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America’s ‘War Lovers’

Evan Thomas satirizes Roosevelt, Lodge and Hearst

Jul. 6, 2010
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The War Lovers (Little, Brown), Evan Thomas’ provocatively titled, satirical look at three colorful individuals who became prime movers in the birth of American imperialism, is a page-turning biographical account of human folly at its most outrageously eloquent.

Let’s start with Theodore Roosevelt, a rising politician in 1898 who bemoaned the apathy of American affluence for softening the pioneer spirit of westward expansion. For Roosevelt there were no more frontiers to explore, and like Alexanderthe Great, he wept that there were no more empires to conquer. We needed another war, thought Roosevelt, and what better place to look than the Caribbean? With Cuba under the domination of a rapidly declining Spain, clearly a war with Spain was the answer.

Young Roosevelt was loud and boisterous, but rather foppish underneath the bellicose front. Even more pretentious and elegant was his close friend and mentor, Henry Cabot Lodge, a young Massachusetts senator. Both were high born and well educated. The third member of the dramatis personae was the genius of yellow journalism, William Randolph Hearst, whose newspaper empire could change public opinion on the flip of a coin in an age of little corroborative investigative reporting. Hearst was amoral, pretentious and unscrupulous, with a high-pitched voice that could be quite intimidating when backed by his mother’s millions. He was not yet the suave tycoon of Citizen Kane. Nor was he a friend of Roosevelt’s, but a war would make good copy.

The author develops deliciously satirical portraits of these three, aghast at their pompous arrogance. How whimsical is the destiny that determines the course of history, Thomas implies. He makes the period’s overblown patriotism, the jingoism, seem ideologically quaint and unintentionally hilarious, despite the horrendous consequences.

There were other characters. Thomas Reed, the formidable speaker of the House, was a close friend of Roosevelt and Lodge but did not share their views of the inevitability of expansionism or America’s “Manifest Destiny,” the unspoken rationale of bringing truth to the oppressed and, of course, inferior peoples within our hemisphere. White Anglo-Saxon superiority was a given for most, but Reed was doubtful. The great psychologist, William James, Roosevelt’s teacher at Harvard, is one of the only sane voices of the period. He deplored war, realizing that man’s nobler instincts were often subterfuge for darker motives, deeply concealed and unexplored. He also deplored prejudice against “alien, inferior and mongrel races.” How history might have been altered had the impetuous Roosevelt been more influenced by his mentor.

Thomas wisely leaves it to the modern reader to draw comparisons between the early-20th-century posturing of America’s “indomitable supremacy” and the cynical foreign policies of our own period. Thomas avoids the easy conclusion of viewing turn-of-the-century imperialism as the beginning of a tragic continuum of misguided international efforts. His book is a tongue-in-cheek look at the flip side of history.


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