THE IMPERIAL CRUISE: A SECRET HISTORY OF EMPIRE AND WAR
By James Bradley
Little, Brown, $29.99, 387 pages, illustrated
REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN
Ostensibly an account of a grand diplomatic mission headed by Secretary of War (and future president) William Howard Taft, who was dispatched to Asia in 1905 by President Roosevelt, this book is actually a hatchet job on Taft and, worse, on the United States and its development as a global power.
The ominous-sounding subtitle, “A Secret History of Empire and War,” is a dead giveaway. There’s that buzzword “empire” again, reviled by so many writers today, and then there’s “secret,” raising all sorts of sinister specters. In fact, there aren’t many secrets revealed in this tendentious book: Most of what’s in it is an old story, long known. What makes it remarkable is the way it refracts history and the not-so-subtle personal agenda of the author.
James Bradley’s father, John, was one of the Americans who raised the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima, but for this son, there is less pride than outrage that his father should have been there in the first place. According to this book, the United States was not fighting Japan in the 1940s because it had been attacked at Pearl Harbor on that day of infamy Dec. 7, 1941, but because Theodore Roosevelt had the temerity to insert the burgeoning power of his nation into Asian affairs. Mr. Bradley is breathtakingly open in expressing this sentiment in language as loaded as it is revealing:
“Would the history of the twentieth century be different if the American Aryan had not made the Honorary Aryan his civilizing surrogate in Asia? Maybe my father didn’t have to suffer through World War II in the Pacific. Maybe the world would be more peaceful if Teddy hadn’t initiated an American foreign policy that relied primarily on a benevolent big stick.”
Where to begin parsing this amazing statement? By the time you reach this passage in the book, you already have been treated to endless disquisitions on the iniquities of the “Aryan” effect on world history, the A-word being, of course, considerably more sinister in a post-Hitler universe than when Roosevelt used it.
Americans were not the only Westerners to discern similarities to their culture in Japan. The British were way ahead of them in that - read Lord Curzon’s writings for evidence. Mr. Bradley seems to think that the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was engendered because Roosevelt cheered a similar attack by the Japanese on czarist Russia in the 1904-05 war. That is the kind of “reasoning” to be found in these pages.
“Imperial Cruise” is so rooted in a false view of the present that it judges the past by questionable standards that are fashionable today. Throughout the book, “Imperial Cruise” derides and denigrates Western values in all their manifestations. Every indigenous culture, belief or institution - no matter how degraded or rebarbative - is worthy of respect in this book’s worldview, but Western civilization is shown as bringing only discord, disease and disaster.
Christianity - the work of missionaries in particular - gets rough treatment here. Enterprise, trade and industrialization all seem sinister disturbances of paradise in these pages. There’s so much indiscriminate trashing that when the reader encounters something like Britain’s opium trade with China, which is genuinely deserving of censure, it almost gets lost in the shuffle. Even this is spoiled by pathetic attempts at guilt by association when the author drags in the fact that the Delano fortune of Franklin Roosevelt’s mother was founded on the opium trade.
Nevermind that it’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s mother and not Theodore Roosevelt’s, although the book heavy-handedly reminds us of the earlier Roosevelt’s maternal family ties to the Confederacy. Eleanor Roosevelt was the niece of Theodore Roosevelt, so the shame is all in the family, I guess. When Mr. Bradley notes the sinister fact that Yale’s Skull and Bones secret society was founded by another denizen of the Asian opium trade, you just know that resentment of the Bush presidents and the latest Asian entanglement Iraq is prominent in the refracting lens of this author.
The details of the eponymous imperial cruise make for some refreshing light entertainment amid all the portentous storm clouds. The mission included presidential daughter “Princess” Alice Roosevelt and her salacious behavior en route with her future husband, Rep. Nicholas Longworth. Somehow, it is served up as a reflection of discredit on her father and her generally unsatisfactory relationship with him. Mr. Bradley does his best to wrestle the diplomatic mission into sinister corners and to highlight any problems along the way.
This goes to ludicrous extremes at times, such as in this account of a meeting between Taft and Japanese Prime Minister Taro Katsura:
“In Tokyo, the morning after the Imperial Hotel banquet, Secretary Taft and Prime Minister Katsura met secretly in a simple, unadorned room in Shiba Palace. Besides Taft and Katsura, the only other person present was the interpreter, the foreign affairs vice minister, Shutemi Chinda. No transcript was made of the conversation and the palace has since burned down.”
Does Mr. Bradley think walls can talk, or that echoes of the conversation might have lingered in the space? If he doesn’t believe that the room itself could have revealed what went on in there, what is the significance of it’s burning? He also does not help his story by verbal infelicities and on at least two occasions that I noticed grammatical errors. There is always room for thoughtful insightful critiques of American foreign policy, but you will not find them in this unsavory stew of prejudice, resentment and good old-fashioned American isolationism, wrapped up in the repetitive underlying mantra of “Oh, if only Yankee had stayed home.”
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.