He's not absolutely positive, but Markham resident Jaime deOjeda doubts that many of his mountainside neighbors awoke this morning to "remember the Maine" -- the U.S. battleship that mysteriously sank in the harbor of Havana 100 years ago today, touching off the Spanish-American War.
In fact, deOjeda, who served seven years as Spain's ambassador to the United States, wonders how many people here will give a moment's thought all year to the 1898 war, which ended Spanish colonial rule and which historians agree established the United States as a world power.
"In Spain, and for Cuba, this was like a World War," said deOjeda, 64, who now lives a semi-retired life, studying history and, most recently, writing about the American side of the war for popular Spanish newspapers. "Here, it is seen by many as a very short war, but over there this was a very important cultural event. All year, [Spain] will have commemorations such as special newspaper sections and other events."
DeOjeda was still living in the Spanish ambassador's residence in Washington when he decided four years ago that he needed a place to retreat from the endless social commitments that accompanied his job.
He found a pre-Civil War log cabin surrounded by woods on a mountain between Markham and Hume. He had it rebuilt and began spending weekends there. By the end of his tour of duty, the cabin was the only place he could imagine retiring.
For the last two years, he has spent most of his time there, holed up with his three mutts, doing what he has always dreamed of: poring over pages of historical data and writing about it.
That his interest has focused on the Spanish-American War is natural. A third-generation diplomat who was born in Rome, where his father was stationed at the Spanish Embassy, deOjeda is the grandson of Gonzalo deOjeda, who helped negotiate the treaty that ended the Spanish-American War.
In most U.S. history books, the three-month war over Spain's occupation of Cuba is dwarfed by longer, costlier and deadlier skirmishes. But deOjeda, who has spent most of his life on diplomatic and military tours all over the world, believes it deserves more attention.
"I'm not sure it is widely realized, the turning point [the war] was for the United States . . . when it first became an imperial power and proved to Europe that it was a world power in the sense that it vanquished a traditional European power. America had been a land of upstarts," deOjeda said.
DeOjeda, who has impeccable manners, unwavering opinions and a British lilt to his English, gave this interview at a cafe in The Plains, preferring to keep his home a sanctuary.
From his retreat, he has written articles -- mostly in Spanish -- about the American press's role in the war and popular American perceptions of the war. Describing himself as an "amateur historian," he agrees with the findings of the late U.S. Adm. Hyman G. Rickover that the explosion that blew up the USS Maine and triggered the war was an accident. On both sides, he said, the war is misunderstood.
"It is easier to focus on the American view of the war here because I am so close to the [National] Archives," deOjeda said. "Americans still think Spain was responsible for the explosion. Many in Spain still think it was a deliberate attempt by the Americans to get to the Spanish colonies. . . . From a purely theoretical point of view, they [the Spanish] are right. But the war could not be prevented any longer. In my articles, I have tried to explain to the Spanish people that Americans were not so evil."
The crash-course version of events found in most encyclopedias attributes the start of the war to growing dismay with Spanish colonial rule in Cuba that touched off a rebellion there in 1895.
Spain promptly quashed the insurgence, but as the New York press printed vivid and, some historians say, exaggerated, accounts of Spanish abuses toward the Cuban people, pressure mounted on the United States to intervene. Initially reluctant to get involved, the United States eventually dispatched the USS Maine to Havana in January 1898 to protect U.S. citizens and holdings there and lend a watchful eye.
A few weeks later, what was thought to be a mine destroyed the ship, killing 260 U.S. seamen. Although the exact cause of the explosion never was determined, many pointed a firm finger at Spain. The U.S. Congress demanded that Spanish troops vacate the island. Spain resisted, and in April 1898, the United States declared war.
It was short. Three months later, after losing a number of battles and a whole fleet of ships, Spain surrendered and in December signed the Treaty of Paris, which allowed Cuba independent rule and ceded Puerto Rico, Guam and, for $20,000,000, the Philippines to the United States.
Although the war was a virtual afterthought in the annals of military history, deOjeda said it was a major cultural step for both Spain and the United States.
"The United States acquired an empire and in doing this also bridged a gap that existed between the North and the South" by uniting them behind the war, deOjeda said. "But I have been surprised to find out in my research that there was also an anti-imperialist movement and that the war produced a debate in the U.S. as intense as that of the Vietnam War."
In one article, deOjeda chronicles the anti-war tomes of Mark Twain.
"I discovered that Twain had written about the war a lot. It was one of the things he felt most intensely about, and he wrote some things that were so violent that they weren't even published."
A fact as significant, deOjeda said, is that after the war, Spain's focus shifted from its colonial holdings to its abundant domestic problems, touching off a cultural renaissance now known as "Generacion de '98".
"After the war, people started asking themselves what was wrong with Spain. They started writing, composing, thinking," deOjeda said. "The war really gave birth to Spain's modern cultural heritage."
DeOjeda will have a chance to share his research here. He recently was appointed "Ambassador in Residence" at Shenandoah University in Winchester, where he gives seminars and will begin teaching political science classes next year.
"We are delighted to have the ambassador work with our program," said William Shendow, director of the university's Marsh Institute for government and public policy. "I am very impressed with his intellect and the depth of his knowledge, and he's a nice person. Some of the ambassadors can be a little haughty, but he is very approachable."
Although deOjeda goes back to Spain about twice a year to visit his family, Virginia is now his home, he said.
"I love the South," he said. " Culturally, it's much closer to Europe than the North -- even than in Maryland. There's a certain dignity in the people here and, just like in Spain, they take food here seriously."
For now, he will teach and may turn his articles into a book. If that happens, however, don't expect a publicity tour.
"The life of the embassy has many attractions . . . but you have
to entertain a lot. I am delighted to have left all that behind," deOjeda
said. The former ambassador said he couldn't be happier at the thought
of retiring anonymously in the Virginia mountains. "I go to Washington
when I have to, but I try not to. I lead a very quiet life here with my
dogs and my research. It is very nice."