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.
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.
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.
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.
Dean Stavridis with his basset hound, Lilly.
Dean James Stavridis is the 12th leader of The Fletcher School since its founding in 1933. A retired Admiral in the U.S. Navy, he led the NATO Alliance in global operations from 2009 to 2013 as Supreme Allied Commander.