“You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”
Newspaper Depiction Of The USS Maine Exploding In Havana Harbor
Frederic Remington, the famous artist who brought to life American images of the west was hired by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst to illustrate the revolution erupting in Cuba. He wrote back to Hearst one day in January 1897:
“Everything is quiet. There is no trouble. There will be no war. I wish to return.”
Hearst sent back a note: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”
When the USS Maine exploded in a harbor in Cuba on the 25th of January 1898, Hearst’s newspapers soon ran a story entitled: “The War Ship Maine was Split in Two by an Enemy’s Secret Infernal Machine”. This was, of course, the Weapons of Mass Destruction of its day. The notion that Spain would sink an American warship unprovoked was itself specious. So the claim that the Spanish destroyed the USS Maine with an explosive device was a bald-faced lie, concocted by Newspaper magnates intended primarily to serve two purposes. The first purpose was to sell newspapers. The first thing that slipped beneath the waves in this battle was the truth. A salacious lie, a fact free presumption, innuendo and dog whistle journalism was leashed upon a trusting public, all wrapped in slick newspapers, and a newborn sense of national entitlement. The story was wildly successful to media magnates everywhere. The US was the new kid on the block; like an adolescent, hormones skeining through our bloodstream, what we could take we probably should take. Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst and Isaac Temple of the New York Journal were midwifing another Manifest Destiny. Why should the United States accept the presence of the Spanish Navy in the Caribbean waters near our own coast? Gosh we sure could use the resources for a growing nation when this moribund empire and its shaky naval vessel can hardly maintain combat patrols around the Caribbean. Weren’t these poor Cuban peasants under the thumb of the Spanish oppressors just like the American Revolutionaries who only two generations previously fought and died to shed the colonies of the clutches of the Royal Crown? The first attempts to go after Cuba actually began before the American Civil War. A short period of isolationism set in after the bloody war ended and the country licked its wounds. It wasn’t long before the Expansionists began another narrative of the old empire, lurking in our territorial waters, profiting on the suffering of people who were mostly portrayed by newspapers as small black children in need of supervision and guidance, not a proud and indigenous population.
Just the talk of empire sold newspapers.
On the other side was the outrage. There was an entire political party engaged just to oppose the purloining of land because it happens to be within our sphere of influence. George S. Boutwell was the president of the Anti-Imperialism League, a band of people who argued that this was the most important question of the day. In fact, the Anti-Imperialist League made the case that the US Constitution compelled us to gain “the consent of the governed” before establishing rule anywhere as it is written in the Constitution. The Constitution built a republic, argued the Anti-Imperialists, not an empire.
The evil genius of Hearst and Pulitzer was that they rendered the Spanish occupiers as implacable and brutish overlords. They could, at will, paint the Spanish occupiers with any color they wished and no amount of oversight or warning could stop the campaign or balance it out with reasonable counters. Did the Spanish mistreat the Cubans? Well, not overtly. But facts were no reason to present a true depiction of circumstances. A few strokes with paint brush and before you know it there are ditches filled with Cuban peasants who only wanted to keep their own lands or defend the purity of their daughters.
The model for Yellow Journalism was templated in the Spanish American War. A media magnate decides to sell a war, and discovers how lucrative it can be. The media magnate discovers his innate power to affect the path of the world and like an addict, continues to prevaricate and manipulate.
It must be heady.
Hearst. Ailes. Pulitzer. Limbaugh. The names are different, but they represent almost the exact same institutions. The New York Times was not exactly Fox News, or Clear Channel because the Times still covered important news and in other stories the Times did their due diligence in regards to responsible journalism. Then again this was not unlike the New York Times in the lead up to the war in Iraq. Judith Miller lied and the paper of record supplied the smoking gun. But mostly the rest of the paper maintained a high level of function.
As if to double down on the falsehood, the Hearst newspapers published technical diagrams of the secret Spanish torpedoes they used to sink the US ship. And was this any different than Colin Powell, who later disavowed his claims claiming he was mislead, who sat in front of Congress and told us with certainty about the chemical weapons and the yellowcake shipments? With his pluck and charisma, he confidently convinced a nation that Saddam had WMDs and could or would distribute them to our enemies. Just like the New York Times in 1898, he had diagrams, very impressive ones. But yes, this was different. These two events were about 100 years apart, plenty of time for the implications and the build up to go down the memory hole. In both cases, the casus beli had been recapitulated so many times and in so many forms that it took on its own truth and those in power felt powerless to turn the machine off. If it’s any consolation to General Powell, Captain Sigsbee of the Maine also came to believe in the torpedo theory that he first pooh-poohed. Yes, the right wing propagandists had us all bamboozled, then and now. Today the discomfiture comes upon the realization that the Internet didn’t save us. The promise of digital technology was still trumped by our atavistic reflexes so deftly played by conservatives, that when one squawks “we’re under attack” loud enough, eventually everyone ducks and covers.
In the run up to hostilities between Spain and the United States the public was divided. Expansionists wanted to attack Spain immediately while there were voices of moderation that wanted confirmation that the stories were true. Of course this was the same with Iraq II. There were the Center For A New American Progress dutifully repeating the narratives scripted by new organizations and think tanks. On the left was MoveOn and Code Pink and a nascent and tenuous Air America.
In both cases, the liars, backed by the media, skilled purveyors of rot, won out.
Films of Spanish occupiers shooting Cuban insurgents to death turned out to be reenactments filmed in New Jersey. Woops. Well you see it was just to give the audience a flavor of the action. It’s as if our own involvement in the perfidy becomes invisible to us. Thumping war drums in 2002, Fox News couldn’t say enough about Saddam being a threat to the world as he gassed his own people. Of course, they didn’t say a thing about Alcolac International and Phillips, US raw chemical manufacturers actually provided Saddam’s government with thiodiglycol, the precursors to nerve agents used at Hallabja. That little bit of dissonant information was left out. Pictures of the dead bodies at Hallabja were aired on Fox every hour on the hour before during and after the invasion. And when the invasion turned into an occupation/insurgency/civil war, the Hallabja pictures were posted even more often to remind us why we entered into this debacle.
Propaganda, in its rawest form was in full swing 1899, as it was after 9/11. In that 1899, Clemencia Arango, a Cuban woman, was held and questioned by Spanish authorities on the New York bound passenger vessel Olivette. It didn’t take long before Hearst and Pulitzer spinning the story and crafting the headlines:
“Spanish Officials On Board American Vessels“, and “Refined Young Women Stripped and Searched by Brutal Spaniards While Under Our Flag on the Ollivette”.
Were we going to allow a young woman to be brutalized by the imperial occupiers of her homeland? Would we allow this on a US vessel? This more than just an affront to American authority. It was an affront to manliness.
Victor Lawson’s two Chicago newspapers sold the war from the other end of the argument. Spain was an empire in decrepitude and this island meant something for our economy. An invasion and replevin of Cuba would serve everyone, especially the oppressed masses.
Sounds a lot like Saddam’s brutal dictatorship.
The poor American citizen.
We all trust so acutely our journalists, even at the worst possible times.
In 1910, the Maine was raised in Havana Harbor and made a symbol of American might. Bodies were removed from the wreckage and the ship towed to deeper waters and sunk officially in a ceremony in front of the USS Birmingham, and the USS North Carolina. In 1974, Admiral Hyman Rickover examined the ship evidence again and determined that a fire in the coal-bunker sank the ship, not the Spanish.
Oh, and there were no weapons of mass destruction.
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Originally published at civilianmilitaryintelligencegroup.com on April 27, 2013.