Having just shifted careers from the Navy—where I spent over three decades—to the world of Academe, I have also of course changed offices. One artifact from my Navy days came along with me: a painting of the American battleship Maine, proudly at anchor in the harbor of Havana, Cuba—a Spanish colony at the time—in the winter of 1898. Her flags are flying in the wind, the sides freshly painted, and the mighty turrets of her guns dominate the ship’s profile.

Dean Stavridis in front of his painting "Remember the Maine"

Photo: Dean Stavridis in front of his painting depicting the USS Maine.

A few days after the period depicted by that painting, the ship was shattered by a massive and mysterious explosion. It sank quickly in the harbor, and despite the efforts of the Spanish military authorities, more than 260 U.S. Sailors died, nearly three quarters of the crew. The rest, as they say, is history: William Randolph Hearst’s aggressive network of newspapers flogged the story of “Spanish saboteurs” who must have affixed a mine to the ship’s hull. The battle cry of “Remember the Maine” rang throughout American cities. We went to war with Spain, quickly conquering Spanish possessions in both the Pacific and Caribbean, and the U.S. was suddenly a colonial power. Colonel Teddy Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill and won the Congressional Medal of Honor. The ship became a potent symbol of American power, resolve and determination to avenge an attack.

A painting of USS Maine has hung on the wall in my offices as a Navy officer and now as Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. People often ask me, “Why do you have a picture of a ship that sank on your wall?” It is a good question; after all, why not a painting of the heroic USS Constitution from the early days of the Navy, or the mighty carrier Enterprise from World War II, or any of a hundred other notable ships that were victorious in battle?

The answer is twofold.

“Gunner’s Gang”, photographed in one of the ship’s torpedo rooms. Halftoned photograph, published in Uncle Sam’s Navy, 1898. Credit: U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph # NH 50183.

Photo: “Gunner’s Gang”, photographed in one of the ship’s torpedo rooms. Halftoned photograph, published in Uncle Sam’s Navy, 1898. Credit: U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph # NH 50183.

First of all, seeing the Maine on the wall reminds me that no matter how far you go in life, no matter how glorious are your present circumstances, remember that your ship could blow up underneath you at any moment. Knowing that it may helps me remember to not sweat the small stuff, as the saying goes. Compared to a huge explosion and drowning sailors, my day-to-day challenges are relatively controllable—thus it helps me keep things in perspective. It also reminds me to always know where my life preservers are located—a necessary if unfortunate requirement in today’s world. A fairly clear lesson, I think.

But to understand the second lesson of USS Maine, you have to know what is sometimes called, “the rest of the story.”

Over the next hundred years, through the late 1990s, a series of investigations were undertaken to determine definitively what sank the Maine, among them one led by Admiral Hymen Rickover, who would go on to found the nuclear Navy. While there is still some controversy about the final cause of the explosion, most evidence points NOT to a mine planted by a saboteur, but rather a vastly more prosaic cause: an internal explosion, probably caused by powder in one of the ship’s magazines, not an uncommon event in those days. Thus all the jingoistic “rush to war” that led the nation in the Spanish-American War was probably based on a rushed and flawed set of assumptions. It was certainly based on an incomplete knowledge of the facts.

So, the second lesson of USS Maine, and the other reason she continues to adorn my wall despite her less than glorious finale, is simple: challenge the assumptions, and recognize that the first report is often (not always, but often) wrong. Don’t leap to conclusions. Take your time and investigate thoroughly. Wait for all the facts before you declare war or take other precipitate action (even in the Ivory Tower, and most certainly in the larger world). When I find myself about to react suddenly to an event, the USS Maine counsels me silently from the wall to take a deep breath, think about it carefully and make sure you have the right fact pattern.

Today, our nation is confronted with geopolitical choices constantly—from whether to strike Syria to how we should respond to a terrorist attack in Boston; from how to relate to a new regime in Tehran to our stance on the latest provocation from North Korea. Choices must be made, information won’t be perfect, and we cannot allow ourselves to be paralyzed or frightened to take action. But we should certainly take our time when we can, and make sure we are taking the right course going forward.

Starboard stern view of the Maine by E. Miller, 1898. Photo: Starboard stern view of the Maine by E. Miller, 1898. Credit: U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Robert M. Cieri.

Photo: Starboard stern view of the Maine by E. Miller, 1898. Credit: U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Robert M. Cieri.

But the personal point about the painting is that it helps me navigate in a complex world. I hope my ship won’t be blowing up anytime soon, and I will continue to make sure that I think through decisions carefully, with due regard for all of the facts before committing to action. Those are timeless lessons for us all, and the story of the USS Maine remains a good compass in this unpredictable 21st century—and thus hangs in honor on my office wall.

15 Responses to The Painting on the Wall: Remembering the USS Maine

  1. Bob Van Winter says:

    Thanks Admiral! That was very well written! A great lesson!

  2. Edward Yeranian says:

    That is very profound. Unfortunately, too many media organizations—which I shan’t name—have been feeding flawed information to the public, as did William Randolph Hearst. In today’s world of instant information, I find that puzzling and disheartening.

  3. Dennis Van Buskirk says:

    Thanks Admiral. As usual, well stated, and Syria is an excellent example. The chemical weapons are a convenient “mine on the hull of our ship” on which we can focus. The risk in my opinion is losing sight of the fact that there are more than two sides in this conflict and we might like the one that wins even less than the current regime. It brings back memories of my days as the Middle East guy in OP-06. Amazing how little has changed since that time 27 years ago. Alswys thoroughly enjoy reading what you have to say.

  4. Keven Talbert says:

    Thanks Admiral, have always enjoyed your poignant insights ever since the “Ocean Away” columns. Would like to know your thoughts on reversing the course once the predicate for a course of action has been proven false. Recently read James Bradley’s (Flags of Our Fathers) book “Imperial Cruise” on US Foreign Policy as a result of the Spanish-American War. He theorizes this created imperial Japan’s rise to power and ultimate collision with the United States. Courageous and modest diplomacy could and should have altered course. VR// Keven (USNA’83 / Jacksonville, FL)

  5. Jim Bellard says:

    Admiral that is very insightful. A lot has changed since you and I were studying English at the Naval Academy. Our careers can change drastically but we can weather the storm. The attack on the Benghazi Embassy quickly comes to mind: “the first report is often wrong.” Finally, it reminds me what we were taught forty years ago: “He who hesitates is lost and the wrong decision is better that indecision.”
    Sincerely,
    Jim Bellard

  6. VADM[ret] Jeff Wieringa says:

    Admiral- Great article! In the Navy F/A-18 Program we had a short code of what you speak…we used the term “Rule 5″. In translation it meant, nothing is ever as good, or as bad, as it first appears. I lived it as the Program Manager and still use it today. Perhaps if leaders in the decision chain had that philosophy things would have been better. Keep writing…I’ll keep reading. Best, Jeff

  7. Larry O'Donnell says:

    The first thing that came to mind was the longest ship in the Navy, Her foremast at USNA and the aft mast at Arlington Cemetery… Do Plebes still have to know that? I had a print of the USS Arizona which disappeared in a move years ago. I liked it as it showed her making way with flags and pennants flying, a symbol of US Navy sea power. In that print, as with Maine, she sails forever.

    The other meaning to the print was that my family had a legend of a cousin who was on board Arizona on December 7. I was disturbed to find, when I visited the memorial, that his name was not on the wall. I did a serious search and found him. He was serving in Oklahoma on that date and is interred with about 400 shipmates at the Bowl. He was the ship’s paymaster.
    Allbest,
    Larry

  8. Maureen Chadwick says:

    Rather reminiscent of the TURNER JOY and the MADDOX as the excuse to start the Viet Nam conflict in earnest.
    When are you going to start writing in shipmate on a regular basis again?

  9. John Dempsey says:

    Cuba was not a colony of Spain in 1898 as well as Alaska or the Hawaii archipelago are not colonies of the United States nowadays. It was a Spanish province, as much as Alaska or Florida are States of the Union.

    The USA occupied not only Cuba but the Philippines, Puerto Rico and the Hawaii islands in 1898.

    Those actions had nothing to do with the defense of Freedom or Democracy.

    The USA established a full colonial administration in Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico, much to the regret of those locals who expected to be “liberated” by the Americans, not “colonized” by them.

    Remember the Alamo (and occupy Mexico), remember the Maine (and occupy Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico), remember the Lusitania (and become a world power), remember Pearl Harbor (and become a world superpower), remember 9-11 (and what?)…

    Always remember and revenge, sometimes without any other reason but greediness, like the Maine case seems to prove.

  10. Dimitrios Giolvas says:

    thank you admiral for your great story and the initiative to share with us some of the most important life lessons: to challenge any opportunities with through thinking, to decide any action studying and cross checking carefully all available information,be always modest and ready enough to face the unpredictable. HOPE your next move will be in a such leading position can contribute comprehensively to western society as a whole.

  11. CAPT Dick Diamond, USN(Ret.) says:

    A fitting symbol and a great explanation and lesson re rushing to judgement. Reminds me of the brink of war steps preparing for air strikes on certain “enemy” countries we were initiating in OP-06 in the hours following the Oklahoma City bombing…after “reliable eye witnesses had observed middle eastern men in arab garb lurking near the scene of the explosion.”

  12. Edward Balunas says:

    Sir, a good article with great lessons. I fear however that if White House staffers read it, the real message will be lost and a formal apology will be issued to Spain for our actions to instigate the Spanish-American War.

  13. Bridget Gersten says:

    Thank you for this inspiring piece and reminder to take time to reflect before taking action, especially as the metronome of our digitally-connected world often takes hold of our attention and works against patience, foresight, and focus.

  14. Mike Simpson says:

    Jim,
    Great life lesson for all of us. Well said!
    Hope you’re enjoying the somewhat more sedate environment of Tufts.

  15. Ted Browne says:

    Admiral,

    Not all is what it seems, no? And “seems” is our reality. To understand “seems” we need vision, to see through the fog of appearances, chimera. You might have come closer than anyone in SOUTHCOM. But the fact remains: we cannot deconstruct the Information or the Operational Environments into manageable bits. Vision, indeed.

    Ted Browne