Friday, 16 July 2010

“The War Lovers”, by Evan Thomas (Little, Brown & Co.)


Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire – 1898

On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine exploded in the Havana Harbor. Although there was no evidence that the Spanish were responsible, newspapers such as Hearst's New York Journal whipped up a frenzy, claiming that Spain had destroyed the ship. Soon after, the easily influenced President McKinley declared war, sending troops to both Cuba and the Philippines.

In this history, Thomas reveals that the hunger for war had begun years earlier. Depressed by the ‘closing’ of the Western frontier and embracing theories of social Darwinism, a group of warmongers including a young Teddy Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge agitated incessantly that the US exert its influence across the seas. US foreign policy was transformed, and when Roosevelt became president there began a war without reason, concocted within the White House – a bloody conflict that would come at huge cost. This is the story of six men at the centre of history: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, McKinley, William James and Thomas Reed.

Evan Thomas, Editor-at-Large for Newsweek and professor of journalism at Princeton University, takes on the subject of war fever in his latest history. According to his website, he saw the events surrounding the current and continuing Iraq War and couldn’t help “wondering how so many journalists (including me, in my role at Newsweek) got swept up in it.” The more he thought of it, he

“began looking for a narrative that would capture this eternal phenomenon, and I found my story in the experiences of three war lovers over a century ago — Theodore Roosevelt, seeking glory with his Rough Riders; his friend and colleague, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge; and William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper publisher who believed he could single-handedly start a war.”

These are not the only three characters portrayed in detail, however. As well as the families of the three key jingoes, the philosopher William James and his thoughts on the war and America’s war fever are detailed. Speaker of the House Thomas “Czar” Reed, is a fascinating and tragic figure, who saw the war coming and did everything he could to try to stop it. Unfortunately, the momentum provided by Hearst’s sensationalist reporting, and Roosevelt and Lodge’s grand designs for the nation (not to mention a willing and able audience) proved too much for Reed.

There are three specific elements of the book, each of which appealed to me a great deal: the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge; the role of Hearst and the media; and the overall development of the national support for war. While no review, in my mind, could do the book justice, I’ve decided to limit myself to offering some observations and details of the book.

The Best of Friends

One of the best aspects of the book is Thomas’s portrayal of the deep friendship between Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge – in some ways, one of the closest ‘bromances’ of American history.

Thomas provides a brief biography of each man’s early life, illustrates their early brushes with militarism and explains how they idolised their more militaristic relatives and forebears. At first, they became comrades in a shared battle against the corrupt ‘machine’ politics of the day, drawing on shared experiences and social status to forge a lasting bond. The friendship blossomed, particularly, after Roosevelt lost both his mother and wife on the same night; after this tragic loss, Roosevelt “virtually adopted Lodge, on the spot... as the big brother, adviser, and father figure he longed? for.” Roosevelt was not the only beneficiary of this friendship; Thomas argues that Lodge, too, needed TR’s friendship:

“Roosevelt was Lodge’s best friend – and in some real way, his only one. Lodge seemed to most of his colleagues to embody Brahmin coldness and snobbery.”

Following William McKinley’s election as president, and Lodge’s lobbying to get TR a post in the Department of the Navy (as assistant secretary), Roosevelt wrote to his dear friend, illustrating the closeness they shared: “The main reason I would care to go to Washington is to be near you.”

Roosevelt, not to mention a fair few other Brahmins of American society, had a creeping sense of despair for the virility of the US. Fears of “overcivilisation” and the decline in American manliness and prowess are shown to have been key ingredients for the push for war over Cuba. For Roosevelt himself, there was also a lasting shame (self-imposed) about his father’s purchase of an alternate during the Civil War. There is a paradox to the ‘gumption’-obsessed upper classes (“What was to be done about this free-floating anxiety? Get out and exercise!”), and one not easily resolved: “If life was about the survival of the fittest – and the fittest were surely the Americans – why did they finest, best-educated Americans so often feel weak in spirit?”

“Lodge and Roosevelt believed that America had to expand and seize new territories or lose its vital frontier spirit,” Thomas explains.

“Both men were refined, discerning, complex. [But] They regarded effeteness as a kind of social disease. Both men possessed, or were possessed by, a brutal streak, a bloody-mindedness, a fascination with ruthless combat.”

Unfortunately, neither of them had any experience of warfare, and idolised and idealised those who did and the act itself. William James, however,

“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.”

The Power of the Press

William Randolph Hearst, the eccentric publisher of the New York Journal, played a considerable and important role in the war. “Not much concerned with proof, his paper... had blamed the sinking of the American battleship USS Maine on a Spanish plot”, helping to fuel the already simmering expansionist sentiments of a number of prominent and influential Americans.

WRH and TR had much in common, but they still despised each other.

“They were both Harvard men who liked fancy clothes; they were both masters of public relations; and they both desired a war for themselves and for the United States.”

While Roosevelt was resigned to pushing for war slowly but surely from his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy (and dealing with a sceptical president), Hearst had no patience. “If the president wouldn’t start a war, Hearst concluded, he would just have to do it himself.” This is exactly what he ended up doing, sensationalising any and all news coming out of Cuba and, in many instances, flagrantly inventing stories to whip up pro-Cuban and anti-Spanish sentiment among the masses and the political elite. For the latter, after all, “Congress derived most of its knowledge from newspapers, the only real information source of that time.” The Spanish Prime Minister is even recorded as commenting “The newspapers in [the US] seem to be more powerful than the government.”

Hearst was so impressed by his reportage and inferred influence that he even started to refer to the war as “the Journal’s war” in print and as “our war” among his staff. The publisher, it seems, could honestly come to this conclusion, given the swelling in the paper’s circulation figures as well as the increased support his cause enjoyed in Congress and other strata of society.

The influence of Hearst’s Journal was not limited to members of Congress, of course. The war over Cuba is a key example used when discussing the power of the press to influence and move politics, but revisionist historians have gone to some pains to disprove the popular notion of it being “Hearst’s War”:

“The war fever that consumed the country in the spring of 1898 had many causes, to be sure, of which the yellow press was only one. It may be that McKinley did not ever read ‘the yellows’... But it is also true that he read six or seven daily newspapers heavily influenced by Hearst’s publication.”

Throughout The War Lovers, Thomas brilliantly sheds light on the role of Hearst and the press in the promotion and ‘selling’ of the war over Cuba. As someone who has studied the role of the media in foreign policy, I was particularly interested in this aspect of the book, and I was entirely satisfied and enlightened by the expertly-researched material.

The Road to War

Over the course of The War Lovers, Thomas expertly illustrates the road to war; how the constant and insistent single-mindedness of Roosevelt, Lodge and Hearst, helped push the nation into an unwanted and unnecessary war against Spain. What is often overlooked, however, is the important and central role played by Lodge – so often overshadowed by his more flamboyant and ultimately politically successful best friend. Thomas does a superb job of explaining Lodge’s role in the push for expansion and territorial acquisition.

“In Congress Lodge had been... chief architect of something called ‘the Large Policy’, to distinguish America’s territorial ambition from that more distasteful European term, ‘imperialism’. Lodge wanted to sprinkle the globe with American territorial possessions that would protect and open up trade. The junior senator from Massachusetts had started the course of American expansion, as he so often did, arm in arm with Roosevelt.”

Thomas’s chapters on the military expedition to Cuba are interesting and engaging, suffering none of the dull dryness of some military accounts (especially those that seem to form the majority of any book on subjects related to the Civil War). The quality of his writing, coupled with his detailed research, makes for gripping reading. His portrayal of the nascent US military establishment (as well as military-industrial-complex) is one of a shambling bureaucracy, poorly managed and staffed throughout; chaotic, undisciplined, and poorly rationed and supplied throughout the campaign.

This is my favourite period of American history, and The War Lovers is easily one of the best books written about it. It reads as well as a novel: it’s engaging and entertaining, informative and detailed. The characters involved are portrayed in great detail (which only occasionally slows the pace), and with a sympathetic – though not jaded or idealised – eye. Evan Thomas has done a masterful job of bringing this period to life on the page, as well as offer some explanation for America’s drive to imperialism and expansion.

As previously mentioned, I don’t think any review can do this book justice, so I would just finish by urging anyone with an interest in US foreign policy, war, history, and the media to read this exceptional book.

Very highly recommended, this is easily my pick for History Book of the Year.

Also try (a small selection): Aida McDonald, Lion in the White House (2008); Louis Auchincloss, Theodore Roosevelt (2002); Kevin Phillips, William McKinley (2003); James Bradley, The Imperial Cruise (2010 – review pending); Theodore Roosevelt, The Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt; Daniel Ruddy (ed), Theodore Roosevelt’s History of the United States (2010); Douglas Brinkley, The Wilderness Warrior (2009); G.J.A. O’Toole, The Spanish War: An American Epic 1898 (1986); Edmund Morris, Colonel Roosevelt (2010)

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