The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century
“To quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ Fortunately for us, author Clay Risen printed both.”
Mention the Spanish-American War to most people and all you’ll get are blank stares. Some may recall something about “Remember the Maine”—the ship, not the state—or Teddy Roosevelt leading his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill [spoiler alert: it was actually Kettle Hill, not San Juan Hill]. Others may confuse the latter with the charges up the staircase by “Teddy Roosevelt” Brewster, the character played by John Alexander in Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace. For the most part, though, that particular war is a void in America’s collective conscience.
Clay Risen had done us a great favor by filling in the gaps in our historical knowledge of this oft-forgotten conflict in his new book The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century. It was Roosevelt, himself, who dubbed this the crowded hour: “the brief span of time in which so much of his life came together, and from which, afterward, so much followed.”
But The Crowded Hour is about more than just one of our country’s most charismatic personas and the events that catapulted him into national prominence. It is also about the Rough Riders, themselves, who, though “often dismissed by historians and pop culture as a cartoonish brand of cowboys, in fact played a central role in the emergence of a new idea about American power, and in particular the military’s role in projecting that power.”
This is also a book about the world as it was on the cusp of the 20th century as the post-Civil War United States was still deciding what it wanted to be when it grew up. As forces at home and abroad ultimately drew the U.S. into what had started as a rebellion by Cubans against their cruel Spanish overlords, the author tells us this is ultimately a tale about American imperialism parading as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. “The same urge that had driven white Americans to massacre Indians and take their land was now appearing in the rhetoric around Cuba—except this time, it was clothed in righteousness.”
The author traces the root causes of the war during a time when the United States, its military drastically reduced by statute following the end of the Civil War, was ill-prepared to enter any conflict, much less on a foreign shore. Roosevelt, assistant secretary of the Navy, was among those champing at the bit to enter the conflict in Cuba. His boss, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long, “worried that his assistant secretary might cause things to come to a crisis all on his own, thanks to his prodigious energies and lack of restraint.”
When at last the U.S. did enter the conflict, following the sinking of the warship Maine in Havana Harbor (which was most likely the result of an accidental explosion rather than Spanish sabotage), Roosevelt rose to the occasion, gallantly leading a company of Rough Riders from such places as Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona, not to mention a contingent from his alma mater, Harvard.
The heart of The Crowded Hour consists of the personal stories of those who served with Roosevelt, including a number who failed to survive, although their heroism and courage live on.
In addition to the personal stories, the author explains the significance of the conflict in the emergence of the United States as a global power. Even though the conflict last barely four months (although the Cuban rebellion, itself, had started years earlier and continued beyond America’s withdrawal of its troops), its impact on the world stage can’t be underestimated. “It was this sense of idealistic, voluntaristic militarism that shook Europeans even more than the sheer size of the American industrial economy.”
The Crowded Hour is a well-researched, well-written account of a largely unknown chapter of American history. It paints a vivid picture of Roosevelt as a bona fide war hero and sets the table for U.S. involvement in world affairs that would follow throughout the 20th century, a pattern that Risen calls “intervene first, ask questions later.”
And as for the Rough Riders? They were bona fide heroes, as well, though Risen says they have “long since ceased to be historical. They became myths, as much an American legend as Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett.” To quote from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Fortunately for us, author Clay Risen printed both.