Readers of The War Lovers, a fascinating account of the dawn of America’s imperial age by Newsweek reporter Evan Thomas, are bound to feel a twinge of déjà vu as they put down the book. Focusing on three men—Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and William Randolph Hearst—Thomas shows how they collaborated to usher in America’s age of empire. Revolving each around the other like spiders spinning interlocking webs, they ensnared a nation in their shared delusion, occasioning a bout of mass hysteria that culminated in the Spanish-American War.
No three men were more dissimilar. Roosevelt hated Hearst, considered him the very height of vulgarity, and routinely denied making comments attributed to him in the Hearst press, yet they were brothers in spirit, fellow ideologues committed not only to war with Spain but to an explicitly imperialist doctrine promulgated by a man very unlike either the bombastic Roosevelt or the uniquely eccentric Hearst. Lodge, a fastidious and studied patrician, was nervous and prone to melancholia. While Hearst was the publicist and Teddy the politician, the Waspish Lodge was the theoretician.
Lodge was widely disliked in the elite Boston circles from which he sprang. The Boston Brahmins, stalwart anti-imperialists, gave rise to the Anti-Imperialist League led by Edward Atkinson and his fellow New England “mugwumps”—the primary opposition to the expansionist policies advanced by the Lodge-Roosevelt-Hearst troika.
The anti-imperialists were mostly libertarians who believed—or, rather, foresaw—that the acquisition of an overseas empire would irrevocably change the character and complexion of the nation and lead to the abolition of our republican form of government. Lodge, however, was made of sterner stuff: He extolled war as an end in itself, a means to moral and cultural revitalization, a kind of tonic that had to be imbibed periodically in order to keep the nation in good health. As a member of the House, and then as a senator, his hobbyhorse was what he and his supporters called “the Large Policy.”
As Thomas describes it, Lodge “wanted to sprinkle the globe with American territorial possessions that would protect and open up trade.” In other words, he wanted mercantilism, a foreign policy run by and for investment bankers and their corporate vassals. You’ve heard of Lenin’s theory of imperialism, of course—that capitalism means constant warfare as a result of competition for overseas markets—but what you’ve probably not heard is that the Marxists got their theory from the “progressives” associated with Teddy’s brain trust. As Murray Rothbard pointed out in A History of Money and Banking in the United States,
By the late 1890s, groups of theoreticians in the United States were working on what would later be called the “Leninist” theory of capitalist imperialism. The theory was originated, not by Lenin but by advocates of imperialism, centering around [sic] such Morgan oriented friends and brain trusters of Theodore Roosevelt as Henry Adams, Brooks Adams, Admiral Alfred T. Mahan, and Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge.
According to these early theoreticians of American imperialism,
the ever lower rate of profit from the “surplus capital” was in danger of crippling capitalism, except that salvation loomed in the form of foreign markets and especially foreign investments. . . . Hence, to save advanced capitalism, it was necessary for Western governments to engage in outright imperialist or neo-imperialist ventures, which would force other countries to open their markets for American products and would force open investment opportunities abroad.
Feeding into this fear of impending decline were other notions, such as that given expression by Frederick Jackson Turner, a young college professor, in a speech to the American Historical Association called “The Frontier in American History.” With no more land to conquer and settle, Professor Turner averred, the race would fall into an inevitable senescence, spiritual as well as economic.
This fear permeated the circles in which Roosevelt and Lodge traveled. Roosevelt tried to alleviate it by becoming a caricature of the insecure male with something to prove. His obsession with actually getting into the fighting, as war with Spain loomed large, reveals a man clearly not at home with himself: The psychological roots of his bloodlust give off more than a whiff of Kraft-Ebbing. Weak and girlish as a child, as a man he “yearned for conflict,” writes Thomas, “the ultimate conflict of war.” Here was someone clearly out to prove the unprovable—with disastrous consequences for the nation.
Lodge’s bloodlust was more intellectualized, yet no less strident: If Teddy, embodying the bluster and braggadocio of early 20th-century American nationalism, was the Mussolini of the movement, Lodge was its Lenin. He was prepared to grasp any idea that advanced his concept of America as an emerging empire, particularly the theories of Adm. Alfred Thayer Machan, whose Influence of Sea Power on History was the key text of the expansionist canon. Machan’s book caused a sensation when it came out, receiving accolades not only from the Roosevelt brain trusters but from Kaiser Wilhelm, who declared he was “trying to learn it by heart.”
Machan’s thesis was simple: Sea power is the key to military dominance. He took as his prime example the British Empire, a vast domain that extended its trade routes—by force—around the globe. Utilizing the crudest sort of Social Darwinism then in vogue, Machan raised the banner of the Anglo-Saxon race as the savior and civilizer of mankind: Via sea power, the Anglo-Saxons would fan out across the Pacific and into the Indian Ocean, carrying with them the Anglo-Saxon seed. It was manifest destiny with a naval twist.
Lodge helped Roosevelt to get appointed assistant secretary of the Navy. Along with their faction in Congress, they pushed for a massive military buildup, with special emphasis on maritime “preparedness.” What they were preparing for was war with Spain, and they got it—with the invaluable assistance of the third member of the warmongering trio, Hearst.
The legendary newspaper publisher was an odd character, antisocial and introverted. His singular talent as a vulgarizer and spinner of tall tales masked yet another twisted psychological tangle of displaced passions and pathology masquerading as ideology. He was the pioneer in the art of journalism-as-narrative, which is not so much about reporting the news as it is creating a story line that simultaneously arouses the masses and serves some ulterior purpose.
Except, in Hearst’s case, there was nothing ulterior about his designs on the Spanish in Cuba: He wanted them out, and the United States in. When a rebel Cuban spy, who just happened to be an attractive lady, was arrested by the occupation authorities, he hired a young adventurer to rescue her from prison, a task made easy by generous bribes, although no mention of this was made in the account published in Hearst’s New York Journal. Instead, a fanciful tale of derring-do was invented, complete with drawings splashed across the front page of the damsel being abused by leering Spaniards. When the USS Maine went down, Hearst was truly in his element and—not for the first time—inspired to make up the news rather than report it. Hearst’s newspapers claimed that a torpedo hole was found in the hull of the Maine—a lie—and headlines screamed for American revenge. His editorial writers lambasted President McKinley for failing to rise to the occasion with sufficient bellicosity: The President was a “coward” who was “on his knees” before the Spanish. The speaker of the house, doughty old Thomas Bracket Reed, was “pro-Spanish” because he opposed the rush to war. If Hearst were alive today, his newspapers would be reporting that Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction” had somehow found their way into Iran, and only the faintheartedness of naysaying pacifists is preventing us from blowing them to smithereens.
Our road to empire was carpeted with corpses, and it wasn’t long before the peoples we pledged to uplift turned on us with a righteous vengeance. The practice of waterboarding was first introduced into the U.S. military not in Iraq or Afghanistan, but in the course of the U.S. occupation of the Philippines, the prize Roosevelt had his eye on from the very beginning. This was the first living laboratory in which the “progressive” theorists and international do-gooders who rallied to Roosevelt’s cause got to commit atrocities in the name of liberation and in the interest of social experimentation.
In the foreign-policy realm, their contemporary heirs are the neoconservatives, whose wars of liberation in Iraq and Afghanistan are rationalized in terms Senator Lodge and his cabal would find familiar. What was Lodge’s enthusiasm for national vitalism through constant war but an earlier version of the neocons’ “national greatness”? We can learn from the history of the War Party in this country only if we know it. Evan Thomas has performed a worthy service in presenting it in a new light.
[The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898, by Evan Thomas (New York: Little, Brown & Company) 480 pp., $29.99]