James Bradley's "The Imperial Cruise" is an Outrage, Pure and Simple
William N. Tilchin, an associate professor of social sciences and history at Boston University, is the author of Theodore Roosevelt and the British Empire: A Study in Presidential Statecraft (1997) and of many essays on Roosevelt's foreign policy and related topics. He also is the editor of the peer-reviewed quarterly Theodore Roosevelt Association Journal.
This review essay was originally published in the Theodore Roosevelt Association Journal, Volume XXXI, No. 4, Fall 2010, pp. 39-45. It has been provided to HNN by the Theodore Roosevelt Association (www.theodoreroosevelt.org).
An Unhinged Ideological Polemic
In The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, author James Bradley sets out to expose Theodore Roosevelt as an arrogantly self-centered, untalented, racist, enormously destructive buffoon. Utilizing historical evidence selectively and improperly as he peddles interpretations of history that are sharply in conflict with the findings of generations of credible popular and professional historians, Bradley is stunningly incorrect on each of these counts. Nevertheless, arrogant, self-centered buffoonery is indeed at the core of this book. This buffoonery does not pertain at all to the consummate diplomatist and the great and farseeing U.S. president who is the object of Bradley's ill-informed, ill-conceived, self-righteous scorn. Rather, this buffoonery is exhibited by the would-be historian who has composed this shameful travesty.
In a penetrating dual review of Bradley's book and Evan Thomas's The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898—each published by Little, Brown and Company—Jonathan S. Tobin, the executive editor of the journal Commentary, opens with these words:
"The cultural vilification of the politicians and officials who launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq has not satisfied those intellectuals and activists who view American history as a continuum of racism, imperialism, and aggression. The authors of two new books have now extended the hunt for the spiritual antecedents of the George W. Bush administration. Their prey is an unlikely villain: Theodore Roosevelt."
After methodically eviscerating Thomas's very bad book, which misrepresents TR via "a caricature of psychological motivations," Tobin tellingly declares: "Despite the many shortcomings of Thomas's The War Lovers, it is a model of scholarship when compared with the work of James Bradley. . . . The Imperial Cruise provides an example of the perils of navigating a complex historical subject armed with nothing but a narrow ideological agenda." Tobin then aptly goes on to label Bradley's book an "unhinged polemic" and a "diatribe against Theodore Roosevelt and the America that produced him." (1)
Such a book would not normally merit a feature review, or any review at all for that matter, in a serious scholarly journal (a one-sentence or one-phrase condemnation would usually be sufficient (2)). But this particular journal is a publication of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, and Bradley's reckless disparagement of TR has achieved considerable sales. An in-depth analytical assault on his misbegotten creation is therefore in order.
Start with the Facts
While this review must and will focus primarily on Bradley's stupendously faulty analysis, The Imperial Cruise is a profoundly ignorant book even on the basic level of undisputed objective facts. Pity the student who carefully reads this book in preparation for an important multiple-choice exam. For here are some of the claims such a student would encounter in this process: (1) The United States' existence as an independent nation began in 1783 (you might remember the grand bicentennial celebration you participated in on July 4, 1983)—and this is not a typing error, for the assertion occurs at least twice. (3) (2) Theodore Roosevelt deployed naval forces in 1903 "to wrest Panama away from Venezuela." (4) (3) The United States fought in World War II for "a period of fifty-six months" (the actual number is forty-four, so maybe Bradley was counting backward from one hundred). (5) (4) "Emperor Napoleon helped America in the war of separation from England" (a war that actually ended several years before the onset of the French Revolution, which preceded [and set the stage for] the rise of Napoleon). (6) (5) The Philippines gained its independence from the United States in 1962 (actually 1946). (7) (6) Benjamin Harrison was "a famous Indian slayer." (8) (Here Bradley's reproach is off by fourteen U.S. Presidents and two generations of Harrisons.) (7) On Russia's "Bloody Sunday" in January 1905, "two hundred thousand protestors [sic] assailed the Winter Palace demanding victory over Japan or an end to the war" (a massive misrepresentation of the infamous slaughter resulting from Father George Gapon's humble attempt to petition Tsar Nicholas II to aid Russia's suffering masses). (9) (8) Japan subjugated Korea from 1905 to 1950. Here the author is quite confused about when the "unnecessary" war to which he so vehemently objects (World War II) ended (or, alternatively, he believes that Japan retained control of Korea for five years after surrendering to the United States). (10) (9) Queen Victoria controlled the British government and had the power to (and did) launch wars. (11) (She was a constitutional monarch with only very limited authority.) (10) Speck von Sternburg was TR's ambassador to Russia. (12) (Yes, he was an ambassador: Germany's to the United States.) (11) Japan's ambassador to the United States was "Takahira Kogoro" (as correct as calling the first U.S. President "Washington George"). (13) (12) Along with the Western Hemisphere, the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine applied "to North Asia (Korea and Manchuria) and to enforcing the Open Door policy in China" (a novel, expanded, and fallacious interpretation of the corollary). (14) (13) The Pacific Ocean is "eight times the size of the Atlantic" (actually about 2.2 times). (15) (14) American presidents generally choose and groom their successors. (16) (The completely different historical reality is that for more than the past 170 years, Theodore Roosevelt has been the only U.S. President to anoint his successor; the numerous vice presidents who acceded to the presidency upon the death of their predecessors should not, of course, be counted as chosen successors.) (15) Contradictorily, but just as incorrectly: In 1905, "William Howard Taft had the inside track on the 1908 Republican presidential nomination, based mostly upon his reputation as a nation builder." (17) (16) The oldest son of Theodore and Edith Roosevelt was "Theodore Roosevelt III." (18) (17) TR married his second wife Edith "a year" after the passing of his first wife Alice. (19) (18) TR won his first election to the New York State Assembly in 1883 (in reality two years earlier). (20) And in addition to all his factual errors—of which the foregoing list is unfortunately but a sampling—Bradley finds many other ways to display embarrassingly sloppy work. (21)
Although its author apparently perceives himself to be a writer of literary talent, The Imperial Cruise is written in a style that might be characterized as both self-absorbed and mediocre (which means that Bradley's writing, relatively speaking, is the least incompetent aspect of the book). For instance, there are structurally unsound sentences (as on page 58 and page 311), and the author, unsatisfied with the options offered by the English language, frequently makes up words or distorts their meanings. He repeatedly misuses the verb "wester," improperly (and, again, repeatedly) uses "friction" as a verb, and makes up the verb "unmoderate." (22)
An Analytical Fiasco
Bradley's historical analysis reflects an absence of awareness (often downright cluelessness) of a magnitude rarely found even in very bad books. (23) Examples of this shortcoming are so numerous that one literally could write a 300-page book identifying and correcting them; thus, a reviewer must be content succinctly to provide a representative selection.
The pomposity and the utter absurdity of The Imperial Cruise are starkly previewed in a single sentence in the book's sixth paragraph: "This book reveals that behind [Roosevelt's] Asian whispers that critical summer of 1905 was a very big stick—the bruises from which would catalyze World War II in the Pacific, the Chinese Communist Revolution, the Korean War, and an array of tensions that inform our lives today." (24) This grandiose, ridiculous assertion is made without even the remotest understanding of Theodore Roosevelt's diplomacy or of either U.S. foreign policy or internal Japanese developments between 1905 and 1941. The central notion that TR "gave" Korea to Japan—when Japan actually had previously secured control of Korea—is preposterous and, moreover, completely fails to explore the president's main alternative to endorsing Japanese rule: TR could have gratuitously antagonized Japan over this matter, thereby endangering the U.S. position in the Philippines and, more generally, signaling the Japanese that they should view the United States as a hostile rival.
Think about this: A book attempting to explain U.S.-Japan relations during Theodore Roosevelt's second presidential term, with the word "cruise" in its title, makes not a single reference to by far the most important cruise of Roosevelt's presidency (of all of U.S. history for that matter)—even though that cruise was in large part designed to influence U.S.-Japan relations! No, the world cruise of the Great White Fleet from December 1907 to February 1909 does not make an appearance in James Bradley's book. (If he had been aware of it, he undoubtedly would have tried to use it to slam TR snidely for "grandstanding" or "bullying" or "militarism" or some such nonsense.) Likewise, there is zero familiarity either with TR's multidimensional and impressively successful management of the U.S.-Japanese immigration-racism crisis of 1906-1908 or with the Root-Takahira Agreement of November 1908, the culmination of Roosevelt's extremely well-conceived and well-executed Japan policy. The years 1906-1909—years during which TR wisely and deftly forged a mutually respectful, friendly understanding between the United States and Japan (an understanding which, had it been continued by TR's successors, might have averted Japan's eventual plunge into a campaign of unspeakably predatory and brutal aggression)—simply constitute a black hole in Bradley's harangue. Not surprisingly, then, there also is absolutely no familiarity with Charles Neu's excellent book on the subject, which concludes with these words:
Theodore Roosevelt can hardly be blamed for the ultimate failure of his policy toward Japan. By the close of his presidency it was a largely successful policy based upon political realities at home and in the Far East and upon a firm belief that friendship with Japan was essential to preserve American interests in the Pacific. . . . Roosevelt's diplomacy during the Japanese-American crisis of 1906-1909 was shrewd, skillful, and responsible. (25)
Bradley's attention is directed elsewhere—to a comparatively minor episode in the history of Roosevelt's foreign policy, to which the author attaches apocalyptic significance. Bradley's "imperial cruise" refers to the goodwill mission to East Asia, especially to Japan, led by Secretary of War William Howard Taft (constantly mocked by Bradley as "Big Bill") and the President's twenty-one-year-old daughter Alice during July-September 1905. While not inconsequential, neither was this mission of great importance (oh, and its diplomatic consequences were, by the way, beneficial). Bradley's exaggeration of the significance of this event is truly breathtaking in its scope. Meanwhile—completely in the dark about TR and Japan from 1906 to 1909 and about U.S., Japanese, and international relations history from 1909 to 1941—the author has to find a way to produce a thick pile of pages in order to pass his book off as substantial. Bradley's solution to this challenge is to go on and on about white and Christian and American racism and to tell little stories about his cruise that mostly amount to a lot of fluff. So there is plenty of gossip, largely unfavorable, about Alice. We learn at some length of the perceptions of Mrs. Campbell Dauncey, an Englishwoman residing in the Philippines whose observations mark her as anti-American. (26) And the book's final chapter is replete with post-cruise filler about Taft, Alice, and others. (27)
Theodore Roosevelt was among American history's most astute and most effective statesmen. Indeed, as this reviewer has written elsewhere, "it is difficult to escape the conclusion that in the foreign policy arena Roosevelt was probably the greatest of all U.S. presidents." (28) Yet, here too, the self-appointed expert who has authored The Imperial Cruise stands history on its head by accusing TR of "bumbling diplomacy." (29) In actuality, Roosevelt made a gallant, multifaceted, well-considered effort to promote peaceful and cooperative Japanese behavior; Bradley's contention that TR wanted Japan to build a large Asian empire by brutally seizing control of nearby and more distant territories is the exact opposite of historical reality. And ascribing responsibility to TR for Pearl Harbor is on the outer edge of the crackpot theories that readers of history occasionally encounter.
Bradley depicts Theodore Roosevelt as a thoroughgoing racist. This is another gross distortion. TR was a progressive racial thinker for his era. Yes, he believed that some peoples—particularly Americans and Britons—were ahead of others in what he called the "progress of civilization," and that the more advanced peoples should help the less advanced move forward. But he rejected skin color and ethnicity as determinants of a people's capacities. Bradley's repeated emphasis of the idea that TR believed in "Aryan" supremacy is especially insidious (as is his constant employment of the phrase "American Aryan," obviously intended to suggest that historical American racism was on a par with Nazism). Had TR lived into the 1930s, he almost certainly would have been the American counterpart of Winston Churchill in calling for active resistance to the Aryan-supremacist aggression of the Nazis—and he would have condemned unequivocally Japanese brutality in China and elsewhere.
In truth, Theodore Roosevelt was more hopeful about Japan's prospects for responsible international behavior than he was about "Aryan" Germany's or Russia's. The president's support for Japanese retention of Korea reflected the reality that Roosevelt was evaluating Japan on its achievements and not on its non-white racial make-up. Japan had become an admirable great power, and TR was treating it as one (while always keeping the navy ready just in case). (30)
At least a limited quantity of additional examples of The Imperial Cruise's superabundant analytical distortion probably should be noted. The discussion of the Russo-Japanese peace negotiations incredibly claims that an ineffectual TR duped contemporaries and historians by "pos[ing] as a diplomat" ("the warmonger masqueraded as a man of peace"), ignores most of the dramatic diplomatic interactions of August 1905 (never even mentioning Sakhalin Island), and fails utterly to grasp Japan's almost desperate need for a settlement, which required the abandonment of its demand for a Russian indemnity. (31) Bradley not only believes that Roosevelt could and should have withheld Korea from Japan but insists that November 28, 1905, the day TR purportedly gave Korea to Japan, is as significant historically in accounting for World War II as December 7, 1941. (Shame on us historians for overlooking that monumental event for so long!) And the importance of an Anglo-American special relationship (cultivated so adroitly by TR (32)) to the world of 1901-1909 and even more to the world over the century following TR's presidency evidently is far beyond the author's capacity for comprehension. (Bradley's comments on Roosevelt's policy of linking the United States informally to the Anglo-Japanese Alliance—a central purpose and a major accomplishment of the "imperial cruise"—are entirely and harshly negative. (33)) Indeed, Bradley clearly is not at all convinced that the good guys won the Second World War (or the Cold War), in the process rescuing the people of the world from an unimaginably horrific fate.
The Imperial Cruise is infused with hatred (yes, hatred is the accurate word) for Americans, Christians, and white Westerners as a whole. The people who built the United States were a bunch of racist predators; the country's history is one of brutal ethnic cleansing by mass murderers advancing over "unmarked graves." (34) The small minority of whites who opposed the predation (that is, who approached James Bradley in their degree of moral rectitude) were marginalized and ostracized; the outcome of political contests was determined by "the American Aryan electorate." (35) The unimpressive military success against Spain by Admiral George Dewey, "the very picture of an Aryan," was celebrated widely, including in advertisements featuring "Dewey scrubbing his White [sic] hands whiter." (36) After Dewey's triumph, Americans enthusiastically engaged in a race war in the Philippines. (37) Other white racist Western villains on the receiving end of the author's ire include Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill. (38) Christianity, Bradley declares, "was a conquest religion in the service of state militaries." (39) The abuse of China by Western powers in the nineteenth century was a product of "the Jesus-opium trade" (a phrase employed three times in less than one page). (40)
Particularly venomous loathing is directed toward the leading villain of them all: Theodore Roosevelt. The Imperial Cruise contains well over one hundred fifty derisive first-name-only references to "Teddy" (often "Big Stick Teddy" or "Rough Rider Teddy"), (41) because of whose malevolent incompetence Bradley's father had "to suffer through World War II in the Pacific." (42) Roosevelt "needed eyeglasses to see his own hands." (43) "Ranchman Teddy" in the Dakota Territory constituted "a spectacular fiction concocted with an audience in mind." (44) Sagamore Hill was a luxurious "sprawling mansion," where TR spent his summers on "vacation." (45) "Aristocratic Teddy" had no real regard for the common citizens of his country; rather, he was an elitist who "looked down on his American inferiors." (46) Roosevelt's seven-and-a-half years as chief executive were an "accidental presidency," and in 1905 TR was "a lame-duck president." (47) In 1905 (as he doggedly pursued an elusive Russo-Japanese peace), "the Rough Rider" was "lost in his dress-up fantasies that summer by the sea." (48) TR biographer Carleton Putnam's opposition to school desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s demonstrates that Roosevelt would have held the same view—a thinly veiled (and almost certainly false) allegation so gratifying to Bradley that he concludes his book with it. (49) As a final example, Bradley—a radical who one would suppose might find at least a small measure of merit in TR's progressive outlook and initiatives on U.S. domestic questions—condemns without qualification "Roosevelt's decision to oppose Taft in 1912." (50)
An Illusory Universe
Here is the world as it should have been and should be according to the logic of James Bradley's self-righteous and historically vacuous screed: The United States was a nation of predatory, racist, murderous expansionists—a nation whose very existence was of questionable legitimacy. But once in existence, the United States should have remained a confined, internationally inconsequential seaboard nation hurling moral invectives against the acquisitive imperialist powers of Europe. If not for American imperialism, such peoples as Hawaiians and Filipinos would have had nothing to fear. The same would go for Poles and Danes and Czechs and Slovaks and Hungarians too (although Bradley views all white Europeans and North Americans as part of a self-appointed Aryan master-race whose well-being is of little concern to him), for German and Japanese militarism and genocidal aggression would not have threatened these or any other national groups. No, the world would have been free of war and a much better place in the absence of the use of power—and the diplomacy of power—by Theodore Roosevelt and many of the U.S. presidents who followed him. And, needless to say, the American people themselves (including Native Americans, the rightful rulers of the North American continent) would have prospered in freedom in their cocoon in this world at peace. Bradley sees as misguided and paranoid and self-serving the notion that the globe would have been taken over by Nazism, militant Japanese brutality, aggressive Soviet expansionism, or Islamic extremism. Far from defending freedom and decency and Western civilization against mortally dangerous adversaries, American power in the late nineteenth, twentieth, and early twenty-first centuries has been an unmitigated scourge. Rather than the development and, when necessary, the application of U.S. military strength, the solution to the problem of aggressive tyrannical regimes and evil ideologies is "to work on the human links between cultures." (51) Now that is a coherent and discerning and sophisticated and reassuring outlook on history and on the contemporary world!
Conclusion: Speaking Freely
The customary, polite procedure in a decidedly unfavorable review is to find something at least mildly complimentary to say toward the end. But in this instance, such an approach would be both undignified and intellectually dishonest. The author of The Imperial Cruise attacks an iconic U.S. president (a deservedly iconic president) in a mean, foul, self-important manner in order to purvey a cascade of bizarre and unsustainable perspectives on this exemplary leader and on U.S. history more generally. One might grant that Bradley has every right to celebrate a successful marketing campaign and the royalties generated thereby. (52) There is, however, a rich irony here, for it was TR and those later presidents following in his footsteps (perhaps most notably Harry Truman (53)) who made sure that the forces of barbarism would fail in their efforts to impose a terrifying tyrannical order on the world, and that Americans and others would retain the right to express their views freely and to pursue material prosperity. Speaking freely, then, this reviewer must conclude in a manner appropriate to this essay: The Imperial Cruise has not a single redeeming quality. It is an utter abomination—or, to borrow Theodore Roosevelt's concise assessment of the Canadian claim in the Alaska boundary dispute, it is "an outrage pure and simple." (54)
Jonathan S. Tobin, "Smearing Theodore Roosevelt," Commentary, March 2010, pp. 26-29. Tobin's review essay is a masterpiece of insight and literary expression. In his concluding section, after noting and criticizing earlier negative portraits of TR by Henry Pringle and Richard Hofstadter, Tobin remarks: "But the defamatory efforts of Thomas and Bradley represent a new, and especially low, chapter in ideological American historiography." Then, countering Bradley's and Thomas's obvious personal dislike of Roosevelt, Tobin offers an astute closing observation that can be read as explaining the enduring success of the politically diverse and nonpartisan Theodore Roosevelt Association: "The legacy that has so endeared Theodore Roosevelt to successive generations is not so much his progressivism, enthusiasm for global American power, or even his environmentalism. It is, instead, based on an understanding that the spirit of adventure, service, sacrifice, and yes, valor that Theodore Roosevelt exemplified is one they find uniquely admirable regardless of the politics of his day or our own. Far from discrediting him, these virtues are precisely the ones that have earned him his enduring popularity. One suspects that as long as Americans admire courage, this will remain the case" (p. 31).
See, for example, William N. Tilchin's brief dismissals of Sarah Watts, Rough Rider in the White House: Theodore Roosevelt and the Politics of Desire (2003) and of Jim Powell, Bully Boy: The Truth About Theodore Roosevelt's Legacy (2006), Theodore Roosevelt Association Journal, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, Summer 2007, p. 28.
Some of Bradley's citations---such as note 19 on p. 339, note 59 on p. 346, notes 78-79 on p. 350, note 47 on p. 361 (citing a letter of 1904 for a statement identified as having been issued in 1905), and notes 1 and 25 on pp. 363-364---would reflect badly even on an undergraduate. More flagrantly, in chapter 2, more than twenty-five consecutive notes do not correspond to the note numbers to which they are linked. In one instance, Bradley declares that "one historian advanced" a certain argument without identifying the historian and without providing a citation (p. 250). Misspellings are recurrent (for example, on pp. 153, 263, 341, 344). Quotations end without being marked as ending (for example, on pp. 45, 305). Quotations are presented incorrectly in ways that totally distort their meanings (on p. 110, for example) or render them incoherent (as on pp. 124, 266). Chronological sequences are mangled (for example, on pp. 189-190). In at least one instance, Bradley completely contradicts himself, describing TR as "certain" and uncertain about Japan's future behavior (pp. 226, 228). As with this review's enumeration of factual errors, this listing of other types and instances of sloppy work is but a sampling.
An enlightening (and entertaining) discussion of very bad books can be found in Tweed Roosevelt, "Really, Really Bad Books," Theodore Roosevelt Association Journal, Vol. XXXI, No. 3, Summer 2010, pp. 10-15.
William N. Tilchin, "Theodore Roosevelt," in Frank W. Thackeray and John E. Findling, eds., Statesmen Who Changed the World: A Bio-Bibliographical Dictionary of Diplomacy (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993), p. 487, and "Theodore Roosevelt and Foreign Policy: The Greatest of All U.S. Presidents," Theodore Roosevelt Association Journal, Vol. XXX, Nos. 1 & 2, Winter-Spring 2009, p. 37.
In January 2010, this reviewer drafted a memorandum on The Imperial Cruise for electronic distribution to members of the Theodore Roosevelt Association. Small portions of this review essay, including much of the two foregoing paragraphs, are drawn from that memorandum.
As for the publisher Little, Brown and Company, the effective marketing of James Bradley's The Imperial Cruise (and of Evan Thomas's The War Lovers, for that matter) can be seen as analogous to the rampant, effective marketing with impunity of useless or harmful patent medicines and perilously unhealthful foods before Theodore Roosevelt prevailed on Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.
See William N. Tilchin, "Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and the Uneven Course of American Foreign Policy in the First Half of the Twentieth Century," Theodore Roosevelt Association Journal, Vol. X, No. 4, Winter 1984, pp. 2-10, and "TR and Foreign Policy: The Greatest of All U.S. Presidents," p. 36.
comments powered by Disqus
- 150 years later, schools are still a battlefield for interpreting Civil War
- Where are America's memorials to pain of slavery, black resistance?
- Richmond split over Confederate history
- The World's Jewish Population Is Nearing Pre-Holocaust Levels
- Bernie Sanders’s Revolutionary Roots Were Nurtured in ’60s Vermont
- Did a historian who said he’s a victim of McCarthyism get the story wrong?
- Stephanie Coontz’s work on the history of marriage cited by the Supreme Court.
- NYT History Book Reviews: Who Got Noticed this Week?
- David Hackett Fischer wins $100,000 prize for lifetime achievement in military writing