Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Imperial Cruise

The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War
© 2009 James Bradley
387 pages

They may be sovereign countries, but you folks at home forget
That they all want what we've got, but they don't know it yet.

The Gilded Age may be characterized as the United States' coming of age, losing its innocence along the way. The former colony had by the early 20th century become an imperial state on its own -- collecting territories as though they were the spoils of some vast game of marbles. Following the end of the Indian Wars and the 'closing of the frontier', the United States looked outward -- to Cuba and the Philippines. This was the age wherein the United States became an industrial titan and a world power, and Theodore Roosevelt announced the US's entry into the big boy's club with the sailing of the Great White Fleet in late 1907: for just over a year, a large fleet of warships toured the world's oceans, demonstrating to one and all what the Americans were capable of. 

That fleet's voyage, however, is not the imperial cruise covered in this book. Bradley instead looks two years earlier, when a ship of diplomatic envoys made their way to Japan, Korea, and China after checking in on recent acquisitions like Hawaii and the Philippines. There, Roosevelt and his lieutenant, Secretary of War William Taft, made decisions that shaped Asia's history. They did so, Bradley believes, out of conviction in the White Man's Burden. According to Bradley, Roosevelt believed in the innate superiority of the Aryan race: the conquest of the world by the Anglo-Saxons proved it, and it was the Christian duty of Whites to spread the virtues of civilization across the world by any means necessary.  The Imperial Cruise is in essence a scathing condemnation of the United States' birth and expansion which sees the entire history of the US 'til that point as one great race war. This led Roosevelt in his arrogance to proclaim the Japanese "Honorary Aryans" and encourage them to establish a Monroe Doctrine of their own in the east, which put Japan on the course of empire herself -- a course that lead to Pearl Harbor when the Japanese Empire's ambitions succeeded Roosevelt's use for them.   "In this book I don’t so much write about Pearl Harbor, I only bring it up to say, what was the source of this explosion? Every divorce has a first kiss, I was looking for that first kiss...and I found that in the summer of 1905." (James Bradley, interview.)

Bradley makes three general claims: first, that the United States' expansion was motivated by something other than pure humanitarianism; two, that this expansion was fueled primarily by belief in white supremacism and imperial Christianity; and three, that Roosevelt went beyond the responsibilities of his office in sanctioning Japanese expansion in Korea and Manchuria.  Only the second claim is questionable to me, for as powerful as ideals -- even rotten ones -- are,  I see the wheels of history turning more on the basis of power and wealth; specifically, people attempting to accrue more of both to themselves.  Idealism is typically mere décor, justification. That the drivers of American history have been until the last half-century vicious racists is undeniable -- even those who tried to assume the high ground of Christian moralism are drowned by a sea of their own speeches, essays,and letters. I can believe that racism made waging war against others easier, but race as a primary motivation is too great a leap for me to make.

Aside from this, I think Imperial Cruise needs to be read: I only wish it were more effective. Bradley is a popular historian, and even the most uninformed of readers would be able to follow his narrative with ease: unfortunately, the narrative itself gets lost. Bradley starts with the cruise, then shifts to a history of the United States' conquest of Cuba and the Philippines. He returns to the cruise briefly, gives a history of Hawaii's own violent subjugation, and then proceeds to dip into Japanese history before finally returning to Taft's actions in Korea, China, and Japan. Imperial Cruise doesn't flow: it bounces cross the Pacific. Structuring a text with so much content is understandably difficult, but it doesn't appear to have been edited properly: Bradley repeats himself, and more than once I stopped to wonder why he was bringing this particular fact or quotation up again.

The book's weaknesses are disappointing, in part because the subject presents an opportunity to analyze American history critically, and draw lessons that Americans today would profit by: Taft and Roosevelt's repeated statements that the insurrection in the Philippines was almost over mirror Bush and Rumsfeld's  statements to the same effect concerning Iraq.  Done properly, the book could have forced readers to consider the United States' embracing of interventionist causes in the 20th century with a more critical eye -- and Bradley's publishing history (Flags of our Fathers, Flyboys)  would attract more mainstream readers than say, Howard Zinn, whose reputation discourages those less enthusiastic about criticizing American history from considering what he has to say. 

  • Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire, a collection of articles, essays, and such written against American imperialism against the Phillipines and Cuba.
  • Howard Zinn's People's History of the 20th Century
  • Zinn's People's History of American Empire, which picks up at the close of the Indian Wars.
  • Albert Marrin's The Spanish-American War, which is more apologetic than critical but still admits to the brutal treatment of the Phillipines by American forces. Interestingly, both Marrin and Bradley see McKinley as someone interested in peace, but beaten into submission by the press and warmongers like Roosevelt into sanctioning war against the Spanish. 

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