The phrase “remember the Maine” refers to the explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor in Spanish-controlled Cuba. This phrase was used to create enthusiasm in America for a war with Spain. It was widely employed by the press operations of early newspaper barons such as William Randolph Hearst, known generally for “yellow,” or biased, journalism. “Remember the Maine” was very effective in stirring popular sentiment, and the slogan likely contributed to America’s decision to pursue war with Spain.
The battleship Maine was sent to Havana in 1898 to make a diplomatic point. Cuba had been in rebellion against Spain since 1895, and the United States wanted to make its political and military presence felt in the region. In part, this was a natural extension of the well-established American policy codified by the Monroe Doctrine. Under that doctrine, the United States claimed the right to prevent European involvement in the affairs of nations in the Americas. This was also the golden age of European imperialism, and many Americans wanted to secure an empire for the United States, perhaps one that included Cuba.
As it was resting at anchor in Havana harbor, the Maine exploded in the middle of the night of February 15, 1898. The ship soon sank, and over half of its crew perished in the explosion. The cause of the explosion is still unknown, although an accident is now considered the most likely explanation by historians. Other scholars believe that Spain was responsible or even that the ship was deliberately sabotaged to provoke a war, but no firm consensus exists.
At the time, however, Americans assumed that the explosion was caused by an attack on the part of Spanish forces. The phrase “Remember the Maine,” which was often followed by “to hell with Spain”, was repeated widely in the American press. Many ordinary Americans, who had been ambivalent about the idea of war with Spain to gain imperial territory or to liberate Cuba, were persuaded by this war propaganda that conflict was necessary.
American newspapers of the day were far from neutral in the lead-up to war. Most of the nation’s major papers were owned by newspaper tycoons, and these men favored a policy of imperialism. They realized early on that the destruction of the Maine could be a very powerful rallying cry, and much of the force behind the movement to remember the Maine stemmed from their efforts. This is seen by some scholars as one of the first instances of the modern approach to war propaganda that became ubiquitous during the World Wars.
The United States did opt to pursue war with Spain. Enthusiasm created by the cry of “Remember the Maine” aided in recruitment efforts and ensured broad initial support for the war. Spain was quite weak at this time, and the United States swiftly prevailed. America acquired a variety of colonial possessions, most notably the Philippines, and secured a friendly and independent Cuba.