December 2009

Lessons learned from the secrets of the past

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“For want of a nail,” begins the old fable about small actions with disastrous consequences. How much worse are the results when the actions are not small to begin with? The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War by James Bradley, author of Flags of Our Fathers, brings that very question to American history, particularly the last great push of American imperialism at the start of the twentieth century. Bradley presents a tale of a United States steeped in an expansionist myth that Anglo-Saxon “civilization” was destined to dominate all lesser cultures and races, and that the white American race was called “to follow the Sun” to bring that same civilization across the Pacific to Asia, just as their British ancestors brought it across the Atlantic. That other races and cultures might already consider themselves civilized, or might not want the “benefits” of Anglo-Saxon culture, was unconsidered, even unfathomable to the American leaders of the day. At the top of that list of leaders, Bradley asserts, was Theodore Roosevelt.

The titular cruise was a “grand tour” of Pacific Asia undertaken by Alice Roosevelt, Teddy’s popular eldest daughter, under the chaperonage of then-Secretary of War William Taft. Seen mostly as a publicity stunt and a celebration of America’s supposedly benevolent conquest of the Philippines, Bradley reveals how the cruise served as a cover for secret, possibly unconstitutional diplomatic meetings with Imperial Japan on the part of Taft. Unfortunately, as Bradley reveals, it should have also served as a warning on how misguided that diplomacy was—indeed, how poorly the Americans understood the cultures and governments they were dealing with, and how little thought Roosevelt and Taft gave to the possible results of their efforts.

With each port of call, Bradley examines the history and policy that made each significant, both to America at large and to Roosevelt himself. From the greedy takeover of Hawaii to the brutal subjugation of the Philippines to diplomatic blunders in China and Korea, Bradley uses each stop to expose how readily American ideals fell away under the twin impulses of imperialism and racism. Along the way, Bradley examines Roosevelt’s personal character, the beliefs that motivated him and the ways in which he acted to control the public’s perception of him and exaggerate his personal and public exploits. What results is a far cry from the glorious, fun-loving, can-do leader carved into Mount Rushmore. Bradley’s Teddy is more of an egomaniac and short-sighted bully than visionary leader, and his racial politics are particularly repulsive to modern eyes.

This is not an easy book to read; the list of abuses fostered by American policy and militarism at the time range from racial massacres to officially sanctioned rape. Most would be treated today as war crimes of the worst sort. For readers used to glorious depictions of American progress, this book will be uncomfortable, to say the least.

And it is not without flaws: Bradley’s eagerness to expose and denounce Roosevelt’s character and American excesses becomes quickly pronounced. In asserting that Theodore Roosevelt’s policies and secret diplomacy were directly responsible for Japanese imperialism in Asia, Bradley goes so far as to lay the blame for World War II solely at Teddy’s feet. Indeed, Bradley writes as if the Japanese government had no culpability for any of its choices during the war, and only took action because of someone who’d been dead for over thirty years—an eyebrow-raising conclusion indeed.

Still, Bradley does an effective and important job of skewering the myth of Teddy, exposing the racism and classism which guided the president’s philosophy, politics and policies. Likewise, the American atrocities in the Philippines under McKinley, Roosevelt and Taft deserve to be exposed, as does Roosevelt’s poor faith with regards to Korea, his blinders towards Japanese ambitions and his failure to see past his own racism to recognize the value (and even superiority) in the cultures and peoples he sought to “civilize.” In these respects, The Imperial Cruise is an important contribution to a realistic understanding of America’s history, good and bad, and the views that other cultures, particularly in Asia, hold toward the United States. It also serves as a powerful reminder that the course we choose today is influenced by choices made long before, and will have its own influence, for good and ill, on the world that comes after us. We ignore such lessons at our own peril.

Howard Shirley is a writer from Franklin, Tennessee.

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