The Third International after Lenin

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Queasy Side of Theodore Roosevelt’s Diplomatic Voyage


A Secret History of Empire and War
By James Bradley
Illustrated. 387 pages. Little, Brown & Company. $29.99.

James Bradley’s incendiary new book about Theodore Roosevelt is
not really packed with secrets. Much of the material it discusses
has long been hidden in plain sight. But Roosevelt biographers
often subscribe to certain orthodoxies, and one of them is this:
When Roosevelt made noxiously racist and ethnocentric remarks
about Anglo-Saxon greatness, so what? He was just voicing the
tenets of his time.

“Nationalistic boasting was in fashion,” shrugs Douglas Brinkley’s
nearly 1,000-page “Wilderness Warrior,” published this year.

Mr. Bradley, the author of “Flags of Our Fathers,” does not simply
cite Roosevelt’s egregious talk. He presents this much-ignored
aspect of Roosevelt’s thinking with sharp specificity (“I am so
angry with that infernal little Cuban republic that I would like
to wipe its people off the face of the earth,” Roosevelt wrote in
1906) and then goes on to make a much more damaging point, angrily
and persuasively connecting Roosevelt’s race-based foreign policy
miscalculations in Asia. His thesis in “The Imperial Cruise” is
startling enough to reshape conventional wisdom about Roosevelt’s

“Here was the match that lit the fuse, and yet for decades we paid
attention only to the dynamite,” Mr. Bradley writes. The flame to
which he refers is Roosevelt’s secret diplomacy with Japan and his
encouragement of Japanese imperialism. (“I should like to see
Japan have Korea,” he once declared.) In a far-reaching book that
also addresses Roosevelt’s misconceptions about Korea, Hawaii,
China and the Philippines, Mr. Bradley places critical emphasis on
the dangerous American-Japanese relationship that, he says,
Roosevelt helped create.

“Knowing a lot about race theory but less about international
diplomacy and almost nothing about Asia,” he writes, “Roosevelt in
1905 careened U.S.-Japanese relations on the dark side road
leading to 1941.”

This assertion is certainly debatable. And neither “The Imperial
Cruise” nor Mr. Bradley, whose earlier “Flyboys” offered a
gruesome account of the deaths of American World War II pilots on
the Japanese-held island of Chichi Jima, is beyond reproach. Mr.
Bradley favors broad strokes and may at times be overly eager to
connect historical dots, but he also produces graphic, shocking
evidence of the attitudes that his book describes.

If racism is nothing new, Mr. Bradley’s readers may still be
surprised at the xenophobic ugliness of the photos, letters,
cartoons, lyrics and political speeches cited here. And if, for
instance, American use of waterboarding against
turn-of-the-century Filipino prisoners is not unknown (it was the
subject of a New Yorker article last year), neither is it common
knowledge. Nor, perhaps, are the lyrics to “The Water Cure,” a
vintage United States Army marching song: “Shove in the nozzle
deep and let him taste of liberty/Shouting the battle cry of
freedom.” The toughest parts of this book re-reveal things we
should already know.

Mr. Bradley builds “The Imperial Cruise” around the public
relations event that its title describes: a 1905 voyage of the
liner Manchuria during which the first daughter, Alice Roosevelt,
and the future President William Howard Taft, then Roosevelt’s
secretary of war, docked in the countries that this book describes.

Mixing very familiar elements (i.e., any of Alice Roosevelt’s
antics) with other, more startling material, Mr. Bradley first
cites some of the academic and philosophical influences on the
Harvard-educated Roosevelt’s early thinking. His were common ideas
for his time.

“One after another, White Christian males in America’s finest
universities ‘discovered’ that the Aryan was God’s highest
creation, that the Negro was designed for servitude and that the
Indian was doomed to extinction,” Mr. Bradley writes.

Mr. Bradley describes with particular venom the misinformation
given to the American public about the cost, duration and
intensity of the Philippine struggle, which began when the
Filipino revolutionary leader Emilio Aguinaldo allowed American
soldiers ashore to fight the Spanish-American War and made the
terrible mistake of presuming that the United States Constitution
made no provision for taking colonies.

Quoting Gen. Arthur MacArthur, he pointedly describes a too
familiar situation. “General MacArthur described a depressing
quagmire where the U.S. Army controlled only 117 miles out of a
total of 116,000 square miles, a hostile country where Americans
could not venture out alone and a shell-shocked populace whose
hatred for their oppressors grew each day,” he writes. “The
Imperial Cruise” is all too persuasive in its visions of history
repeating itself.

Another chapter describes the means by which the idea of exporting
suffrage and democracy to primitive societies needed to be
adjusted for Hawaii, with its existing native monarch and vastly
outnumbered white population. Here and in its discussion of China,
the book particularly emphasizes the way American assumptions of
white superiority made the patriotism of other populations hard to
understand. Roosevelt’s “inability to recognize third-world
nationalism” is cited again and again, not simply as a prejudice
but as an obstacle to effective policy.

Even worse, according to Mr. Bradley, was Roosevelt’s frequent
presumption that he did understand other cultures. This book
argues that Roosevelt’s designation of the Japanese as born
leaders and veritable Americans, worthy of imposing their own
Monroe Doctrine on weaker nations like Korea, was a cataclysmic

In 1905 his miscalculations had expanded to include Russia too.
Even while brokering the Portsmouth Treaty that ended the
Russo-Japanese War and won him the Nobel Peace Prize, “Roosevelt
imagined the Japanese as eternal opponents of the Slav, not
entertaining the possibility that Russia and Japan would kiss and
make up after the war,” Mr. Bradley writes crudely. “And since
Roosevelt kept his analysis secret from everyone except his
Japanese allies and yes-men like Taft, there was no one to grab
the reins before Roosevelt drove America’s future in Asia into a

At times like this, Mr. Bradley risks sounding dangerously
hot-headed. But if he brings a reckless passion to “The Imperial
Cruise,” there is at least one extenuating fact behind his
thinking. In “Flags of Our Fathers” he wrote about how his father
helped plant the American flag on the island of Iwo Jima during
World War II. In “The Imperial Cruise” he asks why American
servicemen like his father had to be fighting in the Pacific at all.

NY Times, November 19, 2009 Books of The Times

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