The Spanish-American War happened more than 100 years ago, but the conflict transformed American foreign policy, turned the United States into a global empire, and echoes the war in Iraq. Newsweek's Evan Thomas tells the story in his new book, "The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearts, And The Rush To Empire, 1898," excerpted below.
Hearst had never been the smooth, ruthless megalomaniac portrayed by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. His charm was quirky, and he could be softhearted to his employees. His papers still had the power to stir people, though they were now seen as overly strident and obsessed with the communist threat. Lately, however, he had been stricken with feelings of remorse, even self-doubt, and he now ordered a cable sent to all Hearst editors: The Chief instructs not, repeat not, to press the campaign against Communism any further. He wishes the campaign held back for a while, particularly the editorials. He feels we have been pressing the fight too hard for too long and might be arousing war hysteria.
Using newspapers to create war hysteria was a subject Hearst knew something about. The thirty-five-year-old newspaper editor and publisher liked to think that the War Against Spain was his war — that he had created it. This was an exaggeration, though not entirely. For more than two years William Randolph Hearst had campaigned for an American invasion to liberate the Cuban people from Spanish rule. Not much concerned with proof, his paper, the New York Journal, had blamed the sinking of the American battleship USS Maine on a Spanish plot. When war was declared, Hearst had devoted the full resources of the Journal to covering the American invasion of Cuba. He had dispatched more than a score of reporters, chartered a fleet of a dozen ships, and transported a printing press, a hot-air balloon, and the first motion-picture camera ever to film a war. And, too restless to sit back in New York, he had come to Cuba to see the battle firsthand, arriving in yachting clothes and accompanied by a pair of showgirls.
Gangly and bug-eyed, Hearst was almost painfully shy and stiff in public. But he was ecstatic about his work, which he described as “the journalism that acts.” He gloried in headlines that were bigger, louder, lustier. Dressed in the evening clothes he’d worn to the theater, he would sweep into the Journal ’s newsroom after midnight, ordering up stories that would shock, entertain, and remind readers of the long reach of W. R. Hearst. On the day of the decisive battle, he went ashore before dawn. He put on a scarlet red tie (matching his scarlet hatband), tucked a pistol in his belt, then mounted a mule and headed with his entourage for the front lines. Not far from Hearst, waiting impatiently on a Cuban hillside teeming with troops, Theodore Roosevelt prepared himself for what he would call his “crowded hour.” It was a day he would always regard as the finest of his life. Roosevelt was “pure act,” according to his friend Henry Adams. Roosevelt liked to boast that he was “fit as a bull moose,” though at age thirty-nine his muscles were beginning to run to fat. He had abandoned a position as assistant secretary of the navy to seek combat as a cavalry officer. When he had joined the army in May, the odds were greater that he would die of tropical fever than become a war hero. At the time his friends feared that he was delusional. His wife and eldest son had been seriously ill but, as Roosevelt would later confess, he would have deserted his wife’s deathbed to go into battle. He wanted to become a legend, and he made sure to keep newsmen nearby to tell the tale, including a reporter from Hearst’s paper, even though he personally disdained Hearst.
On this hot July morning he took his blue polka-dot handkerchief and tied it to his felt cowboy hat, so it could shield his neck from the sun — but with the effect that the bandana streamed out behind him. (Like Hearst, Roosevelt was a dandy.) As he rode forth on his horse, Little Texas, toward the Spanish-held ridgeline known as the San Juan Heights, the kerchief made Roosevelt a target, yet he did not dwell on mortal danger; he wished to be seen leading the charge.
In Washington, D.C., on that warm July day Roosevelt’s best friend and chief political adviser, Henry Cabot Lodge, waited anxiously for news of the battle. In a room in the southwest corner of the White House, President William McKinley and top officials of the Navy and War Departments studied maps plotting troop movements and waited for messages coming in by telegraph or a new contraption, the telephone. Senator Lodge of Massachusetts was a familiar figure at the White House. He was the president’s closest national security and foreign policy adviser from Capitol Hill. More than anyone, he was responsible for America’s sudden (if somewhat accidental) emergence as an expansionist power.
Several times during the day the senator rode by carriage from his mansion on Massachusetts Avenue to the White House War Room to check for any word from the front. Natty, thin, haughty, the forty-eight-year-old Lodge could be a forbidding figure — a cold snob in the view of many of his colleagues. Among his intimates, only his friend Theodore regarded him as sensitive and warm, full of “big boyish” enthusiasm. Lodge had stage-managed Roosevelt’s career, and the two men shared a love of what Roosevelt called “Americanism” — a faith in the national spirit, which both men took to be brave, adventurous, warlike. But Lodge had opposed Roosevelt’s decision to join the Rough Riders, and on this morning, as Washington awaited word of the attack on the Spanish fortifications, Lodge was seized with a mixture of excitement and dread. He revealed no feelings behind his severe Brahmin mask, confiding his fears (“almost unbearable”) only in letters to his mother and his friend Roosevelt.
Down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, in his book-lined rooms on the fourth floor of the old Shoreham Hotel, Thomas Brackett Reed was quietly brooding. A vast man, nearly three hundred pounds of smooth flesh, the fifty-eight-year old Reed was known as “the Czar.” His serene countenance was sometimes compared to Buddha’s, though his wit could be vicious. When a congressman, quoting Henry Clay, announced that he would “rather be right than be President,” Reed replied, “Well, the gentleman will never be either.” As Speaker of the House, he was regarded as the second most powerful man in the nation and an obvious candidate for the presidency. He joked about the talk of his securing the Republican nomination in 1896. “They could do worse,” he said with his dry Maine drawl, “and probably will.” When McKinley won the post, Reed had been severely disappointed.
Reed’s campaign advisers had been Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge. The three men shared a contempt for machine politics and mushy reformers (called “mugwumps” or “goo-goos”). The trio was highly literate, bound by a love of poetry and history, and, in their individual ways, romantic. They routinely delighted in each other in their extensive correspondence. But their friendship had fallen apart over the fundamental question of America’s future. Lodge and Roosevelt believed that America had to expand and seize new territories or lose its vital frontier spirit. Speaker Reed was wary of such talk; he distrusted the temptations of war and conquest. Reed’s reticence about America’s manifest destiny made him a man out of his time in 1898. When he tried unsuccessfully to block America’s intervention in Cuba as well as the annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines, he was marginalized and ultimately cast aside. In late June he was absent from Congress, reportedly because he was ill, though sick at heart is more like it. In July, as Congress entered its last week before summer recess, Reed pretended to be carefree with the occasional reporter who still sought him out, but he was bitter over what he saw as a betrayal of America’s founding principles.
As evening fell on July 1, William James watched the moon rise over Mount Marcy, in the faraway Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. He had been worrying about the progress of the war he had come to oppose, but he tried not to dwell on it. “I have felt extraordinarily well,” he wrote his wife, Alice. He had gone to the mountains seeking relief from the insomnia, backaches, indigestion, and “nerves” that routinely plagued him. James’s neurotic symptoms were not unusual for men of his time and class. The late 1890s were robust years — the “Gay Nineties” — a time of flag-waving boosterism about America’s national identity, bolstered by a Darwinian faith in the Anglo- Saxon “race.” Still, many in the Ivy League precincts suffered from ennui and worried about their manliness. James, like his former student at Harvard, Theodore Roosevelt, sought refuge and meaning by exploring the frontier. But while he admired men like Roosevelt who thrust themselves into the arena, James’s own explorations were more often of the mind. He sought to understand why men fought — and what was worth fighting for.
At fifty-six, Professor James of Harvard was known as the nation’s leading philosopher and psychologist. He well understood the appeal of war. During the Civil War he had seen the Union soldiers marching off sure of glory, and when the War on Spain was declared in late April 1898, James had — for a brief moment — wondered whether war would have a regenerating effect on the American soul. He knew better. He understood that war, while sometimes necessary and unavoidable, could be a bitch goddess, a seductress of young men and old fools, particularly the kind who had never experienced her savage embrace. James praised the courage men showed in battle, and he saw war lust as natural to the human condition. But he believed this was a drive to be understood but resisted, or at least channeled toward higher callings. When Roosevelt was hailed everywhere as a war hero, James wrote in a letter published in a Boston newspaper that Roosevelt “is still mentally in the Sturm und Drang period of early adolescence.” James had a vivid, pungent way of putting things; he feared, for instance, that by embracing a policy of foreign conquest, America was “puking up” her cherished principles of self-determination. In his writings and teachings, he became a kind of Greek chorus on the American stage, warning against the temptations of hubris. But in the summer of 1898, he was a voice crying in the wilderness.
The Spanish-American War is little remembered now. But more than the Civil War or World War II, it was a harbinger, if not the model, of modern American wars. 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. Just as the threat of weapons of mass destruction turned out to be bogus in Iraq, the sinking of the Maine — the pretext for intervention — was caused not by a Spanish plot but rather almost certainly by a shipboard accident. The War Against Spain began as a “splendid little war,” as diplomat John Hay wrote Roosevelt after the Spanish were defeated in Cuba, but the conflict turned dangerous and ugly after the liberation of the Philippines from Spain. The United States plunged into a counterinsurgency that cost over four thousand American lives between 1898 and 1902, roughly the same death toll the nation suffered in Iraq between 2003 and 2009. To extract intelligence from the rebels, American soldiers pioneered the torture known as waterboarding — one of several inhumane American practices used against Filipinos.
Scholars have described the Spanish-American War variously as a blow for empire; as an act of economic aggression; as a bid for post–Civil War reconciliation; as the expression of gender insecurity; and as a kind of national psychic outburst. To different degrees, all of those forces came into play. But what interests me is the human dynamic — the eternal pull of war on men. I have chosen to tell the story through five central figures — three hawks and two doves — a media mogul, two war-loving national politicians, a lawmaker who tried to stop them, and a public intellectual who sought to understand and explain it all. My narrative spans the years of America’s war fever from 1895 to 1899. But I pick up the story of man’s love for war a half century earlier, with the fantasies of a rich boy in a house on a hill, and I end it on Omaha Beach on D-day, June 6, 1944. As in any book, there must be a conclusion, but the story is never ending.
Copyright 2010 by Evan Thomas