Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Imperial Cruise (2009)

     There is a certain level of freedom one has in deciding how seriously to take a non-historian who takes on the task of writing a (small h) history book.  Author James Bradley has mined his father's WWII experience in the Pacific – Navy corpsman John Bradley was one of the men to raise the iconic American flag on Iwo Jima – and has seen fit to keep his area of interest tied to that war and what may have motivated it.  It is with a vague awareness of this that I went into The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War (2009).
     Bradley spends very little of this book actually focused on the titular cruise, a voyage that sent William Howard Taft – who Bradley consistently refers to as Big Bill in an effort to diminish him as an important figure in his own right – to Japan and China in 1905.  Instead, Bradley does a fair job of building a narrative that traces the views of racial superiority that allowed the white man to feel justified in ethnically cleansing North America to one that manufactured conflict in Asia in the decades after Roosevelt's presidency.  He intermixes this with near constant assaults on the legitimacy of Teddy Roosevelt as a public figure – this bears further examination in more serious works – and how he cultivated his image at each level of his public life.  Less effective is the inclusion of Teddy's daughter, (Princess) Alice, largely made of anecdotes that serve to make out the President as a horrible absent father and heartless manipulator.
Roosevelt's Iconic Rough Rider Image, photographed in a photo studio in New York, NY with his Brook's Brothers tailor on hand to ensure the best fit for the photo.
     I didn't know much of America's sordid history with the Philippines, and I feel largely the same way after finishing the book.  What is clear is that the U.S. was not a good steward of the island nation, but Bradley is so simplistic in his understanding of the Spanish-American War – or at least his presentation of said understanding – that it is hard to take his conclusions are sound.  Accepting that, Bradley does an excellent job of tying in the atrocities inflicted on all non-Anglo (Teutonic) people in the name of civilization in the drive westward and how the acceptance of it allowed for similar tactics to be used as the U.S. expanded into the Pacific.  It also has some very pertinent parallels to where we, as a nation, find ourselves in the present day.
    Still, for all the good research Bradley did, and for detailing Teddy's desire to at all time present himself as manly, he is too simplistic in his premises and conclusions.  Bradley paints Japan as a nation of peace transformed into an empire aping U.S. western expansion at the time of Perry's arrival – a premise that is unsupported by the facts – and removes any culpability for their own atrocities (to Bradley, these too weight on Roosevelt).  Bradley is too eager to have someone to blame for his father having to fight in the Pacific and it shows.
     For what it is, an easy read and a biased account of American foreign policy in the Pacific, it is fine.  As an opus on the long standing history of racism – especially true institutionalized racism – it is better, until Bradley spends a chapter waxing poetic on the racial and cultural superiority of the Chinese (and how they succeeded where the white man would often fail).  I would recommend it as a "history", but I would caution the reader to approach it with a critical eye and with the full knowledge that Bradley is much more interested in building his narrative than he is in an objective (or as objective as one can be) examination of the facts and building a conclusion after said review.

1 comment:

  1. I think this is a good door opener for a lover of history to get a real idea of how America's foreign policy was started and how the same tactics are used even today. America and especially the Republican Party as we know it,have really made it clear that we have learned nothing.