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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 40.
- Review Date: 2010-02-08
- Reviewer: Staff
America acquired an empire in a fit of neurosis, according to this shrewd, caustic psychological interpretation of the Spanish-American War by well-known. Newsweek editor and bestselling author Thomas (Sea of Thunder). The book focuses on three leading war-mongers—Teddy Roosevelt, his crony, Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, whose fanciful New York Journal coverage of the Cuban insurrection and the sinking of the USS Maine fanned war hysteria. Ashamed of their fathers’ failure to fight in the Civil War, according to Thomas, these righteous sons trumped up a pointless conflict with Spain as a test of manhood, conflating the personal with the national. To Thomas they represent an American ruling elite imbued with notions of Anglo-Saxon supremacy over alien races and lower orders, but anxious about its own monied softness. As foils, Thomas offers Thomas Brackett Reed, the antiwar speaker of the House, and philosopher William James, who advanced an ethic of moral courage against the Rooseveltian cult of physical aggression.Thomas’s thesis is bold and will undoubtedly be controversial, but his protagonists make for rich psychological portraiture, and the book serves as an illuminating case study in the sociocultural underpinnings of American military adventurism. 45 b&w photos, 2 maps. (Apr. 27)
Behind the headlines of a pivotal war
Evan Thomas, assistant managing editor at Newsweek, appears regularly on “Meet the Press,” “Larry King Live” and “Today,” and that background is apparent in his new book, The War Lovers. Readers who enjoy made-for-television history are most likely to appreciate this rehash of the events that led to the Spanish-American War and what the jacket copy calls our nation’s “ferocious drive toward empire.” The explosion of the Battleship Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, was almost certainly an accident, but newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst charged that Spanish saboteurs had planted explosives on the craft. Hearst’s headlines in his New York Journal pressured Congress to declare war, a step favored by powerful Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts. The third “war lover,” Theodore Roosevelt, actually fought in the war, and his charge up San Juan Heights under enemy fire made him a national hero—and ultimately President of the United States. Yet Thomas accuses the trio of fabricating evidence to support the theory of an act of terrorism.
Thomas’ own heroes are two doves: Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed and William James, psychologist, philosopher, religious thinker and Harvard professor. Although Lodge and Roosevelt had once planned how to win the presidency for Reed, the speaker broke with his former friends over the war, and James pronounced the United States “now as dangerous to the world as anything since Bonaparte’s time.” He understood that Spain had oppressed the Cuban people, he said—but he could not excuse President McKinley’s demand for the Philippines in the name of freedom and uplift.
Thomas clearly means the reader to see parallels between U.S. foreign policy of the late 19th century and the early 21st century. In both eras, did America invent enemies and rush to war?
A cropped portrait of Theodore Roosevelt serves as the cover illustration for The War Lovers. Thomas notes that I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby hung Roosevelt’s likeness over his desk, “drawing inspiration from it” as he toiled for his boss, Vice President Richard Cheney. That’s just the sort of anecdote that Larry King fans will love to hear Thomas tell.
James Summerville writes from Dickson, Tennessee.