I recently affirmed my literacy by reading The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898 by historian and Newsweek editor Evan Thomas.
The book is a study of America’s headlong rush into the 1898 Spanish-American War, viewed through the conflicting perspectives of famously powerful Boston and New York elites and intellectuals like Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, William James, & William Randolph Hearst. Along the way, Thomas examines man’s fascination with war itself – how human nature is drawn to it, occasionally revels in it, and fears it. Somewhat less effectively, Thomas also frames the book to underline the similarities between the war fever of 1898 with America’s rush into the Iraq War a decade ago, going so far as to imagine Dick Cheney being the inheritor of T.R.’s famous war lust.
I enjoyed the book, with some qualifications. As a look into the elite Brahmin aristocracy of the Gilded Age, it’s terrific. I liked the character studies of crusted intellectuals like William James (whose pluralism-friendly philosophy of pragmatism has become quite influential, and which I teach in my philosophy class) and the audacious, unscrupulous journalist William Randolph Hearst. The chapters on the war itself were fresh and lean, capturing that strange mix of bloody adrenaline, and confused, dreary boredom.
Having studied Roosevelt a fair degree already, I appreciated Thomas’ treatment of him less. Roosevelt left behind a mountain of written material and speeches, and Thomas seems to have scrounged around for every half-cocked comment about military glory he could find in order to paint him as a man who was close to being dangerously unhinged (and a burden to his family) when it seems to me the record shows him to be nothing of the sort. Similarly, Thomas awkwardly and unnecessarily drops in racially insensitive quotes from T.R.’s letters every now and again, as if to signal his unsympathetic nature to the modern reader lacking context otherwise.
As I’ve written about, Roosevelt is best understood as a moderate who lived in strained times. He was an intellectual savant who could talk himself in circles with “on the one hand this, but on the other hand that”, but usually chose a course of action that was both practical and bold. To insinuate that he was a bigot or racist by the standards of his era is unfair, particularly in the racially hypersensitive times we live in today. It seems to me that Thomas’ thesis on war itself (that it is a dark but inescapable function of human nature) soured him on Roosevelt, who idealized martial virtues. Thomas later offers up a fair, if half-hearted postscript, noting that, as president, T.R. kept the U.S. out of war and that his presidential rhetoric was “not particularly bellicose”.
Here are a few stray tidbits from the book that I appreciated:
-My favorite line in the book, and a phrase I intend on making use of myself, was found on p. 357. Roosevelt had returned from war, and was asked how he was doing. He shouted back, “I am feeling disgracefully well!”
-Of all the men studied in the book, Thomas’ sympathies seem to lie most with William James. This is well founded. James was an insightful intellectual with cosmopolitan attitudes and a realistic understanding of human nature and society. The antics of the “war lovers” Roosevelt, Hearst, and Lodge dismayed him, but he was also unimpressed with the so-called “mugwumps” – high society progressives and reformers who sniffed at politics and everyday Americans. This group would seem to have been a natural community for James, but their smug antipatriotism struck him as self-defeating, and their stuffiness left him bored.
-Apparently everybody in 1898 wore black for some reason.
-William Randolph Hearst comes across as a strange guy. For all the crazed headlines and yellow journalism he was responsible for, and for all the publicity stunts he pulled (including sailing to Cuba to insert himself heedlessly into the war), he was an odd, awkward dude. Painfully shy, alternately manic and morose, with a limp-wristed handshake and an affection for chorus girls, he loved influence and melodrama but was pained when attention was placed on him. He filled his newspapers with bloated partial truths and filled his letters to his mother with self-pity. He was like Glenn Beck’s effeminate 1890s doppelganger.
-Soldiers serving in Cuba referred to malaria and yellow fever as “the black vomit”, which is beautifully and disturbingly evocative.
-The 1890s was a golden age for facial hair, when beards were pointy and mustaches robust. Not until the 1970s ascendancy of Dan Haggerty would America’s beards see such warmth and richness again.
-Famously, the 39-year old Roosevelt resigned his powerful post as assistant secretary of the navy (he was the de facto head of the navy much of the time because of the secretary’s long absences) to raise a cavalry regiment of cowboys and Harvard men to personally fight in the war. Of course, this was an insane thing to do, and literally everybody seems to have told Roosevelt this. Undeterred, he wrote long letters to friends and advisors explaining his motivations as being honorable and disinterested. While T.R. was no doubt acting on some of his deepest convictions, Thomas suggests that Roosevelt was also acting to erase the one blemish on his much-loved father’s record: the fact that he had avoided fighting in the Civil War. This was Roosevelt’s chance to avenge the family name, and he did so with gusto – the move would literally launch him into the presidency a few years later.
-Roosevelt loved the vigorous life and fighting. In a letter to Lodge after the fighting was over, he breathlessly began one paragraph, “Did I tell you that I killed a Spaniard with my own hand?” Experts agree that, had T.R. been alive in 1987, he would have fought and defeated Hulk Hogan in Wrestlemania III.
-In 2001, Bill Clinton posthumously awarded Theodore Roosevelt the Medal of Honor for his service in the Spanish-American War. The next night, the ghost of Roosevelt appeared to Clinton and commanded him to annex the Philippines and pardon Mark Rich.