Thomas, editor at large at Newsweek and author of a biography of John Paul Jones and Sea of Thunder, a history of four naval commanders and the 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf, has concentrated on the character and ambitions of three powerful men who saw war as America’s golden road to world power.
‘When the Rough Riders took a train from Texas to Florida, American flags were being waved in Dixie. That hadn’t happened since before the Civil War’.
How did America get whipped into such a pro-war frenzy?
The Cubans were being oppressed by Spain, and we wanted to rescue them. But there were deeper forces at work. The most interesting one to me was the idea held in some of the upper classes that America was somehow soft—“overcivilized,” as Theodore Roosevelt put it. We needed a war to regenerate ourselves, and Roosevelt didn’t particularly care which war.
Did he talk about looking for a war?
He wrote about it. As early as 1886, he was thinking about raising a bunch of cowboys to fight the Mexicans after a minor border provocation. Then he wrote about hoping for a naval engagement against Britain. He wasn’t being hyperbolic; he was serious. It is a theme he repeatedly returned to in his correspondence. He said in 1895 or so that he wanted to have a great buccaneering expedition, to get Canada away from England or Cuba away from Spain.
Would you consider Roosevelt and the others imperialists?
Yes, although they disliked the word and didn’t want to colonize other peoples. They were sensitive to self-determination and democracy. Lodge talked about what he called the “large policy.” He’d been reading Captain Alfred Mahan and was convinced the United States should rival Great Britain as a great sea power and that we needed to build a great navy. He was already envisioning coaling stations in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Guam and a canal through the isthmus, to launch us as a great global sea power.
How could so many American leaders be “war lovers” just a half-century after the Civil War?
One person did worry about that: President William McKinley. He had been at Antietam as a major. He was the dove here. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt was constantly bugging McKinley to go to war against Spain, to liberate Cuba. McKinley resisted, saying to Roosevelt, “I have seen the dead stacked up at Antietam.” And he had seen it. Sometimes policymakers who have actually experienced war are more reluctant to get into war than the ones who have not.
Was the U.S. ready for war?
No. We had a very small standing army of about 25,000 that had been fighting Indians but was unready for an amphibious expedition. The bureaucracy was a mess, and the Army couldn’t provide proper supplies. The meat was rancid; soldiers were given hot winter uniforms; there weren’t enough quality rifles. There was chaos in Tampa, the port of embarkation. Roosevelt essentially had to steal a ship from New York units, to make sure he got his Rough Riders to Cuba.
Was America behind the war effort?
There was no shortage of volunteers. The propaganda was effective. The Army grew from 25,000 to 125,000 men almost overnight. It was a very patriotic period in American history. One of the war aims was to bring the country together, and it succeeded. When the Rough Riders took a train from Texas to Florida, American flags were being waved in Dixie. That hadn’t happened since before the Civil War.
Were Hearst and other journalists responsible for driving the nation into the war?
Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer helped invent the mass media scandal sheet—large circulations, sensationalist yellow journalism, feeding the masses conspiracy theories and sex and violence. Everybody was reading Hearst and Pulitzer; they had a disproportionate influence. Journalistic standards were not too great, at least in Hearst publications. Hearst never shied away from having his reporters make up what they didn’t know.
As chaotic as the American adventure in Cuba was, the Spanish didn’t fare much better, did they?
The only thing holding the Spanish together was pride. They wanted to die. When they sailed out for their last naval battle, they put on their dress uniforms, all flags flying, men lined up on deck and lining the yardarms. It was a suicide mission. The American sailors couldn’t believe it. It was like the Spanish were on parade. And they were on parade, a parade of death, because they were all sunk.
What about the Philippines?
The Philippines were an afterthought. Roosevelt sent Commodore [George] Dewey and his fleet to fight the Spanish fleet in Manila Harbor. Having defeated the Spanish, all of a sudden we were occupying the Philippines. The problem was, instead of welcoming us as
liberators, the Filipinos regarded us as occupiers and revolted, launching a war that lasted four years and cost 4,000 American lives.
Roosevelt comes across as bloodthirsty. Was he?
His letters are bloody-minded, but I think Roosevelt was trying to show that he was an unsentimental realist. I don’t think he meant to, but he comes across as being a little ghoulish. But, clearly, he loved battle. As he ran down Kettle Hill, leading his men up to San Juan ridge, he shouted, “Holy Godfrey, what fun!” I don’t think there are too many combat commanders who would be shouting that as they charged. But Roosevelt’s men loved him. They did not think he was nutty, they thought he was brave. He led from the front, literally. It was probably a miracle he was not killed.
Was the Spanish-American War good for Roosevelt, politically?
There was an immediate reward. Although there is no evidence Roosevelt thought there would be a political benefit for him personally, it certainly occurred to his friend Henry Cabot Lodge. He wrote to Roosevelt, who was still on top of San Juan Hill, to say that people were already talking about Roosevelt running for governor of New York. Within a week after returning in August 1898, he met with the leader of New York’s Republican Party.
How did the war affect the reputations of American military leaders?
Dewey was a great national hero. Leonard Wood did well and went on to become the military governor of Cuba. But the Army commander, [Maj. Gen. William] Shafter, who had done well in the Civil War, had become a pathetic figure. He was so fat he had to be carried around on a board.
Did racism play a role in this conflict?
Yes. The Army had many Southern officers, and Reconstruction was still a fresh memory. One of the crises came when the American Expeditionary Force arrived in Cuba, and the Cuban rebels were half black. What’s more, they had black officers, which was anathema to many soldiers. The American soldiers thought the Cuban rebels were poor fighters because they didn’t believe in frontal assaults. They were guerrillas; they didn’t want to go racing up the hill. And part of the reason there were so many American blacks in the U.S. force, mostly “Buffalo Soldiers,” is because Army commanders believed blacks were somehow immune from tropical disease, which, of course, is not true.
Did the war shape later Cuban history?
When the Americans excluded the Cuban rebels from the surrender ceremony, it was a great blow to Cuban pride, and they never forgot. When Fidel Castro came out of the hills in 1959, he was quick to remind the people that the Americans had denied the Cubans their dignity. So it’s a fresh wound. Even though we liberated Cuba, they don’t quite remember it that way. They remember us as intervening and then placing onerous conditions on their new government and exploiting them economically. There are still billboards on the road from Santiago to Daiquirí, where the Americans landed, quoting the Cuban military commander Calixto García about Cuban dignity and how the Americans had robbed them of that dignity.