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A Splendid Little War

ISSUE:  Autumn 1931

The Martial Spirit. A Study of Our War with Spain. By Walter Millis. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $4.00.

A splendid little war—so John Hay described the late unpleasantness with Spain. He was writing to Colonel Roosevelt, who, so far as his own activities were concerned, undoubtedly agreed with him. To a modern journalist, however, it appears to have been “a glorious, comic-opera adventure, a kind of magnified baseball game with the war bulletins for box scores, a sort of continuous election night with all the candidates winning.” Mr. Millis feels that he and the rest of us can afford to chuckle over it because extreme tragedy was absent. To be sure, a proud and once-great nation was humiliated; and the Filipinos, who had supposed that the altruistic American expedition would result in liberation and autonomy for them as for the Cubans, were grievously disappointed; but Madrid and Manila were and still are far away. Aguinaldo was hustled from the scene of his patriotic endeavors before he could become a tragic figure, and upon the background of decadent Spanish grandeur the unconscious comedians strutted and totted their hour upon the stage, to be heeded no more, that is, except T. R. His still small voice was destined to be heard again.

The Spanish-American War offers incomparable opportunities to the satirist, as Mr. Dooley realized at the time. Of these Mr. Millis has taken full advantage. He is not ender toward the undiscriminating enthusiasm and gullible altruism of the American people, who he feels were self-righteous; but he is careful in statements of fact and does Lot descend to pointless flippancy. His essay in history, as he modestly describes his highly entertaining book, may be regarded as a witty, piece of anti-militaristic propaganda. No other war perhaps was brought about or waged in just he same way, but there are innumerable analogies with more serious conflicts to startle the thoughtful. The work also abundantly justifies itself as a rattling good story. Whether or not the shafts of ridicule will penetrate the pachydermaous hides of time-serving politicians and other varieties of irofiteers, “The Martial Spirit” will delight many a vacationist and stimulate many a plodding scholar, who might inearth facts with equal care but would find difficulty in ssembling them in so spirited a narrative.

The comic quality of the book is at first only suggested. One must set the stage seriously even for a farce. Conditions in Cuba were serious enough, following the outbreak I the revolution of 1895, though it is not so clear now as it eemed then that we were providentially directed to set them ight, It is entirely conceivable, as Mr. Millis says, that he unhappy isle might have worked out its destiny within he framework of the Spanish Empire. Granted, however, he original intervention of American journalists, who exploited sensation after sensation in Cuba and created a number out of their own lurid imaginations, subsequent developments lacked inevitability only in so far as they lacked lausible occasion. Certain politicians, then as now, were ager to seize upon an issue to distract attention from embarrassing domestic problems. It was both safe and exhilarating to talk of the horrors of Spanish rule and to ask if there were not something we could do. We were a restless people, looking around for some big and gratifying adventure. The sensationalists, sentimentalists, and expansionists found conscientious Cleveland extremely obstinate, but forced him to do some negotiating anyway, as they did also the peace-loving but less obstinate McKinley. Our rather presumptuous diplomacy had all but foiled the belligerent when news came of the sinking of the Maine, which had no real business at Havana anyway.

Whatever may have been the cause of that epoch-making explosion, the Spanish were not officially blamable for it, and, under most trying circumstances, their manners were irreproachable. So feverish was the excitement that negotiations in regard to Cuba assumed even more exaggerated significance, but such was the helplessness of the ancient monarchy that ultimately it yielded everything except a modicum of pride. Had the inflamed American press been willing to await the unexciting course of peaceful diplomacy there would doubtless have been no need for altruistic intervention in the affairs of another people. That we were launched upon a career of expansionist aggression was everywhere officially denied. According to our suave President, the forcible annexation of Cuba was not to be considered. By our code of morality (presumably higher than that of other nations) it would be, he said, “criminal aggression.” The irrepressible Assistant Secretary of the Navy early perceived the desirability of saving Cuba by taking the Philippines, but on the whole imperialistic ambitions were well concealed under the cloak of humanitarianism. The young American giant took up arms chiefly because he felt it was high time he was fighting somebody and because a convenient, much-reviled, and not particularly dangerous opponent was at hand.

Perceiving the irresistible power of the inflamed war spirit, Congress blithely relieved the cautious McKinley of the decisive rôle and, in the noblest frame of mind, launched the ship of state on what was regarded as a gay and glorious adventure. Since it was preeminently a newspapers’ war, Messrs. Hearst and Pulitzer organized journalistic squadrons. Everybody expected the whole affair to be highly civilized. Even the staid Atlantic Monthly appeared with an American flag on its cover, and only a few prophetic Voices sounded an alarm which no one heeded. Patriotism was rampant, but some observers perceived that it was not going to be entirely disinterested. Apropos of the visit of a Pennsylvania delegation, which urged the use of anthracite rather than bituminous coal by the Navy, Secretary Long noted that, though all sections were patriotic, each had “an eye on the main chance.” And the nation assumed that the war would be conducted “as a preliminary, of the next election.” From beginning to end, our operations were marked by blundering incompetence, petty controversy, and extraordinary good fortune. There were notable exploits, chief among them the superb victory of Dewey, but even in Manila Bay the Spanish were licked before they began to fight. In no other respect was American wisdom so apparent as in the choice of an antagonist.

To the skillful pen of Mr. Millis we must leave the details of the comedy and its happy ending. The awkward American youth suffered a few scratches but felled the aged Spaniard with a few lusty blows and despoiled him of his imperial treasure, to the incredible delight of the partisan spectators, who easily convinced themselves of the justice of unexpected acquisitions. The yellow journals gained less profit than they had expected, and most of the personal glory of officials and commanders was dissipated by, the winds of controversy. All things continued to work together for good, however, to the Grand Old Party.

Among the many unconsciously amusing actors, we shall certainly long remember corpulent General Shafter, ascending the Cuban hills on a small but “stout-hearted” mule, or, after San Juan Hill, reclining his huge bulk on a house door taken from its hinges, and uncertain “whether he had achieved a victory or suffered a disaster.” Under these circumstances, he wisely decided to demand the surrender of Santiago. This mountain of a man showed a good deal of robust common sense and, by force of sheer diplomacy, gained the surrender of thousands of Spaniards, outside the city, whom he had not even hoped to capture. It did look as if God were with us. A more extraordinary figure even than Shafter was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the Lieutenant-Colonel of the Rough Riders, who made here his first important appearance as the supreme publicity man of his generation. No reader can soon forget how Roosevelt, leaving the Navy on the morrow, stole a march on his superior by announcing to the delighted reporters the news of Dewey’s victory, and gained for himself a position on the front page he was destined to maintain; how he inconspicuously organized a volunteer regiment consisting of college athletes, sons of the rich, and a couple of Democrats, which was providentially included in the expeditionary force; how at Tampa by, main strength he held a transport against another American regiment; how he stormed San Juan Hill in full view of the correspondents and failed to remember that any other officer was there; how he inveighed against the management of the Army, gained credit for the supposed preparation of the Navy, and emerged from the war its chief political beneficiary.

As McKinley, who applied his ear to the ground and then justified with pious phrases the retention of the Philippines, symbolizes our self-righteousness and the sentimentalism with which our pretensions were cloaked, so Roosevelt symbolizes personal and national aggressiveness, untrammeled and unabashed. That the one man followed the other in the Presidency was an accident; that one spirit followed the other was all but inevitable. Whether the swashbuckling Colonel, in his imperialistic rôle, was a hero or a villain depends on one’s point of view. Mr. Millis probably did not intend to single him out, but to our mind he has made him chief of the unconscious comedians. Perhaps the God whose name the patriots of 1898 and 1914 so confidently invoked perceives in the heroics of other militarists and empire builders a comic quality to which suffering mortals are blind. It may. be that in the perspective of history they will generally appear ridiculous.


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