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Remember the Maine? Sunday will mark the 117th anniversary of the beginning of America's role as a world power. It all began with the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor on Feb. 15, 1898.

If you're of a mind to look at the story with a touch of irreverence, you could say that America rose to world prominence because of greed, jingoism, ego, political ambition and a sensational press determined to push the nation into the Imperial Age. The opportunity to galvanize all of that into the stuff of brass bands, waving flags and soldiers charging up the battlefields in faraway places was the result of misunderstanding, misrepresentation and the inept construction of a ship of the line by a military bureaucracy.

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Or, you can be the quintessential patriot and make the case that the events leading up to the dunking of the Maine in a Cuban harbor were preordained and the inevitable fate of America, which was to join the new world emerging out of the Gilded Age of industrial and political expansion.

War was declared because the public was stirred up by media assertions that the ship was blown up by a mine planted by the Spanish, which considered Cuba their territory. There wasn't much left to show for the Spanish explorations and settlements of the Americas. They were proud of Cuba. Puerto Rico, too.

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Powers in the United States wanted both.

American newspapers published by the Hearst Empire, which may have been as rich as Spain, bleated headlines that Cuban peasants were rising up against their Spanish oppressors and seeking to establish democracy. They needed – deserved – an American show of support.

The poor wanted to be free and the rich wanted to be richer. A competitor of the Hearst chain, the Pulitzer newspapers, joined in the rhetoric. The media moguls had been carrying the banner of expansionism for American interests for several years, anxious to gain access for American businesses to resources in the Caribbean, Central America and the Philippines, which was also a Spanish colony.

As insurgents were putting pressure on the government residing in Havana, a "patriotic" movement in America was eager to believe this country should go establish truth, justice and the American ideal of democracy for the peasants of Cuba.

The Maine, built over nine years in Brooklyn Naval Yards in New York, was a new design of battleship – the first designed by the U.S. Navy Bureau of Construction, which is to say, a committee of people who were as encumbered by politics as much as their lack of skills in new ship design.

At launch, the 895 ton ship's trim sat lower in the water at the bow than at the stern, 319 feet away. It needed extra weight aft as a result, which slowed it down to a maximum 15 knots, which was just about right for cruising up and down the coast off Virginia. Preferably, if you were one of the 400 crew, not too far off.

Its twin turrets held four 10-inch guns, but there was no stop on the rotation of the turrets and it would rock like a cradle in the water if all guns were fired at a single target simultaneously. If the gunner's attention lapsed, the ship could literally shoot itself.

Theodore Roosevelt was ready to carry the fight to the Spanish. Already a heroic American figure, he was also ready to find some adventure -- and perhaps ride the glory to political office.

A story goes that as he rode a horse in the thick of battle, he chided a soldier lying prone in the grass for lacking the courage he, the leader, showed astride his steed. The chastened soldier stood up and was promptly shot by a marksman.

But the glory of the American rescue of Cuban peasants and revenge for blowing up an American warship carried the day. In just a couple of months, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines were no longer slaves of Spanish overlords. Now they were working for the Americans.

The story of the Maine became a rallying cry beyond the end of the war: Remember the Maine!

That is, until a U.S. government panel decided once and for all, in 1976, that it was not a bomb or a Spanish torpedo that blew up the Maine. It was a fire in the ammo locker. Two explosions killed 260 sailors and blasts continued for several hours.

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The ship sank. America sailed into the 20th Century.

Dean Minnich writes from Westminster. His column appears Thursdays. Email him at dminnichwestm@aol.com.

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