Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Imperial Cruise by James Bradley

In 1905, then Secretary of War William Taft and a host of other American dignitaries took a tour of Pacific islands and Asian nations. James Bradley tells the story of this trip, along with the wider contest of President Theodore Roosevelt’s policies toward Pacific expansion and Asia, in The Imperial Cruise.

Roosevelt, with Taft as his right hand, engaged in secret diplomacy with Japan. The Senate would not have approved a treaty with Japan with terms Roosevelt wanted, and his own State Department would have strongly advised against his course. So Roosevelt sent Taft to consummate a secret deal that he could never acknowledge.

By the time Taft set sail, Japan was already responding to interactions with the West. It was remaking itself into an industrialized, militarized country in the western mold. Roosevelt saw in them American-friendly, quasi-civilized people who could expand Anglo-Saxon virtues into Asia without slipping out from under Anglo-American influence. As with almost everything related to the Pacific and Asian peoples, Roosevelt was very shortsighted.

In reading about the early 20th Century, I’ve been struck by the pervasiveness of racism. Bradley explains how Roosevelt viewed everything through a racial lens. These were racial lenses were proudly worn by white elites at the time. The key to history was racial history. They saw the birth of civilization in the Middle East with the Aryans, who began moving west. Around the Mediterranean, where the Aryans mixed with other races, civilizations degenerated. In Germany, pure Aryans gave rise to Teutons, who inherited Aryan civilizing with values of democracy and individualism. These Teutons moved west and were further perfected in the Anglo-Saxons. Anglo-Saxon civilization leapt across the Atlantic and push aside the savages of North America. To Roosevelt, Manifest Destiny had not closed with the conquering of the continent; it was ready to spread into the Pacific. White men would continue to spread their civilizing influence, subjugating or exterminating lesser, browner races when necessary as white Americans had done to their Indian wards. White elites like Roosevelt saw their westward destiny in this racial history, and it was further confirm by science in Darwinian survival of the fittest.

History and science refute such notions now. Bradley (and I) certainly don’t try to justify the attitudes or actions of Roosevelt, Taft or others. Bradley is plainly critical of handling of Pacific islands and Asia. Roosevelt’s racial views blinded him to the abilities and patriotism of non-whites. He had the hubris to pursue diplomacy on his own, secretly, without advice from the State Department, Senate or anyone else who might raise the slightest objection or concern. He tutored Japan in the ways of western imperialism, but could not imagine how well they would learn the lessons. Bradley places at least some of the blame for World War II in the Pacific at the feet of Roosevelt, whose interventions created the powerful military empire we faced in those waters.

Roosevelt was an astute manager of his image and he understood public relations. Because of this, he sent his oldest (and nearly estranged) daughter Alice on the trip. She was a celebrity, and her presence assured a lot of press coverage. Her presence was also a distraction from Taft’s secret mission.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

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