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Flawed but useful piece of "revisionist" history

  • May 5, 2011
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"Empire," Orwell reminds us in his 1942 essay on Kipling, "is primarily a money-making affair. ... The map is painted red," he notes, "chiefly so the coolie can be exploited." For "coolie" substitute "Chinese," "Hawaiian," or "Filipino," and you have a pretty fair statement of one of James Bradley's main arguments in "The Imperial Cruise" -- that it was cupidity more than anything else that led to U.S. assertion of power in the Pacific. This is an important argument -- one of several such timely bits of "revisionism" in a flawed but still very worthwhile book.

Many reviewers have criticized Bradley for factual misstatements or misinterpretations, poor citations, or simply an overly polemical tone. But I think it's important to note, too, the ire generated simply by his willingness to throw mud on icons of our civic religion like Theodore Roosevelt and the selfless benevolence of American soldiers and Marines, or even to state the self-evident fact that the U.S. became at the time covered in this book, and remains to this day, an imperial power. (Note how many reviewers flay Bradley for "giving in to political correctness," a by-now-largely-meaningless term that signifies little more than "something Sean Hannity wouldn't like.)

Despite the flaws, though, there is quite a bit of value in what I take to be Bradley's three key points.

The first of these is the fact of the commercially-driven power politics of America's Pacific expansionism -- shaped by the racial theories of the time and promoted as part of a civilizing mission ("Initiating what would become a recurring Yankee tradition," Bradley writes, "McKinley contended that the U.S. military could invade other countries when Americans decided that their people needed help. McKinley conjured up the fantasy that when a U.S. soldier pointed a gun at a foreign Other, he was there to help" [p. 79]).

The second is that U.S. encouragement of Japanese expansionism, as the Asian nation most thoroughly in line with "the principles and methods of Western civilization" (p. 217, quoting TR), led directly to World War Two. And the third is that the Theodore Roosevelt we remember and lionize today is largely a myth of TR's own creation. Though not unusual among talented politicians -- Winston Churchill created his own myth too, as John Ramsden showed in Man of the Century: Winston Churchill and His Legend Since 1945 -- seeing through the propaganda is essential for a clear understanding of the person and his impact.

Flawed as "The Imperial Cruise" may be, by reminding us of these important facts, James Bradley has written a book that deserves to be read and recognized as a useful work of "revisionist" history.

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Andrew S. Rogers ()
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Mostly, I'm a moderately prolific Amazon.com reviewer who's giving Lunch a try as another venue for my reviews.
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About this book


Theodore Roosevelt steers America onto the shoals of imperialism in this stridently disapproving study of early 20th-century U.S. policy in Asia. Bestselling author ofFlags of Our Fathers, Bradley traces a 1905 voyage to Asia by Roosevelt's emissary William Howard Taft, who negotiated a secret agreement in which America and Japan recognized each other's conquests of the Philippines and Korea. (Roosevelt's flamboyant, pistol-packing daughter Alice went along to generate publicity, and Bradley highlights her antics.) Each port of call prompts a case study of American misdeeds: the brutal counterinsurgency in the Philippines; the takeover of Hawaii by American sugar barons; Roosevelt's betrayal of promises to protect Korea, which greenlighted Japanese expansionism and thus makes him responsible for Pearl Harbor. Bradley explores the racist underpinnings of Roosevelt's policies and paradoxical embrace of the Japanese as Honorary Aryans. Bradley's critique of Rooseveltian imperialism is compelling but unbalanced. He doesn't explain how Roosevelt could have evicted the Japanese from Korea, and insinuates that the Japanese imperial project was the brainstorm of American advisers. Ironically, his view of Asian history, like Roosevelt's, denies agency to the Asians themselves. Photos, maps.One-day laydown.(Nov. 24)
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ISBN-10: 0316008958
ISBN-13: 978-0316008952
Author: James Bradley
Genre: History, Nonfiction
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
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