Presidents and the Lure of War

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Newsweek editor-at-large, Evan W. Thomas III discusses U.S. military history and the various reasons that former presidents have gone to war.

This meeting is part of a series hosted with the National History Center featuring prominent historians who will examine the events and times that shaped foreign policy as we know it today.

DOUGLAS G. BRINKLEY: Good evening, everybody. Hello. Good evening. I'm historian Douglas Brinkley, and it's a great honor as always to be here at the council, but particularly to get to introduce to you Evan Thomas, who's long-time editor-at-large at Newsweek and the Ferris Professor of History -- I'm sorry, of Journalism; I always think of him as a historian first and foremost -- Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. And our launch pad tonight is going to be to talk about his new book "The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the -- and the Rush to Empire, 1898."

On a personal note, I must say, when I was a young -- a youngster coming up and I did my doctoral dissertation at Georgetown, my first book was on Dean Acheson and the Cold War years with Yale University Press, and my first major review I've ever had in my career was Evan Thomas in The New York Times and --

EVAN W. THOMAS III: It was a good one.

BRINKLEY: He liked it. I was so happy. So I was always very, very glad that Evan did that, and it meant a lot to me. So it's wonderful to be here with him.

And also let me say that we want to welcome to today's meeting Roger Louis, who is here in -- with us, director of the National History Center. He helped the council create this series, which aims to make a connection between current U.S. foreign policy and history. And thank you so much, as always, for being here and for doing this.

Make sure everybody has their cell phones off. I've been asked to say that. And I'd like to remind the members that this meeting is on the record. We are going to start with a Q&A between the two of us for about 25 minutes, maybe 30, and then we're going to open it up to you. And hopefully we can really take a look at war and how different presidents have kept -- got us into wars and kept us out of wars.

And I want to begin with your book "The War Lovers", which it's for sale here, afterwards; you -- all get a copy if you haven't. "The War Lovers" deals with Theodore Roosevelt. And what was -- tell us about the marshal spirit of TR. What was it about him that was so into the idea of combat, and where does that come from?

THOMAS: There's nothing subtle about it. As early as the 1880s, he started writing letters about raising a bunch of Rough Riders to go invade Mexico; 1894, in a letter, he wrote about raising a national buccaneering expedition to liberate Cuba from Spain, and Canada from Great Britain. He wanted a war, and pretty much any war would do -- Germany, Spain, France.

Where did it come from? The family's pyschohistory is that his father, Theodore Roosevelt, who was a wonderful man, bought a draft substitute in -- for the Civil War, which was common behavior, common practice for upper-class gents in New York, but was a source of shame for young Roosevelt, and that -- he wanted to avenge that shame.

He was also a nut about physical exercise and physical danger. He -- when he was a young man, after his wife died, he went west to hunt big game and wrote a book about big game, which he ranked game by the degree of peril to the hunter, through grizzly bears.

But of course, as he said, the most dangerous game is man, and he never had a chance to hunt a man, really, until war came along. He was -- he was 39 years old when the Spanish-American War broke out. He had four children; his wife had almost died in childbirth that winter. His oldest son, Theodore Jr, had just had a nervous breakdown. Can you imagine being Theodore Roosevelt Jr? (Laughter.) And yet he had to go. And he wrote a military aide later that he would have left his wife's deathbed to go to that -- to go to that war.

BRINKLEY: There's some people that speculate that Theodore Roosevelt's father had hired a surrogate to fight in the Civil War for the Union army, and that TR was often very ashamed of that. He loved his father tremendously, and his father did great things here in New York, like help found the American Museum of Natural History -- but this thought that his father was somehow -- didn't have military service. Do you find evidence of that, Evan, that that's a motivator in some way?

THOMAS: It's all theoretical. This is a -- actually his daughter, Alice, used to talk about this a lot. Alice liked to be a troublemaker, particularly stirring the pot about her father. So I don't think there's any explicit evidence. He never -- he never said that. There's no letter which he said, oh, I'm ashamed of my father. So it is all by inference.

I think it had to do probably more with his desire to prove himself in the most violent way possible. He just -- he had this need to be in danger and to show himself physically. He had been a weak child; he'd had asthma. People think that was related to his father's absences. But he was -- there's no question. Whatever the cause was, there's no doubt about the effect. Roosevelt was the most bloodthirsty -- openly bloodthirsty guy you could imagine.

BRINKLEY: How do we take -- can we -- let's look -- him as a military historian, not just as the hunter/Darwinian person. What about, like, the Naval War of 1812 and as a strategist and somebody who was championing Alfred Thayer Mahan? And how did -- there was a deep intellectual side to Roosevelt in war that accompanies the bloodlust that --

(Cross talk.)

THOMAS: There was. He avoided his first year of law -- work at his first year of law school by writing a naval history of the War of 1812, which continued for -- for all I know, is still a definitive study. It's quite technical and not much fun to read. Most of Roosevelt's books are fun to read. This was kind of dry and dreary.

But he had an early fascination with naval power. And you mentioned Admiral Mahan. Mahan's book caught on with Roosevelt and his circle, because in it they saw the ingredients of American greatness. The model was Great Britain, which controlled the seas in the 19th century. And the idea was, whoever controls the seas can control the world.

And Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, who I also write about, embraced what Lodge called the "large policy." They didn't like the world "imperialism." That was a European word. And they weren't really imperialists, but they were expansionists, and they believed that America had to have a great navy, and so they agitated constantly to build a great navy, with the explicit hope of eventually replacing Great Britain as the world's great power.

BRINKLEY: So, but if we cut to the beginning of the origins of the Spanish-American War, what -- is there -- is there -- it's a philosophical view that somebody like William McKinley shares with Roosevelt? Is there a different (sic; difference) between McKinley and TR?

THOMAS: Yes. There's a huge difference. McKinley had actually seen war and didn't want to have anything to do with it. McKinley had been a major at Antietam. And Roosevelt would go to McKinley to get in -- Roosevelt was assistant secretary of the Navy, a seemingly minor post, but from which he exercised disproportionate influence, partly by building a navy, but also because Washington was so small in those days. He would take carriage rides with McKinley, and he would bother him about intervening in an ongoing civil war in Cuba to liberate Cuba from Spain.

And McKinley didn't want to have anything to do with it. McKinley had been to -- he said to Roosevelt: I've been to Antietam, and I've seen the dead stacked up. And Roosevelt, who had never seen war, had a more romantic notion of it. And McKinley for a long time resisted, but eventually this war fever built up in the land, that Roosevelt was very much a part of, that swept aside McKinley's resistance, and the United States intervened in the spring of 1898.

BRINKLEY: Roosevelt forms the Rough Riders and goes to San Antonio, gets recruits, volunteers from New Mexico territory, Arizona, Oklahoma, people from the Ivy League schools; goes to Tampa and then goes to Cuba and fights. Many people -- it's -- he calls it the "crowded hour," July 1st, when he's -- makes the great charge of 1898 and becomes this almost military celebrity in the -- in America because of it.

Analyze for us, once Roosevelt got in the game, how was he as a soldier. And is he overhyped as a Rough Rider, or was there this -- he won a Medal of Honor posthumously.

THOMAS: Posthumously. He was certainly brave, and yes, he was a good -- he was a good leader to his men. They admired him and respected him. He was a daring leader. He led a charge up an exposed hill.

I love this. After the war, Mrs. Roosevelt, Edith Roosevelt, went to San Juan Hill. And when she came back, she said: You know, Theodore, it's not that big a hill. It's kind of a little -- (laughter).

It looks pretty big if you're standing at the bottom and people shooting down at you. And so he rode up ahead of his troops. When he got to the top, he rested for a minute and then he ran down the other side, shouting "Holy Godfrey, what fun!" as he was shot at by the Spaniards.

And he did -- he -- there was a lot -- a lot of arguments about who the first one was to charge the hill, but he was certainly among the first. So he was courageous. It was a -- you know, it was a one day -- he fought in two battles. But his men admired him and respected him.

The military did not want to give him a Medal of Honor because he was a troublemaker and he was a volunteer and he wasn't one of them. So they resisted him. But finally President Clinton gave him one posthumously in the last of his presidency.

BRINKLEY: How do we reconcile with -- Richard Hofstetter, the wonderful historian, wrote a very critical essay about TR in Foreign Affairs, but he has a little footnote and says, well, after all this martial (tonage ?) here, I must admit during his presidency, we didn't go to war in, 19 -- you know, '01 to 1908.

How could it be that this person who's the war-lover is a president that doesn't take us to war?

THOMAS: Yeah. Well, he was -- I think Roosevelt was a great president. I write about a somewhat, in a way, unappealing Roosevelt, because he is so full of bloodlust. But I think he was a great president. He knew when to compromise. He knew -- he knew when to push. He was full of bluster and noise, but he knew when to pull back on things like trusting the bus -- busting the trust, and -- (laughter) -- that too. (Laughter.) And he had -- he was more moderate than he appeared.

And he was proud of the fact that he had not gotten us into war. He had some opportunities to tangle with the Germans in the Caribbean; the German navy was making trouble. He did steal the Panama Canal fair and square. But he was -- it's interesting. It's as if the -- when he shot -- he shot a man up there at the top of San Juan Hill, and wrote Henry Cabot Lodge the next week: By the way, did I tell you I killed a man with my own hand?

It's as if the fever broke. It's as if he got something out of his system. Now, weirdly, after he was president, it came back. And he -- when World War I was getting going, he went to see President Wilson, and he volunteered -- he was now 55 years old -- he volunteered to raise a division to fight in France. And Wilson, who was wary of Roosevelt and wanted nothing to do with him, did not want to make Roosevelt a martyr, said no, no.

And so as Roosevelt's leaving the White House, Roosevelt says to Colonel House, who was Wilson's chief adviser -- Roosevelt says: Doesn't the president understand? I just want the chance to die.

And House, who was sick of Roosevelt at this point, said: Oh, did you make that quite clear to the president? (Laughter.)

BRINKLEY: Did -- well, how about -- well, we'll move off of TR in a moment, but tell me about Roosevelt in the Philippines as president and moving into Taft, or in general, what -- how did we get into the Philippines? What was -- was it a mistake in the long run?

THOMAS: Almost an accident. We got into the Philippines because Roosevelt, as assistant secretary of the Navy, had sent Commodore Dewey and the Asia squadron, a little tiny squadron, to find and defeat the Spanish fleet in Manila, which they did. The Spanish fleet was glorious, but pathetic, and then Dewey and his men make quick work.

Well, then all of a sudden, we own the Philippines because Spain was occupying the Philippines. And at first, we got along with the local revolutionary leader there, but in the messy way of those times, partly for racial reasons, we fell out and were soon caught in this nasty war in the Philippines, a counterinsurgency. And like a lot of courterinsurgencies, it did not go well. There were atrocities on both sides. We borrowed a torture from the Spanish known as the water cure, waterboarding -- the first time that was ever used by the United States. Actually, an officer got court martialed for it.

And interestingly, by -- this war dragged on. We lost 4,000 men in the Philippines, the same number we've lost in Iraq so far. And there were starting to be congressional investigations into atrocities in 1902. By then, Roosevelt's president. And Henry Cabot Lodge is trying to keep the hearings under control, but Roosevelt's solution is that on July 4th, 1902, he simply declared victory. He declared that we'd won, and we just came home. In those days, no CNN. (Laughter.) You know, you could just end the war. And the -- (inaudible) -- split it up, and nobody noticed. And that's the way it ended.

BRINKLEY: Is there such a thing as a Roosevelt doctrine in U.S. foreign policy? I mean, we -- people talk about Wilsonianism and neo-Wilsonianism. And what would be, if you were going to create one, though, a Roosevelt doctrine in foreign policy that -- or was it too just big power --

THOMAS: Well, talk softly, but carry a big stick. Of course, he never used the stick, but he certainly believed in preparedness. I mean, that's what he got at Wilson. And before World War I, he was a nut about preparedness. And the Plattsburgh movement and all these preppies learning how to be warriors up there, he -- that's all Roosevelt's spirit and genesis.

And so he was big on having a great navy. You know, he famously sent the Great White Fleet out with just enough coal to get to Japan, and Congress then had to appropriate enough money to get them back. It was shows of power so that you don't actually have to use power.

BRINKLEY: The Great White Fleet.

THOMAS: The Great White Fleet being the example --

BRINKLEY: And what about Taft? Is Taft a -- just a -- following Roosevelt policies, or has he deviated in any way from TR's presidency?

THOMAS: He's not -- he doesn't deviate. I think he's a sort of a milder version. But the country -- I mean, this is a funny country because although there was enormous expansionist fervor and excitement in 1898 and desire to go to war, and to annex a few places like Puerto Rico along the way, the isolationist streak was still pretty strong. And by 1899, it's an issue in the election. The expansionists win, but the Americans really aren't into building an empire. And by the early 1900s, people sort of want to forget about the Philippines, come home -- and that isolationist streak, of course, lasts into World War I until finally we get aroused to fight again, and then returns again in the -- of course in the 1930s, and might have happened after World War II.

I mean, Averell Harriman famously said that after World War II, all Americans wanted to do was come home, go to the movies and drink Coke. And he wasn't totally wrong about that, but in places like the Council on Foreign Relations, there was a small group that said we can't; we are the dominant superpower, and Europe is in ruins, and communism is on the march; and we can't go home and drink Cokes and go to the movies.

So they created the Western Alliance and the Marshall Plan, and done really by, in retrospect, a very small group of people who were out of the mainstream. They had a lot of power in this building and in other places, but they were a small group that really fomented -- and they did it in ways that are hard to imagine today. I mean, you think of old Bob Lovett going to see Arthur Vandenberg, who was a senator on the Foreign Relations Committee. Every night they'd go to the -- go -- he'd go have a martini with Arthur Vandenberg, just softening him up. He'd bring him top-secret cables, softening him up for the creation of the Western Alliance, and it could be done in that kind of cozy, personal way. Today, you just -- you just can't imagine something like that.

BRINKLEY: Look at World War I, at the -- in the end of it, TR and Lodge are trying to -- they basically sabotage the League of Nations, yet FDR, of course, embraces Wilson and the League of Nations. Do you see that -- can you track anything that FDR may have learned from TR in the managing of foreign affairs, or was FDR, do you feel, more Wilsonian than TR, even though he loved him because of the family relation?

THOMAS: It's a little complicated. I mean, they were -- TR, who died before the vote, was in favor of some kind of League of Nations, but they didn't like giving up U.S. sovereignty. And that was -- that was Lodge's argument. They were internationalists, so they weren't isolationists. They were internationalists, but they didn't like the idea of a League of Nations that -- where the United States ceded its sovereignty.

I think FDR, mostly what his got from his beloved cousin Theodore was a romantic sense about naval power. Remember, FDR wanted to be assistant secretary to the Navy because cousin Teddy had been. They had the same office, an office later occupied by one Scooter Libby. (Laughter.)

BRINKLEY: I didn't know that.

THOMAS: (Off mic) -- old executive office building.

BRINKLEY: What about with -- moving on, because you're working on Eisenhower right now. What is it about -- I mean, we're -- so maybe make the connector of Republican Party, which we all know has changed so much, but TR, Republican at the turn of the century and Eisenhower republicanism of the '50s -- Eisenhower in war is a big topic. How are TR in war and Eisenhower in -- of viewing of warfare different?

THOMAS: Well, very. I mean, they are -- they're both internationalists, so that's important. And the Republican mainstream in the 20th century was fairly isolationist. So that's -- they're both sort of New York elitist, Council on Foreign Relations internationalists. So they have that in common.

But Eisenhower had no illusions about war, having run the biggest war ever. Interestingly though, he never saw combat. He missed World War I, but he saw an awful lot of battlefields after the fact. And he was the guy who had to order the firebombing of Germany. He knew the way wars would get out of control, and he was damned if he was going to get the United States into a war on his watch. And he never did. He got us out of Korea, and then not a single American serviceman died on his watch. And -- it was said -- after he left, people would say, well, how did that -- how did that happen?

And he'd say, well, it damn well didn't just happen. Now, he did it subtly. He ruled by a hidden hand. And it's sometimes hard to figure out exactly what Ike was doing, because he used fairly traditional, almost blustery rhetoric at times, including a famous speech in this building about massive retaliation, which was the doctrine that John Foster Dulles announced here in January 1954. It scared the hell out of people because it sounded like we were going to use nuclear weapons everywhere. Actually, it meant the opposite. Ike had no intention of ever using nuclear weapons, but he was bent on -- well, it was a bluff. He was -- basically was a great card player. Ike was a brilliant poker player and bridge player.

And he did -- he did not want to spend a lot of money on defense. He did not want to spend endlessly on building up our defenses, and he did not want to get us into small wars. And so his way of handling that was to have a doctrine saying, you know, you never know when I'm going to use nuclear weapons. Don't even mess with us. And he kept us out of small wars, including Vietnam, a lot of talk about Quemoy and Matsu, but never attacked them. Six times in 1954 the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended that Eisenhower use nuclear weapons against North Vietnam and China, and he didn't, obviously. And he was very clever about getting right up to the edge, but not using these weapons, and doing whatever he could to keep us out of war.

His essential insight came from reading Clausewitz. And what we remember from Clausewitz is that famous line about how war is an extension -- politics extended by other means. The paragraph he paid attention to was that once countries start to fight a war, no matter how limited it may seem, and whatever -- how limited the weaponry may seem, they're going to find a way to make it bigger, especially if they're fighting for their national survival. So he was absolutely determined to not even start a little war, or get us into a little war if he could possibly help it.

BRINKLEY: With Professor Lewis (sp) creating this forum where we're looking at history, and connecting war with current foreign affairs, is there something stylistically about a president in the bluff, what you're calling it? I mean, if we're looking at -- let's call TR a two-termer, even though he -- you know, seven-and-a-half years or whatever, and Eisenhower's two terms and Ronald Reagan's two terms. And all three are associated with war, very clearly TR because of the Spanish-American War and his language; Ike, hero of D-Day; and Reagan was seen as a kind of hawk. Yet all three basically kept America out of wars, yet they -- if you read their language, they --

THOMAS: Right.

BRINKLEY: -- seem bellicose.


BRINKLEY: What's going on there?

THOMAS: Well, I mean, talk softly but carry a big stick. I mean, they always wanted the -- show the world a readiness to use force on the theory that if you're ready to use it, you won't have to, a pretty basic notion, a pretty obvious notion. But those three because of their particular personal power, I think, were able to carry it off in the way that other presidents less secure, personally secure presidents, they were able to.

And they stayed focused on it. They didn't -- they made it their -- Eisenhower seemed like this genial golf-playing guy who took a lot of naps. He actually did take a nap before lunch and a nap after lunch, which is a schedule I'd like to be on. (Laughter.) But he was extremely focused on this one thing in particular, and that was keeping us out of war. And there were lots of opportunities to get in trouble in the 1950s.

BRINKLEY: Do you think that it's essential for a president to have a fear factor? There are some people now with President Obama saying as much as he's loved around the world as a global president --


BRINKLEY: -- he's not feared. Yet people feared TR's wrath, Eisenhower perhaps as a war leader, Reagan.

Do you find anything true to that? And is it --

THOMAS: Something to it. I mean, if you haven't read Bob Woodward's new book, you ought to, because it's on Afghanistan. For one thing, it's astonishing, it's verbatim transcripts essentially of these top-secret meetings, a sort of WikiLeaks before there were WikiLeaks. And so the leakage was copious to Woodward. So it's a -- quite a detailed rendition.

But what I get out of it is that Obama is a very smart guy. He's a careful lawyer. He's asking a lot of good questions. But there's a complete absence of grand strategy. And Ike had a -- definitely had a grand strategy in his head. He knew what he wanted in a grand way. And you get the feeling that Obama's sort of feeling his way, asking -- like a good student in a seminar asking good questions, but he's not quite sure.

He resents the military trying to tell him what to do, but he can't really control them. That's another thing Ike was great at was controlling his military. He used to say to his colleagues, what's going to happen when somebody like me who understands the military's not in this position, there's going to be trouble. And you very much get the feeling of Obama not able to control his own military. He's respectful of them, but a little resentful that Petraeus is powerful and smart, and that they're stacking the deck in a way that he can't control. He's got no grand strategist adviser around him, unless you think Joe Biden is a grand strategist. (Scattered laughter.) So he's kind of flailing. He's a decent guy. He's certainly smart. But there's not a whole lot of oomph there.

BRINKLEY: Could our president learn something in U.S. foreign policymaking from TR? Is there something he could -- that would be useful to him?

THOMAS: Well, their minds work so differently. I think that Obama's really an incrementalist, and wants to work in subtle ways. He's very -- he's good at speaking broadly about getting himself elected. But in terms of policy, he's doing things in small, incremental bits.

Eisenhower, as I said, had an enormous grand strategy on foreign policy. And I think that TR also thought boldly and broadly. It's just -- they're just different personalities. And Reagan certainly did. They're -- they're just different personalities.

Now, there are defects to those grandiose personalities. I'm not saying that's the perfect model because it's very importance, for instance, that Ike was very shrewd and, I think, devious. I mean, he is a very complicated man. On the one hand, he's this sunny, warm personality and America loves him. They trust him. But he's running the CIA, knocking off Guatemala and Iran, and giving Allen Dulles a lot of rope. He operated on many levels.

He was a great planner, but he used to quote von Moltke saying that planning is everything; plans are nothing. Now, he was planning like crazy. And right up to the moment when their plans -- you know, that no -- plans never survive contact with the enemy. That was very much an Eisenhower truism. So he planned like hell, and he had very grand planning exercises, but he was also extremely intuitive, and he trusted his own judgment.

That's a rare combination to have a very orderly, if you will, lawyer-like approach to planning, but be extremely intuitive and instinctive. At the same time, Eisenhower's like -- Fitzgerald defined greatness as being able to tolerate contradictory ideas. Ike was very much that way. And I think Reagan, for all his apparent simplicity -- and people used to think was a simpleton -- actually was a fairly subtle and sophisticated person behind all that power. So the bluster and the broad behavior's not enough. There has to be a sophisticated sense of judgment and intuition behind that.

BRINKLEY: George W. Bush just has his memoir out now, "Decision Points." And he says that he never lost a night's sleep on any of his decisions, that he pulled the --

THOMAS: Right.

BRINKLEY: -- he went -- we did Iraq, he did waterboarding. And it struck me reading -- I haven't read the whole book. The parts of that I have read he's trying to be very Trumanesque

THOMAS: Right.

BRINKLEY: And is there a connection in your mind when you're looking at presidents in war with Truman and George W. Bush? Do you see their legacies similar in any way, or --

THOMAS: I think so. I mean, Truman and Bush were both determined to show the world that they had a common sense, we-mean-business, don't-mess-with-me, and this kind of chestiness to both of them that they had to show you. And you know, Truman's decision to drop the atom bomb, I think, was the right decision. But I remember when I was reading about it, there was a feeling he was going to show that he's not just this hack senator from Missouri. He's going to show that he can make the big decision, including dropping the A-bomb.

He didn't hesitate on getting into Korea. Again, that was the right decision. But I think he had a need to show -- he needed to show the Soviets that he was tough. He didn't like being bullied by the Soviets.

Bush has some of the same quality. And some of it's admirable. I think that history may treat Bush better than he's being treated right now. He -- I think he is a man of courage. But I don't think he had the world's greatest judgment, and he totally dropped the ball on the planning piece. You know, there's just -- there was nothing -- with the exception of Richard Haass at the State Department, there was -- (laughter) -- nothing going on within the White House that were properly planned

I think history's going to be very rough on Condoleeza Rice. She utterly failed as national security adviser.

BRINKLEY: Is there a relationship with America and war, what the secretary of State working with the president that you think got it about right for their era, that a team, you know, whether it's Schultz and Reagan or Atchison and Truman? And how does that work? How does the president use the State Department effectively? And do they still need the State Department in those ways? Or has it turned so heavy to the NSC in a fast world?

THOMAS: Well, it's complicated. And the personal relationship, I think, is terribly important. With Dulles and Ike, it was interesting. It was a bit of good cop, bad cop. Ike used Dulles to play the heavy, to be the harsh anti-Communist, to threaten, because that allowed Ike to stand back and be the nice guy. But -- and it looked -- a lot of the time, people thought that Dulles had a lot of power, maybe too much power, and was pushing Eisenhower around. We know now, from the documents, that that was not true at all, that Ike had real control over his secretary of State; he -- respect for him, but he controlled him. And Dulles was always trying to figure out what Ike wanted and following his lead.

So that was a -- you know, a relatively successful combination. You know, I don't -- I -- in reading the Woodward book about Obama and Hillary, they get along fine, but it seems to me that Hillary is mostly wanting to posture as a hawk. She doesn't want to be caught being less than a hawkish Democrat. And she's not contributing that much. I don't -- there's no grand strategy coming from her, at least that you could see from the Woodward book. She's mostly staking out a claim to be with the military and to be -- to be a hawk. She's respectful; she's not leaking; she's not making trouble; she's not stirring the pot; but she's not really contributing that much.

BRINKLEY: Most of you, I'm sure, know, but Evan wrote the book "The Wise Men" with Walter Isaacson, which -- about six friends and the world they made. Lovett and Kennan and Chip Bohlen and McCloy -- you know, I'm forgetting one or two there, but the -- Harriman -- but the -- that group, the wise men, became -- so your book became so popular. Is there a group of wise men today in the United States that President Obama's relying or listening to? Or is that a tradition that is fading from our American scene?

THOMAS: Well, a couple of thoughts on that. My short answer is no, I don't see any sign of a wise man around, which is too bad. I don't think he's getting much good advice on, certainly, big-picture things. But the world has changed so much. The wise men really couldn't exist today, because in 1946, 47, there was no national-security staff. It didn't exist. It was mostly -- you know, it might be Clark Clifford having breakfast with James Forrestal at the F Street Club. I mean, that's -- that -- there was no staff. I mean, it was -- it was such a(n) intimate, small-scale thing that you could have these strong figures who knew each other, who got along with each other, who had a great sense of public service and who didn't leak and who didn't play games.

I was just reading about Bobby Cutler (sp), somebody you -- I'm not sure you've even ever heard of Bobby Cutler (sp). He was Eisenhower's national security assistant, the Mac Bundy job. And he really -- and Ike said to him, you know, loose lips sink ships. Clam up. And Cutler (sp) didn't speak to anybody at all, ever. Joe Alsop couldn't believe it. They'd been Porcellian Club buddies together, and Alsop comes to see Cutler and says, well, surely you're going to leak to me. And Cutler (sp) says, no, I'm not going to speak to you ever again. And Alsop trashed him for the next four years in his columns, but Cutler (sp) was doing the principled thing.

So the ethos existed then that just isn't close to existing now. And much more -- things are done -- much more done in public. I mean, the idea that Woodward would be able to write a book about the deliberations with that kind of detail in 1948 -- forget about it. Just not even close.

BRINKLEY: Before we open it up for questions, I had a final one to ask you. I mean, looking at all these presidents and -- in war, do you -- do you think there are presidents that have a war of -- they don't have a choice, meaning FDR being bombed at Pearl Harbor and the Nazis declaring war on the United States -- so it was unambiguous we had to go to war, basically. Do you -- let's summarize for us in the 20th century and into the 21st century, Spanish-American war, was that a war that we should have fought? Or do you in retrospect think it was a mistake?

THOMAS: Close call. It was a war of choice for sure. We did -- we did some good. Liberating people was a good thing. Getting involved in the Philippines was not so good.

BRINKLEY: What about the Philippines insurrection, as it's called? Is there anything we could have done differently?

THOMAS: Yeah, we could have -- we could have done -- handled that much better. Race reared its ugly head there. We treated the Filipinos as lesser people and picked a fight that we didn't have to have.

BRINKLEY: Do you think there were lessons of our experience in the Philippines with Vietnam that we could have learned?

THOMAS: Absolutely. The word "gook" comes from the Philippine insurrection. I mean, we made the same damn mistake all over again, this -- nothing too complicated about it; we had this condescending racial attitude, and it blinded us; it made it harder for us to get along in order to get out. Vietnam's a complicated thing and, you know, we can -- we could rehash that endlessly. But certainly our lack of understanding and insight and inability to relate to the people that we were supposedly protecting was a big factor.

BRINKLEY: What about World War I and Wilson? How did -- how did he do? Did he enter at the right time? Should we have gotten in earlier? Tried to stay out?

THOMAS: Well, once they're torpedoing your merchant ships, you got to get in. (Laughter.)

BRINKLEY: Okay. And what about Korea?

THOMAS: Again, I don't think we had a choice. I mean, once the North Koreans are barging into our ally and chasing American troops out of the Korean Peninsula, we had to come back. We then overcorrected, and, as you know, McCarthy went charging up into North Korea and got ambushed by the Chinese. So we made that war unnecessarily long and then prolonged it even further.

There's a good book by Gideon Rose called "How Wars End," which talks about how we unnecessarily made the Korean War go on for an extra two years, negotiating over a prison release thing that was ridiculous. So that was a war that went on too long and cost too -- way too many lives, but it certainly was a war we had to fight.

BRINKLEY: What about the argument in the Cold War that -- and it's mainly conservatives that are putting forward this argument -- but that we won the Cold War -- Berlin Wall came down, Soviet Union broke up -- and that all the presidents from Truman to George Herbert Walker Bush deserve credit, and we may have lost the battle of Vietnam but we won the Cold War? What do you think -- you've probably heard that; it's put out there, I think, by conservatives -- meaning Vietnam was worth fighting because we had to, you know, win the Cold War and show that we meant business at shifting places.

THOMAS: I have a tragic view of history. I mean, I think these things happen and they're kind of inevitable. I think even Iraq was going to happen -- if it didn't happen that year, was going to happen a year or two later.

I remember talking to Colin Powell once, and Colin Powell was positive -- was the great dove in all this. But I remember sitting there with him and Richard Armitage, and they were saying, well, we weren't in favor of going to war right away. But in a year or two we probably would have had to go in and knock off Saddam and his crazy sons anyway. So I just -- these things, you get sucked into them, they happen, they're unavoidable.

I mean, talk about tragedies -- Afghanistan, a situation where you can't get in, you can't get -- you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. It's impossible to get out of the damn country, but nothing's going well by being there. It's very hard to figure a way out of that mess -- unless there is some grand strategy involving Pakistan that we haven't quite figured out -- the kind of thing that Richard Holbrooke actually is capable of figuring out, maybe, but he is, according to the Woodward book, somewhat discredited, and nobody's really listening to him. But there's the lack of an overarching vision of how to get out of this mess.

BRINKLEY: If you're -- had to -- if President Obama asked to talk to you not as you as a journalist doing a cover story for Newsweek but as a -- somebody to give advice for our country, what would you tell him to do differently in the foreign-affairs arena than he's doing now, either in the Middle East or Afghanistan, Iraq? How is he shaping up as a wartime president?

THOMAS: Well, I wish I had the grand strategy that I've been so glibly talking about, but I don't. (Laughter.)

BRINKLEY: Yeah, it's -- okay, let's open it up. Yes, sir. And let me -- let's use the microphone, because they're taping this, and -- so everybody can hear.

QUESTIONER: You made a very apt comment about there not being a CNN at Manila. But Randolph Hearst was very much involved certainly in the Spanish-American War, and we didn't have a chance to hear your comments on that. I would appreciate that.

THOMAS: Hearst is one of my favorite characters, because he was such a -- he was -- he claimed credit for the Spanish-American War. Now, he didn't -- as usual, he was exaggerating it. But he went there himself. He's a mile away from Teddy Roosevelt on San Juan Hill that morning, and he puts a pistol in his pocket and he gets on his mule and his servant packs him a picnic lunch and he goes in the wrong direction and he misses that battle. (Laughter.)

But three days later he's on his yacht observing the naval battle of Santiago. And when a Spanish ship gets sunk, he goes ashore, takes his pistol out, captures 29 Spanish sailors and orders them to give a cheer for "Old Glory" and General Washington -- (laughter) -- then turns them over to the U.S. Navy, and gets a receipt for them, and the receipt's above his desk all his -- all his life. So he was a -- he was Roger Ailes on steroids. (Laughter.)

BRINKLEY: (Laughs.) Yes, sir, right -- here's the --

QUESTIONER: Thank you very much. I'm Allen Hyman from Columbia-Presbyterian.

In your comparison with President Obama and TR, I was reminded that they both won the Nobel Peace Prize. So I was wondering, how does a war-lover become a peacemaker, sufficient enough to win the peace prize?

THOMAS: Well, in TR's case, he negotiated peace between Russia and Japan, and I think he did that well. I know there's a new book out that suggests that somehow that set up World War II. I'm not sure I agree with that thesis. But as I said earlier, TR was a much more moderate figure than his bluster would suggest, and a much more clever figure than he was (sic). And he knew when to play a mediating role and he -- it won him a prize.

In Obama's case, he gave -- I -- Obama had the good sense to be embarrassed by winning a prize that he didn't deserve, but gave a fairly tough speech, as I recall, where he talked about that sometimes war is necessary. That was, I think, one of his better and braver speeches after he won that prize.

BRINKLEY: Great. Yes, sir, on the front row.

QUESTIONER: What is it that Lodge did to deserve the title of a war-lover, particularly since we think of him as an isolationist after the United Nations?

THOMAS: He and TR -- we were talking about Admiral Mahan earlier. TR and Mahan would have lunch together at the Metropolitan Club, and scheme up ways to expand American influence by taking -- by taking of possessions. And Lodge and Roosevelt worked very closely on trying to get us into war with Spain over Cuba, and Lodge was sort of Roosevelt's man on the Hill in the Senate. He was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And he gave a very famous speech in 1896, with "Xs" on a map showing where the United States should expand: it should have a canal across the isthmus; it should seize Guam; it should seize Hawaii -- partly for coaling stations. This is steam navy. To have a great navy you had to have coaling stations, and you needed possessions. So he was the most vigorous early expansionist.

BRINKLEY: Wonderful. Let's get a few in the back there. Yes, on the aisle, sir.

QUESTIONER: Stephen Blank. I'd like to enlarge on the first question that was asked about the management of public opinion. We may be a nation of isolationists, but there's always been a strong emphasis on war. Think of Adams; think of Jefferson with regard to Florida; Mexico; "54'40 or Fight"; Spain. So this has been a very major issue for many presidents. How do presidents deal with the pressure to fight? And it seems to me, very often they give in to it. Or if they fight, they should -- the public opinion is they should fight harder.

THOMAS: Well, they fight all the time. I mean, U.S. soldiers are in action in small and big ways constantly. We're actually a very war-like nation. However, we are not a conquering imperialist nation, by any means. We've gotten in some dubious fights, but often with this curious mixture of American motives of idealism on the one hand and realpolitik power on the other, that uneasy balance between realism and idealism that just characterizes all of American foreign policy. Rare -- in fact, I can't think of a single case where we just nakedly went in to assert our power for gain of money or glory. There's always some idealistic reason -- as there was in the Spanish-American war: the liberation of Cuba.

But, you know, American foreign policy, again, is just characterized by this intermingling of realism and idealism -- sometimes bad judgment, as well. But I think generally speaking, our motives are good. And I think compared to any country in the history of the world, our motives have been good and honorable -- not always successful, tarnished now and again by the Abu Ghraibs and the waterboarding and all that; but it's all relative, and relative to other nations, I think the United States has a -- you know, a history to be proud of.

BRINKLEY: Yes, back there in the very back.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Richard Cohen. Evan, going back to something you said earlier, what aspect of the Bush presidency do you think historians of the future will revise?

THOMAS: Well, I think they've been so rough on Bush as just a complete fool that I think historians will see that he had some real leadership capacity. We forget, after 9/11, I thought one of the best speeches -- in fact, I'll say the best speech I've ever heard was Bush -- the speech that Bush gave, what, 11 days after 9/11. That was just an extraordinarily great speech to revive a country that had -- was on its heels and feeling frightened and lost. And it led to -- it ultimately led to wars that we regret and got us into -- you know, down the road, got us into trouble. But at the time, I thought it was a -- was a great speech. And I thought he -- his ability to revive the country's spirits after 9/11 and his purposefulness in going into Afghanistan -- I think all of that is admirable.

Obviously, the Iraq war didn't work out as well as it should have, partly for this grotesque failure of planning that I talked about, that we didn't -- we didn't plan for an occupation. But I don't -- I don't think that Bush is going to be quite the figure of ridicule that he was at the end of his presidency.


QUESTIONER: Alberta Arthurs. You mentioned the Council on Foreign Relations a couple of times. I've never really believed that the council had all that influence that is sometimes claimed for it, but I'm curious about what you think. And do we still have that influence, or are there other nooks in the country where such things -- such conversations take place?

THOMAS: The council for a long time lived in a world where it could have power, because when foreign affairs were involved, it was such a small group of people who knew each other. It was a tiny universe of like-minded men and women. Now it's extraordinarily expanded. Every college worth its salt has a -- some kind of center on foreign affairs or foreign relations. And the government bureaucracy is vast indeed. I'm not sure it produces better policy. In fact, I think it probably produces less, or it actually just gridlocks itself and produces no policy at all.

But -- and you can get -- you can over-romanticize this period after World War II. It had its flaws. As Dean Acheson liked to say, sometimes we need to make things clearer than the truth. And they exaggerated the Soviet threat, I think, in the late '40s -- for a worthy purpose of getting European recovery passed through Congress. But they were not, you know, beyond hyping the -- hyping the threat and getting us into commitments. You know, the Truman Doctrine of basically committing the United States to defend free peoples everywhere, that's a pretty tall order to take on, and it led us to grief in time.

Having said that, though, there was a time -- and it was the council's glory years, because it was the center of this group of men. And I wrote about them with Walter Isaacson. And they did a lot of good things. They may have done some less good things, but I think their track record was one that we can -- we look back on with some envy, given the way things are now.

BRINKLEY: Great. Yes, professor.

QUESTIONER: Roger Lewis (sp). You reflect on it from time to time in your book. Could you tell us briefly how the Spanish-American War was seen through Spanish eyes?

THOMAS: Poor Spain was at the end of its great 400 years, and had a very romantic and almost nihilist view of itself. The Spanish Navy, before they steamed out to be destroyed by the American Navy at Santiago, they put on their best dress uniforms and they polished their brightwork and they raised all their flags, and they steamed out to die. And their admiral wrote about this in the most kind of romantic way, citing "Don Quixote," you know, tilting at windmills, and Spanish honor demanded it.

The reason why that war broke out was -- and McKinley tried to negotiate a peace, and could have, except the Spanish were just determined to save face and save honor, and they just would not accept a reasonable compromise. They had this kind of nihilistic view of going out all flags flying: If we're going to lose our empire, we might as well lose it gloriously fighting this war. It's a kind of grotesque, almost Gothic spectacle of an empire at the end of empire, that has lost everything but its pride.

BRINKLEY: Great. Yes, sir.

QUESTIONER: Alfred Youngwood. Can you comment on Lyndon Johnson?

THOMAS: Well, when I think of Lyndon Johnson, I always think about how smart Lady Bird Johnson was. (Laughter.) And I'll -- but I mean that in a more specific way. I think she was smart in lots of ways. But she -- Johnson's tapes were given to the Johnson Library to be closed for 50 years. And Mrs. Johnson and the library director there, whose name I just forgot.

BRINKLEY: Mark Updegrove now. Oh, well -- Harry Middleton.

THOMAS: Harry Middleton had the wisdom to release those tapes, to give them to, I guess, Beschloss, but anyways, to put them out there, because they showed the world that Johnson at his earthiest and rawest was a great leader. And Johnson's reputation, as you may recall, was pretty low there because of Vietnam. He was considered to be this kind of blustering fool that had gotten the country into terrible trouble. But if you listen to him work the phones and give the full Johnson treatment to whomever he's talking to, some of his greatness comes across. He's a larger-than-life figure. He's outrageous. He's ridiculous at times, but he's very powerful and persuasive. And you feel -- you can feel his greatness as you listen to those tapes.

So I think Lady Bird was a genius to show us all the true Johnson as he's wheeling and dealing and maneuvering. He was fatally flawed by his insecurities. I mean, your insecurities will make you great, but they'll also bring you down. Very powerful rocket fuel. With Johnson, it did both. It gave him a sense of greatness and the vision where he gave that wonderful speech where he was the one who said, and this is, what, the winter of 1964, he stands up in the U.S. Congress as a Southern senator, and says, "We shall overcome," and launches the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

So there was -- there was a greatness. But his absolute insecurity about this place, about the Council on Foreign Relations and all those Harvards, Mac Bundy, and they just drove him nuts. And it was sad because it clouded his judgment and it made him less wise than he was capable of being, his enormous insecurity of trying to live up to the sort of people who went to the (frat house ?) at 6:30.

BRINKLEY: How about the Nixon tapes? How have they affected peoples' view of Nixon, do you think?

THOMAS: Not for the better.

BRINKLEY: (Laughs.) Yes, on the aisle there. Yes.

QUESTIONER: Joseph Chamie. Given what you've been talking about the last 80, 100 years, could you speculate a bit about the next three years, especially with regard to those areas where we see conflict likely?

THOMAS: Well, I can say what I fear, which is that Israel is going to attack Iran and create a wider war, which is going to drag in Saudi Arabia, especially now that we know that the Saudi king wants to cut the head off the snake of Ahmadinejad, that the -- I once read an outlook, oh, The Washington Post, maybe three months ago, they ran a war game. Well, pretty high-level war game with smart people involved. And within about 10 days, the Saudi oil fields were in flame, about 10 days after the Israeli jets bomb the Iranian sites.

So I have a fear of a general Middle East war caused by Israel attacking Iran. Having said that, if I was Israel, I'd want to get rid of those weapons too. I mean, I would fear them and they are an existential threat to Israel. So I think it's an incredibly sticky problem. I hope we continue just to try to contain Iran.

I saw in the paper today that somebody is setting off car bombs or motorcycle bombs, killing an Iranian atomic scientist, I mean, that's an extraordinary detail. I don't know who did that; I guess it's the Israelis, but I don't know. Plus -- so, you know, I hope we can contain them. But that is my most immediate fear.

Afghanistan will drag on in its awful way. We'll try to disentangle ourselves. I mean, you have to be sort of British about it and hope that we can muddle through. I think that would be the best outcome in Afghanistan. But again, the one I fear is violence over Iran.

BRINKLEY: Yes. John, go ahead

QUESTIONER: John Cole (sp). I'd like you to comment -- as a cynic, I'd like you to comment on the effect in foreign policy in the last few decades of the defense industry and the amount of money that's being made off of these wars. We used to, for instance, have Army cooks; now, they're contractors. We have a tremendous amount of mercenaries -- called other names.

What effect do they have and what influence do they have?

THOMAS: In my one trip to Kabul, I went to a restaurant called the Hot and Sizzling that was full entirely of contractors and their Chinese prostitutes. It was kind of a grotesque Hieronymus Bosch scene. There were a couple of journalists. And I know the military guys in Afghanistan hate all those contractors and they're all over the place. And one of the really sad things that happened after 9/11 was the greed, the enormous greed that attached itself to Congress' willingness to pay for anything to do with national security. All that homeland security stuff, we blew the lid off the budget and just burned billions of dollars on phony contracts to various Beltway bandits who were not doing too much.

Some of my students go to work for these guys and come back shaking their head over the lack of useful work that's being done. Obviously some useful work is being done by these contractors on security and so forth. But an awful lot is being wasted. And I can tell you from personal knowledge, I sat in a meeting of then-General McChrystal's command when they were trying to figure out how to kill contracts out there that they thought were a complete waste of money.

There's been a disheartening amount of the old waste, fraud and abuse on these -- on these contracts.

BRINKLEY: Yes. In the back.

QUESTIONER: Dina Temple-Raston with NPR.

I wonder if you can school me a little bit in terms of grand strategy. What would have been, and this is a little bit of a difficult question, the grand strategy for the last three administrations before Obama?

THOMAS: Well, I wish I had an answer to that, you know. I mean, because of containment, we all wish that there's some sort of secret magical word, "containment," that solves everything. People have tried, you know, constructive engagement.

I think that, you know, I'm generally -- the more I watch and observe Washington, the more I become, I guess, what you would call a realist that tries to look at peoples' national interests and not over-commit and over-engage the United States. This is my personal bias talking, although I can get all weepy listening to a great speech about human rights, and I did get all weepy listening to Bush's second inaugural, which was a great speech about democracy, it was actually a mistaken message because the United States just cannot afford to endlessly get involved in these fights unless we have fairly narrow specific national interests.

So my own view of this is more of a -- the older I get, the more, I guess, Kissingerian it gets, which is to say a narrow realist look at our interests narrowly and not over-engage for some broad, idealistic Wilsonian ideal.

BRINKLEY: Yes, ma'am. Go ahead.

QUESTIONER: (Off mic) -- about war less as a matter of --

BRINKLEY: Oh, what's your name, if you could?

QUESTIONER: My name is Susan Weld. I'm at Georgetown University.

BRINKLEY: Thank you.

QUESTIONER: And -- Hi, Evan -- war less as a matter of individual personality of leaders, but more as sort of a chemical -- combination of the institutions in each country that's fighting the war.

So a democrat -- a large democracy fighting a war is a very different thing from an authoritarian country. I wonder if you could say something about that, and whether that played into these different presidents' activities.

THOMAS: Well, in theory, democracies are less likely to get into war. But somehow it doesn't work that way, because we have our own passions and war fevers, and our own institutions can slow us, and I think in the United States' case has made us less rapacious than some more authoritarian country. But we seem to, despite our democratic institutions, still get involved in a lot of wars. And I think there is a phenomenon of war fever that does seize peoples.

Your ancestor Teddy was good at stirring that pot, but plenty of people have been since then. And it is a dangerous -- it's a dangerous thing to -- it's a dangerous beast to arouse. And it lurks in the American spirit. It pops out. In some groups, it's there all the time. The Scots-Irish are always ready to fight. And thank God for them because they've been some of our greatest fighters, from, you know, Andrew Jackson onward. But, you know, there is -- no matters what institutions of government you have and no matter what your constitutional system is, there does seem to be a kind of a bloodlust that exists in peoples all through time.

Now, an interesting -- particularly young men who have a need to prove themselves in a time of war. Theodore Roosevelt was kind of exotic specimen of that, but boy, that's a pretty common thing. And also one of my characters I wrote about was William James because he was a philosopher who understood the pull of war, and the lure of war. But he wanted to turn it into something more positive. He talked about the moral equivalent of war. And he gave a speech that -- actually, one of the reasons why I wrote this book. He gave a speech in the year before the Spanish-American War about Robert Gould Shaw. Many of you have seen the movie "Glory" about this Harvard boy who left his Harvard troop and raised a regiment of black soldiers, and who died fairly gloriously in World War -- in the Civil War. And the speech that James gave was that, you know, we all celebrate courage in a time of war, but actually that's pretty common. It's not all that unusual. Men have been showing courage in a time of war for a long time. It's a noble thing, but it's pretty common.

What's uncommon is what Robert Gould Shaw saw, which was civic courage, the willingness to leave his group of fancy Harvard roommates and friends, and go take this beaten down group of Negro soldiers who weren't getting any respect from anybody and lead them. That kind of moral and civic courage is more unique. And that's what James venerated. And if you can find a way to venerate that courage, as opposed to -- as much as we need physical courage, if you can find this more special kind of courage and ennoble it, that's a great thing for societies to look for.

BRINKLEY: Let's do two more questions, and then we'll wrap up.

QUESTIONER: Hi. Annette Gordon-Reed. Wasn't there something different about the two wars?

THOMAS: Yeah, well, there --

QUESTIONER: Do you think it's a tragedy that not more Harvard people died in Vietnam?

THOMAS: I do. I know that sounds crazy and cold-blooded. But I think that Harvard just dialing out of the Vietnam War, sort of walking away from it, and walking away from -- you know, letting the guys who worked in the service stations get drafted while we figured out ways to get our blood pressure up so we wouldn't get drafted, there was something wrong with that.

BRINKLEY: Okay. One last one. Well, we'll quickly do two more, because there were so many hands. Go ahead.

QUESTIONER: It's not on. Oh, here it is. In the ranking of presidents, the two Roosevelts are always ranked great presidents. You sound like you would rank Eisenhower pretty high, too.

I'm just curious, though, even though you may have the potential to be a great president, can you be a great president if there are not the external circumstances out there that allow you to do certain things and be one?

THOMAS: Yeah, well, you know, Teddy Roosevelt used to lament that he couldn't be rated that way because he hadn't had a great crisis. And yet he is still rated as a great president. He's the only one, though, I think, of the great greats, the Mount Rushmore ones, who didn't have some terrible crisis -- Lincoln, Washington, the -- Franklin Roosevelt. So, yes, I think generally speaking history rewards those who have lead the country in a time of great peril. But Teddy Roosevelt actually proves it's not absolutely essential. He -- I think he deserves to be on Mount Rushmore, and he did it without a great war or a great crisis.

BRINKLEY: That's a good place to end. Thank you all. (Applause.) And let me just -- let -- thank you, Evan.

THOMAS: Thank you.












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