Today, when Americans seem oblivious to the bloody battles their own country is waging overseas, it is worth recalling that there was a time when the nation was obsessed with war. While the struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan no longer occupy the front pages of the nation’s newspapers, in 1898 the American people were galvanized by a conflict 90 miles from the American mainland.
When the United States took up arms against the Spanish in Cuba that year, many Americans, especially those in the leadership class, embraced the notion that it was salutary to shed blood on foreign battlefields. Convinced that world politics was a Darwinian struggle pitting nation against nation, men like New York’s Theodore Roosevelt and Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts were certain that going to war would keep the US from growing flabby. Countries that were unwilling to fight were destined to become irrelevant, they believed.
A year before America intervened in Cuba, Roosevelt, the assistant secretary of the Navy, declared that “all the great masterful races have been fighting races. And the minute that a race loses its hard fighting virtues, it has lost its proud right to stand as the equal of the best.” Fired up by such thinking, Roosevelt and his energetic crowd were determined to make sure the US did not remain on the sidelines.
In The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898, Evan Thomas, an editor at Newsweek and the author of several works of history, tells the story of this feverish era. Altogether readable, “The War Lovers” engagingly conveys what happened in this consequential period.
Training a biographical lens on America’s engagement with the world at the close of the 19th century, Thomas offers an action-packed narrative replete with vivid descriptions of key events and deft character sketches. The book considers the activities and attitudes of policymakers like Roosevelt and Lodge, and those of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, who, in an effort to sell papers, ginned up support for the war against Spain with a barrage of overheated stories in his New York Journal.
In the run-up to war, many claimed America was obliged to rescue Cuba from its brutal Spanish master, even if the Cubans were seen as an inferior people. (Lest one forget, America’s neighbors to the south were not Anglo-Saxons, and most white Americans viewed them as a degraded race.)
Others, like Roosevelt (who would actually fight in the war) and his ideological brethren, were obsessed with maintaining America’s vigor. Whether the US was more concerned about the plight of oppressed Cubans or its own future as an emerging world power remains an open question. Perhaps it was a bit of both.
Whatever the reason, the war against Spain began in April 1898. By August, it was over. In the wake of America’s “liberation” of Cuba, the US immediately replaced Spanish tyranny with its own brand of imperialism, which would last until the mid-20th century.
Nor was America’s imperial project confined to Cuba. The acquisition of the Philippines, part of the Spanish Empire, was another consequence of the war. According to the US Navy’s war plan, in the event of a conflict with Spain, America would seize the island chain. With the start of the war, a Navy squadron steamed to Manila Bay and easily accomplished its mission.
A ferocious domestic debate ensued, since it was not at all clear why the US needed the Philippines. It was America’s duty to uplift the Filipinos, some declared, while others thought controlling the islands would open the vast markets of Asia to American exports.
But opponents of annexation were unconvinced, claiming imperial lust was an Old World practice that undermined American principles. Others recoiled at the thought of establishing a connection with the islanders, whose nonwhite racial identity made them repugnant.
In the end, President McKinley, helped (he said) by a message from God who guided the president as he weighed his options, backed annexation. In a close vote, the Senate agreed.
Once annexation was announced, war erupted between the US and the Filipinos. It was an extraordinarily brutal affair in which tens of thousands died. Not surprisingly, the islanders did not relish trading Spanish for American imperialism, which is precisely what happened. By the early 20th century, the US had become an imperial power.
Years later, as Roosevelt neared the end of his life, his love of war – and that’s what it was – would be severely tested. The man who had eagerly led his men into battle in Cuba learned that his youngest son, Quentin, had been killed in World War I.
Roosevelt never got over the death of his son. Day after day, he sat staring into space. Sometimes he could be heard repeating the boy’s childhood nickname, “Quen-tee, Quen-tee.”
Perhaps war was not so lovely after all.