She made America powerful. Now we can't afford her.

By Chris Manteuffel and Rachel Manteuffel
Sunday, November 28, 2010

IN PHILADELPHIA The USS Olympia, docked at the Independence Seaport Museum on the Delaware River since 1996, is no ordinary warship. Built for about $2.1 million and commissioned in 1893, the vessel's got Victorian-era ice machines. She's got engines the size of 7-Elevens. If they fail, she's got sails, too.

She's got a printing press, bathtubs, furnishings fit for a gentleman's parlor and a prototype of a water cooler called a "scuttlebutt" around which sailors gathered and talked. She's gorgeous - a priceless artifact of American history, dominating Penn's Landing.

But pricelessness comes with a price. To keep the Olympia afloat, the Seaport Museum needs $20 million, but it hasn't come up with the cash. After spending more than $5.5 million in the past 14 years on the ship's upkeep, appealing to federal agencies for help that isn't coming and weathering a $1.5 million embezzlement scandal that landed its former director in jail for 15 years, the museum announced in February that it can't afford further maintenance. Within three years, experts estimate, the Olympia will fall apart. If it isn't saved, it will be dismantled for scrap or sunk to build an artificial reef off Cape May, N.J.

And with it will go a symbol of America's age of empire. When the Olympia was built, the United States was redefining itself as a global power, taking on expensive, elective wars in ever-more-distant places. The Olympia was the first step toward an imperial navy, the first steel American warship designed to cross an ocean to antagonize an enemy. If, in 1893, it wasn't yet clear who that enemy would be, the Olympia's design flaunted the symbolism of luxury - and the luxury of symbolism. Its grand, open spaces (skylights, a lounge area with a settee and wicker furniture, a piano) equipped sailors for a splendid little war of choice far from their homes and families.The admiral's cabin had a china cabinet. This was a ship befitting the world power that the United States wanted to be.

The Olympia wouldn't have to wait long for a trial run. The USS Maine exploded in Havana harbor in February 1898, and though the cause was unclear, popular opinion blamed Spain. Ten days later, an ambitious young assistant secretary of the Navy named Theodore Roosevelt - whose boss, Secretary of the Navy John Long, had taken the day off- seized the opportunity to put the Navy on war footing. Roosevelt ordered Commodore George Dewey, aboard the Olympia in Hong Kong, to attack Spanish ships at their port in Manila, capital of the Philippines. That April, the Spanish-American War began.

From the stately Olympia, Dewey fought a battle as much about optics - shock and awe - as firepower. The hapless Spanish navy had gone about a year without firing its guns and stayed anchored throughout the fight. Though Dewey was numerically matched by Spain's fleet, he took only six hours to sink it, including a three-hour break for breakfast. He even ordered that the wooden paneling on the Olympia, an enormous fire hazard, remain in place during the battle. While 161 Spaniards perished, one American sailor died (of sunstroke).

With news of the amazing victory, Dewey was feted in New York, where a temporary arch in his honor was erected in Madison Square. But back in Manila, the land war had just begun. After defeating the Spanish, U.S. troops stayed in the Philippines out of concern that Filipinos were not ready to build their own democracy. Insurgents fought a guerilla war to get the Americans out as Washington resisted granting the country colonial status, statehood or independence. The insurgency intensified. More than 4,000 Americans were killed by guerrillas or disease, and one soldier was court-martialed for waterboarding.

Mark Twain called the conflict a quagmire. Rudyard Kipling wrote of such colonial struggles as "The White Man's Burden." An Army major described Filipino Muslims for a journal back home: "The only question with the average Moro is when he can kill a Christian. It is never a question of whether he will do so or not. . . . The Moro is a born fanatic." In 1898, the United States annexed the Philippines but didn't want to make its residents U.S. citizens or leave the country in chaos. America did not withdraw until 1946.

In 1905, seven years after her victory in Manila, the Olympia became obsolete when the British Dreadnought was launched - a faster, larger warship that carried more guns. The Olympia didn't see combat again until World War I; while newer American battleships fought the Germans, she engaged a lesser enemy emerging in Russia: the Bolsheviks.

When the Olympia returned home in 1921, the United States was no longer the little country with the big battleship. It was a world power, vying with Britain for the largest navy in the world. In 1893, the Olympia symbolized American imperial ambitions. When she was decommissioned three decades later, she had seen that dream come true.

Ever since, the ship has been a living monument to American greatness abroad - a monument that in 2010, we can no longer afford and that may be turned into scrap.

Chris Manteuffel is an engineer for a government contractor in Springfield. Rachel Manteuffel is on the staff of the editorial department of The Washington Post.

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