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.