THE WAR LOVERS: ROOSEVELT, LODGE, HEARST AND THE RUSH TO EMPIRE, 1898
By Evan Thomas
Little, Brown, $29.99
REVIEWED BY DAVID C. ACHESON
This very interesting book, well written, with vivid description, personality portraiture and excellent historical depth, has several dimensions. It is a story of the famous friendship of Theodore Roosevelt, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge and Thomas Brackett Reed (speaker of the House of Representatives). It is an account of the zeitgeist of Manifest Destiny, the imperial obsession. It tells of the 1898 war with Spain over the destruction of the USS Maine in Havana’s harbor and the taking of Cuba and the Philippine archipelago.
Readers will be surprised at the impressive credentials of Lodge, whom modern history has depicted mainly as the destroyer of the League of Nations and the dreams of Woodrow Wilson in the 1920s. Lodge was surely a powerful and partisan politician. He also was a distinguished scholar who earned a doctorate at Harvard. The Encyclopaedia Britannica credits him with authorship of 14 books and editorship of four more. This was a strong bond between him and TR, also a prolific author.
Lodge and TR became friends in Henry Adams’ salon during Roosevelt’s early service in Washington, and they were “regular” enough Republicans to be supporters of James G. Blaine in the latter’s presidential race against Grover Cleveland, which earned them sneers from good-government enthusiasts.
Evan Thomas presents the touching affection that Reed, TR and Lodge had for one another. “Czar” Reed was also a thoughtful and literary man whom TR and Lodge wanted to see elected president at one time, but Reed thought Manifest Destiny was foolishness, and his career dimmed sadly as his friends and the country left him behind. In Mr. Thomas‘ account of the destruction of the USS Maine and the onset of war madness, TR appears (as he does in other works) obsessed with an imperial role for the United States and seemingly unhinged in his anxiety for a war-hero role for himself, all with the encouragement of Lodge and the undisguised opposition of Reed.
Roosevelt in his eagerness to fight, to be shot at, to be wounded, to be decorated, seems to approach marginal insanity. The descriptions of the fighting in Cuba, the incompetent preparations for invasion, for supply, logistics, medical care and even tactics make the war effort there appear sadly amateurish, yet that gave TR an enlarged opportunity for personal leadership. From the eyewitness accounts and from Roosevelt’s own letters, it seems miraculous that he was not killed, being highly visible on horseback and in the forefront of the action.
The conduct and lack of leadership of the commanding U.S. general, William R. Shafter, was a disgrace. The cause of the explosion that sank the USS Maine gets a very interesting treatment, one I have seen elsewhere and is done very well here. It was well-known at the time that spontaneous fires could start in the coal bunkers of ships, particularly in hot and humid conditions. In the Maine, the coal bunker was separated from the ammunition magazine only by a steel partition. If a fire broke out in the coal bunker, the partition would soon become red hot.
That may well have happened, but in the superheated political climate, fanned by William Randolph Hearst’s New York Morning Journal, there were few besides Reed who wanted to take the time to get to the bottom of the facts.
It may not be the province of this book, but I felt the need for a more critical examination of the rationale and derivation of Manifest Destiny and the war craze in 1898. Used to justify the annexation of Texas in 1839, the phrase came to denote control of the entire continental reach. Its modern metamorphosis has been the drive to establish democracy everywhere.
Theodore Roosevelt was the extreme case of this craze, but it has deeper roots. Mr. Thomas implies that TR wanted to drown in blood his father’s shame in purchasing a substitute in the Civil War, but this does not explain a similar urge in Lodge, much less an entire nation. To say, with historian Frederick Jackson Turner, that the opening of the West lent a rough and manly ethos to American society does not explain war mania on the part of people who never broke a bronco or fought Indians.
Perhaps never having suffered an invasion since 1815 makes Americans, more easily than Europeans, able to see war as a reasonable policy option. In any case, the national fury to fight Spain in 1898 needs a better explanation than Turner or Hearst. It is not as if Americans wanted Cuba and the Philippines. On the contrary, as Mr. Thomas‘ book shows, the U.S. government and Congress were embarrassed for not knowing what to do with these orphans.