Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Spanish-American War

Lying via the news media to whip up popular support for an aggressive war of conquest is something that really bugs me, obviously. It’s profoundly incompatible with the principles of liberty and democracy on which this country was founded. But I have to admit that it’s also something that has happened again and again in US history.

I’ve been reading lately about the Spanish-American War, which some view as the first real example of this sort of thing, the conflict that marked the end of US isolationism and the emergence of the US as a player on an equal footing with the imperial powers of Europe.

This was the war that was brought about, in large part, by the “yellow journalism” of William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers, the Fox News of their day, in the pages of which slanted, and in many cases outright fictional, accounts were presented as objective news in order to manipulate public opinion.

By the time Hearst was done trumpeting the horrible perfidy of Spain’s blowing up the steamship Maine in Havana Harbor (“Remember the Maine!”), public anger was running so high that President McKinley had no choice but to go to war, even if, as was suspected by more-thoughtful observers at the time, and is generally accepted by historians today, Spain had nothing to gain by blowing up the ship, and the explosion was more likely the result of a boiler room accident, or maybe an act of sabotage by Cuban guerillas bent on drawing the US into their conflict with Spain.

The Spanish-American war also made Teddy Roosevelt a household name. Roosevelt’s leading of the Rough Riders in the assault on San Juan Hill, as described in newspaper dispatches penned by the writer Roosevelt employed to accompany him into battle, were hugely popular, establishing him immovably in the public mind as the very embodiment of heroism and manly virtue, and playing a major role in his election as president a few years later.

The other day I came across a really cool web archive of old wax-cylinder audio recordings. My favorite one, made in 1898 (the same year as the attack on San Juan Hill), is a studio recreation of that event, with bugle calls, stirring music, and faux gunfire, and ending with cheers for the brave heroes: Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders.

Yeah, the production values aren’t much by modern standards, and the special effects are pretty cheesy. But it’s an historic piece. This could well be the very first time that a non-print media technology was used to present a glorified version of battle. In that sense, it’s the forerunner of all the propaganda films, Hollywood war movies, and armed forces recruiting commercials that followed. You could also view it as the forerunner of all non-print political advertising; the first feel-good multimedia puff piece. Morning in America, and all that.

Anyway, check it out: The charge of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.

As I said, the Spanish-American war was hugely popular in the US. But even at the height of war fever, there were those who remained opposed to the war. One of them was Mark Twain, whose short story The War Prayer was written in response to the events of that time, though it wasn’t published until after his death. Highly recommended.

One Response to “Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Spanish-American War”

  1. ymatt Says:

    Mark Twain rules.

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