Review of “The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War” by James Bradley

This is the story of a top-secret meeting engineered by President Theodore Roosevelt that, inter alia, allowed the Japanese to expand into Korea. “With this betrayal,” Bradley writes, “Roosevelt had green-lighted Japanese imperialism on the Asian continent. Decades later, another Roosevelt would be forced to deal with the bloody ramifications of Teddy’s secret maneuvering.”

Late 19th century Harvard was the source of a great deal of theorizing about white supremacy, and Teddy Roosevelt avidly subscribed to it. He considered those areas not conquered and occupied by white English-speaking peoples “waste spaces” and believed it was the “manifest destiny” of whites to control all other races.

This attitude suffused his dealings with and policies toward American Indians and foreign countries.

In the summer of 1905, Roosevelt sent Vice President William Howard Taft, seven senators, twenty-three representatives, his notorious daughter Alice, and about forty additional aids, servants, and hangers-on on a three month cruise of the Pacific on the passenger ship Manchurian. The ostensible purpose of the mission was to “show the flag” to Hawaiians; newly acquired little brown brother Filipino subjects (who were still in revolt seven years after the USA had “won” them from Spain); and various other “inferior” people like the Japanese and Chinese. “Princess” Alice monopolized the press coverage with her good looks and saucy demeanor, but “Big Bill” Taft had an important secret agenda.

The Japanese had just soundly trounced the Russian army and navy in the Russo-Japanese War. Roosevelt was about to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts as mediator and peacemaker to conclude the treaty of peace between the combatants. Roosevelt’s strategic aims were to extend the American empire over the Philippines and to force an “open door” to American business interests in China.

Roosevelt, like most Americans of the time, considered the Anglo-Saxons to be superior in every important way to the “yellow” race that populated Asia, who were perceived to be incapable of self-government. Roosevelt, however, recognized that the Japanese had made great strides toward becoming almost white. He was willing to deal with them almost as equals, as long as they did not become too powerful. He saw them as useful pawns to prevent the expansion of Russian power into China.

Roosevelt and Taft

Taft’s mission was several-fold. First, he was to inform the Filipinos that they were not ready for self-government, and would not be for at least a generation and maybe not for a hundred years. Second, he was to explore the opening of American trading rights with China. And third, he was to give the Japanese the go-ahead for formulating a kind of Monroe Doctrine whereby Japan would undertake the role of policeman and dominant country in East Asia. In particular, Japan was to assert outright control of Manchuria and Korea.

The Japanese at first welcomed Taft and the other Americans, but later became angry with them when they were unwilling to wrest a large cash indemnity for Japan from the Russians in settlement of the war. Nevertheless, the Japanese took advantage of America’s oral assent to their expansionist policies by immediately occupying Korea and conquering Manchuria. The Japanese “Monroe Doctrine” morphed into the Greater East Asian Prosperity Sphere, when the Japanese invaded China, Indo-China, and Malaysia, beginning in 1933. [The atrocities committed by the Japanese by the invading forces were documented in Iris Chang’s horrifying account, The Rape of Nanking.] Bradley blames Teddy Roosevelt for encouraging Japan to embark on a policy that led directly to World War II in the Pacific.

The Imperial Cruise covers more than just the cruise and Taft’s secret mission. Bradley writes a good synopsis of the opening of Japan to western ideas and its forced opening to western trade. In addition, he covers American relations with Korea: how America first befriended the Koreans, but then sold them out to Japan in exchange for Japanese assistance in China. He also details America’s sorry history in the Philippines, where we fought for almost a decade to subdue the Filipino people, only to decide that the islands had little or no strategic value. [The casualties for Americans were relatively light; some 4,000 Americans died in battle. On the other hand, approximately, 200,000 Filipinos died in battle, with an additional 200,000 civilians dying from disease in relocation camps.] Bradley argues that American perceived racial superiority added to the ferocity of the fighting and increased the incidence of appalling acts.

Evaluation: Bradley’s book is well – albeit selectively – researched and footnoted, and consistently held my interest. His theory on the cause of World War II is simplistic to say the least, but if placed in context with other histories provides much food for thought. He limns a highly unfavorable portrait of one of America’s most beloved presidents. However, the portrait of Roosevelt is consistent with other accounts, such as the one in Evan Thomas’s book The War Lovers. Maybe we need to downsize Mount Rushmore.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Little, Brown & Company, 2009


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