Friday, June 10, 2016

The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War. By James Bradley.

The story around which The Imperial Cruise orbits, is a 1905 diplomatic mission arranged by President Theodore Roosevelt and led by his Secretary of War William Howard Taft. Its purpose was to visit both recently conquered nations and potential allies in the Pacific. Among its stops were Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, and Korea. Along for the ride were seven senators, twenty-three congressmen, various military officials, some civilian officials, aides and a number of wives. Included among the party was the President’s fashionable and rambunctious daughter, Alice Roosevelt. She was “a novelty,” [arguably] “the twentieth century’s first female celebrity…when Alice went somewhere, the crowds and press followed.” (Bradley, p. 13). Throughout the book, the President’s daughter provides plenty of histotainment to give the reader temporary relief from painful topics that are more central to the book’s thesis.

The thesis itself is distressing. Bradley asserts that Teddy Roosevelt was a racist believer in the “Aryan Myth”: “Once upon a time, the fable goes, an ‘Aryan race’ sprang up in the Caucasus Mountains…a superior man…All the world’s great civilizations were the product of his genius…A group of Aryans had followed the sun westward from the Caucasus to…Germany…Rather than mate with lesser-blooded peoples, these Aryans killed them [and] maintained the purity of their blood…The pure Aryan evolved into a higher being: the Teuton [who] consulted democratically among his own kind and slowly birthed embryonic institutions of liberty…The Teuton…spread out from the German forests…continued to follow the sun to the west…ventured to Europe’s western coast…sailed across…the English Channel…by methodical slaughter…kept themselves pure…became known as Anglo-Saxons…sailed across the  Atlantic…to North America…eliminated the native population…so democracy could take root and civilization…could sparkle from sea to  shining sea.” (Bradley, pp. 23-7).

Bradley offers evidence, from Roosevelt’s compositions, to support his view of the 26th President’s racism. Concerning non-white ethnic groups, he is quoted as writing in 1894 that “blacks” were “a perfectly stupid race,” (Bradley, p. 83) and in 1896 that Hawaii experienced “damage that is perhaps irreparable” from an “influx of population consist[ing], not of white Americans, but of low caste laborers from the yellow races.” (Bradley, p. 162). To support his understanding of how Roosevelt’s racism contributed to an expansionist US policy of “following the sun westward” like his Aryan forebears, Bradley quotes Teddy writing that “The world would have halted had it not been for the Teutonic conquests in alien lands.” (Bradley, p. 25). Regarding the conquest of North America, Roosevelt wrote that “Teutonic [and] English blood is the source of American greatness” (Bradley, p. 332), that to American Indians “life was but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid and ferocious than that of the wild beasts” (Bradley, p. 58), and that “with the discovery of America, a new period of even vaster race expansion began.” (Bradley, p. 58). The President announced his further support for westering Aryan conquest of the by writing “I wish to see the United States the dominant power on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.” (Bradley, p. 1).

The devastation to non-white cultures caused by the westering imperialism is well recorded: Genocide against Native Americans. Two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand Philippine natives killed in battle after their freedom of self-government had been denied by the US. The overthrow of Hawaii’s sovereign government. Bradley honestly portrays the United States’ brutal use of torture, concentration camps and massacre to obtain its’ goals.

It is perhaps a little unfair to make Theodore Roosevelt the scapegoat for US Imperialism due to his acceptance of the Aryan Myth and his subsequent behavior. Bradley attempts to balance the President’s racism with that of the rest of the nation by saying “A single person does not make history, and in this case, Roosevelt did not act alone. At the same time…Teddy’s impact was staggering and disastrous…If someone pushes another off a cliff, we can point to the distance between the edge of the overhang and the ground as the cause of injury. But if we do not also acknowledge who pushed and who fell, how can we discover which decisions led to which results and which mistakes were made?” (Bradley, p. 9). A clever analogy, but it doesn’t cover-up the fact that the United States both conquered the Philippines and annexed Hawaii before Roosevelt came to office. In addition, Teddy was always completely frank and on the record concerning his acceptance of the westering Aryan conquest. US citizens voted for him because of it, not in spite of it. However, it would be difficult for Bradley to have a bestseller by slinging mud at the ancestors of his readership, so he uses Roosevelt to soften the blow.

Bradley spends a great deal of time discussing Taft’s visit to Japan. At this point, the author creates a myth of his own: Once upon a time, Japan was a peaceful island. On July 8, 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry “sailed unannounced into Tokyo Bay with a fleet of US Navy warships” and forced communication and trade upon the unfortunate Japanese. (Bradley, p. 178). “Then in the fall of 1872, an American arrived to teach the Japanese how to invade other countries. His name was Charles LeGendre.” (Bradley, p. 186). In 1905, during the eponymous cruise, “Taft was carrying secret oral instructions” from Roosevelt that “would green-light what later generations would call World War II in the Pacific.” (Bradley, p. 168). In brief, this secret message was that Roosevelt would support the Japanese claim to Korea and respect that Asia was “Japan’s sphere of influence.” In exchange, “Japan would keep its hands off the Philippines.” (Bradley, pp. 248-9). While it is true that the US encouraged Japanese aggression, Japan was not the lamb of East Asia. Japan had intentions of conquest since at least the Yamato Period in 663. That year’s Battle of Baekgang was an attempt to extend its power onto the Korean Peninsula.  ( Japanese attempts to invade Korea occurred right up until 1598 when Imperial Regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi died and Japanese forces withdrew from the peninsula. ( Bradley’s premise, that Roosevelt’s interference “would catalyze World War II in the Pacific,” is highly speculative. (Bradley, p. 5). The Japanese certainly had their own imperial intentions that existed prior to, and independent of, any US encouragement.

In spite of some questionable conclusions, Bradley’s book provides an important service to history. Few of us learned in school of the westering Aryan Myth or that Teddy Roosevelt subscribed to this myth. Few of us learned that many US citizens supported a destructive conquest in the Pacific that would cause unimaginable suffering in the Philippines and injustice in Hawaii. Every bit of preserved history, whether it is complimentary or not, is important to the expansion of human knowledge and self-understanding. Because The Imperial Cruise is in many ways unique and accurate, it aligns well with this goal and stands as a contribution to what we know of the past.

Bradley, James. The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of  Empire and War. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009.