Saturday, 28 August 2010

“Idiot America”, by Charles P. Pierce (Anchor Books)


How Stupidity became a Virtue in the Land of the Free

The Culture Wars are over, and the idiots have won. This is a veteran journalist’s acidly funny, righteously angry lament about the glorification of ignorance in the United States.

In the midst of a career-long quest to separate the smart from the pap, Charles Pierce had a defining moment at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, where he observed a dinosaur. Wearing a saddle... But worse than this was when the proprietor exclaimed to a cheering crowd, “We are taking the dinosaurs back from the evolutionists!” He knew then and there it was time to try and salvage the Land of the Enlightened, buried somewhere in this new Home of the Uninformed.

With his razor-sharp wit and erudite reasoning, Pierce delivers a gut-wrenching, side-splitting lament about the glorification of ignorance in the United States, and how a country founded on intellectual curiosity has somehow deteriorated into a nation of simpletons more apt to vote for an American Idol contestant than a presidential candidate.

With Idiot America, Pierce’s thunderous denunciation is also a secret call to action, as he hopes that somehow, being intelligent will stop being a stigma, and that pinheads will once again be pitied, not celebrated.

I’m often wary of books like this – polemics are often dangerous books to put too much stock into. Al Franken is one of the few ‘comics’ who can write a book about politics and American society while being both funny and heavy on the facts, evidence, and data (this does not include his ‘satire’, which is mostly shit). Charles Pierce is a journalist with a great gift for outlining the facts and then spearing those who are clearly deranged.

The title and description of the book are slightly misleading – this is not just a rant about the religious right, or about Republicans. Rather, this is a historical look (often in a fond tone) at America’s history of ‘cranks’, and how this oh-so American tradition has been bastardised to create the Idiot America of the title. Pierce goes into quite some detail when looking back at cranks who have dotted the American historical landscape, not to mention the many conspiracy theories that Americans (obviously, as a generalised whole) seem so prone to believe: Masons! The Illuminati! Jewish bankers! Aliens! White men! Black men! The CIA! Global Warming activists! Strange Cults and Religions! They’re all mentioned by Pierce, in often detailed and frequently amusing chapters and portraits.

There are three main tenets of Idiot America as Pierce sees it. They are:

  1. Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
  2. Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.
  3. Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.

So far so good, so far so scary.

The central question Pierce asks is, “how a country founded on intellectual curiosity has somehow deteriorated into a nation of simpletons more apt to vote for an American Idol contestant than a presidential candidate”? After all, of the most famous Founding Fathers, almost all were polymath intellectuals: Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin in particular. It is to Madison that Pierce turns for much of his historical evidential support, for it was Madison who (despite being somewhat relatively neglected as a Founding Father and president) wrote most specifically about the issues of public fancy, factionism, and “choosing up sides” that have gone into creating Idiot America.

Pierce kicks things off with an introduction about Ken Ham’s Creation Museum (here I should refer you, also, to the cover image and the mention of dinosaurs with saddles in the synopsis). The author takes issue with the utter belief and inability (unwillingness?) to question anything Ham or any other employee of the Museum might claim as “truth”. As Pierce left, he was struck by his fellow visitors’ total acceptance of what is to be found at the museum.

“It was impolite to wonder why our parents has sent us all to college, and why generations of immigrants had sweated and bled so that their children could be educated, if not so that one day we would feel confident one day to look at a museum full of dinosaurs rigged to run six furlongs… and make the not unreasonable point that it was batshit crazy, and that anyone who believed this righteous hooey should be kept away from sharp objects and their own money. Instead, people go to court over this kind of thing.”

I’ll admit that the first thing that came to mind when I read the chapter and saw the cover artwork, was the scene in Friends, when Ross informs a colleague that there’s no way Dino from the Flinstone’s was a velociraptor, because otherwise he would have eaten the family…

“Religious idiocy – where, often, commercial idiocy and political idiocy came together to be purified, sanctified, and altogether immunized against the ridicule they all so richly deserved”

While it is often funny to laugh at the strange beliefs of those attempting some religious contortionism to explain the existence of dinosaurs, Pierce is not saying these believers are the idiots of the title. Far from it. Rather, the ‘Idiot America’ of which he writes is the one predicated on the war on expertise that seems to currently define American discourse. It is the breakdown of the consensus that knowledge, and the pursuit of knowledge are good and admirable things.

“It also represents the ascendency of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know best what they’re talking about.”

Indeed, Pierce finds a strength in America’s Founding documents and mentality. Of the many, obscure and anti-modernist sects and denominations that have found a home and purchase in America, the author writes,

“they found a country that would welcome them, that had written its tolerance for their eccentricity into its founding documents, that was the best country ever devised to be a little off the beam. It might look askance at them, or turn them rather tastelessly into tourist attractions, but it would allow them the blessed freedom of their insularity.”

Perhaps the best chapter is the one that looks at the effect of Talk Radio of taking the great, marginalised American cranks and sending them screaming into the mainstream (this means you, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Glen Beck, Ann Coulter, etc.). Take the case of Gordon Liddy – former Watergate and firebomb-the-Brookings-Institute mastermind and felon – and his lucrative broadcasting career:

“No country serious about its national dialogue on any subject would allow Gordon Liddy near a microphone, for the same reason that we would keep Charlie Manson away from the cutlery.”

Having said Idiot America is not an anti-Republican screed, it cannot be denied that Pierce’s most scathing and passionate attacks are saved for the contemporary right and Republican party, and its wholesale embrace of Idiocy and extreme populism. When combined with Talk Radio’s reach, it is a corrosive force:

“Since right-wing populism has at its heart an ‘anti-elitist’ distrust of expertise, talk radio offers the purest example of the Three Great Premises at work. A host is not judged a success by his command of the issues, but purely by whether what he says moves the ratings needle... If the needle moves enough, then the host is adjudged an expert... and, if the host seems to argue passionately enough, then what he is saying is judged to be true simply because of how many people are listening to him say it.”

There are two particularly shocking chapters, in which Pierce attempts to lay out the whole story of two important, recent cases of religious interference with politics – and politicians’ spinelessness in dealing with it. The first is the Dover, Pennsylvania, Intelligent Design case as an example of how damaging and ludicrous religious-political fights can become, not to mention the terrible consequences. The fight was over teaching ID alongside Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, in science class. I know I’ve had my own heated debates about this with colleagues and believers, but Pierce manages to deal with the subject calmly and in substantiated detail, allowing those who were involved describe their impressions and feelings on the subject. The judge assigned the case, John Jones, was admirable and utterly sensible and professional in his 139-page decision throwing ID out the door. The result? He received death threats that caused US Marshalls to put him under 24-hr protection.

Equally, Pierce gives us a narrative and examination of the Terri Schiavo case, which was a gruelling, grisly political fight over whether or not to allow a woman to die in peace. In this case especially, but also in the Dover ID case, the interests of those involved were of little importance or consequence to the special religious interests who were interested only in picking a fight and subverting the Constitution and law. Pierce reserves a great amount of scorn for the politicians who facilitated this farce – and just as much for those who stood by and did nothing (that would be you, Democrats). Relying on testimony from those who worked at the Hospice, Pierce paints a grim picture of religious elements and opportunistic politicians ghoulishly using Schiavo as a political tool for furthering their specific, narrow cause.

We are, Pierce laments, too prone to listening to our Guts, that ephemeral force that does not take its cues from reason or logic, and is frequently wrong.

“If we have abdicated our birthright to scientific progress, we have done so by moving the debate into the realm of political and cultural argument, where we all feel more confident, because it is there that the Gut rules. Held to the standards of that context, any scientific theory is turned into mere opinion. Scientific fact is no more immutable than a polling sample.”

Pierce’s great hope is that intelligence and knowledge will once again return to their respective place at the forefront of society, rather than relegated to the pile where, not too long ago, we used to find the cranks, the Glen Becks, Rush Limbaughs, and the Ann Coulters.

I make no attempt to hide my political leanings, but I cannot get on board with a movement that accepts – nay, welcomes – the likes and bigotry of Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity when forming their political planks and approach to political discourse. Intelligent, well-reasoned political debate demands objective treatment in the press. These characters – and many others of their ilk – do not provide this.

Overall, Pierce has written a cogent, oft-angry, and frequently funny rant against the ever-encroaching forces of Idiocy in American society and politics. His arguments are uniformly intelligent, well-constructed, and well-substantiated (even if the chapter on climate change is over-long and lacks a proper conclusion of similar impact to other chapters).

Also try: Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1973); Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (2008); Al Gore, The Assault on Reason (2009); Al Franken, Lies & The Lying Liars Who Tell Them (2004) & The Truth, With Jokes (2006); John Avlon, Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America (2010); Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009); Matt Taibbi, The Great Derangement (2008)

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

“No Angel”, by Jay Dobyns & Nils Johnson-Shelton (Canongate)

This review has been cross-posted on our other (fiction) site.

Dobyns-NoAngelUS&UKUS   |   UK

An ATF agent goes undercover with the Hell’s Angels

The first federal agent to infiltrate the inner circle of the outlaw Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, and the inside story of the 21-month operation that almost cost him his family, his sanity, and his life.

Getting shot in the chest as a rookie agent, bartering for machine guns, throttling down the highway at 100 mph, and responding to a full-scale, bloody riot between the Hells Angels and their rivals, the Mongols – these are just a few of the high-adrenaline experiences Dobyns recounts in this action-packed true story.

Dobyns leaves no stone of his harrowing journey unturned. At runs and clubhouses, between rides and riots, Dobyns befriends bad-ass bikers, meth-fueled “old ladies”, gun fetishists, psycho-killer ex-cons, and even some of the “Filthy Few” – the elite of the Hells Angels who’ve committed extreme violence on behalf of their club. Eventually, at parties staged behind heavily armed security, he meets legendary club members such as Chuck Zito, Johnny Angel, and the godfather of all bikers, Ralph “Sonny” Barger. To blend in with them, he gets full-arm ink; to win their respect, he vows to prove himself a stone-cold killer.

Hardest of all is leading a double life, which has him torn between his devotion to his wife and children, and his pledge to become the first federal agent ever to be “fully patched” into the Angels’ near-impregnable ranks. His act is so convincing that he comes within a hairsbreadth of losing himself. Eventually, he realizes that just as he’s been infiltrating the Hells Angels, they’ve been infiltrating him. And just as they’re not all bad, he’s not all good.

No Angel has been described as the new Donnie Brasco and the most in-depth account of the world of Outlaw Biker Gangs since Hunter Thompson’s seminal work, Hell’s Angels (which I might also review one day). In No Angel, we get a riveting account of an undercover ATF agent’s experiences infiltrating the notorious outlaw biker gang – from the initial forays into that world, Dobyn’s ‘patching in’ with the Hells Angels, and finally the investigation’s big bust at its completion.

I must admit to the source of my initial interest in this book: I’ve been watching Sons of Anarchy, which is brilliant and has put me in the mood to learn/read/watch more about bikers and their culture, so I ordered this book on the strength of a Newsweek excerpt I remember reading a couple years ago.

Dobyns gives the biker gangs a quite funny acronym: “OMGs”. As someone who hates emoticons and text-speak, I was very amused by this. They are, however, nothing to laugh about: as “America’s only truly indigenous form of international organized crime” – one that has spread alarmingly easily and well-managed – “violence was and is the [main] source of the Hells Angels’ power.”

The ATF’s and other federal law departments’ interest in biker gangs had, prior to the investigation detailed herein, largely been small-scale, and not particularly rewarding or sensational: small-time drugs and weapons charges. With Operation Black Biscuit, the ATF was hoping to slap a great big RICO charge against the Hells Angels. This would require dedication, a long and dangerous investigation. The main impetus for this operation – or at least something that heightened its importance and the increased attention from the federal government – was based largely on the Hells Angels-Mongols rumble at a Laughlin casino, which resulted in a small number of deaths and a large number of hospitalisations (amazingly, though, no civilians were seriously harmed, if at all).

Dobyns goes into a great amount of detail, outlining not only his own investigation, but also gives us a look into the ATF’s past experiences with outlaw biker gangs. He highlights one of the stranger issues:

“some biker investigators assimilate and sympathize with their adversaries. Some even form their own clubs. This has always been a mystery to me. Cops don’t mimic mafia dons or dress as Crips and Bloods and form up neighborhood sets, so why would some choose to create their own motorcycle clubs patterned after criminal syndicates? Maybe it’s because they’re bound by the bikes themselves – one thing that cuts across all of them is the ‘live to ride, ride to live’ credo – but I wouldn’t know since I don’t really love bikes. Go figure.”

This, I must say, I found surprising – I would have thought a perfect agent to send undercover would be one who loved bikes. But, considering the tendency of biker lovers to ‘go native’, perhaps a non-bike-lover was the better choice. In the past, Dobyns explains, “these forces – a disregard for their legitimacy from above, a wary respect and kinship from below – combined to give the bikers some semblance of a safe haven.”

It’s worth mentioning the unfortunate role of women in these worlds – both that of the bikers’ and undercover cops’. No Angel is filled with descriptions of the sorry state of a woman’s lot in the biker world. They are treated very poorly by the bikers. Dobyns explains that many of them were, or appeared to be “old, broken-down women”, who had “been living too hard for too long”:

“Some were attractive, some looked like mudflaps on a snowy day in March.”

Ultimately, they are little more than toys or objects to be passed around and (horrifyingly frequently) shared.

“The women walked away. The backs of their jackets had single patches that read PROPERTY OF THE RED DEVILS. This referred to both the women and the jackets.”

When it comes to female undercover agents, there were problems with finding “Bird”, his undercover alter-ego, a believable and competent “old lady”:

“I’m of the minority opinion in law enforcement circles that women are as capable and essential as men are in undercover assignments, but the truth is they have a hard road to walk. Most of the time they play girlfriends, runners, or mules. What I needed was a woman the Hell’s Angels would actually respect.”

The many horrific, dark and depressing moments mentioned in No Angel – drug ravaged people, child neglect, etc. – are weirdly contrasted with some quite amusing moments and scenes. One, which was particularly funny, is Dobyns’s account of when he and two other tattooed and burly bikers metrosexed it up while waiting for their club president, talking about the aloe in sunscreen before doing each other’s backs: “three bikers rubbing suncream into each other on a hot Phoenix night”. Or when Dobyns mentions his “love [of] the seasonals at Starbucks”; in this case the Halloween seasonal, a “pumpkin-flavored latte with brown sugar cinnamon sprinkles’ which the hulking, tattooed outlaw biker gets “with extra foam and low-fat milk. Totally lame, but there you go.” It’s moments like these that show how, despite his tough-guy image, he’s still human like the rest of us, with eccentricities.

The effect Dobyns’s undercover life has on his home life is interesting. Beyond the expected family tension one might expect from a father and husband who is absent a good deal of the time, the nature of Dobyns’s undercover work, the fact that he has to allow his role to consume him, can make normalcy difficult to achieve. For example, at a neighbourhood party:

“I must have looked like a circus attraction at that party. I was strung out, and fresh tattoos peeked out from the edges of my clothing. I was the only guest with a twisted five-inch corkscrew goatee, that’s for sure.”

His embrace of the biker role meant he couldn’t relate to the people he was supposed to be comfortable around.

“All I could think was that I’d rather be hanging out with my guys. Not just Timmy, Pops, and JJ, but Smitty, Dennis, Bob, Joby – any of them. I didn’t like them more, but I didn’t feel so weird around them.”

For Dobyns (and also myself), the contradictions of the Hell’s Angels are fascinating. The author explains:

“The Hells Angels are separate from society, but they’re rooted in it; they’re noncomformist, but they all look the same; they’re a secret society, but also flamboyant exhibitionists; they flout the laws of the land, but they’re governed by a strict code; their name and their Death Head logo represent freedom, individualism, toughness, and lawlessness, but both name and logo are protected by legal trademarks.”

The camaraderie described by the authors is amazing – it really does give the Hells Angels the feel of a brotherhood – if you were accepted by one, you could be vouched to another – leading to invitations to rallies and parties, all making your time with them blessed.

The internal politics of the club were interesting. As time has passed, there appears to be a growing the rift between young and old members of the club. Covering almost all aspects of club business and function, the issue of drug use and trade, general comportment of members, and also – most importantly – the future direction of the Hells Angels club. Basically, the real-life tension portrayed by the Sons of Anarchy club (only reversed, as it’s the younger SoA Vice-President who wants to take the club in a legitimate direction).

“Generally, younger members felt as though they’d joined the Hells Angels to raise hell, to do what they wanted to, when they wanted to, and not be told otherwise. Older members – members, it should be said, who’d lived this freer, hell-raising lifestyle in decades past – preferred to rest on their laurels, doing whatever they could not to attract attention from the law.”

Following the suspicious, sudden murder of the Hells Angels’ heir-apparent – Daniel “Hoover” Seybert – Dobyns believes the internal tensions are simmering ever-closer to the edge, and might even have been the cause of Hoover’s murder (he was considered one of those wanting a calmer life and more legit club). He and his team started to hear more and more grumbling from the younger members about the strict, softening older members.

The investigation called for Dobyns and his crew to form a biker gang, which they do – an Arizona charter of the Solo Angeles. As they get deeper into the world, tighter with its denizens, and rack up countless drug and gun buys, they still recognise the need to break out of their comfort zones in order to blow the case wide open and make it really count. Dobyns outlines many of these small deals, illustrating the ease with which some of them were completed, the almost blasé attitude the criminals had to buying and selling illegal (often modified) guns or drugs. The slow pace of the operation also created stress within the ATF group as to how best to approach the problem.

“I wanted to pursue the Angels’ offers of membership. How often had a group of cops been given this opportunity? ... I felt we’d never get the true dirt on them as outsiders, that they could profess to trust us Solos till they were blue in the face, but it would never matter because we weren’t Hells Angels. If we wanted to take a swing at these guys... then this was the only way. My answer to break out of the comfort zone was to become a Hells Angel, to give ourselves over to our adversary.”

Given the considerable courting from established Hells Angels charters, and their respected, older members, it’s not surprising that Dobyns wanted to push as hard as possible for membership – literally to be invited into the belly of the beast. Slats, the operation’s ATF leader, had a different perspective. He preferred them to stay Solos, to maintain their relative freedom, but to push for more and bigger deals, to effectively make the Hells Angels’ own greed push them to work with the Solos. Also, if Dobyns and his fellow undercovers became Hells Angels prospects, then “our operation would become tied to the whims of the club and our sponsors.” As Solos, however, “we could do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted, wherever we wanted.” Dobyns is honest enough to concede that his approach may not have been best: “Slats is expert in the criminal mindset, and he might have been right, too.” When the decision was made, one thing is clear: the members of the task were supremely driven, even zealous – despite their solid case, which would have sent some shockwaves through the Hells Angels, they all wanted to push for a bigger, more devastating case. Their egos didn’t allow them to settle for a smaller bust.

No Angel is a gripping read – I found myself picking it up at every opportunity, and annoyed whenever I was forced to put it down (real life always has a tendency to get in the way of reading...). The glimpse we get of the bikers’ world is not a glamorous one, and yet Dobyns manages to deal with his subject in a balanced manner – his righteousness and hatred for much of it is evident throughout, but he’s not dishonest about the allures the lifestyle and the world present to those who are invited into it.

The writing is tight and stripped down, so you’ll find that you fly through the book. There are the occasional moments of normalcy, when Dobyns goes home to see his wife – his love for his family is clear, and sometimes leads to some slightly soppy chapters. The strain his undercover work puts on his marriage is also fairly portrayed – he actually takes most of the blame for the difficult situation and stress.

Filled with colourful characters, riveting detail of the bikers’ criminal underbelly, No Angel is a gripping and entertaining account of life as an undercover agent, a detailed account of the dark world of bikers, and highly recommended.

Also try: Hunter S. Thompson, Hell’s Angels (2003); Kerrie Droban, Running With the Devil: The True Story of the ATF’s Infiltration of the Hell’s Angels (2009)*; Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger, Hell’s Angels (2001), Ridin’ High, Livin’ Free (2003) & Freedom: Credos from the Road (2005); William Marsden & Julian Sher, Angels of Death: Inside the Bikers’ Global Crime Empire (2007); William Queen, Under & Alone (2010); George Wethern & Vincent Colnett, Wayward Angel: The Full Story of the Hell’s Angels (2008); Andrew Shaylor, Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club (2007); Sons of Anarchy Seasons 1 & 2 (2009, 2010)

* Running With the Devil appears to parallel some of No Angel, and even ‘Bird’ is mentioned. It doesn’t seem to have been received as well, however.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

“Empire for Liberty”, by Richard H. Immerman (Princeton)

clip_image001A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz

How could the United States, a nation founded on the principles of liberty and equality, have produced Abu Ghraib, torture memos, Plamegate, and warrantless wiretaps? Did America set out to become an empire? And if so, how has it reconciled its imperialism – and in some cases, its crimes – with the idea of liberty so forcefully expressed in the Declaration of Independence? Empire for Liberty tells the story of men who used the rhetoric of liberty to further their imperial ambitions, and reveals that the quest for empire has guided the nation’s architects from the very beginning, and continues to do so today.

Historian Richard Immerman paints nuanced portraits of six public figures who influenced the course of American empire: Benjamin Franklin, John Quincy Adams, William Henry Seward, Henry Cabot Lodge, John Foster Dulles, and Paul Wolfowitz. Each played a pivotal role as empire builder and, with the exception of Adams, did so without occupying the presidency. Taking readers from the founding of the republic to the Global War on Terror, Immerman shows how each individual’s influence arose from a keen sensitivity to the concerns of his times; how the trajectory of American empire was relentless if not straight; and how these shrewd and powerful individuals shaped their rhetoric about liberty to suit their needs.

But as Immerman demonstrates in this timely and provocative book, liberty and empire were on a collision course. And in the Global War on Terror and the occupation of Iraq, they violently collided.

The study of “American empire” is a long and distinguished pursuit, and yet one filled with controversy and disagreement.

“Little about the history of the United States is more contested than the question of whether it warrants the label empire. It took eight years of bitter war to liberate America from the shackles of the British Empire. To classify the United States with its imperial ancestor, let alone more recent exemplars and wannabes – the Germans and Soviets, for example – seems perverse, an affront to America's self-identity as well as history.”

Empire for Liberty asks two important questions: “Whatever America is now, has it always been that, or has it changed over time?” In answering these questions, the author “seeks to persuade the reader that America is and always has been an empire,” and, through the lives of six influential Americans, will analyse the trajectory of America’s “rising empire” and the evolution of that term. “Appreciating the dynamism of both” the definition and history of empire, Immerman argues, “is essential in order to weigh the varying motives that drove American empire-building: greed and racism, for example, versus progress and protection.”

In the introduction to this volume, Immerman offers a review of some of the key existing literature on the subject, illustrating the difficulties inherent in the study of empire, and how Americans – publicly and privately – have come to understand the term. The author also handily encapsulates his main view:

“I appreciate the arguments that American has been a force of good in the world, that its ideals and values, especially those concerned with liberty, do have universal applicability, that its missionary zeal to modernize less developed areas can be beneficial, and that the pursuit of foreign policies and strategies designed to promote the security of domestic and international constituents is legitimate and necessary for any state.”

That being said, however, Immerman goes on to add that, “by building an empire through either direct conquest or informal control the United States has frequently done evil in the name of good.”

When it comes to ‘liberty’, Immerman argues, “about the only thing Americans agree on is that it is good”. This is because,

“for Americans, liberty is even more difficult to define than empire. Americans believe in liberty and they support the advancement of liberty, but they interpret the word so broadly, and in so many different contexts, that it all but loses its meaning.”

The introduction offers a summarised outline of the evolution of empire in American history: stemming from comments by Founding Fathers (particularly Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton), who asserted the United States was an “empire” – although, Immerman allows for the fact that we may be misunderstanding their intentions, as the word ‘empire’ was, at that time, synonymous with the word ‘state’. Following the Civil War, the author argues, the idea of empire changed in America – as a way to juxtapose the fledgling United States from other Great Powers and their empires; something not only attainable but also attractive. During the 20th Century, ‘imperialism’ was sometimes argued to be evolving – through economic, cultural and other ties – and “the United States effectively exercised control of national politics in the states of the Caribbean and Latin America, the Pacific and Asia, the Middle and Near East, Africa, and to some extent even Europe.” In effect, during this time, “America projected its domestic system onto the international arena.”

The study of foreign policy is contested in international relations. Realism looks at the actions of states as if they were unitary actors, and yet there is so much more to a nation’s foreign policy. In order to support his decision to section his book as a series of portraits of individuals, Immerman makes the following case:

“the American empire developed into what it is today because individuals make – or made – choices. This is not to play down the power of broad political, economic, social, and cultural forces at the national and international levels. But when one sifts through the multiple influences that are the stuff of history, one ends up with individuals who choose to do one thing and not another. That is the crucial ingredient of contingency.”

It is for this reason that Immerman has decided to focus his attention on six eminent American politicians who have done their utmost to further the idea of American empire, in one form or another. Below, I will very briefly tease out some key features of his arguments and portraits of these men.

Benjamin Franklin

Franklin, one of the key Founding Fathers, is an interesting case, when considering the topic of Empire. Born in 1706, he grew up in an age of great, Imperial conflicts, which informed his opinion on the importance of sustaining and maintaining empires – specifically, the British Empire, of which he was a loyal and eager servant for many decades – in the late 1750s, he was described as “the most articulate and vigorous lobbyist for aggressive imperial action against France”.

His efforts and position in support of Empire were predominantly focussed on the importance of maintaining empires by granting all subjects the same rights – this, ultimately, is how he was able to break with the British, following the Stamp Act and the Crown’s negative reaction to American opposition to this unequal treatment. He was an avid proponent of landed expansion, and also the economic and industrial benefits of empire (a result of his Massachusetts origins and career in Pennsylvania – two of America’s key industrial centres at the time).

While living in London, and following the Stamp Act and growing revolutionary sentiment in the American colonies, “the British came to view and in many cases vilify Benjamin Franklin, North America’s most ardent champion of the British Empire, as the leading exponent of American independence.”

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams (JQA), the son of the second US President, John Adams, and the sixth president himself, would during his life be both an ardent supporter and opponent of US Empire.

“What marked Adam’s early official career as a diplomat was, more than his achievements, the ideas he developed from what he observed.”

In 1789, both the new American government and Constitution were in trouble: “American commerce suffered from the severe restrictions imposed by England and virtually all the Europeans” resulting in the US economy descending into shambles, debt skyrocketing as imports far outstripped exports, and support for the new government waning. Madison’s Federalist No.10 had called for a pluralist system characterised by multiple “factions”, whose different interests would come together to aid expansion and by extension America as a whole. Instead, JQA saw rampant sectional divisions throughout society and the economy. The Founding Fathers had

“envisioned… that American expansion would produce a pluralistic society even as it satisfied the multitudinous factions, [but instead it] produced a society suffused with irreconcilable factions that reflected sectional divisions.”

JQA actively campaigned for Jefferson’s continental-expansionary policies, including, as the only Federalist to do so, the Louisiana Purchase, and he would argue for the acquisition of the Oregon territory. He is best known, however, as the crafter of the Monroe Doctrine, “a watershed in the extension of America’s imperial reach,” and his expansionary policies as Secretary of State. JQA’s presidency, however, would not be marked by expansion – despite one attempt – but instead, he would spend his four years in office consolidating existing territory.

Post-presidency, Adams would come to believe expansion or empire were “no longer the fulfilment of God’s promise”, but a “disgraceful, tyrannical usurpation of the national purpose.” This belief is the natural outgrowth of his considerable, and life-long, opposition to the institution of slavery (and not the petulant opposition to Jackson, who defeated his re-election bid). JQA would seek to acquire territory in the North, to benefit the non-slave state balance, and oppose expansion in the South – particularly the annexation of Texas – as attempts by pro-slavery factions to tilt the balance in their favour. In Immerman’s words, JQA found this “intolerable, and symptomatic of an empire gone wrong.” Adam’s opposition to slavery and expansion would last until the moment he died, while conducting his duty as a congressman in the Capitol.

William H. Seward

Of JQA’s protégés, all three of whom would champion Adams’s causes after his death, it would be Seward who “revived, albeit in a different form, Adams’s ideal of an American empire.” Specifically, he was “the pioneering figure before the Civil War to recast territorial empire into a commercial” empire. As it exported manufactures, Seward believed, so too would it export its ideals, values, and principles; the United States would be an empire expanded “not by force of arms, but attraction.”

Seward was an unlikely champion for empire: “Nothing about his personal history or early life provided even a hint of the extent to which he would influence the course of America’s empire.” He was “somewhat cavalier” about his studies as a youth and “paid scant attention” to politics – even the 1812 Mexican War; he was not an ambitious or interested traveller, confining his forays within New York State, Washington D.C., and only an occasional trip to the South.

When Seward did, finally, start paying attention to politics, it was in support of JQA’s proposals for internal and educational improvement. Seward’s support for JQA was also predicated on his vehement opposition to Martin Van Buren – whom he considered part of the corrupt New York political machine. He would go on to rise through the ranks of the New York Whigs, leading to his election as New York Governor. Even in this powerful post, however, Seward would still not act the part of future champion of American Empire, despite boasting that as governor he would make New York and the Hudson River “the true and proper seat of commerce and empire”. Instead, Immerman writes, in office he “paid little attention to either commerce or empire”.

When Seward came to Washington, as a Senator for New York, his conception of the future course of American empire was already highly developed. “Like Franklin and Adams before him, Seward believed that America was destined for greatness and power, and without explaining why, he linked the expansion of liberty to both,” equally, he saw the US destined to be the victor in the competition for supremacy with the UK. This belief in the guaranteed security of American territory, Seward believed, meant “What Americans must focus on… was its future prosperity and power, and the key to both lay in commerce – specifically, in the establishment of a commercial empire,” and the principle battlefield would be the Far East.

The onset of the Civil War and the growing tension surrounding the slavery issue would shift Seward’s focus towards the ‘liberty’ aspect of the debate (save the purchase of Alaska, sometimes known as “Seward’s Folly”), but he always retained his preference for economic empire.

Henry Cabot Lodge

Seward’s protégé, John Hay, would not be the “representative of the muscular empire-builders who shepherded America to global dominance.” Instead, there were a number of new imperialists who were willing to take up the fight for expansion and American exceptionalism.

“Of these, no one was more muscular, better situated, or more instrumental in America’s imperial rise than Henry Cabot Lodge.”

That Lodge would become a “pivotal force” in US foreign policy and empire was unexpected. Like Seward before him, Lodge “focussed his early career almost exclusively on domestic affairs,” including civil service reform, high tariff, and a sound currency – after all, at the time “the legacies of Reconstruction and requisites of reunion still dominated the political landscape”.

Immerman writes that it was not just his political, rhetorical and intellectual abilities that would propel him to significance – rather, it was also due to his background as a Boston Brahmin, surrounded by like-minded individuals. Lodge was in good company: Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Adams, and others formed a group of close friends and colleagues who worked diligently for the improvement of the American empire. James Blaine, not an intimate of Lodge’s, nonetheless also provided a “watershed” moment for Lodge, as he threw his support behind Blaine’s career, becoming “the face of American imperialism” in the process.

Lodge’s near-40 year career in national politics (in the Congress and Senate) was impressive, and “the stature and seniority he attained enabled him to contribute to the making of the American empire like no other American politician, with the possible exception of his friend TR.”

Unlike Seward, Lodge did not fixate on the commercial nature of American empire. He was not blind to its importance, but he believed in Franklin and Adams’s idealistic elements as well.

“Lodge defined the acquisition of colonies, the construction of a two-ocean navy, even the jump in trade with far-off, exotic lands as achievements calculated to recapture the American spirit and revive America’s national character.”

Lodge’s belief was that an American empire had to distinguish itself from other empire-builders, “its imperialism had to serve nobler ends than the aggrandizement of wealth and power.” Instead, it “had to civilize, uplift, and spread the American ideal of liberty.” The election of William McKinley would place Lodge in a perfect position to influence the direction of America’s foreign policy. This he did in the cases of Hawaii, Cuba, and the Philippines (which the US should take simply “because it could”). He would add his own addendum to the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, stating that no “corporation or association” should be permitted to gain control of “any harbour or other place in the American continents”.

When it came to race, Lodge had a mixed position. He believed himself to be a progressive on the issue, yet he openly opposed the latest influx of immigrants from Europe (and also Japan). As a result, he “emerged as the Senate’s most recognisable voice opposing immigration as well as promoting empire”.

Most will know Lodge from his consistent opposition to Woodrow Wilson’s agenda. Lodge despaired for Wilson’s every foreign policy decision, and their mutual animosity came to a boil over the League of Nations charter. Their animosity is strange, in some ways, when you consider that Wilson’s approach to foreign policy and empire was a synthesis of many of Franklin’s, Adams’s, Seward’s, and even Lodge’s beliefs. He would help generate and cement opposition to the League Charter because of Article 10, which required members to come to the military aid of other members, regardless of where the action would be, or what the cause.

John Foster Dulles

For almost half a century, Dulles represented and reflected the tension between the two visions of US foreign policy: empire and restraint (of which isolationism was its most extreme form), and “his formative years paralleled America’s ascent as an international power”. Immerman provides a considerable amount of familial background for Dulles – not all of which I could see relevance in – which in some ways helps explain his life-long interest and involvement in international politics. After university, Dulles worked almost forty years for Sullivan & Cromwell, the law firm that convinced Teddy Roosevelt and Lodge to build the isthmus canal in Panama, rather than Nicaragua. The law firm “was not directly in the business of building empires,” the author writes, “But it provided expert assistance to those who did.” Dulles would take leave from his legal duties on a number of occasions to offer assistance on international relations – particularly after Robert “Uncle Bert” Lansing moved to the State Department.

Following World War I, Dulles attended the peace conference at Versailles, and his experiences there “profoundly affected his life story and his worldview,” with a lingering “bitterness toward Britain and France” whose wishes he felt greedy and punitive in the extreme, which would prevent Germany from ever recovering and in turn could bring down the European and then the United States’ economies. Dulles would come to believe, like Wilson, that the world’s great empires no longer “created sufficient equilibrium to produce a stable international system.”

Where a key focus on economic expansion had preoccupied American imperialists from the Founding Fathers onwards, Dulles’s “hierarchy of values… dramatically… differed from those associated with his eighteenth- and nineteenth-century predecessors”. For Dulles, the American empire was one of influence in geopolitics, and “never primarily about economics”. He did, however share Wilson’s belief in “the power of international finance and commerce to heal global pathologies even as they spread wealth throughout America”, and “he did not intend it to safeguard specific U.S. economic interests”. He shared Seward’s belief in America as an empire that lead by example, rather than force – which is the root of his vociferous opposition to the British, French, and Israeli campaign to seize the Suez Canal. Communism was not compatible to his worldview, and American empire was its antidote.

During the Cold War, Dulles would focus his attention to creating a defensive empire, intended to contain Soviet expansion. He was moderately successful in fuelling support for containment, but the future role of American empire was left up-for-grabs after his departure from politics and his death.

Paul Wolfowitz

Much has been written about Wolfowitz and the neoconservative movement, so I shall not reiterate much of what Immerman writes on this subject. In this chapter, again, Immerman provides a good deal of background on Wolfowitz and his family. Wolfowitz’s worldview was highly influenced by Albert Wohlstetter, who mentored him in his postgraduate studies at Chicago, and worked on nuclear-related issues under Wohlstetter and with Richard Perle (another prominent member of the neocon faction).

Wolfowitz’s rise through the foreign policy ranks was slow and measured, working for both Republican and Democratic administrations (for example, he sympathised with Carter’s interest in human rights issues). He clashed with Kissinger because he believed Nixon’s Secretary of State’s effort to establish

“a global balance of power based on strategic parity between the United States and the Soviet Union recklessly endangered American security because the Kremlin lacked the moral scruples to be trusted and possessed the technological capacity to cause incalculable damage when it cheated.”

The Reagan era, Immerman writes, “reenergised conservatives and neoconservatives, thereby reviving the zero-sum perspective on global politics”. Prior to Reagan’s victory, however, Wolfowitz’s “messianic impulses” and concurrent concerns about US security had already started to build on his project to defeat the ‘Evil Empire’ through the promotion of its logical opposite, the ‘Righteous Empire’, the role of which would be played by the United States. Early on, as deputy assistant secretary of defence for regional planning, he would flag the Persian Gulf and specifically Iraq as areas of grave potential threat.

After American involvement to diffuse the volatile situation in the Philippines – following Ferdinand Marcos’s blatant theft of the country’s first democratic elections – Wolfowitz’s belief in America’s mission only grew:

“The United States could spread the American dream by exporting democracy. Greater liberty would inexorably follow.”

In the neoconservative tradition, the use of force is nothing to shy away from – thus, the brand of foreign policy and American empire pursued and preferred by Wolfowitz and his colleagues, broke from the force-aversion of his predecessors. Wolfowitz opposed the Kirkpatrick Doctrine favoured during the Reagan administration – a doctrine that called for total support for anti-Communism, regardless of the nature of the anti-Communists (see Iran-Contra for an example of how this was a bad idea). Wolfowitz believed Kirkpatrick’s doctrine to be insufficiently Wilsonian, ignoring the “liberty” aspect of America’s global mission. Wolfowitz’s perception was that, “as the avatar of liberty and democracy the United States was locked in mortal combat with global tyrants”.

When the Berlin Wall came down, and as undersecretary of defence for policy under Secretary Cheney, Wolfowitz found himself in a position to help identify how the American empire should act, as the sole remaining empire/superpower While he had no perceived influence on GHWB’s decision to oppose Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, it nonetheless converged with his view of a Wilsonian foreign policy, with the US protecting the Free World against tyranny and oppression. The president’s refusal to take the fight to Baghdad, however, conflicted with Wolfowitz’s belief that no tyrant should be left untoppled; Bush’s inaction and Saddam’s brutal retreat cemented Wolfowitz’s belief that the US

“must remain engaged, and by engaged he meant militarily engaged until it had rid the world of all those tyrants who held in contempt the values and liberties the United States stood for. Monsters cannot be contained.”

In the wake of the Gulf War, Wolfowitz would channel his career into institutionalising the mythic nature of American purpose. Through the 1992 Defence Planning Guidance (DPG), Wolfowitz guided a collective effort by a number of like-minded individuals – all of whom would reappear during George W. Bush’s administration: Libby and Khalilizad, for example. The DPG identified US primacy as the defining feature of the post-Cold War world, and recommended the US take full advantage of its pre-eminence in order to maintain its position. There were two main suggestions on how to do this. First, Immerman writes, “the United States must support constructive policies and programs that co-opted potential opposition and generated a tidal wave of support for American leadership”. The second prescription was for “unequivocal and ever-increasing military superiority required to turn the unipolar moment into a unipolar era.”

Unlike the realists of the Bush administration, who saw global affairs as zero-sum power politics, and the role of America as saving the world from itself, Wolfowitz believed that the US also had “the capability to remake the world”. Specifically, Wolfowitz’s highest priority fell on the Middle East, with a particular passion for ridding the world of Saddam Hussein. Going against John Quincy Adams’s warning against foreign adventurism, Wolfowitz believed

“Destroying monsters was the prerequisite for establishing an American empire, and an American empire was the prerequisite for an Empire for Liberty.”

As a member of the George W. Bush administration, Wolfowitz would see his grand design rent asunder by the fiasco in Iraq, as “developments shattered Wolfowitz’s prediction[s]”:

“[Iraq’s] liberation and liberalisation were to serve as the cornerstone of a new Middle East that would provide a shining example of the potential of an American empire, much as the Philippines had provide an example fifteen years earlier.”

Immerman’s treatment of Wolfowitz – especially when discussing the George W. Bush years – to me, lacked the objectivity of earlier chapters, and has the air more of indictment than investigation or analysis. Immerman is not wrong or unreasonable in his commentary, but the tone was noticeably different. When discussing Wolfowitz’s work as head of the World Bank, however, his tone swings back to moderately praiseworthy, as Wolfowitz does appear to have tried to do good, despite the (justified) ‘guilt-by-association’ reputation he had acquired from being a prominent Bush underling, and the scandal involving his mistress, which cast him in an extremely negative light among his new colleagues.

*     *     *

While contemporary conceptions of liberty differ from era to era, each of six individuals profiled in Empire of Liberty truly believed in America as a land (and empire) of liberty, and that its ‘job’ in international relations was to spread its values to all corners of the globe “they were not tricked into accepting this purpose”, and their belief of American exceptionalism is shared by “most Americans”.

“When ‘ground truth’ diverged from these beliefs, they rationalised the discrepancy by arguing that long-term benefits sometimes required compromises, or they dismissed incongruities as anomalies, as aberrations. Rhetoric trumped reality.”

Immerman’s conclusion nicely sums up the contradictory nature of an American Empire for Liberty, pointing out the flaws and conflicts. The author looks at the effect the Global War on Terror has had on Americans’ conception of America’s mission. Immerman also suggests the GWOT may have a greater consequence, as it may well cause the American population to reconsider their core beliefs about liberty and American purpose, and has – in light of the “dark side” of the GWOT – “forced Americans to confront who they are”.

This is a very well written and argued book. The approach is innovative, and allows Immerman to work beyond the usual study of presidents, who “unfairly” get most of the attention. It’s difficult to think of any other individuals who might have been included, and certainly not anyone who could have substituted for any of the six individuals Immerman has chosen to study.

Empire for Liberty allows for a wider understanding of the evolution of ideas that would come to be attributed to specific presidents – identifying other, non-Executive actors who placed their stamp on the process of foreign and domestic policy. For the most part, his prose is clear and there is a logical flow to his argument and narrative – though, at times, the author can get bogged down in seemingly extraneous explanations and descriptions (all interesting, but it’s not always clear why they’re relevant to his argument – specifically in the chapter on Benjamin Franklin). Sometimes this can really destroy the flow of the book, but for the main the pages tick by at a decent rate. Due to the continuing-narrative nature of the book, however, as you progress through the chapters, it will become clear how each of these men influenced, laid the groundwork for, or altered the future development of the ideas of ‘empire’ and ‘liberty’.

Moving away from the content and analysis, I must say I was disappointed at the number of typos and grammatical errors in the book. For the main, they were minor typos, doubled words or malapropisms, but there were the occasional errors which were more than mere typing slips (most noticeably, in John Quincy Adams’s chapter, we are told that John Adams married Abigail during the Civil War, in 1864, rather than 1764. Thirty-eight years after his death…). A pity, given the quality of Immerman’s argument and analysis.

Overall, Immerman has written one of the best descriptions and analyses of ‘American empire’ – its meaning, evolution, and key figures that have impacted the idea. Empire for Liberty is essential reading for students and enthusiasts of American history and the United States’ place in and approach to the world, historically and contemporarily.

Further Reading: William Appleby Williams, Empire as a Way of Life (2007); Niall Ferguson, Colossus (2005); David Reynolds, America: Empire of Liberty (2009); Andrew Bacevich, Washington Rules (2010); Stephen Ambrose & Douglas Brinkley, The Rise To Globalism (1998)

Sunday, 1 August 2010

“The Imperial Cruise”, by James Bradley (Little, Brown)

Bradley-TheImperialCruiseA Secret History of Empire and War

In the summer of 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt dispatched the largest diplomatic mission in American history. Led by Secretary of War William Taft, the group travelled thousands of miles across the Pacific, docking in Hawaii, the Philippines, China and Korea. Along for the ride was Teddy’s gun-toting daughter Alice, a media darling known for her wild behaviour and an effective distraction for the travelling reporters.

During the trip Taft, under orders from TR, would quietly forge a series of (wholly unconstitutional) agreements that divided up Asia and laid the groundwork for America’s Pacific engagement. At the time, Roosevelt was bully-confident about America’s future on the continent, but these secret pacts lit the fuse that would, decades later, result in a number of devastating wars: World War II, the Korean War, and the communist revolution in China.

The full details and implications of TR’s pacts remained largely unknown until his death, and then were effectively erased from textbooks. A century later, James Bradley retraces that epic voyage and discovers the remarkable truth about America’s vast imperial past – and its world-shaking consequences. Full of fascinating characters and brilliantly told, The Imperial Cruise will forever reshape the way we understand U.S. history.

Before I get stuck into this review, I should just make something clear: the book I read before this, Evan Thomas’s The War Lovers, is one of my favourite history books. Ever. In terms of subject matter, there’s a lot of overlap between Thomas’s book and The Imperial Cruise. I just wanted to mention this, because it probably did affect my impression of Bradley’s book, especially given the different approaches and tones in evidence.

Teddy Roosevelt was enthusiastic about US expansion into Asia, declaring presciently:

“Our future history will be more determined by our position on the Pacific facing China than by our position on the Atlantic facing Europe.”

The idea of reading a book about this little-known cruise was of great interest to me – as Bradley mentions in The Imperial Cruise (and in the synopsis, above), the details of this cruise were not fully released until after Teddy’s death – and, before this book was released, I’d not read anything about it. Therefore, I was surprised and disappointed when I discovered that not much of this book was actually, specifically, about the cruise… Rather, he spends far too long delving into the history of US intervention in the Philippines, Cuba, Hawaii, China, and Japan, that in some ways he ruins his own argument, and ignores the ostensible topic of the book.

First, I’ll deal with Bradley’s (limited) account of the 1905 cruise. It seems to have been the largest junket in American history, hugely expensive and publicised in all the major news outlets. Bradley’s portrayal of the events and the people who went on the trip are interesting and engaging – particularly when discussing Alice Roosevelt, who comes across as a fascinating celebrity of the age, and adds a welcome dose of colourful antics into the narrative. Unfortunately, Bradley’s narrative jumps back and forth in time almost constantly, rarely remaining in the early 1900s for long, and certainly not focussing on the Cruise itself (save for an early passage near the beginning, when we are introduced to Alice Roosevelt – a very good section, indeed). This was the most annoying thing about the book – the ostensible subject of the book appeared to receive only cursory coverage and examination.

Bradley makes many bold statements throughout the course of The Imperial Cruise. These sweeping statements do not always present the full picture, which diminishes the impact of the book immensely, and frequently place the most negative spin on every event. Most notably, it is very clear that Bradley is in no way a fan of Theodore Roosevelt – as is his right, of course. But, as the author is claiming to produce a history book, he should have done better at providing a more rounded picture – if for no other reason than explaining that TR’s biases were not formed in a vacuum. Indeed, Bradley even acknowledges that the racial theories that informed TR shaped “the intellectual formation of virtually every American of the period”. While TR’s personal reasons for wanting an American Empire were shared by many, they were equally quite different from others in high-placed governmental posts at the time (including President McKinley, Henry Cabot Lodge, and other Brahmins of the US social and political strata – all of which are expertly detailed in The War Lovers…).

An example of one of Bradley’s sweeping statements:

“America would be the first country to recognise Japanese control over Korea, and when Emperor Gojong’s emissaries pleaded with the president to stop the Japanese, Teddy coldly informed the stunned Koreans that, as they were now part of Japan, they’d have to route their appeals through Tokyo. With this betrayal, Roosevelt had greenlighted Japanese imperialism on the Asian continent.”

A reading of Asian history, however, would have informed the writer that Asia had long been plagued by rivalries and struggles between Japan and Korea (not unlike the struggles and wars between France and England, for example). Today we still see conflicting beliefs over which country ‘owns’ which bit of Asia – in particular, island chains in the South China Sea. To bestow the blame for this on TR and his policies alone is a severely restricted impression of events. In Bradley’s words, however, “at the behest of London and Washington, the Japanese military would expand into Korea and China to civilize Asia. Later generations would call it World War II.” It should be noted, however, that at the time the United States was not a major player on the world stage – it was getting there, of course, but in Asia the US was still very much the younger-cousin to Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands [see Warren I. Cohen’s America’s Response to China, pp.29-88, for the best, most accessible account of this time].

I am not attempting to dismiss TR’s racist views – they are undeniable, and clearly evidenced and detailed in innumerable biographies and accounts of the president’s life. But the problem, here, is the language Bradley uses, and his penchant for ignoring context and connecting historical dots that aren’t always as straight-forward as he would like us to believe. Here’s an example from early on in the book, when referring to TR’s famous “speak softly and carry a big stick” comment, the author writes:

“behind [TR’s] Asian whispers that critical summer of 1905 was a very big stick – the bruises from which would catalyze World War II in the Pacific, the Chinese Communist Revolution, the Korean War, and an array of tensions that inform our lives today.”

TR caused the Chinese Communist Revolution? The Communist Revolution in China was the result of many complex and far-reaching social, economic, and international factors, and to say TR’s policies were the ones to lay down the groundwork is extremely bold, and dismissive of extremely powerful internal socio-economic ‘causes’ of the revolution. If America can be described as a cause, then it is as part of the wider foreign presence in China, which in turn is but one cause of many.

The Cruise’s stop in Japan is a key focal point for Bradley – understandable given his previous published work: Flags of Our Fathers and Flyboys. Here is where Bradley comes into more problems. The author’s main argument, that the US’s acceptance (even encouragement, under Theodore Roosevelt) of Japanese control of Korea led to the Second World War, is a difficult case to make. Korea was a settled colony of Japan’s for 30yrs, and in the 1940s, Japan’s imperialism in Asia was a considerable issue for Washington. Here, too, one must bring up Teddy’s racism – it’s not dissimilar to Japanese racism of the time. While it is true that TR believed in an Anglo-Saxon duty to spread ‘civilisation’ to the ‘barbarians’ in the East, this pales in comparison to the low regard the Japanese held for other Asians – particularly the Chinese and Koreans – which goes some way to explaining the Japanese treatment of their fellow Asians during the years leading up to and including the Second World War (the Rape of Nanking being the most infamous and abhorrent moment in Japanese history); the racial biases of Asian nations form a large part of any study of Asia in this era, so I found it very surprising that Bradley did not feature it more as another possible explanation of Japan’s Asian imperialism.

One must add to this the manner in which the biases and American exuberance of the time are presented in The Imperial Cruise. There seems to be little attempt to provide balance or historical context. Again, I’m not attempting to dismiss the racism – it is not unique to America – but Bradley uses an incredible number of loaded terms (“Christian Aryans” and “American Aryans”) and photos to paint an extremely negative picture of America at the turn of the 19th Century, which eventually becomes boring and annoying.

The United States is not, and has never really been, the ‘shining beacon on the hill’ that so many politicians have claimed – there are dark periods throughout American history, and US involvement in Asia at this time is no exception. But it was a lot more complicated and nuanced than Bradley suggests. The author is right to point out that “Americans so embraced the benevolent intentions myth” that was peddled at the time through the media and also by politicians, and that Americans “could not accept the idea that their humanitarian military was capable of atrocities” – it’s clear Bradley is making allusions and connections between then and the present.

Not wanting to end on a negative note, I should mention that Bradley’s writing and prose are excellent. He has a keen eye for narrative pacing, and the book rattles along at a fair clip. But, the overall tone and underlying biases that run through the book are detrimental. Unlike Evan Thomas, Bradley has yet to master the true historian’s gift for balanced and fair reporting (unless he’s a Fox News viewer, in which case he’s spot on…). One can, however, acquire value from The Imperial Cruise: the negative tone makes a change from the usual positive or ‘understanding’ accounts of TR’s politics and prejudices – any scholar should welcome alternative viewpoints to help inform their own opinions and understandings of any time. Bradley has done an excellent job of sourcing his material – the book is littered with quotations, images, and so forth that help make his case persuasive.

This book had such potential, but unfortunately Bradley has allowed his distaste for Roosevelt to colour his writing and also limit his scholarship, failing to include an analysis of relations between the Asian powers of the time (particularly China, Korea, Russia), which would not only have benefitted the work as a whole – and therefore the reader – but also perhaps helped to calm some of the author’s anger at his subject, and allow for the inclusion of nuance in his authorial repertoire.

A disappointing book, but not one totally without value.