Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Guest Review: The War Lovers

Summary: On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine exploded in the Havana Harbor. Although there was no evidence that the Spanish were responsible, yellow newspapers such as William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal whipped Americans into frenzy by claiming that Spain's "secret infernal machine" had destroyed the battleship. Soon after, the blandly handsome and easily influenced President McKinley declared war, sending troops not only to Cuba but also to the Philippines, Spain's sprawling colony on the other side of the world.

As Evan Thomas reveals in his rip-roaring history of those times, 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 that included a young Teddy Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge agitated loudly and incessantly that the United States exert its influence across the seas. These hawks would transform American foreign policy and, when Teddy ascended to the presidency, commence with a devastating war without reason, concocted within the White House--a bloody conflict that would come at tremendous cost.

Thrillingly written and brilliantly researched, THE WAR LOVERS is the story of six men at the center of a transforming event in U.S. history: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, McKinley, William James, and Thomas Reed, and confirms once more than Evan Thomas is a popular historian of the first rank. 
-- Little, Brown & Company

When I first saw THE WAR LOVERS: ROOSEVELT, LODGE, HEARST, AND THE RUSH TO EMPIRE, 1898 by Evan Thomas, I immediately thought of my father. He loves non-fiction books and especially history ones. I obviously didn't inherit that trait from him although I wish I had at times. Here are his thoughts:

In The War Lovers, Evan Thomas gives a unique perspective of the 1898 Spanish-American War. Thomas elected to tell the story through five main characters: Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, national politicians; William Randolph Hearst, media mogul; Thomas Brackett Reed, lawmaker and William James, well-known intellectual and professor. Roosevelt, Lodge and Hearst were portrayed as war hawks while Reed and James are shown as doves. Of course as would be expected, Roosevelt has the starring role.

Thomas’ picture of the late 1890s in the United States shows it as a time of celebrations of patriotism and country. The Pledge of Allegiance and America the Beautiful were written during this period and Memorial Day celebrations became increasingly popular. The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago further emphasized this attitude with the American display of the progress of American civilization. With the perceived “closing” of the western frontier during this period, many wondered where Americans could go to carry on its adventurous spirit. War seemed to be the answer.

Thomas’ account of Roosevelt is consistent with profiles found in other books about him. Theodore Roosevelt seemed to always be preparing for some kind of conflict. He believed that it was important to prove one’s “manliness” and personally did so through large game hunting and adventures in the western frontier. When a border incident almost caused confrontation with Mexico in 1886 he anxiously offered his services. He became excited, along with the general public, with the prospect of war with England over a Venezuelan incident in 1895. The Spanish-American War was perfect for him. He was able to serve with his Rough Riders, restore his family’s reputation for his father not serving in the Civil War and become a national hero leading him to the U.S. presidency.

Henry Cabot Lodge, Roosevelt’s best political and personal friend, was advocating in 1895 “the Large Policy”, a plan to establish worldwide American possessions to protect and open trade for the United States. The Spanish-American War opened the door for the U.S. to become the world power he envisioned with the annexation of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and the Philippines.

William Randolph Hearst, owner of the New York Journal wanted a war to build readership. He often provided stories, both real and exaggerated, to promote war. The Spanish-American War was a bonanza for Hearst. His fabricated stories claiming the USS Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor by the Spanish stirred the American public to a feverish war pitch and directly led to a reluctant president McKinley declaring war against Spain. Although they had much in common, Hearst and Roosevelt disliked each other. However, they found themselves on the same side of the Spanish-American War and were able to “use” each other to advance their agendas.

According to the author, Thomas Brackett Reed was one of the most powerful men to ever serve as Speaker of the House. He resisted the country’s war fever and in 1895 stopped the House of Representatives from recognizing the legitimacy of the Cuban insurgency. This position angered both Roosevelt and Lodge who ironically were Reed’s friends. Lodge ran Reed’s campaign for speaker in 1889 and both men supported him for the Republican nomination for president in1895. Reed’s position on the Spanish-American War led to the loss of his leadership position in Congress and damaged his friendships with Roosevelt and Lodge beyond repair.

William James, Roosevelt’s former teacher at Harvard, was opposed to the war and felt the U.S. imperialism was a betrayal of the principles of 1776. I didn’t think that James fit as neatly into the novel as the other four individuals who actually influenced government policy.

The main outcome of the war was that the United States became a global power, Roosevelt became president and Cuba’s independence remained an unsettled situation.

I thought Thomas’ claims that the Spanish-American War had many parallels to the Iraq invasion was a little stretch. He stated that the intervention in each war was based on a false pretext - the bogus sinking of the Maine in Cuba and the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Thomas pointed out that waterboarding so publicized in the Iraq War was first used in the Philippine resistance against the United States.  He claims that both were “wars of choice”.    

The War Lovers is an entertaining retell of the story of the Spanish-American War, a war the author says led to more than 100 years of foreign military intervention by the United States. Thomas brings the time of the Spanish-American War to life with his well researched details of the lives of Roosevelt, Hearst, Lodge, Reed and James. The author may have given Roosevelt, Hearst and Lodge more credit for the War than they deserved, but the book provides some lessons as to how personalities and events can impact public opinion. I believe that this is as true today as it was in the last decade of the nineteenth century. Anyone interested in United States history will enjoy this book.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy and to Booking Pap Pap for his great review.


rhapsodyinbooks said...

Great review! When I read this book, I became very impressed with Thomas Reed, and interested in hearing more of his story, but I haven't followed through on that yet. But he seemed like the real "hero" of the book to me.

bermudaonion said...

Booking Pap Pap always does such a great job with his reviews! It sounds like this book is worth reading, but I have a feeling it would be over my head.

Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

Wow, great review. This one sounds fascinating.

Beth Kephart said...

This is a book I need to read!

Anonymous said...

My hubby just listened to this one and was surprised by some of the Roosevelt stuff. As a lover of the History Channel, he really liked it!