For centuries wars have changed landscapes, allowed great nations to rise and caused empires to topple. Not every war is as cataclysmic as all, the war of Jenkins' Ear being one of many examples. But another war involving Spanish possessions in the New World had far more serious consequences.
The 1898 Spanish-American War propelled the United States on the world stage as a significant international power. This war was just as much about establishing the United States as a world power as it was about anything else. To study it now is to find intriguing parallels with the current U.S.-led adventure in the Persian Gulf.
Warren Zimmerman, the last U.S. Ambassador to Yugoslavia before it broke apart, has produced a thorough accounting of how the Spanish-American War marked America's entry onto the world stage.
First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30.00, 562 pages) is an historical study masquerading as a group biography of Teddy Roosevelt, Massachusetts Republican Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, naval theorist Alfred Mahan, American diplomat John Hay and Secretary of War Elihu Root.
It is the kind of study that became much in vogue after the publication of The Wise Men: Six Friends and The World They Made by journalists Evan Thomas and Walter Issacson and first published in 1986.
The first third of the Zimmerman book is devoted to biographical sketches of each man, which are generally well-focused and concise.
Where it fails is in the effort to more fully establish the influence each man had on the development of the others' thinking and beliefs about U.S. sovereignty and the use of military power.
As a group biography, First Great Triumph is not nearly as successful as others in the genre. The storyline does not flow smoothly and the subjects are not given equal treatment. The relationships between Roosevelt and Lodge and Lodge and Hay are given extensive examination, while Mahan and Root appear in many ways to have been awkwardly inserted into the larger work. In the later chapters it is the relationship between Lodge and Roosevelt that receives the lion's share of the attention, with the contributions of Root and Hay minimized and Mahan's almost totally neglected.
But this is not the reason to read it.
What the book does do quite effectively is provide greater understanding of the underlying motivation for the Spanish-American War, which led to the U.S. conquests of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, Samoa and, indirectly Panama.
In a certain sense, the motives parallel the motivation behind the current U.S.-led effort to oust Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.
The two wars came about in part because of the tension between human rights and liberty versus stability in conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Each of the men whose life and beliefs Zimmerman explores came down generally on one side of the debate or the other.
As is the case with the current war, there were those who saw little or no need to go to war with Spain. The war resulted in the expulsion of Spain as a power in the Caribbean and Pacific, its place taken by the United States in a move that some call a new imperialism
In a sense this is true, but U.S.-style imperialism is very different than the European kind.
For Spain, and for other European states that became colonial powers in the 17th, 18th and 20th centuries, the imperialist drive was about expanding the reach of the colonizers' military and commercial power.
For the United States, the imperialist drive, if that is indeed the proper term, was not so much about spreading U.S. political power as it was about spreading the American ideal.
As Zimmerman explains, great debates occurred on the proper role of the United States after the war. Was America the conqueror of these lands or the liberator? The idea of statehood for Cuba, favored by many, was rejected in favor of a push towards independence. From the outset, the U.S. dominion over the Philippines, in spite of a guerilla war against American military forces, had independence as its goal.
There are those, President George W, Bush among them, for whom the U.S. military incursion into Afghanistan to expel the Al Qaeda-harboring Taliban and the ongoing attack on Saddam Hussein's regime have the same goal.
The intent of the United States is not to colonize these nations or make them satellites but to free the people of these countries from tyranny and to plant the seeds for pluralistic democracies in which property rights, freedom of speech and the political, economic and religious rights of minorities are not only respected but protected.
The war in Iraq has reignited the important debate about the U.S.'s role in the world that is just over 100 years old. The Reagan doctrine, which is a clear heir to the Roosevelt policies of the turn of the 19th century, had been supplanted during the Clinton years by a drive toward international cooperation, centered on the United Nations that had peace instead of liberty as its primary objective.
The challenges of governing that followed the 1994 elections left the GOP in Congress little time to craft a new policy. They had to settle for tinkering on the fringes of the Clinton policies, trying to preserve the sovereignty of U.S. military power as Clinton moved towards international collectives.
President Bush's decision to move ahead with the effort to dislodge Saddam without the support of the United Nations is, after a fashion, the heir to Teddy Roosevelt's "big stick" approach to the pursuit and protection of U.S. interests overseas.
Though Zimmerman does not make this case, an informed reader can conclude the wisdom of such a policy. True democracies, it is often said, do not make wars. It follows then that the more democracies there are, the fewer wars there will be.