The Imperial Cruise

A Secret History of Empire and War


By James Bradley

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In 1905 President Teddy Roosevelt dispatched Secretary of War William Howard Taft on the largest U.S. diplomatic mission in history to Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, China, and Korea. Roosevelt’s glamorous twenty-one year old daughter Alice served as mistress of the cruise, which included senators and congressmen. On this trip, Taft concluded secret agreements in Roosevelt’s name.

In 2005, a century later, James Bradley traveled in the wake of Roosevelt’s mission and discovered what had transpired in Honolulu, Tokyo, Manila, Beijing and Seoul.

In 1905, Roosevelt was bully-confident and made secret agreements that he though would secure America’s westward push into the Pacific. Instead, he lit the long fuse on the Asian firecrackers that would singe America’s hands for a century.


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Chapter 1


"I wish to see the United States the dominant power on the shores of the Pacific Ocean."1


When my father, John Bradley, died in 1994, his hidden memory boxes illuminated his experience as one of the six men who raised the flag on Iwo Jima. A book and movie—both named Flags of Our Fathers—told his story. After writing another book about World War II in the Pacific—Flyboys—I began to wonder about the origins of America's involvement in that war. The inferno that followed Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor had consumed countless lives, and believing there's smoke before a fire, I set off to search for the original spark.

In the summer of 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt—known as Teddy to the public—dispatched the largest diplomatic delegation to Asia in U.S. history. Teddy sent his secretary of war, seven senators, twenty-three congressmen, various military and civilian officials, and his daughter on an ocean liner from San Francisco to Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, China, Korea, then back to San Francisco. At that time, Roosevelt was serving as his own secretary of state—John Hay had just passed away and Elihu Root had yet to be confirmed. Over the course of this imperial cruise, Theodore Roosevelt made important decisions that would affect America's involvement in Asia for generations.

President Theodore Roosevelt. (Library of Congress)

The secretary of war, William Howard Taft, weighing in at 325 pounds, led the delegation, and to guarantee a Roosevelt name in the headlines, the president sent his daughter Alice, the glamorous Jackie Kennedy of her day, a beautiful twenty-one-year-old known affectionately to the world as "Princess Alice." Her boyfriend was aboard, and Taft had promised his boss he would keep an eye on the couple. This was not so easy, and on a few hot tropical nights, Taft worried about what the unmarried daughter of the president of the United States was up to on some dark part of the ship.

The secretary of war, William Howard Taft. President Roosevelt wrote Taft, "I have always said you would be the greatest President, bar only Washington and Lincoln, and I feel mighty inclined to strike out the exceptions!" (Library of Congress)

Theodore Roosevelt had been enthusiastic about American expansion in Asia, declaring, "Our future history will be more determined by our position on the Pacific facing China than by our position on the Atlantic facing Europe."2 Teddy was confident that American power would spread across Asia just as it had on the North American continent. In his childhood, Americans had conquered the West by eradicating those who had stood in the way and linking forts together, which then grew into towns and cities. Now America was establishing its naval links in the Pacific with an eye toward civilizing Asia. Hawaii, annexed by the United States in 1898, had been the first step in that plan, and the Philippines was considered to be the launching pad to China.

"Ten Thousand Miles from Tip to Tip." The map of a small United States in 1798 contrasts with the American eagle's 1898 spread from the Caribbean to China. (Library of Congress)

Teddy had never been to Asia and knew little about Asians, but he was bully confident about his plans there. "I wish to see the United States the dominant power on the shores of the Pacific Ocean," he announced.3

Theodore Roosevelt stands as one of America's most important presidents and an unusually intelligent and brave man. His favorite maxim was "Speak softly and carry a big stick." This book reveals that behind his Asian whispers that critical summer of 1905 was a very big stick—the bruises from which would catalyze World War II in the Pacific, the Chinese Communist Revolution, the Korean War, and an array of tensions that inform our lives today. The twentieth-century American experience in Asia would follow in the diplomatic wake first churned by Theodore Roosevelt.

IN THE SUMMER OF 2005—exactly one hundred years later—I traveled the route of the imperial cruise.

In Hawaii, I rode the Waikiki waves like Alice had, saw what she had seen, and learned why no native Hawaiians had come to greet her.

Today the United States is asking Japan to increase its military to further American interests in the North Pacific, especially on the Korean peninsula, where both the Chinese and the Russians seek influence. In the summer of 1905, clandestine diplomatic messages between Tokyo and Washington, D.C., pulsed through underwater cables far below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. In a top-secret meeting with the Japanese prime minister, Taft—at Roosevelt's direction—brokered a confidential pact allowing Japan to expand into Korea. It is unconstitutional for an American president to make a treaty with another nation without United States Senate approval. And as he was negotiating secretly with the Japanese, Roosevelt was simultaneously serving as the "honest broker" in discussions between Russia and Japan, who were then fighting what was up to that time history's largest war. The combatants would sign the Portsmouth Peace Treaty in that summer of 1905, and one year later, the president would become the first American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel committee was never made aware of Roosevelt's secret negotiations, and the world would learn of these diplomatic cables only after Theodore Roosevelt's death.

ON JULY 4, 1902, Roosevelt had proclaimed the U.S. war in the Philippines over, except for disturbances in the Muslim areas. In 1905, the imperial cruise steamed into the port city of Zamboanga, a Muslim enclave 516 miles south of Manila. Princess Alice sipped punch under a hot tropical sun as "Big Bill" Taft delivered a florid speech extolling the benefits of the American way.

A century later I ventured to Zamboanga and learned that the local Muslims hadn't taken Taft's message to heart: Zamboangan officials feared for my safety because I was an American and would not allow me to venture out of my hotel without an armed police escort.

The city looked peaceable enough to me and I thought the Zamboangan police's concern was overdone. One morning I was sitting in the backseat of a chauffeured car with my plainclothes police escort as we drove by city hall. The handsome old wooden building had once been headquarters of the American military. The U.S. general "Black Jack" Pershing had ruled local Muslims from a desk there, and the grassy shaded park across the street was named after him.

"Can we stop?" I asked the driver, who pulled to the curb. I got out of the car alone to take pictures, thinking I was safe in front of city hall. After all, here I was in the busy downtown area, in broad daylight, with mothers and their strollers nearby in a park named after an American.

My bodyguard thought otherwise. He jumped out of the car, his darting eyes scanning pedestrians, cars, windows, and rooftops, and his right hand hovered over the pistol at his side.

It was the same later, indoors at Zamboanga's largest mall. I was shopping for men's trousers, looking through the racks. I glanced up to see my bodyguard with his back to me eyeing the milling crowd. The Zamboangan police probably breathed a sigh of relief when I eventually left town.

Muslim terrorists struck Zamboanga the day after I departed. Two powerful bombs maimed twenty-six people, brought down buildings, blew up cars, severed electrical lines, and plunged the city into darkness and fear. The first bomb had cratered a sidewalk on whose cement I had recently trod, while the second one collapsed a hotel next door to Zamboanga's police station—just down the street from the mall I had judged safe.4 Police sources told reporters the blasts were intended to divert Filipino and American army troops from their manhunt of an important Muslim insurgent.5

Just as President Teddy was declaring victory in 1902, the U.S. military had been opening a new full-scale offensive against Muslim insurgents in the southern Philippines.6 Pacifying Zamboanga had been one of the goals of that offensive. A century later American troops were still fighting near that "pacified" town.

TODAY TRADE DISPUTES DOMINATE the United States–China relationship. In China, I strode down streets where in 1905 angry Chinese had protested Secretary Taft's visit. At the time, China had suspended trade with the United States and was boycotting all American products. Outraged Chinese were attending mass anti-American rallies, Chinese city walls were plastered with insulting anti-American posters, and U.S. diplomats in the region debated whether it was safe for Taft to travel to China. Teddy and Big Bill dismissed China's anger. But that 1905 Chinese boycott against America sparked a furious Chinese nationalism that would eventually lead to revolution and then the cutting of ties between China and the United States in 1949.

IN 2005, I STOOD in Seoul, where, in 1905, Princess Alice had toasted the emperor of Korea. In 1882, when Emperor Gojong* had opened Korea to the outside world, he chose to make his first Western treaty with the United States, whom he believed would protect his vulnerable country from predators. "We feel that America is to us as an Elder Brother," Gojong had often told the U.S. State Department.7 In 1905, the emperor was convinced that Theodore Roosevelt would render his kingdom a square deal. He had no idea that back in Washington, Roosevelt often said, "I should like to see Japan have Korea."8 Indeed, less than two months after Alice's friendly toasts to Korea-America friendship, her father shuttered the United States embassy in Seoul and abandoned the helpless country to Japanese troops. The number-two-ranking American diplomat on the scene observed that the United States fled Korea "like the stampede of rats from a sinking ship."9 America would be the first country to recognize Japanese control over Korea, and when Emperor Gojong's emissaries pleaded with the president to stop the Japanese, Teddy coldly informed the stunned Koreans that, as they were now part of Japan, they'd have to route their appeals through Tokyo. With this betrayal, Roosevelt had green-lighted Japanese imperialism on the Asian continent. Decades later, another Roosevelt would be forced to deal with the bloody ramifications of Teddy's secret maneuvering.

SINCE 1905, THE UNITED States has slogged through four major wars in Asia, its progress marked best not by colors on a map but by rows of haunting gravestones and broken hearts. Yet for a century, the truth about Roosevelt's secret mission remained obscured in the shadows of history, its importance downplayed or ignored in favor of the myth of American benevolence and of a president so wise and righteously muscular that his visage rightly belongs alongside Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln in Black Hills granite. A single person does not make history, and in this case, Roosevelt did not act alone. At the same time, by virtue of his position and power, as well as by virtue of his sense of virtue, Teddy's impact was staggering and disastrous. If someone pushes another off a cliff, we can point to the distance between the edge of the overhang and the ground as the cause of injury. But if we do not also acknowledge who pushed and who fell, how can we discover which decisions led to which results and which mistakes were made?

The truth will not be found in our history books, our monuments or movies, or our postage stamps. Here was the match that lit the fuse, and yet for decades we paid attention only to the dynamite. What really happened in 1905? Exactly one hundred years later, I set off to follow the churned historical wake in Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, China, and Korea. Here is what I found. Here is The Imperial Cruise.

Chapter 2


"The vast movement by which this continent was conquered and peopled cannot be rightly understood if considered solely by itself. It was the crowning and greatest achievement of a series of mighty movements, and it must be taken in connection with them. Its true significance will be lost unless we grasp, however roughly, the past race-history of the nations who took part therein."1


They headed west, following the sun.

On July 1, 1905, the secretary of war, William Howard Taft, Alice Roosevelt, seven senators, and twenty-three congressmen—together with wives and aides—boarded a transcontinental train in Washington, D.C. Recalled Alice, "It was a huge Congressional party, a 'junket' if ever there was one. We left from the old Baltimore and Ohio Station that stood on what is now part of the park between the Capitol and the Union Station…. The Taft party was, I should say, about eighty strong."2 Alice noted, "It was the first time I had ever been farther west than the Mississippi and I had a little Atlas that I used to read… as though it were a romance. I would look at it and think I—I am actually here at this place on the map. Those were the days when Kipling made Empire and far-flung territory dreams to dazzle."3

Princess Alice was traveling in style. "The luggage that I thought necessary for the trip included three large trunks and two equally large hat boxes, as well as a steamer trunk and many bags and boxes."4 For his part, Taft brought along several trunks of clothes and a Black valet to help him dress. Both Big Bill and the Princess had their own private railroad carriages.

The two were not alone in their high style, and some taxpayers worried about the cost of the trip. The federal government then had much tighter purse strings than in later years. Only government officials had their fares paid, and everyone, including senators and even Big Bill, was required to pay for his own meals and personal expenses. Nor would Uncle Sam foot the bill for female accompaniment: Alice, like the other women in the party, paid her own way.

Regardless the source of cash, a San Francisco Examiner article entitled "Why Taft Pleases Steamer and Rail Folk" pointed out that this was "one of the most lucrative special parties ever hauled across the continent by the overland roads. The railroad fares totaled $14,440, which includes something like $2,100 for dining car service." Added to that would be the "very snug sum" of twenty-eight thousand dollars for almost three months on the passenger ship Manchuria, not including tips estimated to total "$1,800… it being taken for granted they will observe the usual tipping custom aboard Pacific liners."5 These were big numbers to the average U.S. workingman in 1905, who earned between two hundred and four hundred dollars a year.

ALICE ROOSEVELT WAS A novelty, the twentieth century's first female celebrity. Like an early Madonna or Britney, newspaper readers knew her by her first name and even the illiterate recognized her photo. President Roosevelt realized that when Alice went somewhere, the crowds and press followed. She was the very first child entrusted to represent a president.

Teddy had been correct when he had calculated that with Alice on the imperial cruise, the world's newspapers would have more reason to print the family name. Reporters fluttered around her, eager to learn what the shapely girl wore, who sat near her, to whom she spoke, and what she said. Readers particularly loved it when Alice acted bolder than a twenty-one-year-old "girl" should, like when she welcomed the 1905 Fourth of July with a bang, going out to a car on the rear of the train after breakfast and taking potshots with her own revolver at receding telegraph poles. No one thought to ask why the president's young daughter was packing her own pistol. Americans expected such risqué behavior from their Princess.

Alice's public rambunctiousness was an outward reaction to her deep inner hurt over her cold and distant relationship with her domineering father. Her cousin Nicholas Roosevelt later wrote that Theodore Roosevelt's relationship with his daughter "subtly warped the development of this brilliant but basically unhappy person."6 Alice masked her pain by developing a tough and flamboyant outer layer.

Alice seemed doomed from the start. Before she was born, the future president and a woman named Edith Carow had been sweethearts as adolescents. They quarreled and broke up, but Edith continued to love Teddy. A few years later, Roosevelt married Alice Lee, who birthed Alice Lee Roosevelt on February 12, 1884. Two days later, Teddy's wife died in her husband's arms from complications resulting from her daughter's birth. A year later, Teddy married Edith.

Alice never heard her father acknowledge her natural mother. After his presidency, Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography about the joys of family life and love between men and women, but he would not admit to having had a first wife. As Alice later explained, "My father didn't want me to be… a guilty burden… on my stepmother. He obviously felt guilty about it, otherwise he would have said at least once that I had another parent. The curious thing is that he never seemed to realize that I was perfectly aware of it and developing a resentment."7 A relative wrote, "The only rational explanation that I have heard is that T.R.'s determination to regard his first marriage and his life with Alice Lee as a chapter never to be reread was so great that he deliberately buried it in the recesses of his memory forever."8 Added Alice: "He never even said her name, or that I even had a different mother…. He didn't just never mention her to me, he never mentioned her to anyone. Never referred to her again."9

Wrote the Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer Edmund Morris of Alice's stepmother: "Edith struck most strangers as snobbish…. 'If they had our brains,' she was wont to say of servants, 'they'd have our place.' "10

Theodore Roosevelt left to Edith the emotionally challenging job of dealing with the rebellious child. Edith responded by bluntly telling Alice that if she did not stop being so selfish, the family would stop caring for her.

Teddy and Edith had five children of their own: Theodore III, Kermit, Ethel, Archibald, and Quentin. Young Alice often felt like an outcast as her brothers teased her about not having the same mother. Her brother Ted told Alice that Edith said that it was good that Alice Lee had died, because she would have been a boring wife for Teddy. Alice later said of Edith, "I think she always resented being the second choice and she never really forgave him his first marriage."11

Edith Roosevelt. She said of the servants, "If they had our brains, they'd have our place." (Stringer/MPI/Getty Images)

Alice was frequently shunted off to relatives, with whom she often spent more time than with her father and stepmother. Carol Felsenthal writes in Alice: The Life and Times of Alice Roosevelt Longworth: "Theodore Roosevelt gave few signs that he cared much about his oldest child."12 In one letter to Edith, Teddy wrote affectionately about all the children except Alice. And, as Alice confided to her diary, "Father doesn't care for me…. We are not in the least congenial, and if I don't care overmuch for him and don't take any interest in the things he likes, why should he pay any attention to me or the things that I live for, except to look on them with disapproval."13

The Roosevelt family. Quentin, Theodore, Theodore III, Archie, Alice, Kermit, Edith, and Ethel. (Library of Congress)

Among the things Alice rejected was her father's devout faith. As a little girl Alice informed her father that his Christian beliefs were "sheer voodoo" and that she was "a pagan and meant it."14 She would be the only one of his six children not to be confirmed.

Alice's rebellious nature was far from private. She violated White House etiquette by eating asparagus with gloved fingers at an official dinner. She daringly used makeup, bet on horse races, and dangled her legs from grand pianos. Alice once appeared in public with a boa constrictor curled around her neck, and to one "dry" dinner party Alice smuggled small whiskey bottles in her gloves. At a time when automobiles were rare, Alice drove her car unchaperoned around Washington and was ticketed at least once for speeding. Alice wrote that Edith and Teddy requested "that I should not smoke 'under their roof,' [so] I smoked on the roof, up the chimney, out of doors and in other houses."15 (She was even "asked to leave Boston's Copley Plaza Hotel for smoking in the lobby."16) A friend called Alice "a young wild animal that had been put into good clothes."17 Roosevelt once exclaimed to a visitor, "I can be President of the United States, or I can attend to Alice. I can't do both!"18

Yet Roosevelt—who became president after a twenty-year career as a best-selling author and student of public relations—could not help but notice how the media loved this presidential wild child and how useful that might be. He asked his seventeen-year-old daughter to christen Prussian Kaiser Wilhelm's American-made yacht "in the glare of international flashbulbs," and the French ambassador noted it "was a means by which to reduce the hostility in the public sentiment between the two countries."19 Pleased with her performance, Teddy then dispatched her to America's newly acquired Caribbean possessions, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Although the teenager had once written, "I care for nothing except to amuse myself in a charmingly expensive way,"20 she took a serious interest in what she was shown: "As the daughter of the President, I was supposed to have an intelligent interest in such things as training schools, sugar plantations and the experiments with yellow fever mosquitoes."21 Teddy wrote her, "You were of real service down there because you made those people feel that you liked them and took an interest in them and your presence was accepted as a great compliment."22

Alice Roosevelt as a debutante, 1902. A friend called Alice "a young wild animal that had been put into good clothes." (Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Having proved useful, Alice was asked by her father to serve as the hostess on Secretary Taft's Pacific voyage. She would not only be a convenient distraction, but an ocean away. After leaving Washington, Alice wrote, "My parting from my family… was really delicious, a casual peck on the cheek and a handshake, as if I was going to be gone six days. I wonder if they really care for me or I for them."23

Among those on the trip was Congressman Nicholas Longworth of Ohio. At thirty-four years of age, Nick was thirteen years Alice's senior and only eleven years younger than her father. He had qualified for the trip because of his seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and because of his particular interest in Hawaii and the Philippines.

Nick was the fourth generation of Longworths in Cincinnati, a rich aristocrat who grew up on an estate, toured Europe, learned French and the classics, and summered in Newport, Rhode Island. He'd won election to Congress in 1902 and, being wealthy and dashing, was a big attraction for Alice.


On Sale
Nov 24, 2009
Page Count
400 pages

James Bradley

About the Author

James Bradley is the author of the New York Times bestsellers The Imperial Cruise, Flyboys, and Flags of Our Fathers, and a son of one of the men who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima.

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