Like a lot of Americans, I learned the broad strokes about the Pacific theater in World War II. The Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor. Attacked us! Obviously, we couldn’t just stand pat. So we warred with them from island-to-island until we had no choice but to drop the atomic bomb and end the war. They were the aggressor and it was all their fault.
I’m reluctant to call this narrative propaganda. Japan did attack us. But the history of the war in the Pacific is far more complicated. At least, that’s what James D. Bradley posits in this work.
I had briefly listened to Bradley’s Flag of Our Fathers tale on his dad being one of the flag-raisers at Iwo Jima. The book, again what little I heard, did a good job of excavating his experience and how it impacted his family moving forward, especially as his son began to grow fond of Japan.
In this book, he takes a broader look at what led to the war. Using a diplomacy cruise featuring future President Taft, President’s daughter and noted socialite Alice Roosevelt and others, Bradley traces the areas of the cruise with the developing US imperialist expansion policy in the west. He covers each territory traveled to, with a background on what the US did (or did not do) to colonize it and/or influence it for the sake of exploited resources (and in some cases, labor).
Everything comes back to Japan. Bradley’s thesis is that the US (and to a lesser degree, the UK) helped influence the Japanese in a western style (part of what inspired the Meiji restoration) to help it harbor its own imperial ambitions. All this was done at the behest of Teddy Roosevelt, who sought to colonize the islands and draw them for all they’re worth.
This is a readable, fascinating slice of counter-narrative history but I can’t give it more than three stars. The framing device was essentially useless save for commentary on Alice Roosevelt’s dresses or Bill Taft’s laughter. The one critical moment where Taft essentially carries out a covert diplomatic mission to allow Japan to annex Korea at the US’ behest (serving as a buffer for Russian expansion). There’s been a lot of speculation that this actually happened, though there’s no historical confirmation. For the record, I can believe some version of it happened but Bradley isn’t a historian so his use of primary source documentary isn’t clean. Coupled with redundancies and poor editorial choices and this isn’t exactly something worthy of awards.
However, for folks who don’t know the larger narrative of Pacific expansion could do worse than start here. It’s easy to digest and will give the reader a good start to building up knowledge on the subject.