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