- William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
"Remember the Maine," was the battle cry across the US. From the Eastern seaboard states all the way to California, Americans were repeatedly told that the Spanish had attacked and sunk the USS Maine on February 15, 1898, as it lay anchored peacefully in Havana Harbor. It didn't take long for Americans to start showing up at military recruiting stations across the land to defend the honor of the US Navy. There would be hell to pay if other countries feel they can just attack a US ship during peacetime and get away with it.
The core problem with all of this was the fact that the Spanish were being falsely accused for masterminding the tragedy. Unbeknownst to the American public, a new and treacherous form of journalism had just reared its head for the first time. As I wrote in my talk on The Rise of Yellow Journalism, one of the most infamous incidents with regard to the influence that yellow journalism practices had on the Spanish-American War is a short dialogue between William Randolph Hearst and his hired illustrator/Cuban correspondent, Frederick Remington. Upon his arrival in Cuba in January of 1897, Remington noticed that none of massive reported battles were actually happening. He cabled to Hearst: "Everything is quiet. There is no trouble. There will be no war. I wish to return." Supposedly, although he denied it afterwards, Hearst quickly wired back: "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war."
Yellow journalism, in short, is biased opinion masquerading as objective fact. Moreover, the practice of yellow journalism involved sensationalism, distorted stories, and misleading images for the sole purpose of boosting newspaper sales and exciting public opinion. At 9:40 on the evening in question, a terrible explosion on board the USS Maine shattered the stillness in Havana Harbor. Later investigations revealed that more than five tons of powder charges for the vessel's six and ten-inch guns ignited, virtually obliterating the forward third of the ship. The remaining wreckage rapidly settled to the bottom of the harbor. Most of Maine's crew were sleeping or resting in the enlisted quarters in the forward part of the ship when the explosion occurred. Two hundred and sixty-six men lost their lives as a result of the disaster: 260 died in the explosion or shortly thereafter, and six more died later from injuries.
Seizing upon the opportunity to capitalize on the growing spirit of American patriotism, two major newspapers owned by Hearst and rival newspaper owner Joseph Pulitzer printed sensational anti-Spanish stories. They both blamed Spain directly for the sinking of the Maine. Graphic illustrations commissioned from some of the country's most-talented artists and stories written by premiere authors and journalists of the day were fodder for fueling the flames of war. Together, Hearst and Pulitzer created frenzy among the American people by reporting the alleged brutality of the Spanish toward the Cuban rebels. By the time the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, the pro-war press had roused national sentiment to the point that President McKinley feared his political party would suffer if he did not engage in war with Spain.
On April 25, 1898, Congress declares war on Spain and eventually increases the military to 200,000. By June 10, a battalion of Marines land at Guantanamo Bay. The Chicago Tribune, in an article written on June 22, argues for Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines to become part of US territory. "All of these islands will belong to us by sovereign right of honorable conquest. They will be American soil from the moment the Stars and Stripes float over them. Annexation of all three is the natural outcome"
After serious losses to U.S. troops in San Juan, Lawton, and El Caney, the entire Spanish squadron is annihilated by July 2. A few days later, Santiago is occupied by American forces, which forbid the Cuban rebels from entering. By July 16, Spain and the U.S. sign a peace agreement. Towards the end of the year, the Cuban Educational Association (formed by the Wood administration) reports that only certain Cubans are considered fit to be "Americanized," and that darker skinned Cubans "could not gain admission" to many American universities and colleges.
The Cubans were obviously dismayed. Their decades old struggle for independence had been hijacked by American sensationalism and the Cubans would wind up merely trading one colonial power for another. Even though the Teller Amendment, which passed both houses of Congress on April 20, 1898, specifically stated that Cuba was to be given its independence as soon as possible, there was wide spread opposition in the US which felt like it had won the war and was, therefore, the owner of the prize.
Finally, in 1903, The Platt Amendment is passed and the US grants sovereignty to Cuba. Well sorta. Article 3 of the amendment gives the US the right to intervene in the sovereign affairs of Cuba when the US wants to. Throughout the amendment, strict standards are imposed on the island, with the United States being the sole arbiter and judge of achievement. And then there's Article 7. "That to enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba, and to protect the people thereof, as well as for its defense, the government of Cuba will sell or lease to the United States lands necessary for coaling or naval stations at certain specified points, to be agreed upon with the President of the United States."
This article was "to enable the United States to maintain the independence of Cuba." The surreal hypocrisy of this statement is not lost on Cubans even to this day. During the early 20th Century, Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine were two pillars of American foreign policy that seemed to find their way into many foreign policy decrees such as the Platt Amendment. This becomes the birth of the US military base at Guantanamo Bay on the island of Cuba. The oldest US overseas base and the only one that is located in a "hostile" country. To this day, the US pays a usury fee for the base and the Cuban government refuses to cash the check.
Over the years, the base has been used for many different projects. The base has seen tens of thousands of Cuban and Haitian refugees pass through, it has been used as the staging ground for many different military maneuvers, and it has even been used as an interdiction base to halt illegal Chinese being smuggled into the US. It has been immortalized in the psyche of Americana through films like, A Few Good Men, where Jack Nicholson uttered the immortal phrase, "You can't handle the truth." Few at that time could have ever prophesied just how true his words would eventually become.
With the disaster that visited the US on September 11, 2001, a whole new paradigm shift quickly took hold of the American mindset and their perceived outlook about the world and America's role in it. A month later, the US military attacked the people of Afghanistan in the hopes of destroying the terrorist encampments, training camps and infrastructure which were deemed to be of great importance in the preparation and execution of the attacks one month sooner. Few people, then or now, fully reflect on the absurd hypocrisy that these same terrorists training camps and infrastructure were originally bought and paid for by the American taxpayer before and during the Soviet/Afghan war of the 1980s. The CIA term blowback, made famous by Chalmers Johnson over just these same facts, has been proven time and again to accurately reflect what happens when a nation uses unscrupulous methods to conduct its foreign policy and there is no more glaring proof of this than the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
And the prosecution of this new form of battle was to create a whole new group of terms, many firsts and others redefined to further mystify and confuse the world at large. Though the words "enemy combatant" were first used by FDR in 1942 under his proclamation number 2561, President Roosevelt noted that enemy combatants are "all persons who are subjects, citizens, or residents of any Nation at war with the United States or who give obedience to or act under the direction of any such Nation and who during time of war enter or attempt to enter the United States or any territory or possession thereof, through coastal or boundary defenses, and are charged with committing or attempting or preparing to commit sabotage, espionage, hostile or warlike acts, or violations of the law or war".
This concept was to sit in a back corner of US foreign jargon until revived by the Bush administration some 60 years later. In his February 24, 2004, "Remarks" before the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Law and National Security, Alberto R. Gonzales, Counsel to President Bush, said: "Under these rules, captured enemy combatants, whether soldiers or saboteurs, may be detained for the duration of hostilities. They need not be 'guilty' of anything; they are detained simply by virtue of their status as enemy combatants in war. This detention is not an act of punishment but one of security and military necessity."
But that's not how the Bush Administration played it up in the news media. In 2002, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld famously referred to Guantanamo prisoners as "the worst of the worst." As recently as June 2005, he said, despite massive and incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, "If you think of the people down there, these are people, all of whom were captured on a battlefield. They're terrorists, trainers, bomb makers, recruiters, financiers, [Osama bin Laden's] bodyguards, would-be suicide bombers, probably the 20th 9/11 hijacker."
And Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, chimed in, "They were so vicious, if given the chance they would gnaw through the hydraulic lines of a C-17 while they were being flown to Cuba. These are the people that don't know any moral values," he said, adding that "the threat they pose is real - at least 12 former detainees have been killed or captured on the battlefield after their release."