The masters of America’s imperialistic ego in 1898
The Spanish-American War wasn’t a major conflict and is often best remembered for having given Theodore Roosevelt a chance for military glory, which helped propel him to the White House.
Recently, however, the war has garnered more attention when military analysts and historians debate whether certain conflicts were wars of necessity or were fought for other reasons.
In “The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898,’’ Evan Thomas comes down strongly on the side of those who don’t think the war was needed and often seems unwilling to give any of three the benefit of the doubt when analyzing their motives. He furthers his argument by placing it in a contemporary context by drawing comparisons to the Iraq War.
Thomas, an editor-at-large for Newsweek, does some military storytelling and analysis, including presenting strong evidence that the USS Maine wasn’t sunk. However, he is at his best when profiling the roles of Roosevelt, Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst in pushing the country toward war. Countering those efforts were philosopher William James and House Speaker Thomas Reed. Thomas notes that in his writings, James “became a kind of Greek chorus on the American stage, warning against the temptations of hubris.’’
The work of Roosevelt and Hearst has been documented extensively, and Thomas doesn’t break a great deal of new ground there. However, he is especially effective when connecting the dots between the superiority complex (which often manifested itself in racist sentiments) among upper class men of the late 19th century and their love for force.
“This march of civilization was a great thing. But it came with a paradox not easily resolved. If life was about survival of the fittest and the fittest were surely the Americans why did the finest, best-educated Americans so often feel weak in spirit?,’’ Thomas asks.
Thomas also does a first-rate job of bringing to life the least known of the pro-war triumvirate, Lodge. Though famous toward the end of his political career for torpedoing President Wilson’s proposal for the United States to enter the League of Nations, Lodge was a key behind-the-scenes strategist in the days and months before the Spanish-American War. Thomas describes these maneuverings elegantly, but without getting bogged down in political minutia. He also gives readers a vivid depiction of what life was like for Boston Brahmins in the late 19th century.
He describes Beacon Street as “an oasis of gentility in a city seething with poor newcomers,’’ and notes how Lodge and his peers often acted out their militaristic tendencies during snowball fights against Irish boys on the Common.
“Insults were exchanged but never conversation,’’ Thomas notes. The Brahmin boys generally lost these battles but the experience helped make Lodge a fan of combat, in many of its forms.
Hearst, Lodge, and Roosevelt were eager for war, in part to help the United States flex its imperialistic muscle. None of them had ever served in uniform, and they worked hard to persuade a reluctant President McKinley, who knew of the horrors of war as a result of having served in the Civil War, including being an eyewitness at the Battle of Antietam, one of the war’s bloodiest.
Thomas notes the parallels between the Spanish-American War and the Iraq War, including the use of waterboarding and the loss of 4,000 Americans in each conflict.
“It has some eerie parallels to the invasion of Iraq, another ‘war of choice’ not immediately vital to the national security but ostensibly waged for broader and sometimes shifting humanitarian reasons,’’ Thomas writes.
Thomas’s historical analogies help bring the past to life, even if the reader doesn’t completely buy the thesis.
He is a masterful writer and analyst and those skills make reading “The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898’’ an eminently worthwhile and enjoyable experience.
Claude R. Marx, an award-winning journalist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.