How an unlikely trio fanned the flames of U.S. imperialism
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Caught up with thousands of young men in the nationalistic fever that led to the Spanish-American War in 1898, my grandfather enlisted as a private in Pennsylvania's 14th Regiment. Luckily for Grandpa, his regiment reached Florida just as that "splendid little war" came to its ignominious conclusion and everybody went home.
About 1,000 U.S. troops died in Cuba, more than 700 from disease. This comic-opera conflict was over in a matter of weeks, but its consequences were long and pervasive.
The war set the United States on its imperialist path, established the still-troubled relationship with Cuba and started the tradition of water boarding in the Philippines as part of the bloody repression of the independence movement there.
It also led to the political rise of Theodore Roosevelt, an old-school New York aristocrat with asthma and bad eyesight who, dressed in a uniform tailored at Brooks Brothers, led a madcap charge outside Santiago of his "Rough Riders," a motley collection of cowboys, Ivy League athletes and fellow aristocrats.
Teddy's bloodlust was finally satiated when he shot down a Spanish soldier -- probably in the back as he ran away -- and his marginal exploits were exaggerated by Richard Harding Davis, the most popular newspaper correspondent of the day.
His story is collected in Evan Thomas' account of the war, subtitled "Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire, 1898," the latest revision of that turn-of-the-century period when the nation expanded beyond its borders.
James Bradley's "The Imperial Cruise" and James McGrath Morris' "Pulitzer," both released earlier this year, were the latest salvos against the pugnacious Teddy, praised for years by such biographers as David McCullough and Edmund Morris. Now, the first President Roosevelt is taking his lumps.
In his retelling, Mr. Thomas, a Newsweek magazine writer (his editor Jon Meachem gives him an unqualified endorsement on the book jacket) places TR among other warmongers, his friend U.S. Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge and incendiary newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst.
On the side of peace were Speaker of the House Thomas "Czar" Reed and Harvard philosopher and psychologist William James.
The maneuvers of Hearst and Roosevelt are well known, so the author's insights into Lodge, a Republican Party stalwart from Massachusetts, and Reed, another New England Republican, one of the most powerful speakers in the House's history, are a fresh and fascinating view of American politics.
James, a Harvard professor and the brother of novelist Henry James, who abandoned his country for Europe, was a singular voice in the early days of psychological thought.
Coiner of the phrase, "the moral equivalent of war," James' moving speech at the dedication of Saint-Gaudens' Shaw Memorial in Boston is sensitively described by Mr. Thomas as a lone plea for a more mature attitude toward war, free of jingoistic cant.
With his obsessive need for attention (his daughter Alice said he wanted to be "the groom at every wedding, the corpse at every funeral"), Roosevelt comes to dominate the book despite Mr. Thomas' broader view of America in the 1890s.
He might have devoted more attention to President McKinley, a Civil War veteran whose war experience caused him to resist the "war lovers" and paid dearly for his stand in the Hearst press where he was vilified.
Despite its stark title, "The War Lovers" is a subtle, nuanced history of the country and its leaders as they entered the 20th century. Mr. Thomas' scope is necessarily limited and at times superficial, but he adds an intriguing take on this period.
First Published May 30, 2010 12:00 am