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Teddy Roosevelt's Secret Deal with Japan: An Interview with James Bradley

James Bradley author of “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Flyboys” has just published The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War.  HNN contributor Aaron Leonard recently sat down with him in New York to discuss the book.

Unlike Flags of Our Fathers -- with its iconic American flag raising on Mt. Suribachi -- this book shows the planting of the U.S. flag on foreign soil in quite another way. How did you come to write this?

My dad was one of the guys who raised the flag on Iwo Jima. When I was nine years old we were studying history. My Dad came home one night, and I said, “Dad your on page 94 of my history book. My teacher said you’re a hero and she wants you to come and talk to my class.” My father looked at the photo and gently closed the book. He’s talking to a nine year old, so he said, “James I can’t come and talk to your class I forgot everything,” that was often his excuse. Then he looked at my eyes as if wanted to imbed an idea in my little 9-year-old brain for the rest of my life, and said, “I want you to always remember that the heroes of Iwo Jima are the guys that did not come back.”

After writing two books about World War II in the Pacific, I now know there are a lot of guys that did not come back. Not only Americans, but millions of Asians. So I began to think about the source of this war. What was going on? What historical forces took my Dad from Wisconsin out to the tiny little island of Iwo Jima, six hundred miles south of Tokyo. How did that happen?

The explanation we are given is Pearl Harbor. Because of [the Japanese attack on] Pearl Harbor we fought Japan. But when you look at Pearl Harbor, its very interesting, Pearl Harbor was not an invasion of the United States. The Japanese didn’t hit Pearl Harbor to continue to California. They hit Pearl Harbor to go the other way. They wanted to expand in Asia, that was the Japanese game. They hit Pearl Harbor so we would not stop their expansion in Asia. That was the disagreement. That was the problem.

My Dad did not fight in Iwo Jima to protect his mother in Wisconsin from the Japanese. He fought in Iwo Jima to protect Burmese mothers and Vietnamese mothers, where the Japanese were expanding.

So I thought if Japanese expansion was the problem, what’s the source? What’s the root of this? When did Japan first expand and what was the American view on this? What did the officials of the time think about this?

I found that in the summer of 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched the largest delegation to Asia in U.S. history. I had a sense that this was a large delegation and wondered what they did out there? In the summer of 2005 -- one hundred years later -- I followed in the wake of this imperial cruise. I was shocked by what I found. That’s how the book came about.

It’s interesting what you’re saying about Pearl Harbor being the Japanese asserting their domination, but to what degree was this the US really asserting its domination. For example in this book you write about how the US came to control the Philippines --- and what comes through is a very brutal imperialist domination. To what degree was this the U.S. taking charge of that region?

In this book I don’t so much write about Pearl Harbor, I only bring it up to say, what was the source of this explosion? Every divorce has a first kiss, I was looking for that first kiss...and I found that in the summer of 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt -- the Nobel Peace Prize Committee didn’t know, the Senate didn’t know -- agreed to a treaty where America and Japan would walk hand in hand onto the Asian continent to take it over. And Japan needed Korea as a springboard for that plan. Roosevelt in a secret treaty agrees to give Korea to Japan. He lights the match on this situation that Franklin Delano Roosevelt would later deal with in World War 2.

Somebody said to me, ‘Mr. Bradley, you’re saying Theodore Roosevelt caused Pearl Harbor?’ Well, you know, history’s not that simple, but the problem in WW2 in the Pacific was Japan expanding, where did that begin? It began in July 1905 and the most famous man in the world, the man who was supposedly the honest broker between Japan and Russia said its fine with me. Why? Roosevelt thought that America could have its big stick in north Asia.

The Columbia professor, who I cite in the book, says the great question of the 20th Century is going be whether Asia is Anglo-Saxon or Slav. Because the Chinese, they are a declining race. So Roosevelt looked at Asia with a theoretical lens, with theories that told him China was going to crumble like an old barn. More vigorous countries were going to move into that territory. The three countries that Roosevelt saw this being were Britain, the U.S., and Japan. His theories told him that Japan was an ascending race, China was a descending race. America was going to put its bet on Japan and he calculated incorrectly that Japan would listen to America and only expand so far. Roosevelt’s minister to Beijing wrote [to the effect that] definitely Japan jumping into Korea, that will be the far extension of the Japanese empire, we can be sure.

A very different picture of Theodore Roosevelt emerges in your book from what has been the popular currency. For example Edmund Morris’ in his Roosevelt biography Theodore Rex describes Roosevelt’s racial views saying, “Blacks were better suited for service than suffrage; on the whole, they were ‘altogether inferior to the whites.’ Yet Roosevelt believed (as most Americans did not) that this inferiority was temporary....”

In contrast to that rather generous characterization you write, “In 1894, Teddy had penned an article entitled ‘National Life and Character’ in which he wrote that Blacks were ‘a perfectly stupid race’ and it would take ‘many thousands years” before the Black became even “as intellectual as the [ancient] Athenian.’

Why this difference? What were Roosevelt’s racial views?

I don’t know how to answer that. It is not an interpretation. I went on a cruise, and shadowed the 1905 cruise, at that point Taft and Roosevelt are explaining to the United States through Presidential proclamations, messages, press conferences, what we’re doing in the Philippines, just like President Obama is going to explain what we’re doing in Afghanistan. They explained it in terms of racial theory. So I didn’t seek out the two term papers that President Roosevelt happened to write on race and highlight them in this book. I point out that the explanation given to the American public was based in racial theories that they were taught at Harvard and Columbia...

Could you talk more about what those theories actually were...

The theory was that civilization followed the sun and [it developed] in the Caucasus mountains, that’s why whites are caucasians. A white person is called a caucasian because scientists theorized in the 19th century that’s where they came from. They called themselves scientists, but they were scientists with no science, scientific methods had not been developed to be able explore the body and look at the genetic structure and such.

So they came up with theories that this Aryan race arose in the Caucasus, in fact Iran is a derivative of the word Aryan. The Aryan arose and their tribes went north, south, east and west. The ones who went south went to India, the ones who went east went to China. The theory is that China was a great civilization and India was a great civilization because of this Aryan injection of culture. But then the Aryan lost the whiteness of its seed by mating with Chinese and Indian females so the Aryan greatness was lost in those countries.

Then there was the tribe that followed the sun, that went west to what we know today as the German forests. They maintained the purity of their seed by killing everybody who didn’t look like them. This Aryan tribe in northern Germany became the Teuton. People sometime think I’m joking, but this is the political science theory of [places like] Columbia and Yale of the time. [According to these theories] the Teuton tinkered with what later would be constitutional democracy. They didn’t follow kings, they elected people among themselves and political theorists in the 19th century said, ‘ah the Teuton is the seed of American democracy.’

The Teuton that went south went to Italy and Spain, those societies became great. But then the Teuton mated with those Mediterranean women lost the whiteness of their seed. The Teutonic tribe that went west -- civilization followed the sun and the sun only moves west -- went to Britain. There were already other people there. They ethnic cleansed them all, they got rid of them all, they killed them all. The Teuton became the Anglo-Saxon, the Anglo-Saxon went west across the Atlantic.

In 1905 you had London and New York, two financial capitals. If you look at the globe almost all of it was controlled by the white race through colonization. The theory was that civilization had followed the sun and that the highest evolutionary product of this was the American... [On its terms] It makes sense, it makes logical sense.

How deeply did Theodore Roosevelt adhere to these theories? How much had he internalized them?

From our point of view it's as if these are distant theories, and maybe you could hold them. In our parlance we would say a person is choosing to be a racist or not. The word racist didn’t come into use until the 1930s. Theodore Roosevelt was not a racist, he subscribed to the racial theory that the editor of the New York Times did, that his entire cabinet did, that almost every educated person in the United States did. These were not some weird ideas off to the side. This was how the world worked. This is why Theodore Roosevelt explained the Philippines and Asia to America in terms of these racial theories. He was a politician trying to talk in the vernacular of the people.

The section in the book describing the U.S. war in the Philippines is among the starkest material. You open the chapter with a quote from a soldier who served there in 1902 saying, “The people of the United States want us to kill all the men, fuck all the women, and raise up a new race in these Islands.”  Is that an accurate characterization of that war?

There’s no accurate portrayal...my father’s picture on Iwo Jima is not an accurate portrayal of the Battle of Iwo Jima. One soldier’s quote is not  the accurate portrayal. Is that what that soldier believed the election of McKinley meant? Yes.

You talk about the use of the water cure in the Philippines -- a euphemism for water boarding (which itself is a euphemism for torture). I was surprised to see how integral it was as a tactic of the US military. The obvious question is, did it conjure up contemporary images when you discovered this?

It was history repeating. When I went out on this cruise [in 2005] water boarding was a very big news item in Iraq, in terms of CIA interrogation of prisoners. I got to the Philippines and I realized that that was America’s first attempt at nation building. A hundred years before I got there Theodore Roosevelt said, “Mission Accomplished.” There are still American troops fighting in the Philippines today.

Let’s talk more about Theodore Roosevelt’s far East policy in the early 20th century laying the basis for World War 2. What’s the connection? There was forty years separating them from each other. How did what Teddy Roosevelt did in 1905 lay the basis for this horrific war in the 1940s?

People ask, ‘How could something that occurred in 1905 have repercussions forty years later? Well, Ken Burns just did a documentary on TV about the National Park system. Apparently if you walk into a national park you’re supposed to feel that Teddy Roosevelt had a lot to do with it a hundred years ago.

I have a friend who’s writing a book on Theodore Roosevelt’s helping to create American football. If you watch the Super Bowl this year, you’re watching something that Theodore Roosevelt influenced. What Theodore Roosevelt did not only reverberated forty years later but is still reverberating.

This is an important President at a fulcrum moment in history, 1905. Roosevelt says to the Japanese, I trust that you’re different than rest of Asia. My racial theories tell me this. You are more like Americans. We’ve got a problem in north Asia. China’s collapsing and we do not want the Russians to fill that void. Congress will not give me the troops I would like to use America’s big stick there in that beautiful rich part of north Asia. So what am I going to do?

So Roosevelt said to himself, I’m going to partner with the Japanese army and the British navy. The three of us are going to push back the Russians and take over China. He did not advocate liberty and freedom for China. You see the significance of that? He called the Portsmouth Peace Treaty negotiations, that sat down to negotiate their differences. They were dividing up a map of China and he didn’t invite China. There’s no repercussions of something like that? Hosting a peace conference dividing up China, China asking, ‘can we come’ and Roosevelt saying, No! You’ve got nothing to say about the future of your country. Yeah, it has repercussions, I think still today.

I think that it is indisputable that the problem in WW2 that my Dad was sent to help extinguish was Japan going into Asia. They said in their declaration of war that the problem is Britain and America want to control Asia and we’re Asians, and we’re going to control it. Japan’s going to control it themselves.

Well it came to loggerheads, but in the beginning it was a progressive experiment. Theodore Roosevelt believed that an ascending race, the Japanese, would take on the White Man’s burden for the first time. No Asian country had industrialized. No Asian country had militarized. No Asian country wore Brooks Brothers suits. Most Asians were still wearing pony tails and robes. Roosevelt, a modern guy, a young guy, a theoretical guy, not knowing anything about Asia, saw in his wisdom... thought it was a wise move to ally U.S. interests to Japan in expanding to pick up the pieces of the Chinese empire. He never imagined that the thing he green-lit would later bite Franklin Roosevelt in the butt.

How much of this did you know before you started writing?


Was it shocking to you? What kind of impact did it have?

It was kind of like an eery silence when you come across documented facts that have huge significance, that affected my life, my family’s life, and had been hidden for a century. I was amazed, often stunned.

There were surprises galore on this imperial cruise. I’m out in China and I stumble on the source of the wealth of FDR. I had no idea that grandpa Delano was the opium king of China. The wealth that supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt, came from drug dealing. I had no idea. To continually -- as you see in the book -- come across page after after page of things where you say, “I didn’t know that!”.... I got a degree in history, how come we’re not taught some of these facts that are laid on the cutting room floor?

I was surprised, I wasn’t just surprised, I was confused to the point that I didn’t know what [Teddy] Roosevelt was talking about when he talked about thousands of years, he would say this to the American public and Taft said this too in speeches, you can’t expect the Philippines to be doing well we have still have a problem we’ve got an insurgency we’ve got to keep troops there we’ve got spend money, because the Philippines does not have the thousands of years of experience that we do with self-government. Well thousands of years, I read that three times and thought the United States is about 100 years old at this point, where are the thousand of years he’s talking about? Does he mean like back to Greece? Roosevelt thinks Americans came from Greece? Then I realized that it was this racial theory when I went back to Harvard and Columbia and saw political science theory of the day.

What do you hope this book will accomplish?

I hope first of all people enjoy reading it. As a writer my job isn’t just to uncover facts it’s to make it assessable to the public. I hope this long-distance time is assessable. In other words, that it is an enjoyable read.

This is a multi-faceted book, with a lot of different elements to take away. A key thing for me is... it is interesting that the founding fathers designed a system and I think we need to follow that system closely. Congress is supposed to have oversight over treaties. Roosevelt just went around Congress in an unconstitutional move. He made a secret treaty. That had bad repercussions. It shows that maybe if we had the entire Senate looking at the treaty and debating, that is not such a bad thing. Secrecy in government is often a very big problem. The Founding Fathers wanted to shine the light of deliberation on agreements with foreign countries. Theodore Roosevelt wanted to do it in the dark.

Has there been any controversy in advance of the book? This is taking on some sacred cows?

I think we’ll see [what the reaction will be]. I wrote a non-fiction book, its heavily heavily footnoted. The facts are there.

The NY Times said, “The author of Flags of Our Fathers takes a startling look at what besotted Theodore Roosevelt biographers preferred to ignore. That Roosevelt’s dismissive racial attitudes lead him to make disastrous long-range foreign policy miscalculations in the Pacific and Asia.” That’s pretty strong.

There are forty pages of notes, I want them corrected immediately [if any errors are found]. If anyone can read that book and not come to the conclusion that Theodore Roosevelt made a secret deal with the Japanese over a period of two years -- and was acting as an agent -- its in his own handwriting. So I’m not speculating or trying to connect dots that aren’t there. It’s him bragging about he’s keeping all this secret. Its’ him saying that the Chinese and the Japanese are different races. ITs Theodore Roosevelt saying that the Japanese are playing our game. I didn’t say it. His words are there, he said, “the Japs are playing our game.” He thought he succeeded.

What are you working on now?

I’m thinking about looking at FDR and China, WW2.