Evan Thomas Asks Why We Fought Spain in 1898


Aaron Leonard is a writer and freelance journalist and regular contributor to the History News Network. His writings can be found at www.aaronleonard.net.

Evan Thomas has just published The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire 1898 (Little, Brown 2010). Through unfolding the lives of three characters -- soon-to-be-President Theodore Roosevelt, Senator, Henry Cabot Lodge, and journalist William Randolph Hearst -- Thomas tells the story of the American push to war with Spain and the ushering in of the United States’ imperial era. I sat down for coffee with Thomas in New York recently to talk about the book.

Why did the U.S. go to war with Spain in 1898?

There many reasons and scholars have been fighting about this for decades.  One of the theories that I reject is the economic theory.  I know there is a revisionist school that believes that we were doing this to open up markets and I think some of that impetus crept in.  In working on [my book] though, I was struck by the fact that Henry Cabot Lodge, who had many friends on Wall Street and in the business community, was fighting them over going to war.  They didn’t want war, they thought it would be bad for the markets.  Now, as the war got under way, the business community got on board, and some of them did begin to see the possibility of new markets abroad.  So there was an economic motive, but I think it was of a lower order.

I think the ineffable things are more important.  I was impressed with the gender scholarship that has been undertaken in recent years -- particularly writings about maleness and masculinity.  There was an awful lot of emphasis on being a man and being manly in that time. They were worried about a lack of manliness, worried about impotence and homosexuality.  They needed to prove they were men.  They were also made nervous by the new women who were coming onto the scene, women who could ride bicycles and who wanted to vote.  All of that was threatening.  I think that that was something of an undercurrent which helped make the country more susceptible to war, to show that [American men] were warlike.  It was one of those social forces lurking beneath the surface -- and sometimes directly expressed -- but it is important.

You also cannot forget the humanitarian issue.  It is true that Spain was oppressing Cuba.  They had been colonizing Cuba for four hundred years and the Cubans had been in revolt off and on since 1868.  There was a horrific repression in play; the Spaniards used concentration camps and starved people.  So there was a legitimate humanitarian motive to intervene on the part of the United States.

It is hard to assign dominant factors.  My own impression, and it is not quantifiable, is that these other factors I was talking about -- this desire to prove what a strong race [Americans] were -- were a more subliminal but more important factors than either the economic factor or the avowed humanitarian one.

An undercurrent throughout the book is white supremacy and its accompanying pseudoscientific theories. Could you talk about that?

It can be a little difficult to write about this period because the racial attitudes that today are abhorrent and unacceptable were common, particularly among the educated classes.  It fascinated me that the center of eugenic thought, the center of the ideas of social Darwinism, that the Anglo-Saxon race was superior, was at places like Harvard and Yale.  The cutting edge of the Academy was propagating theories that today are laughable, if not abhorrent.

Teddy Roosevelt was, by our lights, a terrible racist.  In his own time he probably wasn’t all that bad.  He was a Lamarckian.  He believed that the Anglo-Saxons were the superior race, but that over time the lesser races would take on the characteristics of the better races and there would be a kind of evening out.  Now that is grotesquely wrong, but that marked him as somebody who was really more benign than the figures who thought that the lesser races are always going to be inferior and the Anglo-Saxons were always going to be on top and that’s just the way it is.

This racial background is relevant to me because one of the animating forces in the book is the feeling that came up in the upper classes in the 1880s and 1890s that they were growing weak. “Over-civilized” was the word they used.  They worried about this.  Here they had this theory that they were supposed to be part of the master race that was going to dominate the world, and yet members of their class were suffering from headaches, stomachaches, the women would get vapors and such.  It was a paradox.  If they were such a super race, how come they felt so bad?  Roosevelt resolved it by saying that we needed to recapture the frontier spirit and the vigor of an earlier time, the spirit shown by Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone and all these explorer type personalities.  He had an expression for it:  “to feel again the wolf rising in the heart.”  He gave a speech in 1897 where he said, “All the great masterful races have been fighting races...No triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumph of war.”

He was very open about this ideology.  It is almost too easy to mock people like Roosevelt for this.  You have to accept him and his contemporaries, to some degree, on their own terms.  That was a bit of a struggle for me in writing the book -- to not just make fun of them, to find the subtle distinctions.  Roosevelt wasn’t as extreme as some of his contemporaries.  In many ways he was a good hearted person.  All people are complex.  Roosevelt was particularly complex.

Let’s talk about that some, because there is Roosevelt the person but then there is the social role he played, the political role.  In the book, he almost leaps from the page; boundlessly aggressive, hubristic, and full of moral certitude.  To what degree was he the personification of U.S. imperial or expansionist interests at the time?

He saw himself as the personification.  He had an ego the size of Mount Rushmore.  He wanted to be the perfect American.  He used the words American and Americanism — [he] didn’t like the word imperialism.  To him, that meant not only the qualities of intellect — qualities he possessed — but this animal vigor, this desire for conquest, this need to dominate.  He felt these were marks of a great race and a sign of national destiny.  He felt he embodied this, or perhaps he was eager to prove that he embodied this — though who knows if at four a.m. he doubted his own capacity.  Teddy Roosevelt is one of those people who became his own act.  He tried so hard to become something that eventually he became the thing he was trying to be.

How did the conquest of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines change the U.S.?

There’s this wonderful book called First Great Triumph by Warren Zimmermann, the subtext of which is that this was the beginning of an essentially American empire and American dominance.  I don’t totally buy that.  There was a great surge of war fever, for sure.  It gave the “Large Policy” folks, the imperialists, a moment to get some things done; we annexed Hawaii, Guam, Cuba, but the country was really not an imperialistic country.  Many people didn’t want to go seize colonies and possessions abroad.  This desire to be a great power melted away.

In the 1900 election, McKinley was an expansionist, but it really wasn’t a big issue in the campaign.  It wasn’t something that was stressed and he started shrinking the military down.  I think that this is very revealing.  One reason Roosevelt and Lodge wanted to get the U.S. into a war was to expand the Navy.  Their ultimate aim was to make the United States, like Great Britain, a maritime power.  They had read Admiral Mahan and wanted to expand the Navy.  The Navy building program got going and then it cooled off after the Spanish-American War because of the fundamentally isolationist spirit in the United States.  People were not all that excited about becoming Great Britain.

So I think this expansionist desire cooled off after the Spanish-American War.  Also, the Philippine War was ugly and it was not popular. Roosevelt ended it in 1902 when he was president.  He just declared victory.  The subtext is that there were Congressional investigations starting and Roosevelt wanted to end them.  He did not want to have a big public show about all the atrocities.  So, in July 1902, he said in effect, “We won,” but the counterinsurgency continued on for a number of years.

It was especially striking the way in which war with Spain became something of a vehicle for rapprochement between the Northern and former Confederate states.

This did interest me.  I would have hated to have been black in the 1890s. The North and South came together in the great spirit of togetherness to fight against Spain.  The South is re-embraced by the North.  There is one scene I describe where the Rough Riders took a train from Texas, where their training camp was, to Florida.  As the train passed through Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, people waved American flags and cheered for America.  That had not happened in thirty-five years.  It did bring the country together, but to a degree on the backs of black people.

One of the sad sub-stories here is that -- and you shake your head over this kind of thing -- there were many black troops who went to Cuba.  The military believed that, having lived in the South, blacks would be immune to tropical disease.  They were actually called the Immune Brigades.

Roosevelt’s own role in this was not great.  He wrote in his memoir about having to force some black soldiers back to the front by drawing his pistol.  It is not clear if that scene really took place.  It may have been a misunderstanding.  It was, of course, humiliating to the black soldiers.  Other dispatches show that black soldiers fought well.  Some ran up San Juan Hill with Roosevelt, and I believe they had higher casualty rates [than whites] or certainly comparable casualty rates.

It was significant on the Cuban side, too, because when we got there to liberate Cuba, some American soldiers were shocked to find that the army they were joining with to help liberate Cuba was more than half black.  Southern officers were particularly uncomfortable with the fact that Cuba’s revolutionary army had black officers.  There were no black officers in the U.S. Army.  One of the unfortunate things that happened was that at the Spanish surrender the Cuban rebel army was excluded from the ceremony.  The Americans were afraid they would commit atrocities.  These black soldiers were held outside Santiago at their own liberation ceremony.  They did not forget.  Fidel Castro went to Santiago in 1959, and the first thing he said in his speech was to the effect that this time, the rebels would not be kept out of the city.  He was referring directly to the humiliation of the incident in 1898, like it was yesterday.

Your writing suggests striking parallels between 1898 and the U.S. adventure in Iraq.  Yet something profoundly different seems to be in play.  In 1898, the U.S. was ascendant, about to gain an empire.  It is now more 110 years later.  The U.S. has confronted military defeat in Vietnam and a certain failure of mission in Iraq (to say nothing of the quagmire that is Afghanistan -- something the Soviets discovered not too long ago).  How do you see the contrast between then and now?

I don’t agree that Iraq is a defeat.  The surge worked in a clumsy way.  Iraq is a democracy today. It’s not a very good one, but it is a lot better than what existed with Saddam Hussein.  I think it was a costly war, a war we probably didn’t need to fight, but it doesn’t seem to have turned out all that badly, in terms of what is happening in Iraq right now.

As for the contrast between then and now, I don’t really know.  I have been seized by declinist feelings at times, but I am also sensitive to the fact that it is easy to be too gloomy.  This country is enormously resilient.  I wouldn’t count out the United States as a world power.  I think that is premature.  We still have a Navy – if there is one thing Roosevelt really advocated, it was the realization of Mahan’s dream of America as a maritime power.  That Navy still imposes a Pax Americana in the Pacific.  For a very long time, we have kept a kind of peace through much of the world where oil and a lot of other goods flow.  That said, I am uncertain as to where the United States is going.  I am not so sure it is true that were going into a period of inevitable decline. I hope it’s not true.  I think it is hard to predict.  I think it is easier to look back than it is to look forward.

Evan Thomas is a historian and journalist.  Two of his previous titles were New York Times bestsellers:  Sea of Thunder and John Paul Jones.  He was made editor at large of Newsweek in September 2006.  He is the magazine’s lead writer on major news events and the author of more than a hundred cover stories.  Thomas has won numerous journalism awards, including a National Magazine Award in 1998 for Newsweek’s coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.  In 2005, his 50,000 word narrative of the 2004 election was honored when Newsweek won a National Magazine Award for the best single-topic issue.

He has appeared on numerous television shows, including Charlie Rose and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.  He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a fellow of the Society of American Historians.  He is a graduate of Harvard and the University of Virginia Law School.

He is currently working on a book on the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower and his efforts at keeping the U.S. out of nuclear war.

He lives with his wife in Washington, D.C.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 5/24/2010

I believe Fidel Castro never took any black Cubans into the top echelons of his government, and as an egalitarian he was a fraud.

John D. Beatty - 5/18/2010

With Spain sliding to civil war that was three hundred years in coming, postponed only occasionally by various external events, the US needed stability for expanding markets.

Try that for a while.

Jon Martens - 5/17/2010

As a matter of fact, there were black commissioned officers in the volunteer infantry regiments of the Immune Brigade--the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th US Volunteer Infantry Regiments.

Benjamin O Davis Sr, the first black General Officer, began his career as a volunteer officer in 1898 in the 8th US Vols.

There were no black officers in the Regular Army to my knowledge, but let's not discount the volunteers.