Opinion Forum

Robert B. Simpson: Around again

History tends to repeat itself, they say. So we see errors made, costly ones both in terms of wealth and in terms of human suffering, and then repeated a generation or a few generations later. History is evidently mostly the product of human nature, which seems immune to change.

Reading history and biography, I am often struck by the impression of a sort of turning wheel that keeps bringing the same tendencies and the same sad mistakes back to the surface again. Perhaps we need to be more vigilant in deciding who to follow, whose views to accept, what influences on our national life to permit when they come around again on the revolving wheel of history.

A book I recently read, "The War Lovers" by Evan Thomas, contains excellent examples of past questionable actions that were repeated in modern days, with predictably poor results. It seems to me we need to be more watchful and outspoken in opposing such actions that history has shown to be folly.

The title, "The War Lovers," refers to three prominent persons who were either addicted to the idea of war itself or believed that engaging in war was a good thing for the country. They were Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and William Randolph Hearst.

Roosevelt, a gifted writer and administrator, was a socially progressive politician and at the same time a blustering, swaggering egotist. Lodge, his close friend, was a member of the old aristocracy of Boston, that city famously described as "the land of the bean and the cod, where Lowells talk only to Cabots, and Cabots talk only to God." Lodge's mother was a Cabot, and the Lodges, like most of the city's Brahmin class, were well acquainted with the Lowells.

Theodore Roosevelt believed, along with many others at the time, in what Rudyard Kipling called "the white man's burden," that is, the right and the duty to lead the lesser, dark-skinned races, even if they didn't realize they needed that leadership, and even if it meant domination. He was convinced that a nation needed warfare periodically, lest its citizens become soft. When Cubans rebelling against their harsh Spanish masters offered the possibility of war, he wished for, worked for, and manipulated less determined superiors in the government for participation. He campaigned tirelessly for a position with fighting forces, if and when war should occur.

Henry Cabot Lodge became a powerhouse in the U.S. Senate, even though he was disliked by many and distrusted as well. He was an effective legislator nonetheless, and he pushed what he called the "large policy," a policy that others called imperialism. He believed the U.S. should expand in various directions, annexing places like Hawaii and the Philippines. Cuba fit nicely into his "large policy."

William Randolph Hearst, like the previous two a Harvard man, became owner and publisher of the New York Journal. Battling Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World, he slid easily into "yellow journalism," pushing his political leanings through the use of excessively dramatic and colorful news stories that were often more fiction than fact. Hearst was not at all reluctant to use the press to help shove the country into war, and his efforts were arguably the most effective of all in stirring public opinion into war lust. When the U.S.S. Maine blew up and sank in Havana Harbor, Hearst's paper loudly, persistently, and with little regard for fact or reason, proclaimed Spain guilty. It made little sense that Spain, desperately working diplomatic channels to fend off the American movement toward combat, would sink an American war ship. In fact, most knowledgeable and reasonable experts have long since concluded that the Maine's sinking was an accidental disaster caused by poor design and possibly poor attention by her senior officers. But, no matter, we needed to help the poor Cubans.

Theodore Roosevelt made it to Cuba, where he turned the small war into self-aggrandizement and satisfaction of his strange desire to kill. He reported exuberantly of his killing of a Spaniard, exclaiming gleefully that, when he shot the man, "he doubled up like a jackrabbit." Hearst made it there too, and although he and Roosevelt did not care for each other, Hearst's newspaper helped make Roosevelt a hero to the American public. Back home, Lodge incorporated their efforts into his "large policy." The Americans pushed the Cuban rebels into the background while completing regime change. Lodge and others pushed President McKinley, a weather-vane politician who admitted he couldn't find the Philippine Islands on a map, into demanding and receiving the Philippines from Spain along with Cuba. American soldiers used their Krag rifles to fight Filipinos who didn't understand that we intended to effect regime change there as we had in Cuba and, as the marching ditty went, "civilize 'em with a Krag."

If you see an eerie parallel between a country being led into unnecessary wars just over a century ago and again just over a decade ago, maneuvered by a few actual war lovers, a few politically partisan news media leaders, and some politicians who are certain we know everything better than our racial inferiors, welcome to the club. If you think it couldn't happen that way again, history disagrees.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."