Monday, February 20, 2012

Remember the Maine, but Forget The War Lovers!

Remember the Maine!

I recently had occasion to read Evan Thomas' The War Lovers published in 2010.  I had previously enjoyed his biography, John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy.  Thomas was a writer and editor at Time and Newsweek for more than 30 years.  I found Thomas' latest work fascinating and provocative.  Here is the author's own summation of the work entitled "Why Men Love War"...

I found the book stimulating, but sadly flawed.  The author's desire to make a political point against the  "war fever" of contemporary neo-cons in the Middle East seems sadly to have deranged his critical faculties in approaching this fascinating part of history.  In the course of book, Thomas does a virtual hatchet job on Teddy Roosevelt who was the assistant Secretary of the US Navy before the start of the Spanish American war.

Thomas creates a rogue's gallery of pro-war imperialists with Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and William Randolph Hearst.  He contrast these individuals with very sympathetic depictions of anti-war figures such as the Harvard philosopher William James and the speaker of the House Thomas Reed.

He portrays TR as a blood-lusting savage bent on war as a means of personal ambition and to overcome his shame at his father's purchase of an exemption from combat during the American Civil War.  Thomas quotes Roosevelt the Rough Rider who boasted to his friend Lodge, "Did I tell you that I killed a Spaniard with my own hand?"  He portrays TR as a social Darwinist with distinctly racist views.  William Randolph Hearst, another Harvard man like TR was a Yellow journalist and confirmed War Lover in Thomas' book.  Thomas trots out Hearst's famous exchange of telegrams with his photo-journalist Frederic Remington who was in Cuba prior to the Spanish American war as follows...

"Remington sent Hearst a telegram that stated, 'Everything is quiet.  There is no trouble here.  There will be no war.  I wish to return. Remington.'  Hearst replied, "Please remain.  You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war.'"* The War Lovers, Evan Thomas.

The Casus Belli of the Spanish American war was the violent explosion and sinking of the Battle Crusier Maine in Havana harbour  on the night of February 15th, 1898.  Over 250 American sailors were killed that night aboard the Maine that night.    Many of the sleeping sailors ended up entombed beneath the sea line suffocating to death in a manner that eerily foreshadowed the fate of sailors aboard the USS Arizona on December 7th, 1941.  The subsequent battle cry of the Spanish American war, allegedly coined by Hearst, became "Remember the Maine, to Hell with Spain!"

What really happened on board the Maine that fateful night?  Was the explosion the result of overheating in the engine room that was placed to closely to the powered magazine?  Was it a mere coincidence that the Maine did not experience any problems with its engine room until shortly after it arrived in Havana harbour?  Was it a plot by the perfidious Spanish?  Was it, perhaps, a "false flag" conspiracy planted by the US government to justify a war--the favourite explanation of Cuban communists and the filmmakers behind "Loose Change."

There have been no less than five major inquiries into the cause of the explosion that sunk the USS Maine...

1) The Spanish government's board of Inquiry in 1898 claimed that there was no evidence of an external mine--no great surprise there!

2) The initial US Navy inquiry of 1898 determined unanimously that there was an external mine attached to the ship but did not place blame on any particular person or nation.

3) In 1911 President Taft authorized a second US government inquiry into the cause of the explosion on board the Maine after the remains of the ship were raised up from the bottom of Havana's harbour.  It determined that the explosion was the result of an external mine.  Thomas somehow neglects to mention the 1911 inquiry and result.

4) In 1974, according to Thomas, "a US naval inquiry led by Hyman Rickover** determined that the far more likely cause was a coal fire followed by an internal explosion."

Thomas writes in The War Lovers, "Captain Sigsbee was exonerated (by the US naval inquiry of 1898).  The Navy's true judgement may be detected in his next assignment, the command of an old converted freighter.  Meanwhile, one member of the court, Captain F.E. Chadwick, quietly made sure to insert extra steel bulkheads between the coal bunkers and the powered magazine aboard his own battleship, the New York."  That would seem to be the last word on explanation of the sinking of the Maine, certainly it appears so according to Thomas' book.  Except, it's not.

5) In 1999 a comprehensive study was sponsored by National Geographic and conducted by Advanced Marine Enterprises using advanced computer models to re-examine the cause of the Maine tragedy.  They concluded as follows...

The wreck of the Maine

“We conclude that while a spontaneous combustion in a coal bunker can create ignition-level temperatures in adjacent magazines, this is not likely to have occurred on the Maine, because the bottom plating identified as Section 1 would have blown outward, not inward.” It was “plausible” that a mine caused the explosion.

AME noted that the size and location of the soil depression beneath the Maine “is more readily explained by a mine explosion than by magazine explosion alone. While it is possible that the depression was independent of the explosions, it cannot be ignored. The sum of these findings is not definitive in proving that a mine was the cause of sinking of the Maine, but it does strengthen the case in favor of a mine as the cause.”

Here is the full article...

So let's get this straight.  Three out of the four US inquiries concerning the fate of the Maine concluded that an external device was responsible for the explosion.  These three studies include the one closest to the event (the only one McKinley had to act on), one sponsored by TR's political opponent Taft (TR, running as a Bull Moose won more votes than Republican incumbent Taft in 1912), and the most recent and technologically sophisticated report.  Evan Thomas, of course, chooses to believe that the 1974 study by publicity hound, Hyman Rickover, is the only accurate account.

Thomas simply leaves out the latest AME/National Geographic study which would present his thesis with an inconvenient possibility that would muddy the waters of his polemic.

What really happened with the Maine?  The short answer is that we may never really know the full story.

Evan Thomas relentlessly mocks Teddy Roosevelt as a bloodthirsty buffoon; yet even Thomas is forced to acknowledge that "no evidence has ever emerged that Roosevelt improperly tried to influence the formal navy inquiry into the sinking of the Maine (my italics)."   Kind of a surprising admission for the assistant secretary for the navy who might have something to cover up...?

There are a number of other critical problems with The War Lovers...

1)  TR was assistant Secretary for the US Navy.  He may have wanted a war between the United States and Spain, but he was in no real position to make it happen.  On April 25th 1898, President McKinley with the consent of the US Congress declared war on Spain. Here is the full declaration...  If anyone bears culpability for an alleged "rush to war" it would surely be President McKinley and the members of the US Congress.

TR in Cuba
2) Several years later, when TR became President after the assassination of McKinley, he did, as commander-in-chief, have considerable powers in moving the US towards a policy of war or peace.  He chose peace.  He famously said, "Speak softly but carry a big stick."  He extricated the US from its costly war in the Phillipines.  He worked assiduously as a back-channel peacemaker who helped to end the Russo-Japanese war in 1905 with the treaty of Portsmouth.  He even won the Nobel prize for peace in 1906 as a reward and acknowledgement of his efforts.  Does that sound like a "War Lover"?

3) Thomas also seems to ignore the larger context of Global Imperialism against which the Spanish American war was waged.  There was a world-wide scramble for colonies by the European powers throughout Africa, Asia and the world during the 1890's.  The alternative to American imperialism was not independence for Cuba or the Phillipines, but rather the hegemony of some other more nakedly imperial power.  Would "Cuba" have been more "Libre" under the Kaiser (Schnapps and Coca Cola, anyone?) than the USA?  Would the Phillipines really have preferred the tutelage of Imperial Japan to that of the USA (hint: ask the Koreans on that score)?  Could Leopold II of Belgium have "sorted out Cuba" the way he did the Congo?  The incontrovertible  fact about the geo-poltitics of 1890's was that the once mighty Spanish Empire had been a "Red Giant" among world empires and was now on the verge of becoming a "White Dwarf."  Nature abhors a vacuum and the Spanish Empire was rapidly imploding.  From 1895, there had been a native insurrection in Cuba against Spanish rule.  The Spanish forces were quite simply unable to control their far-flung empire.

4)  Thomas oddly omits any real discussion of the role of the Monroe doctrine in regard to the Spanish American War.  This was clearly a major reason for Hearst and Roosevelt's antipathy towards Spain.  The Monroe doctrine maintained that the European powers should stay out of the new World.  It was clearly anti-imperialist in intent and in practice.  Spain's was the one empire which had been "grandfathered in" and was, therefore, an exception to the Monroe Doctrine.  Ultimately, however, the Monroe Doctrine gets credit for the eventual unwinding of the Spanish empire in the new world.  McKinley's declaration of war was the logical conclusion of the Monroe doctrine.

First Black American invited to WH private dinner
5)  TR was not the virulent racist portrayed in Thomas' book.  On October 16th, 1901 TR became the first President in US history to invite a black American (the educator Booker T. Washington) to a private dinner at the White House shortly after becoming President after McKinley's assassination.  He took a shocking amount of criticism from newspapers in the South for this action.  By the standards of the time TR was enlightened on racial matters.  For more detail see...

6)  Americans were reluctant imperialists even at the very outset of the Spanish American war.  Congress passed the Teller amendment which renounced any intention of annexing Cuba.  In 1902, shortly after TR had become President, control of Cuba did revert to the Cubans with certain limitations.  Moreover, the rise of America coincided with the sunset of Spanish Imperialism.

7)  Thomas mentions the great Naval thinker, Alfred Thayer Mahan.  He fails, however, to connect the dots between Mahan's influential convictions about the importance naval power, America's late-to-the-party Imperialism, and technological change.  Fighting vessels, such as the Maine, were no longer powered by wind as with the sailing ships of Lord Nelson's Day.  They were fuelled by coal.  A Yankee nation of whalers, traders and seafarers required coaling stations spread throughout its trading sphere.  It was this that drove the American expansion to outposts such as Hawaii, Cuba, Guam and the Phillipines.

The young Teddy Roosevelt was ambitious and coveted military glory--just like Winston Churchill.  Both TR and Roosevelt slew the enemies of their countries with their own hands; TR at San Juan Hill, Churchill at Omdurman.  Churchill, like Roosevelt, was gravitationally drawn to the fighting in Cuba which he covered as a war correspondent.

What was the bottom line on the Spanish American war?  The United States President, with the approval of Congress declared war on Spain on April 25th, 1898.  Less than four months later, after the loss of 3,045 US soldiers and 16 US sailors (not counting those lost on board the Maine) the Treaty of Paris was signed ending the war.  In exchange for $20 million, the Spanish ceded Guam, Puerto Rico, the Phillipines and temporary control of Cuba to the United States of America.  No wonder Ambassador Hay declared it a "splendid little war!"

Was it Churchill's love of war, learned while playing soldiers at Blenheim Palace, that compelled him to warn the West during the 1930's about the perils of Nazi Germany?  Was it Roosevelt's desire for martial glory that created the Cuban Revolution against Spain?  Commander Kelly says "no" on both counts!  Hitler's Germany was a metastasizing existential threat to Britain and the West during the 1930's and neither Roosevelt's personal ambition for wartime glory nor Hearst's desire to sell newspapers caused the collapse of the Spanish empire which led directly to the Spanish American war.

Finally, I would suggest that there have been a series of successive waves of war weariness during the course of American history.  Perhaps the most virulent and most understandable occurred in 1865--the concluding year of the US civil war.  After Lincoln's assassination and the surrender at Appamatox, America retreated into the material preoccupations of the "Gilded age."  The pessimism of Ambrose Bierce and the mordant humour of Twain flourished and expressed the age.  The hopes of Reconstruction in the South were allowed to founder in the face of Jim Crow and the rising power of the KKK.  The conclusion of World War I was marked by fears of betrayal at Versailles.  The US Senate rejected the League of Nations that President Woodrow Wilson had conceived and campaigned for.  America again retreated into isolationism in foreign policy and the hedonism of the 1920's at home.  After the debacle in Vietnam America once more became more introspective and more diffident.  Watergate and a reappraisal of the US military role followed in Vietnam's wake.

I would submit that in 2012, after the long war in Afghanistan and the multiple disappointments in Iraq, we once more find ourselves in a period of war weariness, spiritual depression and retrenchment (two symptoms, The War Lovers and the Ron Paul campaign) which may have unhappy consequences for the nation...until our collective spirits are lifted once again by a happy warrior who is willing to "charge the hill" of America's enemies!


* "Clotted nonsense" according to Hearst.  Remington did, in fact, return to New York shortly thereafter.  Thomas' book may be thought of like Hearst's infamous telegram--a great story that never really happened.   For more detail see...

**  Hyman Rickover was known as the "father of the nuclear navy."  He was, therefore, on a mission to rid the US Navy of its dependence on far flung coaling stations or oil supply dumps.  Nuclear subs and carriers are able to cruise the oceans without any dependence on nearby friendly ports.  His primary achievement  stood in direct opposition to the conquests of the Spanish-American war.  In 1982 congressional testimony Rickover said, in regard to nuclear warships, that he "would sink them all."

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