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James Bradley: The Imperial Cruise

James Bradley, author of Flags of our Fathers and Flyboys, has written a third book titled The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War. While his two earlier books are about various aspects of World War II, Bradley describes the new book as an exploration of the root causes of the war. In particular, he’s trying to explain where Japanese Imperialism got its start.

It’s a decidedly uneven book: part of it is about a boat trip by William Howard Taft, Alice Roosevelt, and others, to Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, etc. (that would be the titular cruise); part of it is about Teddy Roosevelt personally; part of it is about Roosevelt’s foreign policy, especially his role as broker and king-maker (er, emperor-maker) in Asia. There is also an element that casts turn-of-the-century racial attitudes as a basis for American foreign policy. And finally, to my ears Bradley treats the entire story as some sort of parable about the recently-concluded Bush Administration.

Brady tells a rather lean story, a simple-tending-toward-simplistic story, portraying Roosevelt as over-privileged and under-informed, the product of an elitist racist subculture, placing him in an environment that saw itself in the context of a broad sweep of Aryan history, moving westward (“following the sun” in Bradley’s phrase), killing and supplanting native populations, etc. He also blames Roosevelt for the rise of Japan as a regional power, and repeatedly states directly that Roosevelt was to blame for World War II.

Of course I’m no historian and can’t say whether when Bradley connects dots with straight lines whether the circumstances warrant such simplicity, but Bradley’s telling to my ears was burdened by of causal holes and lacked context. I’m not the only one: Janet Maslin at the New York Times does a better job of relating Bradley’s story and pointing out some of the problems [link].

I’m more troubled by the American Christianity Bradley portrays. It’s a pre-Prohibition, pre-Scopes American Christianity, and sadly mixed with racial and imperial values that sound jarring today. And it’s worth noting that some of the Christians in question were pre-Modernist-Crisis respectable society types, roughly contemporaries of Fanny Crosby, Ira Sankey, and Dwight L. Moody, making their attitudes sound doubly strange today. Here’s the signature quote, from page 236, from Robert MacArthur, long-time pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, New York City, in a sermon titled “Japan’s Victory — Christianity’s Opportunity,” an apparent commentary on a battle in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War:

The Great Master said, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” Apply that standard, and you will find that the nominally heathen Japan is more Christian than “Holy Russia.”

The victory of the Japanese is a distinct triumph for Christianity. The new civilization of Japan is largely the result of Christian teaching. A very great proportion of Japan’s leading men to-day, especially those who fight her battles on land and sea, with such skill and valor, profess the Christian faith.

I realize it’s always dangerous to judge one era’s attitudes by those of one’s own, and it’s worthwhile to remember that if “the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there” [link] by the same token our values and attitudes will in some unanticipated way seem strange in the future, but I tend to take MacArthur’s attitude here as a cautionary tale and a warning to be careful when casting the affairs of modern nations (especially one’s own) in religious terms. A Christian should always beware mixing his identity as a Christian with his identity as anything else, or indeed mixing Christianity itself with any other issue, no matter how seemingly sensible. As C. S. Lewis warns, up to and including “spelling reform” [link].


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