Teddy Roosevelt and the dark side of American history

TEDDY ROOSEVELT AND RACISM

It was racism that account for all those ugly chapters in the conduct of American foreign policy and, more broadly, throughout U.S. history. Not polite racism, but one powered by anger and manifested as a theory of Aryan superiority indistinguishable from the beliefs that drove Adolf Hitler. For insight into this sad reality, James Bradley’s eye-opening treatment of Teddy Roosevelt’s foreign policy, The Imperial Cruise, is a superb beginning.

THE IMPERIAL CRUISE: A SECRET HISTORY OF EMPIRE AND WAR BY JAMES BRADLEY (2009) 401 PAGES ★★★★☆

Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet departs Hampton Roads, December 1907. Image: US Naval History & Heritage Command

RACISM WAS RAMPANT IN TURN-OF-THE-CENTURY AMERICA

Racist attitudes were so prevalent and unchallenged in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th Century that the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science — the founder of anthropology in the U.S. — could observe, “The Aryan family represents the central stream of progress, because it produced the highest type of mankind, and because it has proved its intrinsic superiority by gradually assuming control of the earth.” In hindsight, then, it should be no surprise that such celebrated figures as Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and his successor, William Howard Taft, would speak openly about America’s “destiny” to dominate Asia and the Pacific, imposing the benefits of Aryan civilization on the “Pacific niggers” (their term for Filipinos) and “Chinks.”

A GRAND CRUISE TO CONQUER THE PACIFIC

After returning to the U.S. from the Philippines, where he directed the brutal American occupation of the islands, Taft quickly became Roosevelt’s confidante and “assistant president” though nominally serving as Secretary of War. When Roosevelt resolved in 1905 to extend the U.S. empire throughout Asia, he sent Taft on a secret diplomatic mission to Japan, a mission cloaked in a grand cruise of the Great White Fleet with a huge party of Senators and Congressmen and the President’s own 21-year-old daughter, Alice. Alice’s antics — she was a “wild child” in the buttoned-down culture of the times — drew headlines and enormous crowds of admirers. Meanwhile, Taft shared a secret plan with the Japanese “whereby Roosevelt would grant them a protectorate in Korea in exchange for Japan’s assisting with the American penetration of Asia.” The ecstatic Japanese quickly accepted the deal, which to them was all about their existing occupation of Korea. They had no intention whatsoever of letting the U.S. horn in on their efforts to absorb China.

TEDDY ROOSEVELT BETRAYED THE JAPANESE

The deal with Japan that Taft brought to closure was secret not just from the public but from Roosevelt’s own Secretary of State, not to mention Congress. It came to light only two decades later when the secret papers recording the history of the cruise and the diplomatic exchanges surrounding it came to light. Roosevelt knew that neither the State Department nor Congress would approve anything of the sort. As Bradley notes, “The president of the United States had skirted the Constitution and negotiated a side deal with the Japanese at the same time he was posing as an honest broker between Japan and Russia at the Portsmouth peace talks” held to end the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. But, since all this was secret, the jury that awarded Roosevelt the Nobel Prize for Peace because of the pact was entirely ignorant of his true role in the negotiations.

TR WAS DEEPLY FLAWED BY RACISM

Historians and biographers typically portray President Theodore Roosevelt as a heroic figure, a man of surpassing intelligence and a profound commitment to reform. In The Imperial Cruise, Bradley presents a starkly revisionist view, relating Roosevelt’s deep-seated racism, his blatant, life-long self-promotion, his duplicitous and often ill-conceived foreign policy, and his consummate narcissism. Though Bradley’s logic falters on occasion, his portrait of Roosevelt is all too credible, the man’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographers notwithstanding.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

FOR MORE READING

I’ve also reviewed The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia by James Bradley (“Who lost China?” Nobody.).

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