GUEST: Evan Thomas
I’m Richard Heffner, your very, very long-time host on The Open Mind.
Indeed, after all these years of on-the-air conversations with both the makers and the chroniclers of the American experience, I’m reminded that it was just 50 years ago this month that the much honored grandfather of today’s guest joined me here.
But, it was quite an occasion then to welcome Norman Thomas, six times Socialist candidate for President of the United States, and to enjoy the warmth and wisdom of that singular American.
And I suspect Norman Thomas would have found his journalist, historian, biographer grandson Evan Thomas’ new Little Brown volume, “The War Lovers” as compelling — and as on-target — as I have in its tale of America’s rush to empire in the late 19th century and the roles played by Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Randolph Hearst and others.
I dare say Norman Thomas would have approved its thrust, as well…particularly its perceptive penultimate comment about two famous American “war lovers”, President Theodore Roosevelt and his namesake son – that “Because only the dead have known the end of war, they will not be the last”.
But I would begin our program today by asking my journalist guest — who has long been a writer and editor at Time and Newsweek magazines – just why he ends “The War Lovers” as he does…with reference to Teddy Roosevelt’s old office as America’s baldly aggressive Assistant Secretary of the Navy being used now as home to senior White House staff.
And I quote again: “In recent years, an occupant proudly hung a portrait of Roosevelt on the wall, to draw inspiration from it. As J. Lewis (“Scooter”) Libby sat at his desk, toiling for his boss, Vice-President Richard Cheney, he had only to look at the wall to see the old war lover staring down at him.” Now why, why …
HEFFNER: … why end it that way? What is it … what are you telling us?
THOMAS: I covered the Iraq war and the War on Terror for Newsweek and I used to go see Scooter Libby all the time.
My office is about a half a block from the White House and after 9/11 when I was talking to him he pointed to Roosevelt’s portrait and he said, “you know, when the planes hit the buildings on 9/11, that portrait shook”.
And I didn’t know quite how to respond to that. I wasn’t quite sure if he was putting me on or being literal. And as I got to know him better, it was clear that he was being literal.
He really had a kind of mystical feeling about it all. And one thing I will say about Scooter Libby although he, you know, was ultimately convicted for misleading the FBI and all that … I found him to be utterly sincere. Yes, he’s manipulative, but he really believed in what he was doing … in a kind of messianic way.
And I think he took a kind of psychic power from that portrait of Teddy Roosevelt.
I know that sounds melodramatic and kind of hard to believe but that’s the way it seemed to me. And so, being around Libby and writing about the Iraq War got me thinking about “war fever”, the phenomenon of “war fever”.
Why is it that countries go to war? Whether they need to or not. I mean some wars … unlike my grandfather, I’m not a pacificist. Actually he was not a pacifist in World War II.
I think World War II was completely necessary. Some wars are.
But some wars are wars of choice. And the Spanish American War certainly was. As the Iraq War was.
And so I decided to go back in time and look at the Spanish American war as a kind of a case study in a country being swept up in “war fever”. And, of course, if you … anybody who does that is going come right to Teddy Roosevelt.
HEFFNER: “War fever”, tell us more about that.
THOMAS: Well, I would define ‘war fever” as a slightly irrational (laugh) or maybe totally irrational feeling that sweeps up nations at certain times.
I mean why did the country suddenly feel that it had to go to war against Spain in 1898. There wasn’t any huge reason. Yes, Cuba was revolting against Spain. But they’d been doing it since 1868.
The Cubans, probably left to their own devices would have eventually freed themselves. There was a humanitarian purpose … there was. So there was a rationale.
But that’s not why we did it. Now the Maine blew up in Havana Harbor. But even on that … Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, sitting in that very same office had on his desk, the day the Maine blew up … a letter suggesting that these new battle ships were unsafe because the coal bunker was too close to the powder magazine. It could cause accidents.
That’s exactly what happened on the Maine. So Roosevelt had a pretty good reason to believe that it was an accident. But that letter (laughter) went, went into the bottom drawer …
HEFFNER: Didn’t see the light of day.
THOMAS: Never saw the light of day. And instead … a Naval Board of Inquiry found that it was a Spanish mine or torpedo. A provocative casus belli for going to war. And unnecessary manipulation of the truth to get us to go to … because Roosevelt was looking for provocation and because he could sense the country was ready to, to go to war.
And, and why? Well, there … we should … there were… there’s lots to talk about. I wrote a whole book about it. I mean it’s never one thing, as you know.
There are a number of things. It’s like a storm system … various fronts all collide at the same time and they produce a storm … a storm of war.
HEFFNER: But you know at, at, at the point at which you talked about Speaker Reed and you say “he missed the sense of the country”.
Was it the sense of the country … is that what you come away with or do you come away with the feeling that William Randolph Hearst and Pulitzer and others along with the war thirsty, war hungry Roosevelt …
HEFFNER: … and Lodge did this. Do you …
THOMAS: That, that’s a fair question. I mean, you know, in history, you’re endlessly debating … was it the … some inert force, some movement or were the people … you know, the truth is usually somewhere … there, there was a kind of readiness … a willingness … there was a lot of dry kindling lying around in America in 1898.
But there were a few people throwing matches right and left. You mentioned William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper publisher who was in love with war and did his best to get us into war … claimed credit for the war.
Now he grossly exaggerated, now he didn’t cause the Spanish American War, but he sure did his best to get us into it and stirred the pot as much as he could.
And in the small US government of 1898 … and we have to remember how small it was … there was no National Security Staff, there’s no National Security Advisor. There are no “think tanks”. There are Congressional Committees, but barely.
So, somebody like Teddy Roosevelt even though he’s only Assistant Secretary of the Navy … by the force of his personality and his machinations can make things happen. And, and they were busily plotting war over, over lunch … over double lamb chops at the Metropolitan Club (laugh) … I mean literally.
Ah, with Commodore Dewey and Alfred Mahan and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. So there was this little group constantly stirring the pot and the, the public was ready to be excited … now this is … there are deeper reasons for this.
I don’t think, I don’t they were straining at the bit. They weren’t automatically sharpening their bayonets. But they were ready to be aroused.
I mean the very fact that when McKinley … finally against his wishes … and we’ll talk about this … did declare war … he called for 125,000 volunteers, he got a million men (snaps fingers) overnight.
And just to get a little deeper into this, one thing .. that the country was looking for a way to unite North and South after the Civil War … the Civil War was a long time ago … the country has been badly divided … war is and has always been and always will be, unfortunately, (laugh) a good way to bring countries together against a common enemy.
And it did have that effect. And people were looking for a way to, to come together … North and South. So that was a factor.
HEFFNER: How do you explain the fact that your alma mater, Harvard, played such a …
HEFFNER: … an incredible role in supplying all of these …
THOMAS: Sure did.
HEFFNER: … blood-thirsty …
THOMAS: It, it sure did. Well, that goes to, I think, the deeper reason … the real reason … to me … the real reason for all this.
The scholarship at Harvard and Yale in that era was the most popular scholarship … centered around Social Darwinism. This idea of the survival of the fittest … Darwin gave us the idea of the survival of the fittest.
And this was adulterated by various scholars into this belief that some races are more fit than others … and here’s a shock … the most fit race is the Anglo Saxon race.
They used the word “race” very loosely in the 1880’s and 1890’s and they have kind of mythical and to us, preposterous notions of race.
But they … this was the scholarship. This was “science” or what passed for science. If, if you were a student at Harvard College in the 1880’s, this what you were learning.
And, so you were getting the steady dose that there was this great Anglo Saxon race and it was destined to conquer, to succeed, to rule the world, to over all the other races.
But … and here’s the “but” … there was at the same time this feeling of weakness and lassitude. Particularly in the upper classes. The very people who were supposed to be leading the charge were having headaches and stomach aches and the women were having “vapors” and these neurotic young men … and the word of that era was “neurasthenia”. Neurasthenia was a broad definition encompassing a host of maladies … psychosomatic maladies … today we would call it neurotic … but then it was called “neurasthenic”.
All these neurasthenic” young men were looking for a way to reconcile their sense of their destiny, but their own feelings of inadequacy. And Roosevelt was particularly leading the charge here … literally and figuratively.
He would talk about how … that America was over-civilized, that we’d grown soft, that all the great … as he put it in a famous speech in 1897 … all the great masterful races have known the supreme triumphs of war.
That that is the great way countries mobilize themselves and overcome their weakness and come together.
And he had another expression which was evocative. He would talk about the “wolf rising in the heart”, that we need to find the “wolf rising in the heart” … this kind of primitive, atavistic feelings that make a race great and that had been lost or suppressed or repressed and what better way to evoke it than war.
Now this all sounds kind of … by our modern lights … a bit over the top. But they didn’t hide the ball, this was their very clearly expressed … this … I’m not reading into the record here (laugh) … if anything, I’m toning it down.
There … they were very explicit about it. And …to go back to your question … the scholars … the center of this scholarship really was Harvard and Yale. That’s … because that, that’s where … I mean, for instance … the first ever Harvard Ph.D. … and I think the third Ph.D. in the United States … I think this is right … was Henry Cabot Lodge.
In something called Teutonic Studies. What’s that about? They had this theory that democracy was borne in the Teutonic woods in ancient Germany. Complete gibberish, but that was the great scholarship of the time, this idea that our ideas of the rule of law and … all came … Anglo Saxon rule of law all came from the misty past of, of Germany.
Well, I mean maybe a tiny little bit possibly, along with other things. But that was the scholarship of the day.
HEFFNER: You find a counterpart today? Did … talking about evocative …
THOMAS: Well, I mean … certainly there are parallels to the Iraq War …
HEFFNER: Is that what that last paragraph in the book means?
THOMAS: Yes. Sure. I mean … I, I wrote this book because of the Iraq War. I’m covering … writing about the Iraq War for Newsweek and I’m … it gets me interested in this general subject.
HEFFNER: But you write that you were sort of “pro” to begin with …
THOMAS: I was …
HEFFNER: 51/49 …
THOMAS: … absolutely … I was pro … I was a “hawk” … I was a 51/49 hawk because that the way I am. But I was a “hawk”. And one thing that … this is … I felt … at Newsweek, in the winter of 2003 … an atavistic feeling.
HEFFNER: Your friends at Harvard.
THOMAS: Right. I felt it .. .that even among my anti-war friends … even the ones who certainly had been anti-war … I’m Vietnam generation, class of 1973 at Harvard. My draft number was 356. So I, I was around … but I kind of missed the real crunch … the classes that came before me would be more exposed.
But I was around. And when I was a freshman … you know … Kent State … and all that.
So most of my friends, my peers … are … were anti-war from that period. And some of them even were anti-war … or said they were about Iraq.
But in journalism … the great bias is for conflict. I, I don’t, I don’t … you know, people talk about our bias for the Left and our bias for the Right. You know there is some for all that. But our biggest bias is for conflict.
And what’s the biggest conflict? War. War is. And there’s no question that in the … at Newsweek … in the offices of Newsweek in the, in the winter of 2003 you could feel this kind of rising excitement and anticipation about going to war. Even amongst the people who said they were against war.
That wasn’t me … I was on, I was on the “hawk” side of the ledger, but I could feel this and I think that … I’ve always believed and I wrote it at the time … that the reason why we went to war in Iraq was not WMD, it was not geo-strategic stuff … it wasn’t, it wasn’t even Saddam … it was because and I’m going to be a little bit crude here … because we wanted to kick some ass. It was an atavistic feeling. We’d bee hit by 9/11 … and there was a feeling … particularly if you lived in, lived in New York or Washington that we wanted to show the world … teach them a lesson.
Tom Friedman has written about this … a lot. And I think kind of bravely and well that what was really driving the Bush Administration was not geo-strategy or WMD, it was, it was this … it was this .. show the world, “Don’t …” as George Bush would say, ‘Don’t mess with Texas” … “Don’t mess with the United States.” And there was this kind of desire for revenge.
HEFFNER: Yeah, but, but you were just talking about journalists … not talking about George Bush …
THOMAS: Well, I certainly think it’s true of George Bush … and this has been written about …
THOMAS: Okay … I …what I’m, I’m focusing on journalists because journalists don’t like to admit it. I mean I think that … not a whole lot of journalists like to go back and say, “Yeah, we really had this kind of uncomfortable desire to go to war in 2003”.
But look at the laundry list of people who did … who were hawks … who … this is not talked about much, but Bill Keller, editor of The New York Times … hawk. David Remnick, editor The New Yorker … hawk. My boss, Donald Graham, publisher of The Washington Post … hawk.
You know, it’s a pretty big line up of people and people have sort of forgotten that because the press turned against the war …for a lot of reasons …
HEFFNER: And you’re saying it’s a natural because headlines come from conflict and the biggest conflict is war.
THOMAS: I know you, you sound astonished because it seems so ugly and kind of brutal and thoughtless and heedless …
HEFFNER: Well, do you think I find journalism immune …
HEFFNER: … from all of those.
THOMAS: No, no I don’t. But I, I … but that’s the point. They’re not. And even though we don’t readily admit it, I’m saying that I could feel it and I could feel it amongst my peers and my rivals and my colleagues.
Not necessarily expressed … maybe not even conscious, but there.
HEFFNER: You think that Hearst … you say he didn’t … he said, “You supply the pictures, I’ll supply the war”, but you’re not claiming he had that kind of power, but he did do an awful lot.
THOMAS: Well, he sure did. I mean and, and he had reach. He had … people read his paper … I mean there was no CNN, there was not CBS, there was no Fox … there was no, you know, it was the newspapers were it. And they were widely reprinted and shared around the country.
And his constant hammering on the drum of war did have an impact. McKinley I think disdained … a lot of people said they disdained the yellow journalism, but they still paid attention to it.
I mean the, the analogue today would be this … President Obama says he doesn’t listen to cable … he’s against it. And the people in the White House say, “ahh, cable TV’. But those cable TV sets are always on …
HEFFNER: In the White House …
THOMAS: Yes. It’s like water bubbling up through the floor boards. Or, or in, in other news organizations. I mean it maybe small audiences in cable TV … you know what’s O’Reilly, at the high end, 2 million versus say, what was it 25 million for Walter Cronkite in the 1960’s so … so Cronkite in what, 10 to 1, 15 to 1. So it’s a small audience.
But that constant, incessant refrain from cable TV that always is on does have an impact. You can see it in the New Orleans … excuse me, in the Gulf spill situation.
The, the Obama people are saying “We’re going to ignore all this noise”, but they get sucked in. I was watching Morning Joe the other day and you could just see it happening. Now Morning Joe is high end … these are very smart journalists, but they’re pestering Gibbs, the White House Press Secretary … and the next day I saw Axelrod … you know, “Why can’t Obama be more emotional? Why can’t he be more angry? Why can’t he be more empathetic?”
And the White House can try to be cool, but the fact is that it inevitably seeps in and they have to respond to it.
And I think Hearst performed a similar function in 1898 … constantly banging the drug so McKinley would say, “I don’t want to listen to that yellow press”, but “what’d they say?”.
HEFFNER: Yeah, you say that Hearst was banging the drums for war. Are you suggesting that the cable people are banging the drums for war? Or the counterpart?
THOMAS: Well, they certainly were in, in 2003.
HEFFNER: In Iraq.
THOMAS: Oh my gosh, not just cable. I mean TV loved that war, all those embedded journalists you know, going along in their half-tracks … oh, you know, I mean it was boys, boys with toys. It was … there was a tremendous … the Pentagon was brilliant … a brilliant strategy.
I think maybe it was Torie Clark who was a press person for Secretary Rumsfeld, had this idea … to embed journalists …into units. And, of course, they immediately identified and related … “band of brothers” … and became part of the team and, and I don’t … I mean I’m sounding cynical about it. I’m not. I would have been the same way.
HEFFNER: What happened then?
THOMAS: You could feel it.
HEFFNER: What happened? Because what you’re saying doesn’t comport at all to what happened between the press and the war.
THOMAS: Well, the press, I think was pretty pro-war …
THOMAS: … in 2003. And then when things turned bad … press turned against it.
But only after things turned bad. I could feel it turning. I could feel it turning in Newsweek long about May, June … they were rioting in the streets of Baghdad and were starting … journalists have an amazing ability to do these screeching 180’s and come around and attack the position that they were just defending. Journalists are just amazingly fickle and inconsistent in that way, in my experience.
And journalists, before too long were, you know, going on about what a terrible war it was and how did we get into this? Kind of forgetting the fact that they were cheering for the war when it was starting up.
HEFFNER: Would you say this is true of … when you go back, at least in the 20th century … our wars?
THOMAS: Sure. You know … not just the 20th century. I mean what’s the cliché … as people march off to war the bands are playing, young men are eager for combat … and then, you know, flash forward they’re dragging back missing limbs and shell shocked. And the newspapers often … I mean this happened in the Spanish American War as well.
There was a lot of … not universal … I mean you can overstate this … America … one thing I love about America is there’s always an argument. There were anti-Imperialists. There were people against the war. It wasn’t at all, 100%. It wasn’t. There were people pushing back.
But the majority of journalists were for the war. Now once we go into the war and the Army screwed up … and they didn’t provide the right food and they provided spoiled food and they didn’t’ have the right transports and people started getting sick and there was encounters … the press turned on, on, on the incompetent government even as they glorified the Rough Riders and some of the soldiers.
And then when we got caught in a wholly unanticipated counter-insurgency in the Philippines … then the press really did turn against them …I mean “what are we doing here?” and it was like Vietnam.
In fact, this is an interesting difference in the time. We got sucked into a counter-insurgency in the Philippines, as I said almost by mistake. We … Teddy Roosevelt, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy sends a fleet out there to fight the Spanish.
Commodore Dewey defeats Spain, the next thing you know, we’re occupying the Philippines. The Filipinos do not regard us as liberators, they regard us as occupiers.
So counter-insurgency breaks out … counter-insurgencies are always grim because you don’t know who’s a civilian and who’s a soldier, there are atrocities on both sides. For the first time the Americans borrow … they borrow torture from the Spanish known as “the water cure”, water boarding!
HEFFNER: I’ve heard that before.
THOMAS: Heard that before. 4, 000 Americans die. Same number we’ve lost in Iraq so far.
But in 1902 after it’s been … dragged on … now President Roosevelt … he’s been … because he’s a hero as a Rough Rider … Governor of New York, Vice President, after McKinley is shot … President of the United States.
President Roosevelt …what is he going … there’s starting to be Congressional hearings on atrocities. Sound familiar?
Well, President Roosevelt just declares victory. He says, “We won. War’s over”. No CNN in those days. There’s really sort of nobody to go find out that the war’s not really over, it dragged on for, for … but he just … he was smart enough, politically astute enough just to declare victory … “We won. It’s over.”
HEFFNER: You make the point, and it’s so interesting that this what happened to him in the White House. After the White House …
HEFFNER: … he became as bellicose as he had been before.
THOMAS: Well, one of the curious things … Roosevelt is a very complex and interesting character. I, I should say although I’m writing about his less appealing side, I consider him to be a great hero … in may ways … I think he was a great President. He belongs on Mt. Rushmore. I think the progressive era began, really, because of his force of will, busting the trust, standing up to Big Business … great environmentalist … great President.
And also as President he was not particularly bellicose. He, you know, he said, “Talk softly and carry a big stick.”. But he didn’t use the stick.
And it was as if he got something out of his system by going to war in 1898 … he actually shot a Spaniard with a pistol …that he got something out … he had this need to fight … to go to war … to prove himself the greatest challenge always for a young man is to prove himself in war.
He wasn’t a young man … he was 39 years old, but he had to go. And he acquitted himself very well. By his own lights he should have won the Medal of Honor … the Army was mad at him, so they refused to give it to him.
HEFFNER: Bill Clinton gave it to him.
THOMAS: Yup. Exactly. But Roosevelt as President was not bellicose. In fact he avoided some potentially difficult situations with Germany in the Caribbean. But then … you say, after the war … it’s like the fever came back.
And he was … he goes to President Wilson and he says, “I want to raise a Division of men … division … to go fight against the German in Europe.”
And Wilson … no … doesn’t’ want to make a martyr or hero out of him, as Roosevelt’s leaving the White House … he says, Roosevelt says to Colonel House who was Wilson’s top aide … “Doesn’t the President understand I only want to die”. And Colonel House who’s sick of Roosevelt at this point … “Oh, did you make that point quite clear to the President?”
THOMAS: So, he was a nuisance by … he was an old man, he was 58 years old … but, of course, tragically, and this is … sometimes makes me believe there really are Greek Gods watching over us. Roosevelt’s youngest son, all the sons … he wants them … he wants them to go to war to have this essential experience. They all see a lot of action … 3, I think, are wounded. Well, the youngest one … Quentin … dies. He’s shot down and killed.
Now the war’s not so romantic for Teddy Roosevelt. And he sits there in his library muttering his son’s name … “Quenty, Quenty … “ and he’s dead within six months … himself.
HEFFNER: And we know that Teddy Roosevelt, the son, did acquit himself as a hero.
THOMAS: Yes. I mean this is fascinating. That Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. was having a nervous breakdown as an 11 year old, when Dad went off to war. I think ‘cause … imagine being Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. … you know, the pressure that must have been on him.
And Teddy was … Senior … was always talking about war and you have to be an old soldier and all this. Well, Teddy, Jr. actually becomes a general officer in World War II … is the only general officer who lands at D-Day … routes a German position using a cane, leading an attack, and wins the Medal of Honor, the medal that his father had never won.
HEFFNER: Fascinating history that you’ve written. Stay with me, I want to talk not just about war and history, but about history and journalism for another program. Okay?
THOMAS: You bet. Will do.
HEFFNER: Thanks. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time as well.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
And do visit The Open Mind website at www.theopenmind.tv.
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.