In 1898, Satisfying A National Appetite For War
Revisiting that April 28, 2010 NPR story on the new book, The War Lovers by Evan Thomas
It is not immediately obvious, but life is largely routine -a matter of evolutionary process -evolution meaningless without it -mentality relatively unchanged since New Stone Age Man
The subject of this short essay is neither the author nor the material of either his book or the NPR story; it is, rather, a higher-order matter of the intellectual nature of circumstances and government -democracy in particular, such as made and
continue to make such authors, books, interviews and wars possible and keep us 'bumbling into the future'.
Several points are in order.
1 - Evan Thomas, the author, is not 'a scientist in his laboratory'; he is, rather, a citizen who has beliefs and biases of his own in (at least) his quite reasonable observation of 'similarities between the U.S. beginning of the 1898 Spanish-American War and our 2003 invasion of Iraq.
2 - America's undertaking of that war -and the eventual elevation of Theodore Roosevelt to presidency following it, were not products of 'scientists in their laboratories'; they reflect, rather, the mentalities and activities of nations and their
governments formed out of and upon peoples beliefs, biases and 'natural human failings'.
3 - NPR's staff-report story is, likewise, not a report on some kind of laboratory project; it is, rather, a 'news item' prepared by one or more people for a public like Thomas himself -people of beliefs, biases and 'natural human failings'.
Unnoticed perhaps is that the whole of material here so far -(i) some background and the intellectual nature of author Evan Thomas, (ii) the analytical material that Thomas has researched and assembled into his book, and (iii) the nature of news reporting in general (NPR here), is framed by and staged upon 'Democracy, the best form of government'. That aspect, however, is nowhere directly engaged as the intrinsic and inseparable agency it is in the whole of this material. Further developing out of this whole then, are consequences of-
-Bottom line: Democracy is not only not 'the best form of government'; it is, also, the propagator of ignorance and bad decisions -an ever potential agency of war.
Before writing his new book, The War Lovers, Evan Thomas, the assistant managing editor of Newsweek magazine, spent three years researching an event a century removed from his day job: the 1898 Spanish-American War. But he did so, he says, because of
similarities he perceived between the way America entered that conflict and the way it approached the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Thomas says part of what drove him to consider America's war with Spain was his own feeling that "it was a good idea to invade Iraq." Later, second-guessing that conviction, he looked to history for
"Spain owned Cuba at the time, and the Cubans had been off-and-on rebelling for years, and we just finally decided to help them out," Thomas tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "So there was a legitimate reason for going to war. We did liberate Cuba. But I don't
think that was the main reason for doing it."
In The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire, 1898, Thomas explores the reasons that drove a few influential Americans to zealously support the cause of war.
There was a desperate appetite for war among some Americans in the 1890s, Thomas says. Among them, the three men mentioned in his subtitle: newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who stood to benefit from increased sales for papers that shouted war
headlines; Massachusetts politician Henry Cabot Lodge, a leading imperialist who, Thomas writes, was greatly influenced as a child by the heroes of the Civil War; and future President Theodore Roosevelt, whose attraction to war was both political and
Thomas says Roosevelt wasn't particular about who the opponent was. He even wrote letters advocating for war with Germany, or with England, for the purposes of liberating Canada.
"He was ready, really, for any war, because he felt that Americans were growing soft," Thomas says. " 'Overcivilized' was the word that he used. And he felt that we needed to recapture what he called 'the wolf rising in the heart,' a kind of animal
spirit that all great nations have."
Roosevelt had personal motivation, as well.
"He had this constant need, all through his life, to prove himself physically," Thomas says. "He was a weakly, sick kid with asthma, and he hiked, and then he became a great hunter. And he would rate animals based on how dangerous they were. And of
course the most dangerous game is man, and he wanted to fight in a war to test his courage by hunting men."
Not everyone was so enthusiastic. President William McKinley wanted to avoid war. He'd fought in the Civil War and had "seen the dead stacked up at Antietam," Thomas says. But the efforts of men like Hearst, Lodge and Roosevelt helped to whip up popular
"At Congress, they were basically having pep rallies," Thomas says. "The country just wanted a war."
For Roosevelt, the war was an astonishing success. He quit his desk job as assistant secretary of the Navy, enlisted in the cavalry and went to Cuba, where he led the Rough Riders in the Battle of San Juan Hill. When he returned, he was elected governor
of New York. Two years later, he was elected vice president. When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, he became the youngest president ever.
But not all the actors on this stage were as well-remembered. As Thomas puts it, Thomas Brackett Reed is a "pretty obscure figure" today. But at the time, he was one of the most powerful and outspoken opponents of the war. The Maine congressman and
speaker of the House managed, for a time, to keep the House from voting on the war, but in the end, he couldn't hold out.
"It broke his heart. At the end, he didn't even show up to vote," Thomas says. Reed's career fell as quickly as Roosevelt's rose: "He couldn't understand what this war fever was about. I think he had common sense. But he was the loser. As society got
swept up, he was the guy who lost out." After America went to war, Reed resigned from Congress. He died in 1902.
Thomas says the United States' "imperialist urge" waned after the Spanish-American war. He acknowledges that as he did research, he learned lessons about America's current wars that he "should have
known from the beginning."
"We talked about weapons of mass destruction and so forth, but I think that the main reason the Bush administration went to war in Iraq was because we wanted to teach the world a lesson after 9/11," Thomas says. "We wanted to — to put it crudely — to
kick some ass."
"We got sucked into something that actually has turned out OK. We did achieve some war aims, but we did it at great cost, and clearly we didn't know what we were getting into."
Evan Thomas is an editor at large at Newsweek. He is also the author of Sea of Thunder and The Very Best Men.
Cabot (never Henry) was a frail boy and, though he tried, never very adept at games, he recalled. He was more at home among the books collected by his father and grandfather, reading tales of chivalry and derring-do. His father was his guide. "He was a
lover of [Sir Walter] Scott, and in my tenth year I read all the Waverly Novels from beginning to end," Lodge wrote. Pulling volumes from the high shelves, the youngster entered the world of the hunter-warrior, both make-believe and real — Scott's
Ivanhoe, Cervantes' Don Quixote, Macauley's histories, the Odyssey and the Iliad. He read the Bible, too, but more for the histories, "full of fighting and of battle, murder and sudden death," than for religion.
Beacon Street was an oasis of gentility in a city seething with poor newcomers. The shaded north side of Beacon Hill, where the freed Negro slaves lived, was sometimes called "Nigger Hill" or "Mount Whoredom," for its prostitutes. The mass migration of
poor Irish to Boston after the potato famines of the 1840s was regarded as a threat — economic, political, physical — to the sifted few. Class warfare erupted on a regular basis in the form of snowball fights. On the frozen Common, surging up from the
overflowing slums in the South and North Ends, young Irish toughs and blackguards — "whom we called 'muckers,' " related Lodge — would charge the swells who lived on Beacon Hill.
Young gentlemen in wool mufflers and Eton collars would fire icy projectiles, then engage in hand-to-hand combat against bigger, more brutish boys (at least they looked that way) in thin shabby coats. Insults were exchanged, but never conversation.
Henry Adams, another young Brahmin who ventured out against the muckers, recalled a "grisly terror called Conky Daniels" who came armed "with a club and a hideous reputation." In his memoir, The Education of Henry Adams, he recalled the viciousness of
the battles: "A stone may be put in a snowball, and in the dark, a stick or a slungshot ... is as effective as a knife." One stone struck Henry Lee Higginson, known to his schoolmates as "Bully Higg," later a rich banker who donated to Harvard its
playing fields. On the Common that day, Adams reported, Higginson was "led off the field bleeding in a rather ghastly manner." In the daytime the rich boys from the Hill had home-ground advantage: they could stockpile frozen ice balls and carry them from
their houses in picnic baskets. But as dusk fell the Irish toughs generally carried the field, the rich boys "dwindling in numbers and disappearing," recalled Adams. In his memoir Lodge described the battles as "Homeric" and "savage." One can imagine the
ten-year-old Lodge, a slip of a boy with a pointy chin, dressed in his mittens by his nanny, desperately trying to find the courage not to run from the muckers. But writing in 1912, when he was sixty-two, he was all brio. He conceded defeat in those
class-struggle snowball fights "owing purely to superior numbers, as I have always religiously believed."
A month before Lodge's eleventh birthday real war broke out. The great conflict that would divide the nation and in many ways shape young Lodge was initially greeted with mixed emotions by the denizens of Beacon Hill. In the 1850s the wealthy merchants
of Boston sympathized with the Southern planters who sold them cotton. (When a few young radicals broke off from the Somerset Club to form the Union Club, the Somerset members made jokes about the "Sambo Club.") But Fort Sumter and war fever soon changed
upper-class hearts and minds. As patriotism and dreams of glory swept away mercantile and brotherly bonds, even Ralph Waldo Emerson, heretofore a Christian pacifist, announced, "Sometimes gun powder smells good." Lodge's father had always stood above
mere commerce; he had long been a "Free Soiler" and had once bought a slave in order to set him free. At 31 Beacon Street the Union cause was sacred.
Lodge loved his father as "the kindest and most generous of men," who never spoke a harsh word, except to correct his only son when he displayed "either physical or moral timidity." Most of all Cabot admired his father's courage. Writing in reverent,
almost mystical tones, he recalled witnessing his father scuffle with two muggers, one armed with a knife, one winter's night "as we were going to the theatre, at a dark place on the Common": "I can see the shine of the distant gas light on the new-
fallen snow, the sudden collision of the two men with my father, then one of them on his back in the white drift with something glittering in his hand. Then we were walking quietly along again, and I have no recollection of either fright or excitement.
My faith in my father was too great to admit such emotion."
Lodge proudly wrote that with the coming of the Civil War, his father hoped to ride at the head of a cavalry regiment "which he wished to raise himself." But the senior Lodge missed his chance at glory. His son blamed old age (his father had just turned
forty) and a weak knee caused by a riding injury, but one senses his deep disappointment — and then his shock when, "in September 1862, my father, worn out and broken down nervously by too much work, too many cares, and too many responsibilities, died
Lodge was left alone at 31 Beacon Street with his sister and his mother, Anna, a strong-willed, demanding woman who would be a central force in his life until she died in 1900 at age seventy-nine. The war remained a constant presence; "it overshadowed
everything," Lodge recalled. He attended the funeral of a soldier killed in the war, the older brother of a schoolmate, and never forgot the sight of the young body clad in Union blue stretched out in the casket. In the parlor of 31 Beacon Street he
listened as a young cousin of his mother — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. — described his experiences at the front, the horror and glory of charging enemy lines, of getting shot (three times in Holmes's case).
On May 28, 1863, Lodge witnessed one of Boston's proudest moments. A favorite son of the Brahmin class, Robert Gould Shaw, was leading the first African American regiment, the four hundred men of the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth, through the city. The
black men were hooted at by some and at one point attacked by Irish toughs who threw stones and started fist fights. But most of the thousands of Bostonians lining the streets on that bright May morning were moved by the sight of proud black men marching
to battle so that their brothers might be set free. A few in the crowds tossed flowers at the slender, blond young man at their head. Riding his charger, Colonel Shaw led the long column up Beacon Street. Shaw's family lived at 44 Beacon Street, a few
doors down from the Lodge mansion. When his column — flags flying, drums beating — reached number 44, Shaw stopped his horse. Looking up at his family, he raised his sword, the terrible swift sword of God's truth, to his lips. Then he rode on, past the
gaping young Lodge, who never forgot.
As the soldiers marched off to war and not all returned, Lodge indulged in reveries of bravery and heroism. He wanted to enlist as a drummer boy, a suggestion that was "not taken in either a favorable or even a serious spirit by my family." Drifting off
to sleep at night, he "imagined desperate assaults and gallant exploits, from which I always escaped alive and glorious."
For Theodore Roosevelt, eight years younger than Lodge, war was at first a game of dress-up. Little Theodore, or "Teedie," as he was called, was a lifelong fop, and at the age of four he fancied the brightly colored uniforms of the Zouaves, a Union
regiment that went off to war in turbans and red pantaloons (until smokeless gunpowder cleared the air of the battlefield and made soldiers wish to dress as inconspicuously as possible). Little Teedie insisted on being outfitted in a tiny Zouaves uniform
and asked, "Are me a soldier laddie too?"
There is a photograph of a scene that made as profound an impression on young Roosevelt as Colonel Shaw's march up Beacon Hill made on the young Lodge. Taken on April 24, 1865, the day Lincoln's body was carried through the streets of New York, the photo
shows the slain president's cortege making its way into Union Square past a large mansion on the left. The house, one of the grandest in New York at the time, belonged to Theodore Roosevelt's wealthy grandfather, Cornelius. In a window on the second
floor, two small boys peer out. One is Theodore, age six and a half, the other is his brother Elliott, five. The president's coffin is followed by the Invalid Brigade, a column of veterans who had lost limbs in the war. Little Edith Carow was visiting
the Roosevelts that day, and she recalled that she had been overcome with grief at the sight of the grievously wounded men. She had begun to cry. Irritated, young Theodore had shoved his future wife, who was not yet four, into a back room.
Theodore was fascinated by the maimed veterans. All his life he would venerate "the empty sleeve," the mark of a man who had sacrificed a limb in battle. When he had asthma attacks, his mother wrote his older sister that little Theodore would "dress up
in rags to imitate a soldier" whose uniform had been shredded in battle.
When the Civil War came, Roosevelt's father, Theodore Senior, was only twenty-nine years old. Like many of his social class among the New York Knickerbockers, he bought an exemption from the draft, hiring two substitutes for three hundred dollars each.
According to his daughters, he was deferring to the wishes of his Southern-born wife, Mittie, whose family was fighting for Dixie. "Mother was very frail, and felt it would kill her for him to fight against her brothers," recalled the eldest Roosevelt
daughter, Anna (known as "Bamie," or "Bye"). In later years it became conventional wisdom among the Roosevelt women — Bamie; her younger sister, Corinne; and Roosevelt's eldest daughter, Alice — that Roosevelt was deeply affected by the sense of shame,
unacknowledged and perhaps inadmissible, that he felt about his father ducking a soldier's duty in the Civil War. "He felt he had to explain it always, about the father he admired so hugely," said one of TR's nieces in an oral history. "He subconsciously
felt that it was a spot on his father that had to be erased by him."
At the time, Theodore Senior felt guilty about hiring a substitute. "He always afterward felt that he had done a very great wrong in not having put every feeling aside and joined the fighting forces," said one of his daughters. He spent most of the fist
two years of the war away from home, helping soldiers get medical attention and stay in touch with their families, and, when they died, bringing their bodies home. Roosevelt Senior possessed what he called a "troublesome conscience." He was a "muscular
Christian" who believed that he had a duty to do good, to use his wealth and position to aid the less fortunate. He helped create the Children's Aid Society and the Newsboys' Lodging House (where he spent every Sunday night with the often poor and
familyless boys), as well as a hospital, the American Museum of Natural History, and, with John Pierpont Morgan, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
One of his closest colleagues in the New York charitable world was a young woman named Josephine Shaw Lowell. Many years later, when Mrs. Lowell was known as the "City's Saint" for her good works, she tried to act as a social conscience to Governor, then
President, Theodore Roosevelt. He dutifully wrote her to say that he hoped to live up to his father's example of civic duty, but he seems to have regarded her as a bit of a nag. As a boy, however, he saw her differently — as a gravely handsome young
widow dressed in black, telling in her gently thrilling voice tales of martyrdom in war.
"Effie," as she was called, was the daughter of wealthy Boston Brahmins who had become transcendentalists, believers in a utopia of virtue. She was still a teenage girl, though a very precocious one, when the Civil War broke out, and the struggle
enthralled her. She hoped that sacrifice for such a noble cause, the freeing of the slaves, would purify the country. Deciding that she would make a good soldier, she wrote in her diary, "for I am not an atom afraid of death and the enthusiasm of the
moment would be sublime." To her family, sacrifice for goodness' sake was sublime. Her parents had been overjoyed when their sunny, golden-haired son, Robert Gould Shaw, was chosen to lead Union army's first black regiment. A staunch foe of slavery, he
took the commission despite the still strong prejudice against blacks in polite Boston society because he felt it would be cowardly not to.
Effie had been on the balcony when her older brother — whom she called Rob — stopped his horse to kiss his sword before 44 Beacon Street, a few doors from the Lodge mansion where young Cabot had stood wide-eyed at the window. Missing her brother, she
wrote him that she wished he could sustain a small wound so he could come home. "I am much obliged to you, for wishing me a wound," he wrote back, amused. "Is there any other little favor, I could do for you?" In July 1863 Colonel Shaw was ordered to
attack a Confederate redoubt, Fort Wagner, on the South Carolina coast. Leading the charge under heavy fire, he was killed as he mounted the parapet. The Confederate commander was quoted as saying that he would have given Shaw a proper military burial
had he fought with white troops, but as it was, he would bury him in a common grave (he was later misquoted as saying "with his niggers"). Shaw's father, Frank, resisted efforts to recover the body from its mass grave with his son's black soldiers. Years
later the poet Robert Lowell would write:
The widow Lowell dressed in black and began mailing friends copies of Harvard Memorial Biographies, detailing how her brother and husband had died. For a short time she was depressed and made her bedroom into a campsite shrine, with her blanket on the
floor and pictures of her dead husband everywhere. Then she transformed private grief into public duty. Dressed in her widow's weeds — she wore black for the rest of her life — Effie plunged into social work, often working side by side with Theodore
Roosevelt, Sr., in the effort to help Union soldiers and then, after the war, to keep New York's charities from being exploited by the city's political machine. Thus, during and after the war she came to be a regular visitor in the Roosevelt home. She
was shy and slight, with light hair and blue eyes; her distinguishing feature was her voice — "low, vibrant, and enormously compelling," according to her husband's biographer, Carol Bundy. It is likely that little Teedie first heard of the legends of
Robert Gould Shaw and Charles Russell Lowell from their grieving and fiercely proud sister and widow.
Teedie, who was small and sickly, prone to gasping asthma attacks, worshipped his warm and civic-minded father. His attempts to banish a sissyish self-image and win his father's respect were epic, including daily weightlifting and climbing the Matterhorn
before he turned fifteen. As a fourteen-year-old, in 1873 he wrote his father describing a boxing match he had fought with his cousin John Elliott while visiting Germany:
And so on, the blacker and bluer the better. "If you offered rewards for bloody noses you would spend a fortune on me alone," Theodore Junior proudly wrote his father. On his European tour, Roosevelt was fascinated by dueling German students, especially
one known as Herr Nasehorn (Sir Rhinoceros) because the tip of his nose had been sliced off in a duel and sewn on again. The physical training was matched with the intellectual: Roosevelt memorized Longfellow's Saga of Olaf and read and reread the
Nibelungenlied, reveling in the prowess of Norse gods and men whom Roosevelt regarded, in some misty way, as his Viking forebears.
In 1878, in the winter of Theodore's sophomore year at Harvard, his father died. The cause was metastatic colon cancer, but in Roosevelt's mind his father had been fatally weakened by a foray into the treacherous world of politics. A would-be reformer,
Theodore Senior was appointed by President Rutherford B. Hayes to clean up the corrupt Customs House of New York, but he was thwarted and publicly embarrassed by the machine of Roscoe "Boss" Conkling and made to appear a naive pawn in a game played by
political professionals. A swaggering womanizer, Conkling made clear that regular politicians were manly, while gentlemen reformers were not, a message not lost on the younger Roosevelt.
Rushing home from college, Roosevelt arrived too late to say good-bye to his father, who died screaming in agony from a stomach tumor. In February Roosevelt wrote his Harvard friend Hal Minot, "It is almost impossible to realize I shall never see Father
again; these last few days seem like a hideous dream."
By that summer a tormented Roosevelt struggled with his conviction that he would never live up to the example of his father's moral and physical strength — while burning with a less conscious desire to outdo him. The family believed that Theodore Senior
had been weakened by an overly ambitious hiking expedition six months before he died. The summer of 1878 found his nineteen-year-old son furiously riding his horse and rowing his little boat about Long Island Sound, complaining of attacks of cholera
morbus (his family's melodramatic term for nervous diarrhea) but relentlessly pushing himself.
Roosevelt had named the rowboat the Edith, after Edith Carow, an attractive, bookish, quietly formidable friend of his sisters — the playmate little Teedie had stuffed in the back room when Lincoln's cortege passed by. He found her "very pretty," he
wrote his sister Bamie, "when she dresses well and don't frizzle her hair," and he began courting her, taking her rowing and sailing every day. Then, in late August, meeting alone in the "summer house" of Tranquility, the estate his family rented in
Oyster Bay, a quiet hamlet on the verdant north shore of Long Island, the two quarreled and broke up. In a highly agitated state, Roosevelt nearly rode his horse to death, and when a neighbor's dog barked at him, he took out a pistol and shot it.
He returned to Harvard in September full of determination to honor his father. "For the next two years, my duty is clear — to study well and live like a brave Christian gentleman," he wrote in his diary. But he was soon distracted by the pleasures of
club life. At the top of Harvard's social hierarchy, in which students were ranked with some precision, stood the Porcellian Club, an organization of some twenty members who dined and drank together (the latter prodigiously). Bruising some feelings and
showing a sense of expediency that would have raised his father's eyebrow, he accepted membership in one club, the A.D., then renounced it to join the Porcellian. Roosevelt was not an obvious choice for the "P.C." Well-born boys were supposed to be
"chill and genteel," as his clubmate Owen Wister put it; they affected "a cult of indifference." Roosevelt was far too enthusiastic.
"Of course I spend a good deal of my spare time up in the Porcellian Club, which is great fun," Roosevelt proudly wrote his sister Corinne in early November, a month after joining. "I am going to cut Sunday School today, for the second time this year."
Though as a somewhat priggish freshman Roosevelt had disdained the college swells, he became one. "Please send my silk hat at once," he instructed his mother in a letter written on Porcellian stationery. "Why has it not come before?"
In October, just as he was joining the Porcellian, he began courting Alice Lee, a prize girl — sunny, flirtatious, athletic, golden haired, a princess with a pert upturned nose. She shared bloodlines with most of upper-crust Boston (a distant cousin was
Henry Cabot Lodge). Roosevelt was an ardent suitor who may have seemed a little overwhelming to a seventeen-year-old girl. He pressed; she drew back, though never so far that he gave up. Finally, in the winter of 1880, as Roosevelt neared graduation, she
accepted his hand. By April he was crowing about "my sweet, laughing, teasing little queen," though he confided to his cousin John (the same "Johnie" he had battered in the boxing ring), "The little witch led me a dance before she surrendered, I can tell
you." He was so worried about rivals that he sent off to Europe for dueling pistols.
In the years after the Civil War, gentlemen generally did not seek public office. Governments, particularly in municipalities run by political machines like New York's Tammany Hall, were considered corrupt (which they were) and degrading. Roosevelt was
warned, he wrote in his autobiography, that politics were "low," the province of "saloon-keepers, horse-car conductors, and the like." But a few earnest patricians like Roosevelt's father were expected to do their duty and offer proposals for reform,
even if no one expected much good to come of them. In 1881, at the age of twenty-two, Roosevelt accepted the Republican nomination for the New York State Assembly. "Too true! Too true! I have become a 'political hack,'" he wrote a wellborn friend. He was
being uncharacteristically arch. He had a deep purpose, half recognized — to stand up to the pols who had defeated his father and, possibly, to succeed where his father had failed.
Ever a fancy dresser, Roosevelt made the mistake of appearing on the Assembly floor wearing a purple satin waistcoat and speaking a society drawl. Mocked as a "Jane Dandy" and "Oscar Wilde," Roosevelt did not flinch. Hearing of a plan to humiliate the
new "dude" by tossing him in a blanket, he marched up to "Big John" McManus, an ex-prizefighter and Tammany lieutenant, and hissed, "By God, if you try anything like that, I'll kick you, I'll bite you, I'll kick you in the balls. I'll do anything to you
— you'd better leave me alone." McManus did.
From The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hears, and the Rush to Empire, 1898 by Evan Thomas. Copyright 2010 by Evan Thomas. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group. All rights reserved.
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