USS Maine

by Don Friedman on December 9, 2016

USS Maine entering Havana Harbor, January 1898:

Unlike Terror and Arizona, the Maine is gone. There’s nothing left of it to preserve. But its memory lingers on…

The Maine exploded and sunk in Havana’s harbor less than a month after the picture above was taken. At the time, one popular theory was that the ship hit a mine, and this theory helped trigger a war between the US and Spain. The more boring reality is that the ship probably sank from a coal fire that ignited munitions, but of course that understanding now does not change the reality of the war in 1898 nor the results of the war for the people of the US, Spain, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.

Some fifteen years later, a monument was erected at the corner of Central Park facing Columbus Circle.

The text on the monument refers to the Maine as being “destroyed in Havana Harbor,” which is almost neutral in tone, but the heroic sculpture is obviously more appropriate for a war or martyrs’ memorial than for the victims of a fire started by poor below-decks ventilation. This monument is specifically about the Maine, not the Spanish-American War, so that nationalist tone is, to modern sensibility, a bit off.

The monument, like the entire park, is protected as a landmark. I certainly don’t think the monument itself should be changed, even though I find it to be a bit embarrassing. On the other hand, there is an easy way to address historic references that time has passed by: add more text as context. It would be quite easy to put a museum-style text board near the monument, explaining the history of the Maine, the monument, the war, and the subsequent revisions in thinking about the cause of the sinking. This solution does not change the historic landmark (the monument) itself, while allowing more accurate history (about the ship) to be made public.

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