STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The reporter Evan Thomas of Newsweek has spent three years researching a war that's far from the news: America's war with Spain in 1898.
Mr. EVAN THOMAS (Author, "The War Lovers"): It's a pretty obscure war and most people have forgotten it, but I started thinking about it after the invasion of Iraq.
INSKEEP: He thinks of it because, like Iraq, the Spanish-American War was seen as a war of choice. Evan Thomas is our latest guest in our series American Lives. His book "The War Lovers" explores the lives of men who rushed to war in 1898. Thomas wanted to learn something about his support for a more recent war.
Mr. THOMAS: I would say I was a hawk. I mostly thought it was a good idea to invade Iraq. And I was second guessing my own judgment about that. I think I got swept up into it.
INSKEEP: And that's part of what drove you back into history looking for parallels.
Mr. THOMAS: Yes, it did.
INSKEEP: And so let's describe what happened in this war. It's 1898. The United States - how did it end up going to war with Spain?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, Spain owned Cuba at the time, and the Cubans had been off-and-on rebelling for years. And we just finally decided to help them out. So there was a legitimate reason for going to war. We did liberate Cuba. But I don't really think that was the main reason why we did it.
INSKEEP: You focus on a fairly large number of Americans who seemed, in the 1890s, almost desperate to go to war with somebody - maybe Spain, maybe somebody else. They just wanted war.
Mr. THOMAS: Well, anybody. I mean, Teddy Roosevelt wrote these letters: War with Germany, that'll be fine. War with England to liberate Canada. He was ready, really, for any war, because he felt that Americans were growing soft, over-civilized was the word that he used. And he felt that we needed to recapture what he called the wolf rising in the heart, a kind of animal spirit that all great nations have. He gave a speech saying that all the great races have been fighting races.
INSKEEP: And this was very much the language of the time, talk of the Anglo-Saxon race, which is how white Americans, at least, thought of themselves.
Mr. THOMAS: Particularly amongst the educated, elite classes. They believed the Anglo-Saxons were the kind of super race, the master race. Roosevelt and his friends couldn't quite understand: If we're the super race, how come we feel so bad?
INSKEEP: If anybody fits the title of this book, "The War Lovers," it would be Theodore Roosevelt. You've given his public reasons for wanting to go to war. Were there deeper reasons to go to war?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, certainly him, personally. He had this constant need, all through his life, to prove himself physically. He was a weakly, sick kid with asthma, and he hiked and then he began hunting, and he became a great hunter. And he would rate animals based on how dangerous they were. And, of course, the most dangerous game is man. And he wanted to fight in a war to test his courage by hunting men.
INSKEEP: Now you focus on a number of prominent characters at that time, most of whom favored going to war - William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper editor comes to mind. You also, though, focus on a couple of characters who fought against that tide, one of whom was the speaker of the House of Representatives, and I think somebody who's practically lost to history.
Mr. THOMAS: Thomas Brackett Reed is a pretty obscure figure now. I doubt anybody remembers him at all outside the state of Maine. But he was a very powerful man in his own time. They called him Czar Reed. He was speaker of the House. He was a huge force, but he's the tragedy in my book, because he opposed war.
Mr. THOMAS: He couldn't understand what this war fever was about. I think he had common sense. But he was the loser. As society got swept up, he was the guy who lost out.
INSKEEP: So let's figure out the drama here. Theodore Roosevelt isn't president yet. He's assistant secretary of the Navy, and there's this tremendous debate building in the country about what to do. How did the drama play out?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, Teddy Roosevelt, as assistant secretary of the Navy, did his best to get us into the war. He had the fleet ready to go take on the Spanish. He was constantly lobbying McKinley, and they were putting pressure. They were war hawks.
INSKEEP: President McKinley.
Mr. THOMAS: Putting pressure on William McKinley, who didn't want to go to war. This is significant. McKinley had seen war. He'd been in the Civil War. As he put it, he'd seen the dead stacked up at Antietam, but he could not - he was a politician, and he could not withstand the popular fervor. At Congress, they were basically having pep rallies to go to war by the end. The country just wanted a war.
INSKEEP: How did Thomas Brackett Reed, the speaker of the House, resist all this?
Mr. THOMAS: Because he was so clever, he was able to hold off for a while. He was able to keep the House of Representatives from voting for it, but only for a time. And he, too, got swept away. It broke his heart. At the end, he didn't even show up to vote.
INSKEEP: Everybody who was a friend of Theodore Roosevelt then told him don't go to war, but Roosevelt insisted on quitting his desk job and going off to fight.
Mr. THOMAS: Even his best friends thought he was nuts. He was a 39-year-old man with four kids, a very sick wife, his eldest son was having a nervous breakdown, and he had a responsible job in the war. He had every reason to stay, but he volunteered for the cavalry, bought a uniform at Brooks Brothers, and off he went.
INSKEEP: I wonder if I can get you to read a letter that you've dug up here from Theodore Roosevelt. He's writing years after the fact, but he's explaining on page 248 how desperately he wanted, not just to get a war started, but to go and fight himself.
Mr. THOMAS: Roosevelt wrote: When the chance came for me to go to Cuba with the Rough Riders, Mrs. Roosevelt was very ill, and so was Teddy. It was a question if either would ultimately get well. You know what my wife and children mean to me, and yet I made up my mind that I would not allow even a death to stand in my way, that it was my one chance to do something for my country and for my family and for my one chance to cut my little notch on the stick that stands as a measuring-rod in every family. I know now that I would have turned from my wife's deathbed to have answered that call.
INSKEEP: That is chilling to listen to.
Mr. THOMAS: It is.
INSKEEP: So how did the war turn out for Roosevelt, the man who favored it, for Reed, the man who opposed it, and for the United States?
Mr. THOMAS: For Roosevelt, it was the best thing that could happen to him politically. He was a national hero.
INSKEEP: And within a few years, he was president of the United States.
Mr. THOMAS: Very few years, he was president of the United States. Thomas Brackett Reed was a broken and beaten man. He resigned from the House that he had dominated, where he had been Czar Reed, went to practice law in New York, I think died of a broken heart in 1902.
INSKEEP: And then the United States: How was it changed by this experience?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, that's a more complicated question. I would say our imperialist urge kind of waned a little bit after this war. We got caught in a brutal counter-insurgency in the Philippines. We lost 4,000 men. It really didn't go that well. Americans kind of lost their taste for war for a time.
INSKEEP: So having conducted this study of the past, because you were wondering about the present and wondering about your own mind, what did you learn?
Mr. THOMAS: Well, I learned what I should have known from the beginning, is that countries get swept up into war. There's kind of an atavistic need to go to war. You know, we talked about weapons of mass destruction and so forth. But I think that the main reason why the Bush administration went to war in Iraq was because we wanted to teach the world a lesson after 9/11. We wanted, to put it crudely, to kick some ass.
INSKEEP: And Afghanistan, which had been knocked over...
Mr. THOMAS: It wasn't a big enough war yet. We needed a bigger war. And if I looked in my own heart, I think I had some of those atavistic feelings, this desire to show the world you can't kick the United States around. And we got sucked into something that actually has turned out OK. We did achieve some war aims. But we did it at great cost, and I don't - and clearly, we didn't really know what we were getting into.
INSKEEP: Evan Thomas is author of "The War Lovers." Thanks very much.
Mr. THOMAS: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: And our series American Lives continues tomorrow with a woman who, like Theodore Roosevelt, left her family behind to pursue an obsession.
Unidentified Woman: She was really a very ambitious and driven woman about photography at a time when women were really not supposed to be that way.
INSKEEP: The life of Dorothea Lange, tomorrow on MORNING EDITION.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: It's NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.