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The War Lovers

by Evan Thomas
Little, Brown & Co. 2010

Evan Thomas’ Robert Kennedy: His Life was one of the most enjoyable biographies I’ve ever read. Thomas delivered an uncompromisingly honest book about a moody, sometimes dark, always complicated public persona. It takes skill to remain objective while parsing an individual such as Bobby Kennedy, who’s slightly ambiguous place in the American psyche as the object of oceans of unrealized hope – oceans that need to be navigated effectively in order to explore the shy, ruthless, political pit bull who, through loss and contemplation, was born again as a nobler person just in time for martyrdom. But Thomas pulled it off, and that’s why I was eager to see how Thomas would fare with his new book, The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire, 1898 .

The War Lovers puts Thomas on new terrain. Besides one foray into the American Revolution, most his work has focused on WWII or the forging of the postwar new world order. This departure brings him into the United State’s own little slice of late 19th-century Victorian pretentiousness, the Gilded Age. Thomas describes the era:

The last decade of the nineteenth century was a time for flag-waving festivals, for celebrations of patriotism and country. Americans extolled, sang about, and versified national pride. The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892, “God Bless America” in 1895, and Memorial Day celebrations were becoming increasingly popular.” The bitterness of the Civil War a fading memory, veterans of the blue and gray joined in festivals of national reconciliation.

Trusts, graft, and corruption, the other features of the age, are not the concern of Thomas in The War Lovers; as the title suggests, his focus is surging nationalism, vociferous patriotism, and a rising America’s intensified fascination with naked imperialism.

Its democratic pretenses notwithstanding, the United States of the 1890s was dominated by a socio-economic and political aristocracy. Before the direct election of Senators, the enfranchisement of woman, the breaking of Jim Crow and many other democratizing reforms swept away the last vestiges of an unambiguous oligarchy, “gentlemen” – wealthy, educated, refined – administered the government of the United States. They weren’t immune to the pressures of public opinion, but they usually acted in a patrician manner.

They were avid readers, this leadership class, and the books they read influenced the policies they promoted. Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier in American History, Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power on History, and John Fiske’s Manifest Destiny were virtually a blueprint for empire.

Turner argued that the essential American spirit arose from the challenges of settling the wild frontier land of the western continental United States; he raised the question of what would change in the American character now that the frontier was declared closed (by the Census Bureau 1891). Mahan’s study argued that to be truly great (like the British) a people needed a powerful navy to protect overseas commercial interests and cripple adversaries’ economies during war. Fiske took Herbert Spencer’s philosophy of survival of the fittest, borrowed the term ‘manifest destiny,’ and forged an excuse for the white race to consider itself destined to rule over all others. But as Evan Thomas points out,

This march of civilization was a great thing. But it came with a paradox not easily resolved. If life was about the survival of the fittest – and the fittest were surely Americans – why did the finest, best-educated Americans so often feel weak in spirit?

The dangers pointed out by Turner were undermining the destiny prophesized by Fiske, or at least Theodore Roosevelt believed as much. He felt compelled to sound the alarm and beginning in 1888, Thomas tells us, Roosevelt

… embarked on a three-volume series called The Winning of the West. The books (the last published in 1896) detail the glorious march of the Anglo-Saxon race. In the first volume, Roosevelt looks to the Teutonic invasion of ancient Rome and follows the long “blood line” to America. The Anglo-Saxons, he felt, did best when they triumphed in war – over the Irish, the French, the Spanish, the Mexicans, the Indians – and lost their vigor intermarrying with the weaker (by which he usually means Latin) races. The Anglo-Saxons civilized by conquering… Roosevelt believed that regenerating this elemental spirit was a matter of life and death for modern America. He was heavily influenced by the social Darwinist theories of his professors at Harvard and Columbia Law School, which he attended for a year before going into politics. Roosevelt, to use an expression common among the social Darwinists, worried about “race suicide.” The race was becoming “over-civilized” – too soft… The solution – indeed, the 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.”

Roosevelt had a powerful friend in helping to raise the wolf in America’s heart, the type of friend that would help him become the Commissioner of the NYPD, and in time the Assistant Secretary of the Navy: the Senator from Massachusetts, Henry Cabot Lodge. Turner had identified the problem and Fiske the ends; it was Mahan who identified the means. Henry Cabot Lodge took Mahan’s doctrine of sea power as an article of faith and was determined to do all he could from his perch in the Senate to lobby for the powerful modern navy that would be necessary to police the sprawling commercial empire he hoped the United States to soon acquire.

In The War Lovers, Thomas attempts to display the views underlying America’s imperial spasms leading up to the Spanish-American War by distilling the viewpoints of five of society’s major players: William Randolph Hearst, Henry Cabot Lodge, Theodore Roosevelt, William James, and Thomas Brackett Reed – “three hawks and two doves”. However, his arithmetic looks disproportionate; perhaps by sheer force of personality and close association, the intimates Roosevelt and Lodge dominate the book with their manic, at times childlike exuberance. Reed and James – deliberative and reflective – are both swept aside in the narrative as definitively as they were by the events of the times. Sometimes their injection into the story feels forced and unnatural.

Certainly Reed need not have been touted as main player in this story. Beyond some basic character development (Thomas shows that he possessed a great wit, as dry as it was devastating) and a positive statement of his power as Speaker of the House, his appearances in The War Lovers are minimal and mostly consist of periodic checking-in to note his eroding power and declining health.

Henry Cabot Lodge

Historically though, Reed at least had the proverbial seat at the table. William James cannot claim even this much. His role in the great events in The War Lovers is marginal; even if we accept him as America’s finest intellectual at that time, he’s simply a college professor – yet Thomas dedicates much copy (compared to Reed) to James’ private correspondence and reflections on the nature of war and its relationship to humanity, even if the majority of this only carried currency within a relatively small circle.

Thomas clearly intends to portray James as the conscience of the age, and he succeeds to the extent that James comes off as a man ahead of his time, attuned to the foolishness and madness cropping up around him. But while he is valuable as a witness and primary source, if you’re not careful, you might be fooled into believing James was an important player who possessed some type of active influence, instead of seeing him for the dissident contrarian and ivory tower intellect that he really was.

The result of this distortion is an imbalance the narrative never overcomes. Coming at it from so many angles has diluted Thomas’ storytelling. He’s oddly passionless in presenting a war that provoked so much heated controversy in its time. Luckily for Thomas, the reader, fascinated by characters like Roosevelt and Hearst, is compelled to keep reading.

Thomas’ assertion that any war at the end of the 19th century would be one of choice echoes what Lodge hinted and Theodore Roosevelt loudly proclaimed to anyone who would listen (“In strict confidence… I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one”); the fact that it happened over Cuba was just a case of desire meeting opportunity. As Thomas says:

American statesmen had been eyeing Cuba for most of the century. Stretching more than seven hundred miles from end to end, the luxuriant isle lies less than a hundred miles south of the Florida Keys: “almost in sight of our shores,” wrote Secretary of State (soon to be President) John Quincy Adams in 1823, exaggerating for effect. “[Cuba’s] addition to our confederacy is exactly what is wanting to round out our power as a nation to the point of its utmost interest,” wrote former president Thomas Jefferson to former president James Monroe in the same year. In 1848 President James Polk offered to buy Cuba from Spain for $100 million, and six years later President Franklin Pierce upped the bid to $130 (Alaska at about this time was purchased from Russia for $7 million).

When the decades-old Cuban struggle for independence from its colonial master, Spain, reignited in 1895, just as the United States became more interested in foreign adventuring, Cuban revolutionary leadership sought American aid. The congruence seemed rather a dream come true, if only the American public could be convinced to provide popular support for U.S. political leaders. According to Thomas, Cuban General Maximo Gomez confessed American newspapers were essential to enlisting the Americans help, saying “without a press, we shall get nowhere.”

Thomas further tells us how a rather comfortable Cuban expat community in New York formed a “junta,” or government in exile, that entertained a number of influential friends, one of which was newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst:

The junta… kept a dingy walk-up office in lower Manhattan. There, reporters from the Journal and other New York newspapers of varying repute wandered in to be told stories of the revolution. The head of the junta, Tomas Estrada Palma – Don Tomas – told some real stretchers, and Hearst’s journalists believed them, or rather published them. They made stirring, wrenching copy.

As these stories gained circulation, and they planted a seed that will be recognizable to anyone who recalls the events of 2003 and the United States’ fierce (and false) insistence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the invasion of that country; persistent repetition creates commonly held assumption which fact and truth seem powerless to dispel. In the prelude to the Spanish–American War, even without the aid of 24 hour cable news networks, such assumptions, wholly untrue, were emblazoned on the front pages of daily newspapers, regurgitated by an uncritical readership and unquestioningly read into the Congressional record, an act here described by Thomas:

[Hearst’s] Journal became a handy resource for congressmen looking for evidence to support their votes. As the debate over recognizing the Cuban insurgents rattled on through the winter of 1896, the elderly…chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Sherman of Ohio… rose on the Senate floor to quote extensively from a Journal report detailing the successes of the Cuban revolutionary army. The account told of Cuban cities falling before the onslaught of [Cuban] General Maceo, and of the women soldier – “Amazons” – who fought with machetes.

These stories were wholly fictional, written by Frederick Lawrence, one of Hearst’s more notorious hacks. Sent to Havana by Heart, Lawrence seems never to have left his café table at the Hotel Inglaterra, where the foreign correspondents lazed about, swapping stories.

William Randolph Hearst

Thomas takes pains to point out that Hearst’s yellow journalism wasn’t the sole cause of the war with Spain over Cuba. Nationalism, notions of racial superiority, and the veneration of martial glory all played crucial contributing roles. However the yellow press tied it all together. Here Thomas uses William James to good effect:

James was a believer in what he called “the old Vox Populi,” but he feared the public was being manipulated by the “howling” press, particularly the yellow press. “The abominations of the press have literally surpassed all belief, and the word WAR in enormous capitals repeated for two months past on every front page of the ‘great dailies’ has at last to produce its suggestive effect,” he wrote to his brother Henry. War “must come, to relieve the tension,” he explained. “The ‘people’ are really crazy for it, now, for its own sake.” He singled out as “absolutely insincere villains” certain editors – “those of the New York Journal (a Harvard graduate millionaire named Hearst) and World ought to be hung higher than any criminals.”

After Thomas Reed’s efforts to forestall the march of war in the House of Representatives proved futile, the last obstacle was President William McKinley. I’ve always thought McKinley was a better president than he gets credit for being, and Thomas seems to agree. In his first year in office, McKinley worked diligently to avoid war, applying steady pressure to Spain, which finally conceded partial autonomy to the “ever faithful island,” Cuba, near the end of 1897. The President’s use of diplomacy to attempt a negotiated settlement naturally earned him the contempt of his belligerent Assistant Secretary of the Navy (and future vice president) T.R. and other hawks, and if not for an unforeseen occurrence, McKinley might very well have prevented war.

That unforeseeable occurrence was of course explosion of the U.S.S. Maine while anchored off Cuba. There have always been raised eyebrows about how terribly convenient that explosion was, an event made all the more suspicious by the fact that Spain had absolutely nothing to gain from the action. Yet despite that and all other facts immediately available in the aftermath of the Maine’s sinking, Spain got blamed. Thomas does an excellent and concise job of handling this often-chronicled situation:

The day after the Maine blew up, the navy’s leading authority on explosive ordnance, Philip Alger, a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, told the Washington Star, “No torpedo such as is known in modern warfare can of itself cause an explosion as powerful as that which destroyed the Maine. We know of no instances where the explosion of a torpedo or mine under a ship’s bottom has exploded the magazine within.”

Alger went on to suggest the more probable cause was an internal accident involving the coal bunker, which on the Maine, he noted, was located right next to the gunpowder magazine. Such a determination posed a problem for Assistant Secretary Roosevelt, a leading advocate of an expanded fleet who didn’t want safety concerns interfering with his desire for more battleships. Alger was prevented from appearing before the navel inquiry board Congress established to look into the sinking. Without any contradictory testimony, the inquiry seized

on a shred of evidence – that the keel had bent upward in an inverted V – the [investigatory] board concluded that the explosion had been initially caused by an underwater mine. (More than seventy-five years later, a formal U.S. Navy investigation under admiral Hyman Rickover determined that the far more likely cause was a coal fire followed by an internal explosion – exactly the assessment of Professor Alger, suppressed by Roosevelt, and the finding of a separate inquiry conducted by the Spanish at the time, in March 1898.)”

After Congress confirmed what many had already been reading in enormous, excitedly punctuated headlines in Hearst’s (and Joseph Pulitzer’s) papers, war became inevitable:

Suppression of the truth, the outmaneuvering of the president by war-hungry subordinates, and the incessant publicity over the Maine were having an effect. A great welling-up of patriotism, mixed with a desire for revenge, spread from coast to coast. “Remember the Maine!” was heard on street corners and from church pulpits, in town halls and on college campuses, sometimes followed by “To Hell with Spain!” – a war cry first printed in the [Hearst’s] Journal that began appearing on buttons and matchbooks, throat lozenges and penny candy.

Thomas takes The War Lovers into the hot war itself, where he follows Roosevelt, who after years of hoping, finally gets to kill a man, and Hearst, who hires a small armada to accompany him to Cuba, both cover the story and see firsthand what he helped bring about. What stands out most in Thomas’ account is not the gripping events of Roosevelt’s “crowded hour,” (which Thomas wisely sees needs no more glorifying) but the utter fiasco into which the American expedition to Cuba devolved. Thomas shows us that even before leaving the United States the signs were ominous:

The Rough Riders arrived in Tampa… to find an army undisciplined and unready. “No words can paint the confusion,” Roosevelt jotted in his diary. A single train track was backed up for miles outside the sandy Florida resort town and its port. No one was there to greet the Rough Riders or to tell them where to camp. For twenty-four hours no food was forthcoming, officers had to provision their men out of their own pockets. Earlier arrivals had set up sloppy, filthy camps; another volunteer regiment had made the tenderfoot’s mistake of digging latrines just to windward of the tents.

The subject of racial superiority is in many ways the thread that knits the events of The War Lovers together and is therefore difficult to over-emphasize. The actual fighting in the Spanish-American War, though at times as ferocious as the carnage soon to be witnessed on the battlefields of Europe, was also brief and decisive. Indeed, the U.S. Military seemed much more distressed by their allies than by their ostensible enemies, most of whom were black or mulatto and were led by officers of generally the same racial composition. Thomas rightfully points out how shocking the Cuban rebels would have been to the American soldiers from the Jim Crow South. The idea of black officers at the time would have been just as outlandish as the thought of landing a man on the Moon, yet that’s what they were confronted with:

One American officer described the Cuban rebels as “treacherous, lying cowardly, thieving, worthless, half-breed mongrel[s]. Born of a mongrel spawn of Europe, crossed upon the fetishes of darkest African and aboriginal America. He is no more capable of self-government than the Hottentots that roam the wilds of Africa or the Bushmen of Australia. He cannot be trusted like the Indian, will not work like a negro, and will not fight like a Spaniard.”

Americans clearly indicated that they did not consider the Cubans to be racial, political, or ideological (this was a struggle to cast off monarchy and establish a republic after all) equals.

Theodore Roosevelt

In this new spirit, the Teller Amendment was soon discarded. It was replaced by the Platt Amendment, later inserted into the Cuban Constitution, which granted to the United States a free hand to intervene in Cuban domestic politics and foreign relations – in effect of reducing it to an informal colony. Thomas shows the effects of such betrayals have a far reach:

A profound misunderstanding occurred that would cripple Cuban-American relations for at least the next century. “Americans remembered 1898 as something done for Cubans; Cubans remembered 1898 as something done to them,” writes historian Louis Perez. Fidel Castro, whose father had been a soldier in the Spanish army, knew well the history of disgrace and humiliation suffered by the Cuban rebels forbidden to enter Santiago for the Spanish surrender in 1898. On the second day of January 1959, when he marched into Santiago at the head of a rebel army, Castro played on long and bitter memories. “This time the revolution will not be thwarted!” he thundered. “This time, fortunately for Cuba, the revolution will be consummated. It will not be like the war of 1895, when the Americans arrived and made themselves masters of the country; they intervened at the last minute and later did not even allow Calixto Garcia, who had been fighting for thirty years, to enter Santiago.”

But the effects of the war brought about by such jingoism are not limited to this. In one of his more eloquent passages, Thomas speaks about the more grandiose consequences of these men’s actions : they affected the way the United States perceives itself in the international order from then until today. What these men really did was lay

the foundation stone of American exceptionalism: [the idea] that the essential American character is better – somehow more decent – than that of other nations. America had by and large been content to be better than other nations and apart from them – separated by vast oceans from their scheming and greed, their power-mad intrigues born of ancient dynastic rivalries and national hatreds. America was purer: refugees from the fallen Old World sought redemption in the New. But now, partly by the accident of war fever, partly by the larger designs of Lodge’s Large Policy, America was joining in the scramble for imperial dominion. Men like [soon to be Secretary of State] John Hay entered this contest with the bland assumption that America would be different, more moral, less likely to be seduced by the temptations of conquest and booty – that it would uplift rather than beat down.

Puerto Rico and the Philippines were also awarded to the United States at the close of the Spanish-American War, beginning a new and even more violent chapter. In 1899 the Filipinos rose up in full rebellion at the betrayal of U.S. promises for their independence. Thomas puts numbers to the resulting carnage: over 4,000 American deaths, over 20,000 insurgents killed, and upwards of 200,000 civilians lost in the crossfire, in what he describes as a “dirty war with atrocities on both sides.”

No better way to conclude an account of Thomas’ able book – or the sad, maddening events it portrays – than with Mark Twain, whose mordant wit took on a white-hot sense of indignation towards the situation in the Philippines:

We have pacified some thousands of the islanders and buried them; destroyed their fields; burned their villages, and turned their widows and orphans out-of-doors; furnished heartbreak by exile to some dozens of disagreeable patriots; subjected the remaining ten millions by Benevolent Assimilation, which is the pious new name of the musket… And so, by these Providences of God – and the phrase is the government’s, not mine – we are a World Power.

Thomas J. Daly is a frequent Open Letters contributor living in Boston.


  • Shelley says:

    My writing is set in the time of the other Roosevelt, but I will say this about Theodore: I think he understood the error of his war bluster, finally, when the news came about Quentin.

  • Thom says:

    Absolutely right Shelley, his son’s death was the final straw for him in that regard, but it is also remarkable how much less belligerent(though still full of bluster) he was during his presidency.

  • Chris Kelly says:

    I was quite frankly disappointed by this review. I see War Lovers as a political polemic masquerading as history and not particularly persuasive (much like Hamilton’s Curse). Three out of four inquiries into the sinking of the Maine determined that an “external cause” was to blame for the explosion. Thomas chooses to ignore the most recent inquiry sponsored by National Geographic in 1999. This is intellectually dishonest.

    The Spanish empire was imploding at this time and the alternatives to US control would have been worse. Please see my blog http://americanconservativeinlondon.blogspot.com/.

    The original 1898 Naval inquiry was unanimous in affirming an external cause for the explosion and this was all that McKinley had to go on. Thomas’ book glosses over the fact that TR, as assistant naval secretary, was in no position to declare war.

    I have also reviewed War Lovers and Hamilton’s Curse on my blog. I linked to your review of Hamilton’s Curse which I enjoyed.

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