Book Review: Cruise Control

The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War by James Bradley. little, Brown & Co. Available through Amazon, US$19.79

James Bradley, the best-selling author and self-proclaimed "America's Pacific Historian" has until now limited himself to relatively small canvases. He got his start as a writer relatively late in life, inspired by the fact that his father was one of the Americans who raised the flag over Mt Suribachi during the horrendously bloody battle for Iwo Jima in early 1945.

The photograph of the flag-raising by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal electrified a war-weary America, boosted sales of bonds, and went on to become probably the most reproduced photographic image of all times. Bradley's book Flags of Our Father, recounting the flag-raising and subsequent lives of the Marines and one navy corpsman, was a big success and was made into a movie directed by Clint Eastwood.

Bradley had a co-author for Flags of Our Fathers, but its success encouraged him to write his next book, Flyboys by himself. This too was a relatively small canvas. He moved his attention a hundred or so kilometers north to the small island called Chichi Jima. The Japanese had a radio relay station on this island, critical to communicate with its far flung though receding Southeast Asian empire.

Chichi Jima was considered impregnable, so it was not invaded. But the radio relay station was too important to ignore. American navy fliers flew dozens of missions to try and bomb the station out of commission, One has new respect for these flyboys, including future president George H.W. Bush, who, if shot down, couldn't look to a relative comfort of a German stalag but could end up as part of the island commandant's soup.

In his latest book, Imperial Cruise, it is obvious that Bradley is seeking to operate on a much broader level than his two previous and more focused books. Compellingly readable, Imperial Cruise will probably sell well, but the critical success that Bradley apparently craves for this book seems to allude him, even if the New York Times did call it "incendiary" in its review last November.

The theme of Imperial Cruise is that the seeds of World War II in the Pacific were planted in a particular mission that President Theodore Roosevelt initiated in 1905. He dispatched his Secretary of War (and future successor) William Howard Taft, a passel of Congressmen and his eldest daughter Alice on a voyage – the Imperial Cruise – through East Asia.

The ship and its illustrious party made stops in Hawaii, Korea, China and the Philippines, allowing Bradley to expand upon such fascinating issues as the skullduggery behind the annexation of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the brutality of the America's suppression of the Philippine War of Independence (known in America as the "Philippine Insurgency.")

But it is on Taft's visit to Japan that his book turns. In 1905, flush from its victory over Russia, Japan had virtually taken over Korea. In Tokyo Taft met with Japan's prime minister and passed on Roosevelt's secret terms. They were that Washington would acquiesce in Japan's annexation of Korea so long as Tokyo pledged no designs on the Philippines.

All of this is fascinating but it is hard to connect the action directly to the outbreak of the Pacific War. I'm not aware that the status of Korea, a settled colony of Japan for 30 years, was a casus belli in 1941. All that can be said for certain is that at one time Washington applauded and encouraged Japan's expansion into Asia, which would later become such a contentious issue between Japan and America.

Theodore Roosevelt died in 1919, long before the Mukden Incident of 1931 led to Japan's invasion of China. One has to wonder what Roosevelt would have made of this invasion and occupation or whether China's dogged resistance might have touched his martial feelings and raised his low opinion of the Chinese people.

The author has been accused of hating Roosevelt, but this is unfair to Bradley. He doesn't pretend that Imperial Cruise represents any kind of comprehensive evaluation of Roosevelt's seven years in office. It focuses only on one aspect of his foreign policy at one point of time.

However, it can be said that Bradley does hate Roosevelt's racial prejudices. There is nothing wrong with that, but Bradley goes further to construct and project on Roosevelt a rather elaborate racial theory to the effect that only direct descendants of the "Aryan" races, meaning for the most part northern Europeans, were capable of self government.

In this case, Bradley goes over the top. White Americans (and Europeans for that matter) living 100 years ago did not need an elaborate racial theory to look down on people of color, not to mention the Irish, Catholics, etc. After a while, Bradley's constant references to "American Aryans", "Pacific Negros" (Filipinos) and "White Christians" become annoying.

One must hasten to add that these are not Bradley's terms; they are projections that he makes on the minds and thoughts his fellow countrymen of at the turn of the 20th century. Roosevelt exempted the Japanese, whom he admired for their civilization and martial ability and whom he termed "Honorary Aryans."

It would be interesting to know what Roosevelt would have made of the Immigration Act of 1924 – the so called "Japanese Exclusion act" which prohibited Japanese immigration in the U.S. and was another marker on the road to war. Evidently his fellow countrymen of that time didn't all look on Japanese as "honorary Aryans".

It is clear that Bradley is disappointed that his book hasn't garnered the critical attention among historians as he would like. No doubt, there is a lot of academic snobbery involved here. As far as I know, Bradley has no doctorate or other professional credentials. Theodore Roosevelt is a popular subject for historians who tend to ignore his racial feelings as simply being part of the temper of the times. Bradley sees them as fundamental to Roosevelt's foreign policy.

None of this detracts in any way from the pleasure that the general reader gets from reading Imperial Cruise not to mention Bradley's earlier two books. He has done a tremendous amount of research which illuminates one aspect of American history, and more the point, one aspect of Roosevelt that does not get enough attention.

One more comment about Theodore Roosevelt. As a youth he traveled extensively in Europe, learned to speak German and visited the Near East. Later he hunted game in Africa and explored remote parts of South America. But he never set foot in Asia.

Book Review: Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War

By James Bradley. Little, Brown & Co. Hardcover, 387 pp. Available through Amazon, US$19.79