The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War

by James Bradley;  Little, Brown

The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst and the Rush to Empire, 1898

by Evan Thomas; Little, Brown

Teddy Roosevelt thrived on controversy, and with his endless proclivity toward being provocative, he still invites—no, demands—passionate responses. So it is with these books, which focus on Roosevelt the war hawk and his undeniable—and at the time fashionable—racism. In some ways, TR might have approved of how James Bradley (Flyboys, Flags of Our Fathers) goes gunning for him. For Bradley, Roosevelt the racist set up the bloody future Pacific face-off between Japan and the United States. While fanning Japanese military expansionism, his machoracism reinforced the (largely invented) Bushido code the Japanese military would soon use to brainwash the population into supine obedience and its soldiers into especially heinous warfare. Along the way, he reduced the Philip pines to perpetual guerrilla war laced with American military barbarity, and in China and Korea left a trail of tears and future doom.

While asserting that Roosevelt eventually realized what he’d set in horrific motion, Bradley hammers at him with gusto. His ingenious narrative thread is to track an across-the-Pacific 1905 goodwill voyage by Roosevelt’s emissaries, including his daughter “Princess” Alice, William Howard Taft and other notables. In the end, Bradley’s indictment goes over the top. But that doesn’t mean it’s all wrong: It raises tantalizing questions.

Evan Thomas (Sea of Thunder, John Paul Jones) is more measured, but no less probing in his discussion of Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge and William Randolph Hearst. All three possessed a chest-thumping attitude toward American expansionism; a fierce (and unquestioned) sense of the white man’s burden and its justification of both imperialism and colonialism; a will to force a war that would keep American males from “going soft”; a disregard for due process or inconvenient facts; and maybe above all, a ferocious need to be at the center of whatever action they could stir up. Hearst, for instance, rounded up hangers-on and booked a ship to Cuba, where Roosevelt was desperate to be in the visible thick of the splendid little war they’d made out of thin air.

Thomas delineates the many ironies his three leading men embody. Just one example: Since the Revolution, Americans had fiercely opposed acquiring overseas colonies, arguing that would make the United States no better than the hated British. Roosevelt & Co. used machismo, usually viciously, to undercut opponents to their empire building. It wouldn’t be the last time that happened.


Originally published in the June 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here