Evan Thomas at Guernica: how he pushed the Iraq war like Citizen Cane

If I’d been nattering here as much as on Facebook, you’d have heard more than you care to about my interview with former Newsweek editor Evan Thomas. But I’m pretty happy with how it came out. At the bottom, click to read it at Guernica Magazine, and maybe throw in your two cents?

Wolf in the Heart

Chris Lombardi interviews Evan Thomas, September 2010

The historian and departing Newsweek editor on how he (like Remnick and Keller) caught war fever after 9/11, the obsession with being a man, and how his dad glowed in Navy whites.

In the October, 2001 “Talk of the Town,” New Yorker editor David Remnick called George Bush’s post-9/11 speech “reassuring.” Despite the fears of some, he explained, “taken as a policy pronouncement of sorts, it pointed in the right direction.” Even as it became clearer that the “policy pronouncement” was signaling war in two countries, many, if not most, writers and editors were as much participants in the preparations as observers. By April 2002, the New York Times’s now-notorious Judith Miller was deep in her dance with Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, reporting enthusiastically on the “important new discoveries” of weapons of mass destruction. The New Yorker again chimed in with similar reporting by then-staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg, whose 2002 stories led with graphic details of the gas poisoning of Kurds in 1988. “In five years,” Goldberg wrote in October, 2002, “I believe that the coming invasion of Iraq will be remembered as an act of profound morality.” So adamant was The New Republic’s plumping for war that editor Peter Beinart recently felt the need to write an entire book, The Icarus Syndrome, bemoaning American war hubris. Also caught in the fervor was Newsweek’s Evan Thomas.

TR Pose-Body.jpg
Newsweek, which emblazoned “God Bless America” on its post-9/11 cover and followed that issue with articles in the coming weeks entitled “A Fight Over the Next Front” and “Blame America at Your Peril,” became perhaps the most visible of the Ernie Pyle-wannabes. By December of 2001, Thomas, an editor-at-large who announced last month he will be leaving the magazine he joined nearly twenty-five years ago, was on CBS calling Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld “a great war leader,” and by March 2002 his byline was on a story about a “growing consensus” in the Bush administration that “the next target” in the war on terror was Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. All this less than twelve months before the magazine’s “Shock and Awe” cover breathlessly reported the devastation that resulted.

Seven years later, all of the media outlets above have recanted some of what they published back then, even as the buzz for a new war with Iran threatens to repeat the cycle (with participation of some of the same personnel, such as Jeffrey Goldberg, now with The Atlantic). Beyond a few journalism-ethics seminars, few have tried to examine why they did it. Thomas, who now admits that he and the others were in the grip of “war fever,” has turned to history to help himself understand what that means.

History, and controversy, are familiar ground for Thomas. The grandson of an old-line pacifist who helped found the Fellowship of Reconciliation and son of a World War II vet who was a giant in the publishing industry, Thomas spent much of his early career covering intelligence during the end of the Cold War and writing books about that war’s beginnings. In 1998, he won the National Magazine Award for coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and in 2004 he oversaw similarly award-winning Newsweek coverage of the abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Among Thomas’s seven published books are many works whose subjects span all of American history. He is both a fellow of the Society of American Historians and a former trustee of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. It may have felt more natural to him than, say, the New York Times’s Bill Keller, to wield a historian’s tools to ask why Americans love war.

The resulting book, The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, is both exploratory and questioning, especially regarding the role of a single publisher, William Randolph Hearst, in cheering the government to war.

Hearst, the iconic newspaper mogul, zealously nudged America into its first full-fledged overseas wars in Cuba and the Philippines. The War Lovers notes that as early as 1895—not long after he bought the New York Journal, hoping to compete with Joe Pulitzer’s New York World—Hearst responded to diplomatic troubles in Venezuela with “Is This a Prelude to War?” and reported on Civil War veterans “ready to fight.” For the next three years, he kept up the pressure, and eventually sent to Cuba a notorious yellow journalist named Frederick Lawrence (a sort of proto-Judith Miller). Throughout 1896 the Journal published Lawrence’s entirely fictitious stories. At least one—an account of the Spanish using “women soldiers, known as ‘Amazons,’ who fought with machetes” against the noble Cuban insurgents—was read aloud on the floor of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

After exploiting the famous USS Maine incident, Hearst was equally enthusiastic about the subsequent invasion and occupation of the Philippines—where, as Thomas also notes in a rare reference to the present day, “the United States plunged into a counterinsurgency that cost the lives of nearly four thousand American soldiers, roughly the same number as lost in Iraq between 2003 and 2009.” Moreover, he adds, it was in that war that American soldiers “pioneered the practice known as waterboarding—one of several inhumane practices” used to garner intelligence from Filipino insurgents. Those practices now have new names, thanks to the consensus of many of the media outlets mentioned above: and it’s that kind of consensus that is Thomas’s real target in The War Lovers.

Thomas also looks at Congressmen shouting on both sides of the issue, writer William James, and the rest of the post-Civil-War former-abolitionist crowd. The latter included Civil War widow Josephine Shaw Lowell, who joined Mark Twain in the short-lived Anti-Imperialist League. The book’s vivid scenes of James, Lowell, and others agonizing about post-Civil-War militarism are followed by glimpses of Hearst as he helps escalate pro-war fervor—from popularizing the term “Remember the Maine!” to vivid newspaper covers about “Spanish butchery.” Its focus on the symbiotic relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and Hearst thus goes far beyond the moment some of us remember from Citizen Kane: “Get me the pictures, I’ll get you the war!”

During our interview, Thomas admits he was inspired to write The War Lovers out of a sense of partial responsibility for the war he had unwittingly helped nurture, and that he’d done so partly by dismissing his own reporter’s instincts in the face of the seemingly inevitable war to come: “I felt like this is what the media did during World War II.

I spoke to Thomas by phone, both from his office at Newsweek and from Martha’s Vineyard. As perhaps befits a man about to leave journalism behind to concentrate on writing books and teaching at Princeton, he alternated between genial author/professor and the wary, somewhat weary, journalist he was for thirty-plus years. Prepared to talk about his new book, he was less immediately forthcoming on other subjects. But his voice warmed significantly when asked about his father, especially as he remembered how great his dad looked in his dress whites. “He was literally glowing.”

–Chris Lombardi for Guernica

Guernica: One of the first things you said, even before The War Lovers came out, was that it was your way of trying to explain why you got swept up in the pro-war season of 2002-2003.

Evan Thomas: I was a hawk on the Iraq war. And if I’m honest with myself, I think I did feel a kind of war fever. A lot of journalists did.

Even before the war—but post-9/11—I have to confess I had almost this sense of relief. After what felt like years of superficial subjects, from Monica to Gary Condit, we were so glad to be writing about serious subjects. And after the attack, we kind of felt like editors during World War II: the time was over for that old adversarial relationship.

There’s a kind of excitement about going to war.

Guernica: Do you think you made some serious journalistic mistakes as a result?

Evan Thomas: Two things come to mind. First, when Colin Powell gave that speech at the UN [in February 2003], with “proof” of WMD and Saddam’s al Qaeda connections, right around then, Michael Isikoff was getting some cautionary signals from the CIA, which we did not pursue the way we should have.

Second, I have to admit that the very tenor and tone of Newsweek during February-March 2003 was pretty excited about war. Even when I wrote cautionary articles about What Could Go Wrong, there was a kind of energy to them. Even antiwar articles had it.

There’s a kind of excitement about going to war. And there was—it’s hard to describe now—that atavistic need for revenge many of us felt post-9/11. Especially if you were in New York or Washington. In March of 2003, a lot of other editors besides me were hawkish on Iraq: Bill Keller, David Remnick.

Guernica: And Peter Beinart, who like you felt so bad he wrote a whole book about it.

Evan Thomas: I know. I haven’t read it, but I have bought it.

Guernica: Is Richard Haass’s story, “Rethinking Afghanistan,” an effort to do things differently? To not just go along with an administration’s war plan?

Evan Thomas: I’m not sure. Haass makes good arguments. The problem is that the kind of limited effort he wants doesn’t work. I went to Afghanistan a year ago, and talked to the people around McChrystal. They too had some pretty convincing arguments. Any anti-terror war, they said, you can’t do it without intelligence. But you can’t depend on your intelligence without the support of the local people. I found it very convincing.

There’s no question that an embedded reporter gets seduced. They end up writing from within “their” units.

Guernica: Except when the people you thought were allies turn out to not tell the truth, or shift sides too quickly. A lot of those WikiLeaks docs seem to point to that. And then there’s the inherent tendency of people not to want foreigners running things.

Evan Thomas: Look. When I was thinking about this a year ago, one thing came clear: There is no actual winning scenario. Just ways that are worse than others.

Guernica: A lot of what we’re learning right now did not come from embedded reporting, which you and the major dailies participate in. Even before WikiLeaks, we had the Rolling Stone story by a “rogue” reporter. Do you think embedding hurts your ability to get the story right?

Evan Thomas: Look. There’s no question that an embedded reporter gets seduced. They end up writing from within “their” units. The good side of it: our military gets represented correctly, as hardworking, brave kids. And as armies in wars go—with exceptions we all know about—the American military does pretty well in avoiding war crimes.

Guernica: You’ve looked at this in a number of your histories. But I want to ask you about a military veteran in your own life: your father, Evan Thomas II, who was in World War II before becoming a sort of giant in New York publishing. What, if anything, did he share about the war when you were growing up?

Evan Thomas: My dad kinda got into the war sideways. Before Pearl Harbor, he was an interventionist, and signed up with American Field Service as a noncombatant. He was an ambulance driver.

Guernica: Very Ernest Hemingway of him.

Evan Thomas: Yes, exactly. Then after the war started he switched to the the U.S. Navy, so he got to experience both the sands and heat of North Africa and the raging seas of the naval war.

So I heard about World War II, but in a sort of complex moral context, since my grandfather was a pacifist—though not really, since he wasn’t against World War II. So dad’s war stories came in this very complicated moral dimension of how to have it both ways.

I’ve always felt a little guilty, because it was kids without the privilege I had going to war.

Guernica: Did you ever hear stories about your great-uncle Ralph, who fought in World War I?

Evan Thomas: Not much. I heard a lot more about his younger brother, my great-uncle Evan, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for being on a hunger strike, because he refused to go to war. A life sentence for not wanting to fight! I knew my great-uncle Evan, so I heard about the war from that perspective. But my great-uncle Ralph was long since gone. All I know about him was that he was in the Army, and that he was an engineer.

Guernica: I’ve actually seen a few of the clippings about Evan and your family back then. And I thought that the climax of that story—when your great-grandmother marches into Fort Riley to talk her grandson into eating—was something for the movies.

Evan Thomas: My daughter is writing a book about it, called Conscience. It’ll be out next year.

Guernica: Speaking of war and conscience, how did your own ideas about war develop?

Evan Thomas: Well, I’m Vietnam generation—but not really. By the time I turned eighteen and graduated from high school it was 1973, and nobody my age was going to war. Not anyone middle-class, anyway. I’ve always felt a little guilty, because it was kids without the privilege I had going to war.

Guernica: So you don’t go to Vietnam; you go to Harvard instead. In those days, did you just assume you’d be a wordsmith like your dad?

Evan Thomas: They left me alone to do what I was gonna do. Students today are thinking about their careers constantly. I don’t remember thinking much about my career until I graduated and didn’t have a job. I went to law school, and eventually became a journalist.

Guernica: Once you were doing that, was history a natural next step?

Evan Thomas: In retrospect, it was an obvious choice. But actually, I didn’t think about writing a book of any kind until Walter Isaacson suggested I write a book with him. After The Wise Men [about the birth of cold-war liberalism] I obviously got the bug, because I’ve been writing books ever since since.

Guernica: One of your early books was The Very Best Men, about the OSS, which became the CIA. It came out in 1986, when some ugly truths about the Agency were coming to life. Were you thinking about the contemporary stuff when you were writing about its origins? Had you done any reporting about it?

Evan Thomas: Only sort of. I’d done a little writing on intelligence. I had covered the Hill at TIME Magazine for a while and at Newsweek. Certainly those misadventures were on my mind at least somewhat.

Guernica: You went on to what I think of as a naval series, starting with the John Paul Jones biography.

Evan Thomas: A series? Nothing that intentional. [Laughs] I guess the nice thing about being a journalist and author is that you can do what you want. But if all biography is really autobiography, I guess it’s true that I’d always been reverential about the Navy. I remember that my mother used to keep on their dresser, for years, a photograph of my father in his dress whites from 1943. He glowed.

Guernica: A man in a uniform—there’s an undeniable pull to that.

Evan Thomas: Absolutely. He was literally glowing. He had a deep tan; it was the spring of 1943, he was the picture of health—radiant. It definitely led me to romanticize the Navy, and that’s probably what led me to John Paul Jones and the books after.

Guernica: You got to your father’s war with a battle I never knew about until recently. What drew you to the engagement in the Battle for Leyte Gulf, which drew in the entire Japanese Navy and most of ours?

Evan Thomas: It’s definitely in the realm of battles people have never heard of. People asked me: Why are you writing about this battle? It was a complex battle. I was drawn to it partly because it was a fuckup, and journalists love writing about disasters. It had embedded in it a lot of stories—of loyalty, heroism, a lot of drama. It was complex, but it was a pretty compelling story.

Guernica: Does The War Lovers feel like an extension of that series or something very different?

Evan Thomas: It’s an extension, I think. By the early two thousands I was writing a lot about the government, and terrorism, and the misdirection that got us into the Iraq War. It got me thinking about the whole notion of war fever

Guernica: So you didn’t start with Teddy Roosevelt.

Evan Thomas: No. I started with William James, actually. I was reading Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, and James is one of the characters. There’s a section where he quotes James on the heroism of Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the Massachusetts 54th regiment of black soldiers, and what that kind of heroism stood for thirty years later.

So I wanted to look at that period, when war was brewing, as a way of looking at our own. And the instant you start thinking about 1898, bing! Teddy Roosevelt pops up. It wasn’t easy. He’s been written about a lot, so it’s tricky to bring out something people haven’t seen.

In explaining war, the gender studies people talk about this obsession with being a man, what Roosevelt called “the wolf rising in the heart.”

Guernica: I love your evocation of Massachusetts back then—especially the recounting of James at the Shaw memorial, and the ping-pong of emotions after Civil War. And thank you for introducing me to Josephine Shaw Lowell, sister of Col. Robert Gould Shaw and ancestor to poet Robert Lowell, who went from celebrated Civil War widow in 1865 to anti-war activist in 1905.

Evan Thomas: You know, I wanted to make her a major figure, but I didn’t have enough of a paper trail to flesh her out enough for that.

Guernica: You illustrate well the effects of the 1893 economic crash. Do you think it played into the war fever then, the same way George W. Bush saw war as a way to boost the economy?

Evan Thomas: You know, I tend to veer away from economic explanations for war. There’s been a predominance of that kind of thinking, in the histories of the time. If anyone in academia gets it right, I think that the gender studies people are closer to the truth here. They talk about this obsession with being a man, what Roosevelt called “the wolf rising in the heart.”

Guernica: You also write about the Anti-Imperialist League, which James co-founded and which once had as vice president Mark Twain (whose antiwar views are in the news with the upcoming publication of his long-suppressed memoir). What’s your overall impression of the group, which allied Civil War vets with plutocrats like Andrew Carnegie?

Evan Thomas: One word: feckless. But you know? They represented something, a real trend. Everyone thinks of this period as some historic Beginning of American Imperialism. But it wasn’t! By 1900, even though the anti-interventionists lost, McKinley wasn’t a big fan of the occupation either, and Americans had gotten sick of the whole thing. In 1902 Roosevelt declared victory and got out, and the country very quickly became isolationist. Same after World War I.

Americans are very ambivalent about this stuff. To this day, the issue bugs us. People ask: what are we doing there? Now it’s what are we doing in Afghanistan? I wonder why we haven’t heard more of that. Maybe we will now.

Guernica: Do you think public sentiment is turning against this war, as with Iraq?

Evan Thomas: The elites this summer are starting to turn against it, for sure. Americans overall aren’t paying attention to it, at all.

Guernica: Unless you have a family member in uniform.

Evan Thomas: I think about this a lot. We fought this nine-year war, Americans didn’t feel it. No war bonds, our taxes never went up. The nature of these wars is a cruel aspect of how we’ve constructed our society. One tenth gets all the pain. It was bad during Vietnam, as I said before. Now it’s grotesque.

Guernica: About that earlier movement: I was surprised not to see mention of some of the League’s Civil War veterans, especially Carl Schurz and Charles Francis Adams.

Evan Thomas: There have been very good books about the Anti-Imperialist League. And I had to pick and choose: I kind of have a rule not to have more than about six characters that people have to remember.

Guernica: And Roosevelt and Hearst are so outsized, they make up about four right there!

Evan Thomas: It is an issue, because you run the risk of skewing your story. But if you don’t, you end up with what we used to call at Newsweek “the Russian novel problem.”

But here’s the real problem: Life is a Russian novel. It has too many characters and too many plots. When you narrow it down, you run the risk of distorting history.

Guernica: I’m still going to ask you about one more stream you didn’t include: Lewis Douglass, Frederick’s son, who fought with the 54th and was very vocal in opposition to that war, and on the other side Booker T. Washington, who appeared at rallies for McKinley to promote black enlistment as a way of illustrating black patriotism.

Evan Thomas: Again, you make choices. I was only tangentially aware of Lewis Douglass’s involvement; I touch on the black-soldier issue a little, because of some statements Roosevelt made about their capabilities. But there can be whole books—are whole books—about black soldiers in that war. It wasn’t a choice I made.

Guernica: When you write about historical disputes over other wars, do you ever feel echoes of those divisions in your family? I’m thinking of your grandfather’s generation again, your uncle Ralph going to war while Evan starved for peace and the rest of your family worried—including your grandfather Norman, who helped form the iconic antiwar group the Fellowship of Reconciliation. When you wonder why sentiment against the Afghan war isn’t stronger, do you hear those ghosts in the back of your mind?

Evan Thomas: I don’t think that much about it. Not that way.

Guernica: How about when you’re writing about politics, since ours has moved so far from that postwar consensus your father lived in? When an offhand comment where you said “Obama is God” was talked about for weeks, and lives on on the Internet?

Evan Thomas: [Laughs] Oh my word, the headlines! “Newsweek thinks Obama is God—Proof that the Media are a Left-Wing Conspiracy.”

Guernica: And some mention the fact that your grandfather, Norman, ran for President on the Socialist Party ticket. Does that make things difficult for you?

Evan Thomas: I’m proud of my grandfather, though I think socialism doesn’t work at all. Norman’s socialist identity was all bound up in specifics, not ideology: He got involved helping poor people in tenements. And if you wanted to organize against World War I, they were the only game in town.

Guernica: How would he have reacted to the fact that, when asked in a survey, 55 percent of Americans consider “socialist” an accurate label for President Obama?

Evan Thomas: [Laughs] What would he have thought? He’d have snorted at it.

To read the rest, including the Guernica comments, click here.

Published by chrislombardi

Journalist, novelist, educator.

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