Christopher's Reviews > The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898

The War Lovers by Evan Thomas
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's review
May 31, 2010

it was amazing
Recommended for: everyone
Read in May, 2010

The consequences of wars of choice as seen through the prism of the Spanish American War, and several of its most notable personalities - Theodore Roosevelt, the elder Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the philosopher William James, newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Thomas Brackett ("Czar") Reed.

Evan Thomas, author of a succession of best-selling political biographies, has created an exhaustively researched narrative that shows how wars often start specifically because powerful individuals want them to; not because of a threat to national security, but for a mix of psychological, political, and economic reasons. All of the principals possessed common social and cultural prejudices which tainted the original urgency in "liberating" the Cuban and Filipino peoples. "Manifest Destiny," or the belief that America was destined to expand its hegemony across the North American continent, eventually satisfies that need.

Thomas indicates how Theodore Roosevelt was privately shamed by his father's having purchased a "substitute" to serve for him during the Civil War, and this, as much as anything else, drove T.R. Jr. to prove his manliness in wartime. Whether he was involved in N.Y. City machine politics, or charging up San Juan Hill, T.R. was determined to succeed to settle accounts on behalf of his father. As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt turned the February, 1898 sinking of the U.S. Battleship "Maine" in Havana Harbor into a cause for war against Spain - though it has always been widely believed that the ship sunk because of an accidental explosion. In Cuba, Roosevelt hoped to achieve his "crowded hour" - a reference from Sir Walter Scott's "Ivanhoe": "One crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name."

Roosevelt despised the so-called "mugwumps" or "Goo Goos" - the Boston "Brahmin" reformers who filled Gilded Age drawing rooms and private clubs with hot air and platitudes. The Harvard philosopher William James, though admittedly a member of this fraternity, is shown to be more enlightened and insightful than many of his colleagues. In an era where academia propounded psudo-scientific theories about racial and cultural supremacies and inferiorities, James was exceptional in his more egalitarian views. His friend and ally, Maine Representative and House Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed, a witty and skillful parliamentarian, is likewise shown to be thoughtful on the war question, though even for all his power and influence, he eventually becomes tragically consumed by the tsunami of public opinion favoring the invasion of Cuba. Reed was initially friendly with Roosevelt as well as his mentor, Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge, until the war question permanently divided them.

William Randolph Hearst, publisher of the New York "Journal," suffers probably the worst treatment of all. Here he is revealed to be a foppish, socially challenged mama's boy who used his mother's wealth to underwrite a flotilla of yachts for traveling to the war front, and employed the worst variety of yellow journalism to whip up public opinion in favor of the incursion. Sporting both navy blazer and yachting cap, he and his entourage proceed to picnic at the battle scenes - which are replete with silverware and china. The icing on the cake is that he is described as soft, with an even softer handshake and a "soprano voice." The "Journal," for its part, was the worst sort of yellow press - manipulating facts, freely pilfering stories from other publications, and printing outright falsehoods - all in the interest of boosting circulation and covering Hearst's debts, which were considerable.

Thomas writes clearly and incisively on the denouement of the war. His depiction of the Spanish fleet is positively tear-jerking in its detail - American sailors, upon boarding a defeated Spanish ship, discover that its crew, drunk on brandy, had mutinied, and the "stokers" in the boiler room had been shot for shirking. Even in surrender, the captain of one Spanish vessel had to apologize for not being able to answer the cannon-salute of his conqueror: he had run out of gun powder.

But the final lesson is one that resonates through the ages: the American empire-builders who had made the liberation of the Cuban revolutionaries their main focus, weren't even modestly interested in their welfare; in fact, the leader of the Cubans, Gen. Calixto Garcia and his army weren't even permitted to attend the formal surrender ceremony in Santiago because in the mind of one American officer, "they couldn't be trusted to behave."

Roosevelt, following the war, proceeds to seek (and win) the governorship of New York. He even campaigns in his "Rough Riders" uniform - the one he used in the war. He's ultimately victorious, and is later asked to be Vice President under William McKinley - himself a tragic figure who was initially against war, but later felt compelled to acquiesce to public pressure in undertaking it. When he falls victim to an assassin's bullet in 1901, Roosevelt succeeds him in the White House. Following Roosevelt's second term, both he and Lodge fight the establishment of the "League of Nations" proposed by President Woodrow Wilson, whom they both loathed. But Roosevelt's taste for war suffers a mortal blow when his son Quentin's plane is shot down near the end of World War I. Roosevelt even places the mangled propeller of his son's plane over the fireplace mantle at their Oyster Bay, N.Y. home - where T.R. would spend hours sitting alone, murmuring repetitively, "Quenty, Quenty." It is the very sad conclusion to what twenty years earlier had been an unbridled passion for war and empire. What it says about war folly in all its forms is the overriding theme of this excellent book and one we might seek to learn from as we honor our valiant veterans this Memorial Day.
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message 1: by Juan (new)

Juan Thanks for the review Chris, I have this book on my list of books to read and I'm really looking forward to it.

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