Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2011-046
21 November 2011
Review by Tara Simpson, American Military University
The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898
By Evan Thomas
New York: Little, Brown, 2010. Pp. viii, 417. ISBN 978–0–316–00409–1.
Descriptors: Volume 2011, 19th Century, 20th Century, Spanish-American War, (Counter)insurgency Print Version

Evan Thomas's most recent history[1] provides an entertaining and insightful glimpse into the events and personalities that led the United States into war with Spain in 1898. In so doing, he spotlights many influential and historic Americans, categorizing them as hawks or doves. The former were motivated by a strong desire for combat, land, power, and wealth. The latter sought merely to avoid entanglement in a foreign war at a time of grave domestic problems and conflicts.

Thomas (Princeton) closely scrutinizes the causes of and vindications for the Spanish American War. He allows his principal figures to speak for themselves through a plethora of primary documents, including letters and diaries. His seamless interweaving of factual details with his commentary and reflections will appeal to amateur and professional historians alike. Aptly titled, concise chapters briskly survey the background and press coverage of the war. The book's true contribution, as its title promises, lies in the meticulously detailed revelations regarding the driving forces of the war—Roosevelt, Lodge, and Hearst.

The nineteenth century had been one of remarkable transition for the United States. The young country had fought off Great Britain for a second time, seen the advent of the Republican Party, benefitted from a surge of technological innovation, experienced both an Industrial Revolution and an American Renaissance, witnessed the emergence of a vigorous middle class, and endured both the Civil War and Reconstruction. The century's closing decades saw the construction of a transcontinental railroad and the closing of the Western frontier. The nation no longer appeared as vast and untamable as in the early 1800s: Americans could travel from coast to coast in days not months and goods shipped in short order met the demands of expanding markets for American products. However, these advances also caused significant concerns and fears.

As imperialistic competition among Western nations grew in the late nineteenth century, the size and strength of their navies became critically important in projecting power. The gospel of naval strategy—Alfred Thayer Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power on History (1890)—famously championed the role of surface forces in achieving global superiority; in translation, the book's ideas captivated strategic thinkers in Germany, Japan, and elsewhere. Among Mahan's most ardent followers were Henry Cabot Lodge and Theodore Roosevelt:

Lodge would use Mahan as a preacher used the Bible. For three days in March 1895 he had held forth on the floor of the U.S. Senate to expound his Large Policy. By his desk he erected a large map upon which were placed large red Maltese crosses to signify future American possessions: Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, a canal across the Panamanian isthmus. "It is the sea power which is essential to the greatness of every splendid people," he declared. Lodge was startled, even a little overwhelmed by the reaction in the chamber. "It was by far the most successful speech … I ever made in Congress," he wrote his mother (71).

Just two years later, when Roosevelt propounded the need to rid the Caribbean region of Spain's power and presence, he contended, in true Mahan style, that the key to defeating that ebbing European empire was a stronger, more modern American navy.

Teddy Roosevelt ("TR") was certainly a larger-than-life character: his ebullient charge with the Rough Riders up Kettle and San Juan Hills springs immediately to mind. He was a product of the American Renaissance, who had grown up striving to emerge from the large shadow cast by his father, Theodore, Sr., a wealthy businessman and philanthropist. Plagued by illnesses, including asthma, as a child, he only strove with more intensity to become a man's man. His memories of the Civil War included sending heroes off to battle and immortalizing those who paid the ultimate price there. Later in life, in the 1890s, though he enjoyed time spent on his ranch in the Dakotas, TR realized that merely hunting animals could not quench his thirst for adventure and danger—he craved the thrill of war. While Thomas does not portray Roosevelt as an absolute warmonger, he does see him as convinced that war was necessary to the preservation of the American spirit. And, indeed, the projections of war found in TR's voluminous correspondence with advisers and other contemporaries does evince a fervent longing for both the excitement and the prestige of combat.

While two of the hawks advocated war with Spain in the name of expansionism and the glory of combat, the third espoused far more personal and profitable purposes. Like TR, William Randolph Hearst grew up eager to impress his father and prove his worth. After failing to graduate from Harvard, he succeeded in running a small San Francisco newspaper. Thomas outlines the many vices and indulgences that proved instrumental in Hearst's later development as a publishing magnate. Such achievement came at a cost, however, including the loss of life. Thomas follows the publisher himself in crediting Hearst's New York Journal[2] with successfully campaigning for US entry into war with Spain, ostensibly to liberate the Cuban people from Spanish oppression. This may seem an exaggeration, but, at the dawn of Yellow Journalism, headlines determined victors, and Hearst was a genius at twisting truths and lies for sensational reading. His deep pockets secured front-row seats for his reporters in the unfolding conflict in Cuba.

Thomas tells a lesser known story about Hearst's hiring a man to rescue an imprisoned Cuban teenaged girl linked to the uprising. The whole adventure was reported with true romantic panache on the front pages of the Journal. The girl was welcomed to the United States with a parade and rally, all courtesy of Hearst.

Less than four months later, however, the Journal was scooped out of the biggest headline to date on 15 February 1898, hours after the explosion aboard the USS Maine. But Hearst was able to chronicle every detail of the loss of life in the mangled wreck of the great ship in his early morning edition the very next day.

Most profound of all the details Thomas ferrets out was Hearst's unhesitating assignment of blame for the carnage—to Spain. Within days, a nation swept by jingoism demanded American action in Cuba. Thomas stresses the impressive detail of the news articles and the loyalty of Hearst's readership, while downplaying the opinion of American citizens in President William McKinley's decision for war.

The first half of The War Lovers carefully traces Roosevelt's career before and after he became Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the McKinley administration. Particularly valuable are Thomas's insights into the falling out among a seemingly invincible trio: Roosevelt, Lodge, and Speaker of the House Thomas Reed. "Czar" Reed, as his critics dubbed him, was a dove, an even-tempered man of sincere beliefs but lacking certain essential traits of successful politicians. Though the trio's friendship endured to the end, the 1896 election severely strained it.

In hindsight it is difficult to understand why Roosevelt and Lodge were so baffled by Reed, so slow to grasp his basic disagreement on something as fundamental as American foreign policy. It may be that Roosevelt and Lodge were so fond of Reed, so impressed by his commanding presence in the House—and by his intelligence and wit over dinner—that they chose to overlook philosophical differences for as long as possible. It is also true that Roosevelt and Lodge themselves came fairly late to a coherent foreign policy…. [They] had misread Reed. Like them, he was a moralist and also a realist. But his moral outrage was aimed at political corruption, and his realism concerned human nature. He was not willing to be politically expedient to raise money for a presidential campaign, and he did not find any moral purpose in pushing the nation to war (136, 139).

The man who did readily accept money for his presidential campaign won first the Republican nomination and, in 1896, the presidency—William McKinley. Thomas's overall portrayal here is concise and favorable. Though widely considered an unreadable figure in American history, McKinley was a diplomatic, fair-minded man and not easily swayed. He struggled with the decision to wage war, believing the nation was not prepared. Once faced with war, he seemed like an engineer on a runaway train, as US entry into a foreign conflict in 1898 led directly to an expansionist policy.

The impact of Roosevelt's leadership as Assistant Secretary of the Navy is evident in the rapid pace of war preparations and early war decisions. While the president knew little of the Philippines, the business leaders and intellectuals that Roosevelt and Lodge associated with were well aware that the islands would be critical to any successful American expansionist strategy. As Western nations rushed to carve up sections of Asia and Africa, the United States would quickly fall behind if it did not secure crucial coaling stations and a foothold in the global trade network. Thomas rightly emphasizes the importance of promoting Adm. George Dewey to the command of the Asiatic Squadron and Roosevelt's astute decision to send that squadron on to Hong Kong to prepare for operations in the Philippine Sea, where it met and defeated the dilapidated Spanish fleet in a decisive, six-hour battle. Dewey oversaw the greatest victory of his career and became an overnight sensation and hero of the war.

Though Thomas captures the horrendous conditions of the US Army's mobilization efforts in the spring of 1898, the coverage of the war in Cuba is limited to Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. TR's combat experiences lived up to his romanticized vision of war: wounds were met with whoops of pride and fallen brothers-in-arms mourned but not forgotten. Victory was swift, but the true enemy proved to be yellow fever: more men were lost to disease than enemy bullets.

The final chapters of The War Lovers cover the political rise of Roosevelt, the waning roles of Lodge and Reed, and the insurgencies and conflict in the Philippines that went on for four years until now President Roosevelt declared peace and victory on 4 July 1902. Instead of underscoring the headlines of the day and the sense of patriotism felt at the liberation of Filipinos from Spanish rule, Thomas presents the anti-imperialist and anti-patriotic sentiments that permeated high society. We find little on the difficulties and atrocities that beset regular and volunteer units battling guerrilla insurgents in difficult tropical conditions. Thomas is careful, however, to observe frequently that American troops employed the technique of waterboarding.

While the resistance and hostilities by Filipino insurgents were initially met with violence, there were long periods of diplomacy aimed at quelling the conflict. Cpt. John "Blackjack" Pershing's great success with the Moros in 1899–1903 goes unnoticed, though he is credited for his service in the Spanish-American War generally.

The web of biographies of both hawks and doves who contributed to encouraging America's entrance into war and subsequent expansionism features an impressive array of names. They include such historically significant figures as historian and intellectual Henry Adams, Secretary of War Henry Alger, Ambassador and later Secretary of War John Hay, Secretary of the Navy John Long, and philosopher William James and his novelist brother Henry, among many others. The glimpse he gives us into the intricate relationships and influences of the coteries of power makes one appreciate Thomas's rigorous scouring of relevant sources. And, too, his journalistic talents make for a most engaging history of a lesser known, yet critical phase in America's metamorphosis from isolationist nation to world power.

[1] In the area of military history, he is also the author of John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2003) and Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign 1941–1945 (NY: Simon & Schuster, 2006).

[2] Renamed New York American in 1901.

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