There is no question but that James Bradley’s new book “The Imperial Cruise” provides fascinating, thought provoking and disturbing reading. The title of the book refers to the mission sent by President Theodore Roosevelt, under the leadership of Secretary of War and future president William Howard Taft, to major Pacific Ocean ports in 1905. It’s often been said that it was this voyage which first identified the United States as a major Pacific power, and that its goals were both that of a good will tour and that of an announcement that “we are here!”.
Bradley sees much more. The author of the well reputed “Flags of Our Fathers”, whose own father was one of the six American servicemen pictured raising the flag on Iwo Jima, sees the first Roosevelt presidency (as epitomized in the 1905 tour) as having planted the seeds that led to the eventual conflict with Japan that culminated in Pearl Harbor and everything that followed. Thus, one Roosevelt created the problems with which another Roosevelt had to solve.
And it’s not a good story that he tells. It is one of hubris and theories of racial superiority. And it may or may not be correct.
Let me try to explain in a simple manner. According to Bradley: the United States has always been a very violent country, as evidenced by the ruthless way it spread westward at the expense of native Americans, who were treated with the utmost of violence (violence not surpassed by the most horrific stories of today which emanate from so many corners of the globe). The violence, Bradley believes, can be explained as a consequence of a theory of racial superiority – that the Aryan race is the cream of all races, and the Anglo-Saxon component of the Aryans constitutes the creme de la creme. This is what was being taught at all the major universities, including Roosevelt’s Harvard, and this is what was written and spoken about by scholars and politicians alike. The white man conquered the North American continent, and it was time to continue the movement west across the Pacific, to “follow the sun”.
It was this theory of the manifest destiny of the white Anglo-Saxon United States that led to the unnecessary and contrived war with Spain that gave us possession of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. And which convinced us that we had a right to take possession of Hawaii by staging the establishment of, in effect, a second government in the islands, and then a revolt against the queen and the independence of the country. And all this was done under the belief that these various peoples did not have the ability to govern themselves (although, as Bradley points out, Hawaii itself was quite competently governed).
One of the facets of Anglo-Saxon society that showed a strength, rather than a weakness, in early 20th century thinking, was our willingness to express ourselves and to go to war not only in defense of our independence, but as a way of increasing our influence and control. We may have entered the colonial game late, but enter it we should, and we must. Unfortunately, Congress (with its war and treaty making powers) didn’t see it this way; we were in fact quite isolationist on the legislative side. So Roosevelt had to skirt around constitutional restrictions and, through a variety of secret moves, and without any Congressional funding, increase America’s presence in the region. Thus, he denied that we had a part in the revolution against in Hawaii, and in fact denounced it as a rogue operation, but didn’t do anything to restore the royal family. He told the Philippine natives that the U.S. came into rid them from Spanish control and grant them their freedom – although their freedom was withheld until after World War II, and hundreds of thousands of Philippine natives (yes, hundreds of thousands) were killed in the interim in order to secure American control.
In the late 19th century, after coming out of extremely isolation, Japan undertook a domestic program different from any other in Asia. They decided to westernize, to militarize, to send their young men to the U.S. and Europe for education, to concentrate on economic prosperity. This was in contrast to the other Asian peoples (many of whom of course were under French or British colonial domination), such as the Koreans and the Chinese, who were more intent on holding on to their traditional ways of life and dress. In the eyes of Roosevelt, the Korean and Chinese societies were dying; the Japanese society was in the ascendancy. And, since Congress would not fund American incursions in Asia directly, Roosevelt decided that the Japanese could do our work for us, and that as Japan’s ally, we would benefit (and presumably later be in a situation where we could move in more directly). So Roosevelt encouraged Japan to invade and take control of Korea (while telling Korea he would never let this happen), encouraged Japan to adopt the equivalent of an Asian Monroe Doctrine, and secretly took the Japanese side during the Russo-Japanese war, when the Russians were attempting to increase their own influence on the Pacific by controlling ice free ports then part of China.
All this was well and good, perhaps, until he learned that the Japanese did not view themselves as America’s advance men, and that Japanese ambition was as strong as, or stronger than, his own. And he never would have guessed that Japan and Russia would become allies, allies in keeping America out of Asia, so that their own plans would not be thwarted. And that Japan would be so concerned about the American naval fleet in Honolulu that, on December 7, 1941, it blew it to bits.
This is a very ugly story. Not the kind of story that makes you proud to be an American. (I had only read one other book that gave me this same reaction, T.D. Allman’s “Unmanifest Destiny”, a 25 year old book which also talks about American intervention into foreign lands, and how we continue to delude ourselves in thinking that we are being helpful and should be making friends; this book is another that is worth reading, if you can find it.
I need to see more of what the critics will say about “The Imperial Cruise”. Did Bradley discover the hidden undercurrent of American policy in the Pacific, or did he cherry pick his facts and quotes to string together a theory that won’t stand upright on its own? One of the Amazon reader-critics points out at least three instances where Bradley is wrong on his facts, concluding that the entire premise of the book must be brought into question. (Bradley says that 90,000,000 came to the St. Louis World’s Fair, but the number is normally given at 20,000,000; Bradley talks about when Captain Cook sailed from Hawaii, but in fact he only sailed far enough to be blown back to shore where was attacked by natives and killed; Bradley talks about Oscar Wilde, but has his homosexuality become a focus of journalistic discussion a decade too early.) These misstated facts are serious, but are they serious enough to bring the entire premise to its knees?
I suggest you read the book, and then read what is going to be said about the book over the next year or so, for I assume that controversy will follow.
And you may want to read “Flags of Our Fathers” as well – if only to give you a shocking description of what the fighting was like on Iwo Jima, important for its airfields to control, where thousands of Japanese fighters had constructed and were living in underground bomb-proof bunkers which led to hand to hand combat from one end of the island to another. And to see what happened to those who fought there, or at least to the six in the photos. Three killed later on the island. Two leading lives of desperation, and only one, Bradley’s father, leading a “normal” life. But he never (yes, never) spoke about Iwo Jima, his role in it, the photograph, his medals, or the death he witnessed. Instead he went home and bought a funeral home, which he operated for almost fifty successful years, working to make the surroundings of the deaths of others much humane, for the benefit of their survivors.