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.


  1. Well done. Some reviewers were so incensed by Bradley's heavy-handed agenda that their own language became intemperate.

  2. I agree for the most part. While thankful for Bradley's shedding light on American war crimes in the Philipines (which, in today's climate would bring on trials for genocide and torture), he reported nothing about Filipino war crimes.

    Yes, the book is heavy handed and should be read after one reads the glowing account of TR in "Theodore Rex."

  3. I did read this book at times it is fascinating & at times boring as hell. TR was a racist & according to Bradley he (TR) did lay the groundwork for WW2 by making the Japs "honorary wasps", TR did crap on Korea and considering the current situation today, the book does offer valuable insight. You won't read it in two days, but it is nice with a week on the beach...