'The War Lovers': Bullying America into war with Spain
In "The War Lovers," Newsweek editor-at-large Evan Thomas chronicles the overlapping motives that turned Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and William Randolph Hearst into boosters for going to war with Spain, as they pushed, bullied and, arguably, misled the country into war.
Special to The Seattle Times
'The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898'
by Evan Thomas
Little, Brown, 471 pp., $29.99
Men and nations go to war for many reasons: to win freedom, defend honor, seize territory, intimidate rivals, demonstrate valor, or simply because they want to fight. When we go to war we tell ourselves it's for the noblest of reasons, but the truth usually is some mix of lofty and base motives.
All this is as true today as it was more than a century ago, when the events chronicled in Evan Thomas' new book "The War Lovers" took place. The Spanish-American War, little remembered today, must hold some record for territory gained (Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam) versus time spent fighting (less than four months). But if ever there were a war of choice this was it, and as Thomas skillfully demonstrates, it took a confluence of overlapping (and sometimes contradictory) motives to get the United States into war with Spain.
"Jingoes" such as Theodore Roosevelt were almost desperately eager for the country to fight a war to show what it was made of. Roosevelt himself, it seems, was ready to fight whoever might be handy — Mexico, Germany, Great Britain or, as it turned out, the senescent Spanish Empire.
His close friend, Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, was an unapologetic imperialist who wanted the United States to extend its power overseas, so as to keep pace with the other Great Powers of the day. William Randolph Hearst, the flamboyant (yet painfully shy) newspaper magnate, not only saw war as the greatest circulation stunt possible but, it seems, had romantic notions about rescuing Cuba from "the cruel Spaniards" like a knight-errant.
Together, such men pushed, bullied and, arguably, misled the country into war. The passions they stirred up were so great that even powerful men such as House Speaker Thomas B. Reed (known as "Czar" Reed for his iron-fisted control of the House) could not stop them, and even skeptics such as philosopher William James found themselves swept along with the tide.
Thomas spends much time describing the mindset of the "war lovers." Roosevelt, he writes, worried that the Anglo-Saxon "race" was becoming over-civilized, growing soft and losing the frontier spirit. "The solution — indeed, salvation — would come from tapping into more primitive instincts, the kind brought out by sport, especially by hunting, and most of all by war. It was necessary, Roosevelt wrote, to let 'the wolf rise in the heart.' "
Thomas, an editor-at-large at Newsweek, also does a good job describing the war itself, making it clear the United States triumphed less because of military derring-do than Spanish incompetence and defeatism. One wishes, though, that he had delved deeper into what happened once the Spanish were gone: U.S. forces ended up fighting a nasty three-year-long war against Philippine guerrillas (and using on them an old Spanish practice called "the water cure," later known as waterboarding), and would repeatedly intervene in nominally independent Cuba for decades to come.
Though Thomas' book was inspired by the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, he generally (and wisely) leaves it to the reader to draw parallels between the two wars. Those parallels are striking: As both conflicts demonstrate, even a short, militarily successful war has the power to make or break careers, wreck old friendships and change the course of a nation's history.
Drew DeSilver is a business reporter for The Seattle Times.
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