Friday, January 21, 2011

Author James Bradley on a Sea Cruise

The Imperial Cruise, A Secret History of Empire and War, James Bradley, Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company, © 2009 James Bradley ISBN: 978-0-316-01400-7

That handful of people who read my book reviews may have noticed that I frequently make distinctions regarding non-fiction works that are something other than histories, and memoirs that are not autobiographies. James Bradley’s latest book again raises the need to make such a distinction as he presents the reader with a well-researched account of a little known historical episode – the 1905 voyage of the largest official U.S. delegation ever sent abroad (at least before the advent of modern summitry and bilateral joint commissions!).

From July to September 1905, then-Secretary of War William Howard Taft led seven (of 90) senators and twenty-three (of 386) congressman (plus presidential wild child Alice Roosevelt) on a trans-Pacific tour, stopping in the new U.S. territories of Hawaii and the Philippines, in addition to Japan, Korea, China, and Hong Kong. The author’s principal purpose is to explore how President Roosevelt’s actions with regard to the Pacific Ocean and the Far Eastern countries set into motion events that would led to the climactic battle of Iwo Jima between the forces of the United States and Imperial Japan (the subject of the author’s first book, Flags of Our Fathers).

However, this is not a history, having more the tone of an expose, especially given the author’s criticism of a number of TR’s biographers. It could be argued, in fact, that in this book Bradley was channeling a 19th Century muck-racking journalist, a type with whom the principal subject of his book, Theodore Roosevelt, would have been very familiar. The author’s TR only superficially resembles that figure normally depicted and recognizable in other histories and biographies as well as, for example, in films such as “The Wind and the Lion” and “Newsies”, or even as parodied in the “Night at the Museum” films or the play/film “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

This is evidently the very point that Bradley wants to make, Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t necessarily so. Much of what Bradley presents here with regard to Roosevelt’s ties to Japan and his racial attitudes is not new, at least not to academic historians nor even to a number of his contemporary critics, but much of it is likely to surprise the general reader. Theodore Roosevelt was very much a product of his times and even more so of his family and upbringing, as the author makes amply clear in his early chapters. The first part of the book also makes evident the degree to which Roosevelt could claim to be a self-made man in both person and reputation. Bradley’s Teddy comes across as every bit as image conscious as his younger cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though the older Roosevelt did not face the technological challenges of radio and film that confronted FDR.

The fact that Roosevelt shared the racial attitudes of many of his peers is not news, especially to the historians who have explored his punitive decisions against Black soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Regiment after they clashed in a racially charged atmosphere with the white sheriff and other residents of Brownsville, Texas in the summer of 1906. [I can only conclude that the author deliberately skipped over Taft’s infamous turn of phrase when as Governor of the Philippines he referred to “our little brown brothers” in assuring then President McKinley that they would not be ready for self-government in 150 years.] Nor is it likely to surprise the more attentive readers to find that the United States government in this period (and not uniquely in its history) often said one thing and then did something other than what it had previously committed itself to do. Today one can read these attitudes expressed in Theodore Roosevelt’s own words by looking up his works accessible via Google Books. (Those interested in TR’s Japanese friend, Baron Kentaro Kaneko, will also find many of whose writings available for reading today via Google Books, among other resources.)

Unfortunately, Bradley keeps stumbling over bad history. It may be that in his apparent determination to deliver a black and white case he has skipped over the reality that most historically controversial episodes come in shades of grey rather than stark black and white, or in the recent catchphrase, “it’s complicated.” In one example he states that President Polk decided that the Rio Grande marked the border between Mexico and Texas, as the latter became the newest state in the United States, instead of “the internationally recognized border between Mexico and the United States…the Nueces River.”

The reality is more complicated. After his defeat at San Jacinto by Sam Houston’s army, Mexico’s dictator General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna signed the Treaty of Velasco which recognized the independence of Texas and placed the border between Mexico and the new Republic of Texas on the Rio Grande River. However, a new government in Mexico rejected this treaty because it was signed while Santa Anna was being held captive and because he had been deposed while absent from Mexico City pursuing his war in Texas. With the border thus in dispute in the absence of any agreement between Mexico City and what it considered a rebellious province, the issue is further complicated by the fact that Britain, France, and the United States recognized the newly independent Republic of Texas, such action at the very least implying recognition of the claimed border along the Rio Grande River. Most historians today would at the very least the situation with the words “it’s complicated.”

In a second example, Bradley recounts how the United States came to liberate the Philippines only to keep it as a U.S. governed territory in the far Pacific Ocean. He summarizes the Battle of Manila Bay as a turkey shoot between the modern steel ships of Admiral Dewey’s U.S. Asiatic squadron and “Spain’s creaky, wooden ships conveniently tied up in a row” to be smashed “into kindling.” Again, the reality is “complicated” since while the U.S. force was clearly superior, five of the six Spanish ships lost were in fact steel hulled vessels. Furthermore, the two protected (armored) cruisers Isla de Cuba and Isla de Luzon were scuttled by the Spanish as it became clear that there was no escaping defeat at the hands of a larger and more capable American force.

Despite some passing moments of historical weakness, James Bradley has presented us with an interesting and challenging rebuff of some American historical myths, and may spark some profitable debate among historians as well as his general readership. His account of how during this period the U.S. and the American people related to Chinese and Japanese immigrants to the United States, as well as how the governments of the US, UK, Spain, France, Germany, Russia, China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Cuba, among others, interacted with each other offers some useful insights for today as Americans adapt themselves to the continuing rise of China in a rapidly changing Far East and Pacific community.