Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War

First things first: I must confess that I opened this book expecting it to detail Commodore Perry's 1853 voyage to Japan and the subsequent opening of that country. I was disabused of this notion quickly, in the second paragraph to be precise; The Imperial Cruise refers to yet another voyage to Japan - as well as elsewhere in the Pacific - this one in 1905 and headlined by then-Secretary Taft and President Teddy Roosevelt's oldest daughter, Alice. It is in the context of this cruise that Bradley revisits American imperialism of a century ago, giving us a blow-by-blow account of the wrongs committed against each of the nation's the cruise visited, and some that it did not.

As James Bradley notes in the opening lines of the book, he researched and wrote this book in an attempt to understand the root of World War II in the Pacific. Like Flyboys, this book is beautifully written, complex, and forces the reader to think deeply about history and the generations-long ramifications of seemingly small words or actions. The protagonist of Imperial Cruise is Teddy Roosevelt, whom history generally teaches was one of this nation's greatest presidents - he saved the cute little "teddy" thus giving all stuffed bears his name, he is the father of our national parks, he charged gallantly up San Juan Hill in his days as a rough rider - why he even has his face carved on Mount Rushmore alongside Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. Bradley's take on Roosevelt is a bit different: Bradley's Roosevelt is imperialistic, power hungry, manipulative, and believes unabashedly in the absolute superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race over all others.

Yet, this book is not merely a portrait of President Roosevelt. It is an examination of an America that believed wholeheartedly in manifest destiny and Monroe Doctrine, marauding in Cuba and Puerto Rico, stealing away the Kingdom of Hawaii, and massacring some hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in a matter of a few short years (as Bradley notes, few remember that more Filipinos died on the first day of battling American forces than Americans died on D-Day). It was the need to "civilize" the Philippines, in fact, that gave rise to such tactics as waterboarding, repeated statements at home that "the war is already over" or "the thing is already over" and "the insurrection ended some months ago." Yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Bradley's criticisms of Roosevelt are harsh as he builds the case that Roosevelt almost singlehandedly laid the groundwork for World War II by green-lighting Japanese expansion elsewhere in Asia (Teddy "should like to see Japan have Korea," but not the Philippines, please) while also managing the neat trick of building resentment against the United States. Bradley is fair, however, is his judgment that Roosevelt, while perhaps more imperialistic than other politicians of his day, was nevertheless a product of his time and class. He certainly was not alone in seeking to exploit Asian nations for his own gain; the British Empire and its young queen so depended on the profits from the illegal sales of opium in China that Bradley notes (rather smugly, I might add) that "Queen Victoria stands as history's largest drug dealer."

Four stars.


  1. And yet another book goes on my 500-book to-read-someday list. Flyboys was definitely an interesting (if sobering) read - I'd definitely like to read more from Bradley.

  2. Yes, Bradley is great. This one is a fair bit different than Flyboys because it lacks the interviews from those who were there that help make Flyboys so compelling, but it's still a fantastic book. It also demonstrates the weaknesses of this country's education system very pointedly - neither Ben nor I remember learning about our war on/in/with the Philippines, including in college...