The Loss of the Battleship MAINE and the World Trade Center Towers:

An Historical Comparison

By Patrick McSherry
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General:

In recent days, there have been a variety of comparisons between the sinking of the Battleship MAINE and the attack on the World Trade Center towers in New York City. The similarities and differences in the two earth-shattering and truly horrible events is the subject of this brief article.

 

On the left is a rare photo of the MAINE as it explodes in Havana harbor (to read about this remarkable photo, click here). On the right is a view of the World Trade Center being hit by a suicide-pilot controlled airliner. This photo is from Time Magazine)

The History:

Before we delve into the topic, to be clear, it is not known what caused the initial ignition that resulted in the subsequent explosion of the MAINE’s magazines and the loss of the ship (for a more in-depth analysis of this topic, click here). The cause was either a coal bunker fire or a small mine presumably planted by the Cubans. The latter makes the most technical and political sense, though neither possibility is provable in a scientific or historical sense at present (or probably ever will be). The reasons supporting a Cuban mine are simply that the heat of a potentially burning coal bunker was not detected though readily detectable, the coal was stored long enough to be beyond the critical hydration time for spontaneous combustion and that no heat source for accelerating the speed of the fire was ever located (for more information on why a coal bunker fire was unlikely, click here). The Cubans possessed the technology (powder, wood barrels and simple contact fuse) to build a mine, and also had the motive and precedent to make the planting of a mine a believable course of action  (the Cuban revolutionaries had been burning U.S. owned sugar plantations in an attempt to draw the Americans into the conflict with Spain. An incident involving the MAINE would have a similar effect). This paper is written based on the presumption that the MAINE was sunk by a mine.

Now, as to the comparison. First, in both the cases, the basic comparison is obvious and is the reason why both events are so shocking. In both cases, the attacks occurred on people who were at peace, resulting in a high number of death to the occupants. In the case of the MAINE, the peace was somewhat tenuous and the victims were strictly military. In contrast, at the World Trade Towers, the peace was unequivocal and the victims were purely civilian. Aboard the MAINE, the percentage of casualties was approximately seventy-one percent killed (266 men), whereas at the World Trade Centers it is estimated that the loss was approximately fourteen percent (2,850 men, women and children). In both cases, the losses were without precedent and shocking to the nation.

In both cases, no person or group stepped forward to take responsibility for the attack. In the case of the MAINE, the identity of the attackers and who ordered the attack was never discovered. In the case of the World Trade Centers we believe we know who the individual attackers were, and we believe we know who commanded and who masterminded the attack.

The objects of the attacks appear to have been chosen because they were symbols of the United States. The MAINE was a battleship in a time when the status of a country was represented by the size of its navy and the number of its battleships. The ship was a representative of American’s growing might and power. The World Trade Centers were also a symbol of America in a time when a country’s worth is based often on its economic power, sometimes even more so than on its military power. The World Trade Centers in New York were a pure symbol of the country’s economic power, as its name implies.  On the same day, the Pentagon was attacked, a symbol of the United States' military power. It is notable that the MAINE, the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon were all symbols recognizable around the world.

In both the case or the MAINE and the World Trade Center towers, the damage was probably greater than expected. In the case of the MAINE, the intent was probably to create an international incident. It was probably not expected that the small mine would actually sink the ship. The mine exploded at a point where, by chance, its blast ruptured the hull and seemingly ignited the black powder used for firing salutes coincidentally stored in a magazine at that critical point. The effect was instantaneous, with blasts shivering the hull structure immediately, resulting in the total loss of the vessel. The perpetrators were probably shocked at their action and did not celebrate the incident which had gone disasterously awry. Similarly, the World Trade Center terrorists probably did not foresee the result of their attack, at least in the way it occurred (This was later confirmed by an interview of Bin Laden talking with a supporter. He expected that only the floors above the point of impact would collapse). The terrorists probably expected that the crashing of the planes would badly damage the towers, possibly toppling them from the collision. This did not occur. However, did they foresee that sustained fire would combine with some structural damage resulting from the collision and set off a chain reaction which would result in the total loss of both buildings? The fire heated the building's steel structure until it became “soft” enough so as to be unable to hold the weight of the floors above. At that point a few floors collapsed. The undamaged structure on the floor below could not support the impact load of the floors collapsing above, and collapsed itself, with the same process being followed on one floor after another. In contrast to those who probably blew up the MAINE, the terrorists at the World Trade Centers were undoubtedly pleased at their terrible result.

In both cases, the attempt of the attack was to spur action against others, to the gain of the terrorists. In the case of the MAINE, the terrorists wanted the United States to believe that the attack was the result of Spain’s action, and have the United States declare war on Spain. In this regard, they were successful. The Spanish American War did not directly result from the loss of the MAINE, but was the result of long-term military planning (for more information on this topic, please click here). The loss of the MAINE did serve as a catalyst for the war, however, shifting public sentiment to support the war. In the case of the World Trade Center attack, the terrorists apparently wanted the United States to strike back immediately in the Middle East, which would galvanize the Islamic world against the United States. In this regard, the attack failed in the short term as the United States did not immediately strike back. With the subsequent actions in Afghanistan and Iraq,  only time will tell if they are eventually given this psychological victory or not.

In both cases, the attack galvanized the American public to support, and virtually demand, a strike against the perceived foe. In the case of the MAINE, the yellow press and the public pushed for war against Spain. In the case of the World Trade Center, the public virtually demanded action.  After the MAINE was sunk on February 15, 1898, President McKinley waited until late April to begin a blockade of Cuba and declare war. In spite of the public clamor, the road to war was not rushed as McKinley knew from personal experience in the American Civil War that war was not something to be delved into lightly. After the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon were attacked on September 11, 2001, President Bush stated that the nation was at war already, but that the response would not necessarily be immediate. President Bush did not appear to be rush into war either, also realizing the gravity of war.

Both the victims of the MAINE explosion and World Trade Center collapse were aided by the public through donations to support their families. In both cases, the American public showed outstanding generosity in this regard.

In the case of the MAINE, those who perpetrated the attack, if they were the Cuban Revolutionaries, were supported and supplied by the Americans. Arms and equipment were run through the Spanish blockade into Cuba by independent parties, unmolested by the U.S. government. Basically, it was a covert operation by pro-Cuban groups in the U.S. Those who perpetrated the attack on the World Trade Center were previously supplied by the Americans. Their members, as Islamic Revolutionaries fighting against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, were supplied and trained by branches of the American government in covert operations.

In both the case of the MAINE and the World Trade Towers, the attacks spawned many conspiracy theories. With the MAINE, it was claimed that the U.S. blew up the ship itself to create a pretext for war, an argument that defies basic logic since an entire battleship did not need to be sacrificed to create an incident had that been the goal. In the case of the World Trade Towers, there are claims that the American government destroyed the towers, allowed them to be destroyed while only warning certain groups, or even that the World Trade Towers were never destroyed but that the horrifying scenes were only Hollywood creations beamed to the world. Again, the claims defy logic based on the economic damage to the country as a whole, to say nothing of the loss of life.

In the case of the loss of the MAINE, the ensuing military action – the Spanish American War - resulted in the ascendancy of the United States to a position as a world power, both militarily and economically (and, therefore, inadvertently setting the nation up for the World Trade Center attack over a century later). The catastrophe actually resulted in tremendous gains for the population of the United States. In the case of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, this portion of its story is still being written. Will the resulting action and unprecedented international co-operation result in a new world order as did the Spanish American War? Will its results be positive for people of all nations? We can only hope that as the present moment passes into history that world leaders will move ahead with that goal in mind.


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