As a child growing up in the nation’s capital, I often rode past the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Va. It depicts a striking moment in American history that commemorates the raising of the American flag on a distant island in the Pacific War by a Marine detachment; it is an iconic example of bronze statuary.
Having just finished reading James Bradley’s “Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War,” I again connect with that statue.
Bradley, a nonfiction writer and founder of the James Bradley Peace Foundation, is the son of John Bradley, who was one of the central figures in the “event that became a statue.”
He has carefully researched an almost forgotten episode in American presidential history that will haunt us, and what the statue commemorates, for years to come.
In 2005, Bradley actually retraced the William Howard Taft/Alice Roosevelt 1905 international friendship cruise in a voyage of his own. “Imperial Cruise” is a reflection on that voyage.
Here’s the connection. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt sent his secretary of war, William Howard Taft, on an extensive tour of the Pacific. He was accompanied by the president’s daughter, Alice Longworth, and an entourage of congressmen and reporters. The cruise story in itself is an amusing and gossipy read that shows just how a recalcitrant daughter can embarrass the family by her brattish antics.
Taft himself, soon to be Teddy’s successor, is a study in lazy, ectomorphic diplomacy among the Hawaiians, Japanese and Filipinos, the latter of whom he governed for almost three years.
This cruise was billed as a jingoistic friendship tour that would put a benevolent face on the United States, but it was actually a secretive mission that favored Japan with a protectorate in Korea in exchange for Japan’s assistance with American penetration of Asia.
Roosevelt thus set the stage for Japanese brokerage and later dominance of the Pacific, Korea and Manchuria. He concocted a military alliance with the Japanese because he thought of the Japanese as “Honorary Aryans,” who had recently assimilated American culture and habits, who gave evidence of an appreciation of Teutonic civilization, and whose diplomats carefully studied American maneuvres toward a Japanese Monroe Doctrine.
Roosevelt particularly lionized head diplomat Kentaro Kaneko, a fellow Harvard alum, whom he thought of as “yellow in skin, but in heart and mind as white as Europeans and Americans.” Ironically, Roosevelt strongly disdained the Slavic people, represented in contemporary Czarist Russia, as an inferior race.
But Bradley has revealed much more. The accounting of racism and abuse of military power could have been written yesterday. In Hawaii, over the course of three decades, American occupying forces relentlessly reduced an island kingdom to an annexed territory for the U.S. business community to exploit. As Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt wrote in 1898 that failure to annex Hawaii would be a crime against white civilization, according to Bradley’s research. The Philippines experiment in American colonialism in 1899 was an unabashed crusade by President William McKinley to uplift, civilize and Christianize a people whom McKinley referred to as “Pacific Negroes.”
Few people know that the oft-quoted phrase, “Take up the white man’s burden,” was penned by Rudyard Kipling in a poem encouraging the U.S. Senate to assume overlordship of the Philippines.
In the deadly Philippines military campaign, 1,000 men, women and children were killed in a massacre presaging the 1968 My Lai event in Vietnam. Beginning in 1901 in the Philippines, the U.S. Army openly employed the newly developed practice of waterboarding.
As Secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt, saw the expansion of the United States in the far Pacific as the extension of American manifest destiny against non-Aryan people. Hawaiians and Filipinos were the new Apaches and Sioux that Roosevelt had previously encountered (more or less) in his books about the winning of the West. Not being favored races, nonwhite people were inevitable victims of righteous extermination, he believed.
Few books are actually transforming of the way we understand ourselves. As a New York Times reviewer put it, this book is startling enough to reshape one’s understanding of the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. That’s an understatement.
Bradley should be read in tandem with postcolonial biblical interpretation and theological analysis. A new tool for reading the Scriptures, postcolonial analysis argues that one should interpret the Bible from the standpoint of colonized people from the Roman Empire to Euro-North American political and economic “colonies.” Being subjugated to an occupying power creates a unique understanding of God and moral behavior.
The ethical burden that emerges from the experiences of the Spanish-American War and World War II should inform present foreign policymaking toward developing people while also obliterating forever Christian triumphalism and rightly deconstructing questionable national “heroes.”
William H. Brackney is the Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Acadia University and Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia.