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Bookmarks Issue: 
48-Sept-Oct-2010
By: 
Evan Thomas
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Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898

A-The War LoversJournalist, author, and historian Evan Thomas is assistant managing editor at Newsweek and teaches journalism at Princeton University. His popular histories analyze major events through the lenses of selected leaders, participants, and eyewitnesses--a technique he refined in his first book, The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (1987), which surveys America’s role in the Cold War.

The Topic: The Spanish-American War of 1898 was a seminal event in U.S. history. It marked the country’s momentous debut on the world stage and its first foray into the type of imperialism it had so bitterly contested a century before. Inflamed by a potent mixture of social Darwinism, bigotry, and the romanticized myth of the warrior, three influential men--Assistant Secretary of the Navy (and future President) Theodore Roosevelt, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst--cajoled, bullied, and manipulated a reluctant President McKinley into sending troops to Cuba. Challenging the jingoists were House Speaker Thomas Reed and public intellectual William James, whose voices were drowned out by the public uproar following the sinking of the USS Maine.
Little, Brown and Company. 471 pages. $29.99. ISBN: 9780316004091

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Thomas’s historical analogies help bring the past to life, even if the reader doesn’t completely buy the thesis. He is a masterful writer and analyst and those skills make reading The War Lovers an eminently worthwhile and enjoyable experience." Claude R. Marx

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"Altogether readable, The War Lovers engagingly conveys what happened in this consequential period. Training a biographical lens on America’s engagement with the world at the close of the 19th century, Thomas offers an action-packed narrative replete with vivid descriptions of key events and deft character sketches." Jonathan Rosenberg

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"So, is it realistic to expect to explain long-dead strangers? No, it is not realistic. But the biographical enterprise is all about seeking understanding, however imperfect, that might yield truth--in this book, the truth about the Spanish-American War. Give Thomas an ‘A’ for effort." Steve Weinberg

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Roosevelt’s passion for the Spanish-American War is at the heart of The War Lovers, Evan Thomas’s vivid, insightful and readable account of the conflict and, more broadly, of America’s ‘rush to empire,’ as his subtitle has it. ... So was the ‘splendid little war’ (as it was famously called) justified? Mr. Thomas makes a strong case that it wasn’t." Robert K. Landers

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"The scheme [of building the narrative around a group of men] reenergizes a well-trod story and, more important, delivers revealing insights into the minds of the advocates for whom war ‘could be a bitch goddess, a seductress of young men and old fools, particularly the kind who had never experienced her savage embrace,’ as Thomas writes, alluding to words of James, whom he uses as a kind of Greek chorus. ... Thomas has delivered an innovative, frequently entertaining and valuable retelling of an episode that set the pattern for more than a century of foreign military adventurism." James McGrath Morris

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Despite its stark title, The War Lovers is a subtle, nuanced history of the country and its leaders as they entered the 20th century. Mr. Thomas’ scope is necessarily limited and at times superficial, but he adds an intriguing take on this period." Bob Hoover

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Thomas] does a good job describing the war itself, making it clear the United States triumphed less because of military derring-do than Spanish incompetence and defeatism. One wishes, though, that he had delved deeper into what happened once the Spanish were gone." Drew DeSilver

Critical Summary

Thomas exposes the reasons for and the consequences of this "war of choice" by carefully constructing his narrative around the men who masterminded it. As a result, he reinvigorates the familiar tale with little-known facts and fresh observations. In addition to describing fierce battles and behind-the-scenes political intrigues, Thomas adds dramatic tension by recounting the acrimony and violence that erupted between such men as Roosevelt, Lodge, and Hearst, and, on the other side, Reed and James. Critics were especially pleased with Thomas’s portraits of Lodge and Reed--two remarkable and powerful men who have, for the most part, been lost to history. A compelling and readable "cautionary tale" (Washington Post) with obvious parallels to current events, The War Lovers will fascinate readers of all genres.

Supplementary Reading

The Splendid Little War The Dramatic Story of the Spanish-American War | Frank Freidel (1958): Largely culled from the bloody and brutal firsthand experiences of the American soldiers who fought in Cuba, Freidel’s concise account bypasses the political maneuverings that led to war and details the actual campaigns and clumsy strategies that led to Spain’s defeat.

The Spanish War An American Epic 1898 | G. J. A O’Toole (1986): O’Toole’s sweeping military history, a broad, balanced, and comprehensive account of the events leading up to a declaration of war and the land and naval operations that that followed, draws on original documents to reveal new evidence of, among other things, troop movements and the true mission of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor.