Correction to This Article
A photo caption with the May 2 Outlook review of "The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire, 1898," a book by Evan Thomas that examines the roles of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and William Randolph Hearst in the start of the Spanish-American War, transposed the identifications of Lodge and Hearst.

Book review of "The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, the Rush to Empire, 1898" by Evan Thomas

By James McGrath Morris
Sunday, May 2, 2010


Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and The Rush to Empire, 1898

By Evan Thomas

Little, Brown. 470 pp. $29.99

More than a century before a recent president, who had never seen combat, led the United States into war with Iraq, a pair of politicians similarly unscarred by war created the playbook that has been used ever since. The prototype conflict was the Spanish-American War of 1898, studied by every school child as America's thunderous entry onto the world stage and its first foray into colonial rule. So much has been written about this seminal moment that journalist and author Evan Thomas faced a daunting task in undertaking "The War Lovers." After all, what could be said that hasn't already been covered in the some 400 or so books?

Plenty, it turns out.

Using a skill honed in several of his previous books, such as "Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign 1941-1945," Thomas builds his narrative around a group of men. Here he selects three advocates of war -- then-assistant secretary of the navy Theodore Roosevelt, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst -- and two opponents, Thomas Reed, the powerful speaker of the house, and William James, the noted thinker, philosopher and Harvard professor.

The scheme reenergizes a well-trod story and, more important, delivers revealing insights into the minds of the advocates for whom war "could be a bitch goddess, a seductress of young men and old fools, particularly the kind who had never experienced her savage embrace," as Thomas writes, alluding to words of James, whom he uses as a kind of Greek chorus. It's almost as if the true origins of the war are to be found in the nurseries of these men, particularly the two politicians. "Roosevelt and Lodge looked to their own heredity for the conquering impulse," according to Thomas. In them was brewing a mixture of Social Darwinism laced with white supremacy fueled by a romantic mythology of war awaiting ignition.

The spark, of course, was the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor on Feb. 15, 1898. Knowing full well it was likely an accidental detonation, Roosevelt, Lodge and Hearst depicted the loss of hundreds of sailors as an act of Spanish treachery. Like palace conspirators in a Dumas novel, Thomas's schemers used the incident to pressure a reluctant President McKinley. "I have been through one war," he lamented. "I have seen the dead piled up; and I do not want to see another." The president's resistance was to no avail. By April, the United States was in the fight, and by July Roosevelt, with the press in tow, was charging up San Juan Hill and into the public's imagination.

Thomas's pairing of Roosevelt and Lodge, with Hearst as a sidekick who overcomes his antipathy about Roosevelt because of his thirst for war, works magnificently. The use of James is less successful: Thomas overreaches by stressing that Roosevelt had spent time in the professor's Harvard classroom, an unnecessary ploy. Casting James as an ignored voice of reason is sufficient to accentuate Roosevelt and Lodge's bellicose behavior. The last member of the story, Speaker Reed, makes a wonderful member of the quintet. Well intentioned and reasonable, he ends up like road kill on the highway to war.

Thomas captures the rush to battle by showing how Reed suffered increasingly ignoble treatment at the hands of the jingoists, climaxing in a remarkable moment when congressmen broke into fisticuffs on the House floor. The pounding of Reed's gavel was ignored in the ruckus. He ordered the sergeant-at-arms to rush into the melee brandishing the silver mace, the scepter of authority topped with an American eagle. It was to no avail. War with Spain came as rapidly as reason and order disappeared on the floor and in the nation.

Thomas has delivered an innovative, frequently entertaining and valuable retelling of an episode that set the pattern for more than a century of foreign military adventurism. This timely book is a cautionary tale about how the psyche of powerful and ambitious leaders may matter more than fact -- or even truth -- when the question of war arises.

James McGrath Morris is author of "Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power" and the editor of the online monthly Biographer's Craft.

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