- The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War
- Little, Brown and Company, 400 pp.
The Rising Sun of American Imperialism
James Bradley doesn’t like Theodore Roosevelt. Let’s get that clear from the get-go.
Nor does he have much time for William Howard Taft, the gargantuan gourmand, Roosevelt’s right-hand man and his successor as president.
And after reading The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, I have the sneaky suspicion that there’s not much love lost for George Bush, either.
Imperialism, that’s the damning brand that Bradley has heating up in his fires. Forget American theories of self-reliance, Bradley says, McKinley, Roosevelt and Taft were heavily involved in the colonization of the Pacific. The Philippines, China, Korea, even Hawaii – each had a special reason to bear the United States a grudge.
But what could have been a clear, sharp revision of the Roosevelt myth is hampered by a clumsy attack. The author of Flags of Our Fathers and Flyboys, Bradley’s so incensed by Roosevelt’s foreign policies – especially with regards to Japan – that he forgets to organize his thoughts.
The ostensible framework is the Pacific cruise that Taft, Alice Roosevelt and a number of congressmen took in the summer of 1905. While Alice entertained the press with her antics, Taft played the diplomatic game, making public appearances while privately negotiating alliances in backrooms.
Bradley wants to see this voyage as an American travesty, a symbol of Roosevelt’s ham-fisted attempts at rearranging the world to suit his current trading and military needs. And if that meant stepping on a few nations on the way, well then, so be it.
Now don’t get me wrong, he’s done his homework to support this view. Indeed, there are many pages that read as a series of quotes and footnoted points (a few less might have strengthened his argument more).
Plus there’s plenty of evidence, some from Roosevelt’s own pen, to suggest that the president viewed himself as a white man taking up the burden of civilizing the heathens. For example, here is his take, as quoted by Bradley from the series The Winning of the West, on Native Americans:
“…life was but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid and ferocious than that of the wild beasts [who] seemed to the White settlers devils and not men.”
As with the stories of Rudyard Kipling and Gunga Din, there is a certain amount of 20th century paternal benevolence implied in such racism. It was certainly present in the United States’ attitude towards the Philippines, one of Bradley’s major foci.
For after “liberating” the islands from Spain, our country then decided that its inhabitants weren’t fit to rule and needed protecting from themselves. Waterboarding was one of our favorite means of providing such protection, along with random killings and torching forests.
You’d have a hard time following the chronology of this particular country’s tragedy (or of Hawaii’s, or of Korea’s), however, since Bradley constantly jumps forward and backward in the book. Lengthy theories on Aryan supremacy are interspersed with suppositions about Alice’s relationship with her father; cogent points are interrupted by exclamations like:
From Plymouth Rock to San Francisco Bay, the settlers slaughtered Indian men, women, and children so democracy could take root and civilization as they understood it could sparkle from sea to shining sea.
I don’t fault Bradley for his righteous ardor; I just wish he’d have done it without bastardizing America the Beautiful (why not The Star Spangled Banner? It has more guns.)
His real beef, and this is the argument that deserved more attention, is Roosevelt’s relationship with Japan, the “honorary Aryans” of the East. As he points out in a recent New York Times opinion piece), Bradley lays the blame for Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor squarely on the shoulders of Teddy himself:
Only now can history understand that it was these events in the summer of 1905 that would doom more than one hundred thousand American boys in the Pacific theater decades later. Operating as a two-man diplomatic tag team, Roosevelt and Taft would green-light what later generations would call World War II in the Pacific.
He’s referring to a secret meeting that Taft, then U.S. Secretary of War, had with Katsura Taro, Prime Minister of Japan, regarding the end of the Russo-Japanese war. Prevented from negotiating any formal alliance without the consent of the Senate, Taft instead formed a gentlemen’s agreement (on behalf of Roosevelt) with the victor Japan.
The terms, as Edmund Morris states in his book Theodore Rex, were simple: “Taft wanted a statesman’s assurance that Hawaii and the Philippines would not be menaced in future years. Katsura wanted Korea.”
They got want they wanted. Korea became a protectorate; the United States, Britain and Japan maintained an open door policy in regards to trade and the Philippines were left undisturbed (though the Filipinos might have suggested they’d been disturbed enough already).
This is the stuff that Pulitzers are made of. Yet Bradley makes no real attempt to explore Teddy’s complicated motivations, nor delve into the backstories of Russian, Japanese, Chinese and Korean relations. It’s just the final stop on the tour of American catastrophes abroad; a quick day trip to future Armageddon and then we’re back on the boat.
Bradley does give us one point to take away. At least we can charge ahead into Afghanistan and Iraq in the comforting knowledge that nations were as stupid and self-serving then as we are now.
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Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.