A lively exploration of how “intervene first, ask questions later” became America’s foreign policy beginning with the Spanish-American War.
In 1898, Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain captured the American imagination, inflamed by sensational newspaper reports and dispatches by well-regarded journalists. Many believed that Cuban rebels were starving, perishing on America’s doorstep, and it was the responsibility of the U.S. to intervene “in the name of humanity.” Although President William McKinley and his administration were reluctant to interfere, others pressed for war, the noisiest among them Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s views prevailed, and his name and fortune became forever linked to a volunteer regiment known as the Rough Riders, whose exploits fed into America’s self-image of courage and invincibility. Drawing on letters, archival sources, and abundant newspaper articles—many from on-site journalists including Richard Harding Davis, Stephen Crane, and Frank Norris—Risen (Single Malt: A Guide to the Whiskies of Scotland, 2018, etc.), deputy op-ed editor at the New York Times, offers a penetrating history of the “half-baked, poorly executed, unnecessary conflict” from which the U.S., nevertheless, emerged victorious. Due to the nation’s limited army and ill-prepared state militias, the war relied on volunteers; many eagerly joined Roosevelt’s “cowboys,” which took its nickname from one of Buffalo Bill Cody’s touring troupes. The Rough Riders were shocked by the reality of Army life: Malodorous cattle ships, refitted to transport troops, teemed with insects; on the island, they lacked food, water, cooking utensils, supplies, medicine—and decisive leadership; malaria, typhoid, and yellow fever raged. Moreover, Cubans were resentful, seeking guns, money, and ammunition—not America’s “rescue.” Although the intervention lasted less than six months, America battled on for another four years, in the end controlling Puerto Rico and part of the Philippines. The war, Risen argues convincingly, shaped the nation’s sense of unity, purpose, and role as an exporter of American values, establishing “the wheels of myth-making, idealism, and national self-interest that would guide the country during the twentieth century.”
A revelatory history of America’s grasp for power.