, laid daisies on the graves. Historic preservationists also removed and cleaned a 98-year-old copper statue of a Maine sailor, scanning the water as if looking for his lost shipmates.

But even as the Maine is being remembered, the mystery of what really happened to the ship remains to be solved.

Havana Bureau Chief Lucia Newman, Correspondent Cynthia Tornquist and Reuters contributed to this report.

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