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

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

OMG! What a bad, bad man Theodore Roosevelt was! I mean, like, golly, he basically ruined the entire 20th century…..and he died in 1919, well before the century really got rolling.

I mean, James Bradley, writing in his 2009 book The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, tells me and his other readers:
• That good ole T.R. was responsible for the rise of Mao Tse-tung in China and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam (page 289).
• That Roosevelt — known as the Rough Rider for his exploits in Cuba in the Spanish-American War — was responsible for World War II (page 251).
• That the 26th President of the United States whose slogan was: “Speak softly and carry a big stick” was responsible for more than 30 million deaths in that conflict (page 320).

Bradley --- imperial cruiseYet, there Roosevelt is — up there on Mount Rushmore with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

Who knew?

Let’s get out the jackhammers, and disappear his face off the mountain!

Wildly over-stated

Okay, enough with the sarcasm.

The Imperial Cruise is a frustratingly sloppy, argumentative, extravagantly exaggerated and ultimately silly book. Which isn’t to say that its subject — the impact of U.S white-centric arrogance and blindness on world events a century ago — is any of those things.

There is an object lesson buried deep in this book (but lost amid Bradley’s gnat-like and nasty prose) for the American nation of our day about conducting itself in world affairs.

It is a lesson about the limits of strength, the value for listening, the need to take care in making and not making promises, the absolute necessity to avoid wishful thinking, the benefits of honesty, the value of living by moral principles, and a host of others. (Lesson the Iraq War has also taught.)

It is, in addition, a lesson about how difficult it is to know the consequences of any action.

Bradley writes: “Teddy would not live to see his benevolent intentions lead over thirty million victims to early graves.”

That’s wildly and irresponsibly over-stated.

Back-fired

Yet, the fact is that Roosevelt sought to manipulate the Japanese in the board game of world politics in a way that, he envisioned, would benefit them — and benefit the U.S. even more.

To that end, he urged them to institute a “Japanese Monroe Doctrine” in Asia — essentially, to oversee Asia for Asians, and keep out the Slavs of Russia who were nosing their way into the region (and competing with the U.S. as a world power). As part of that, he was amenable to a Japanese take-over of Korea.

And it back-fired. Instead of being bit-players in a U.S.-orchestrated drama, the Japanese had their own ideas of what to do, and it involved conquering Korea, China and any other nation with needed resources. It also involved a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, and a very bloody conflict across the Pacific.

To blame Roosevelt for all that the Japanese did, though, is just plain harebrained.

Making mistakes

Sure, he and other American leaders should have taken other policy options. Sure, they were haughtily racist and naively simplistic. We can see that in retrospect. They didn’t have that luxury.

It’s also worth noting that the same haughty, racist naiveté was at work at Versailles following World War I and had a lot to do with how the world exploded again two decades later.

I’m not defending haughtiness or racism or cluelessness. I’m defending humanity.

People make mistakes. Roosevelt was in error in his handling of the Far East during his presidency. You could say he was criminally in error. Even morally in error.

Okay. But that doesn’t give Bradley the right to whip Roosevelt up and down 333 pages as if his dealings with the Japanese and other Asian peoples were the entire sum of his life and career.

Fascinatingly ambiguous

There are many who consider T.R. one of the greatest U.S. presidents (hence his appearance on Mount Rushmore). I’m not one of them.

I’ve always found Roosevelt to be a fascinatingly ambiguous figure. He had a major impact on American life through his efforts to establish national parks, to rein in business, to build the Panama Canal and to beef up the nation’s military. Yet, in seemingly every area, he wasn’t as strong or as committed as he might have been.

For instance, as Edmund Morris reports in his 2001 book Theodore Rex, in October, 1901, Roosevelt became the first U.S. President to invite an African American (Booker T. Washington) to dinner. He didn’t see any reason not to.

Yet, when all hell broke loose throughout the nation, particularly in the South, over this breach of white social etiquette, he backed down, and never again entertained a black visitor in an intimate social setting.

Sloppy and slipshod

Roosevelt’s ideas and actions on race were complex and contradictory as Morris makes clear. In dealing with these questions throughout his book, Morris provides a multi-faceted look at this aspect of Roosevelt’s character.

By contrast, Bradley paints the president and virtually all other American leaders of that era as simply and only and deeply and blindly racist.

As with race, there is much that is sloppy and slipshod in The Imperial Cruise, such as:
• Bradley’s attempts to blame World War II and a host of other 20th Century ills on Roosevelt.
• His pretense that none of what he writes of has been widely known
• His lack of proof-reading — for instance, his statement on page 48 that Roosevelt was 25 in 1883, and on page 50 that he was 23.

“Aryans”

You might call Bradley’s use of the term “Aryan” sloppy as well except its purpose is more mean-spirited.

In line with his snide attitude and tar-brush approach, Bradley contends, with almost no quotations, that Roosevelt and other white American leaders were working to boost the “Aryan” race.

Occasionally, it appears, that word was used in that era although, more usually, “Anglo-Saxon” was preferred. Bradley employs it, however, in a ham-handed attempt to align the U.S. of that era with later Nazi ideology.

But that’s only until around page 200 when Bradley suddenly decides to explain to the reader that Aryans include Anglo-Saxons and Slavs. And that:

Roosevelt loathed the Slavs: “No human beings,” he declared, “black, yellow, or white could be quite as untruthful, as insincere, as arrogant — in short, as untrustworthy in every way — as the Russians.”

So, wait, according to Bradley, Roosevelt is a white racist of the Aryan persuasion, except, well, he hated the Slav half of the Aryan race and thought black and yellow people were more truthful, sincere and trustworthy.

Do I have that straight?

Patrick T. Reardon
5.7.13

4 Comments

  1. Patrick Carano says:

    Bradley is correct about Roosevelt in that once we settled the last of Native American land extending to the west and the Pacific Ocean, Roosevelt the swashbuckling macho president filled with the thought of the end of Jacksonian Manifest Destiny just kept going West across the Pacific. Roosevelt was the creator of American imperialism and Wilson and the rest of American presidents bought into it with dreadful results and a slew of failures. What Teddy wrought is still what drives are foreign policy with a minimum of 119 military posts around the world making us the most hated country on the planet today. Look at our forays in other counties where we disregarded self-determination and democratically elected governments from Haiti, Chile, Iran, Nicaragua, just to name a few. And of course we only need to look at Iraq where we believe we can change a country’s spots by regime change where our success record has been a dismal failure wherever we secretly plant our flag. And it is all for “our interests” which just happens to be capitalism’s vaunted corporations who interests are the ones that get fed. In Chile it is the fear of nationalization and world OPEC style control of commodities like copper which happen to almost all of it being in the ground of Third World countries. Oil in Iraq is another example and going after it was planned early on in Bus’s administration but haliburton and Vice President Dick Cheney at secret energy meetings. Of course Vietnam is a prime example of American hegemony’s reach that has disastrous results. If only President Wilson did not snub Vietnam when they reached out to America for an endorsement of their government, a government whose Constitution is modeled after our own. We spend more money on our military than the next 15 countries combined. Like Rome, our overreach in order to dominate and the cost to do so that is really the culprit that is bankrupting our country will destroy us. Roosevelt started us down this path, and especially after WWII where spy agencies like the CIA and NSA have grown so powerful even politicians can’t or won’t stop them, we are destined to keep making the same mistakes into the future. It is good to revisit dead presidents and chip away at the false layers of varnish to reveal the real history behind this country with hope we can change its path going forward.

  2. Patrick Carano says:

    Bradley actually has it right. If we want our history books to present Truth no matter how difficult it may be to the American psyche, it is Truth that will save America from imploding from within. With a review like yours it won’t even be two generations before we lionize George W. Bush and his disastrous presidency with its failed wars in the Middle East. So what if Teddy boy was racist with a foreign policy that has failed from Cuba, to Nicaragua to the Philippines. It is our history and one that shouldn’t be sugarcoated to make historically illiterate Americans feel good about themselves.

    • Patrick T. Reardon says:

      Patrick —

      Thanks for your two comments. I agree that there are many questions and problems with the difficulty of figuring out what the U.S. should be doing in relationship to the other nations and other peoples of the world. When is the nation imperialistic when acting elsewhere, and when is the U.S. doing what it needs to do to protect itself. These are questions that run through the entire history of the nation, and my problem with “Imperial Cruise” is that Bradley wants to blame so much of it on Teddy Roosevelt.

      American imperialism goes back to the Puritans and to Manifest Destiny. Trying to exercise American muscles in Asia isn’t much different that driving the Native Americans out of their home territories, again and again, and killing them through war, disease and starvation.

      This doesn’t excuse Roosevelt’s imperialism, but it puts it in a context. He was taking American policy the next step. If it hadn’t been him, it would have been another president.

      And racism in the White House didn’t start with him either.

      My point is that history and the world and life are much more complex than Bradley portrays.

      Pat Reardon

      • Patrick T. Reardon says:

        By the way, is your email address a reference to the song by the Band “W.S. Walcott’s Medicine Show”? I am a big fan on the Band.

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