To its citizens and admirers, the United States “had never been just a country,” Risen writes, “it was an idea too.” Carefully constructed, brutally contested, boldly if imperfectly embodied, this singular idea had stirred widespread hope that liberty and equality might be possible, even contagious. More than a century after winning its independence, however, the United States had yet to turn its fame into what it really wanted: respect. In the eyes of much of Europe, the country still seemed like “a hypertrophied child,” Risen argues, “with astounding economic growth and resources, but without the maturity to play a role in world affairs.”
When Cuba launched a war of independence in the winter of 1895, reviving its longstanding struggle against Spain, Americans immediately took notice. Most sympathized with the island, seeing in its fight for independence a reflection of their own, but others saw something more: an opportunity for the United States to claim its rightful place on the world stage. If America wanted to be taken seriously, no tactic was faster or more effective than war with a European power.
Although President McKinley had hoped to avoid interfering in Cuba, less than a year after his inauguration the United States warship Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, killing 266 men and making it nearly impossible for him to resist the deafening call to war. In the 121 years since that fateful night, historians have yet to find any definitive evidence that the Spanish blew up the Maine. On the contrary, the overwhelming verdict is that it was an accident. At the time, though, there was little doubt in most Americans’ minds, certainly none in Roosevelt’s, that the Spanish were to blame. When Roosevelt, then an assistant secretary of the Navy and already spoiling for a fight, heard the news, Risen writes, he “grinned, and shouted, and declared that war with Spain had finally arrived.”
As soon as the war began, Roosevelt resigned his post and began lobbying to form his own regiment — quickly termed the Rough Riders. Unnerved by his friend’s eagerness “to fight and hack and hew,” the historian Henry Adams, heir to his own political dynasty, wrote, “I really think he is going mad.” Roosevelt didn’t care. He wasn’t interested in idle intellectuals. He wanted men who were ready to fight, and there was no shortage of those.