I finished James Bradley’s The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War a few days ago and I have been thinking about the book ever since. He writes about an ugly period of our country’s foreign policy – when the United States joined the ranks of the colonial powers by its acquisition of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Cuba (Cuba for a brief period). Our leaders at the time cloaked our colonization in terms of helping the natives to become civilized and then giving them back their sovereignty once they were civilized.
The book centers around the 1905 cruise led by Secretary of War William Howard Taft that visited the Phillipines, Japan, China, and Korea and that had a secret agenda – Taft was ordered by President Theodore Roosevelt to make an unofficial treaty with Japan that encouraged the Japanese to adopt their own “Monroe Doctrine” for Asia. Bradley claims that this secret treaty caused the Japanese to be more aggressive in their foreign affairs and eventually led to war with the United States (Bradley never explains how this treaty led to the events of World War II in the Pacific – there were too many other events that occurred between the signing and the beginning of World War II).
I do think that Bradley is dead-on with his criticism of Taft – he knew practically nothing of the countries he was visiting, but he was our lead diplomat in the tour. In trying to project a strong American image, Taft came across at times as clueless. Bradley states that Taft was sent because he was a front man and “yes” man for Roosevelt (apparently Roosevelt was the de facto Secretary of State and Secretary of War).
I thought the book was going to be about the cruise and the secret mission, but that was just a small part of the book. Bradley goes off on wide tagents – such as brief histories of colonial Phillipines and the opening of Japan to Westerners. Many of these side trips are not necessary and take away from the focus of the book.
Bradley hammers away at Roosevelt’s racist beliefs – Roosevelt called the Filipino people Pacific blacks (except using the N word). Bradley points out that most American leaders held the same view – Bradley calls those who held the view that white people were superior to the other races and that it was the “white man’s burden” to civilize the other races, Aryans. Although the views of Roosevelt and others is shameful in our eyes, we must keep in mind that this was a very different time and most white Americans held this view (Roosevelt was not much different from the majority of the people he represented). It is too easy to project our modern views and judgments on those people in the past.
I also take issue with Bradley’s disrespectful language – he calls Roosevelt “Teddy” throughout the book. Although he disagrees with Roosevelt and his policies, that is not an excuse for the disrespectful language – a lesson many of today’s politicians need to learn as well. This disrespect causes one to question Bradley’s subjectivity. I also take issue with his liberal use of “white Christian” whenever discussing the racial prejudices and stereotypes of whites in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Just because some Christian missionaries and others who professed to be Christians held racist views does not mean that all white Christians did.
In the end, I did not learn much about what occurred on the cruise other than a few snippets of information. I did learn that Roosevelt was not a perfect person, but who is?