As Mark Zuckerberg says near the beginning of The Social Network, Teddy Roosevelt got his start through the contacts he made in Harvard’s Porcellian Club. Poor Zuckerberg never fulfills his Final Club obsession and is condemned to go through life as a mere outcast Facebook billionaire. He will never know the joys of standing around a ratty billiard table, looking out over the Boston slush from the “Old Barn." Unless he just buys the block and "makes it into his ping-pong room," that is.
Teddy, on the other hand, successfully avoided the ignoble and politically disastrous trap of producing something useful for money. He became a millionaire the Addams Family way… by inheriting and then losing much of tens of millions of dollars (in today’s money). Teddy built a political career rather than wealth. In the process, he caused disaster for several Asian nations, set the stage for WWII in the Pacific, and started a trend of faux-cowboy presidents. The Imperial Cruise is about the effects of Roosevelt's PR campaigns and how they began our long series of Asian wars.
Until his twenties, Roosevelt was no cowboy by anyone’s standard. He showed up for his NY assemblyman’s seat (purchased for him by his family when he was 23, still a NY record) in a purple suit and speaking in a high squeaky voice. If video recording had existed, his political career would have ended right there.
But the 19th-century memesphere had no video records. Image could be reworked easily, if you had the money. Roosevelt began a systematic lifelong media campaign, presenting photos of himself in custom-tailored, spotless buckskins and military uniforms. He forbade any photos of himself in tennis whites. He was horrified at Taft’s sloppy PR (Taft was often photographed golfing).
Successful PR and contacts propelled him into several government posts. He became assistant Secretary of the Navy, and pushed hard for war… any war. He claimed that the US would lose the “barbarian virtues” if we stayed too long at peace.
The war deficiency was cured by the Spanish-American War. Peace threatened to break out almost immediately as the Spanish surrendered, but was averted by the Iraq-style occupation of the Philippines. Or maybe Soviets-in-Afghanistan-style is a better analogy; the final stage of the American takeover began with a coordinated surprise attack on Filipino forces. The initial US attack killed thousands of our “allies” that had done the ground fighting against the Spanish, and had been operating their own democratic government for some time. The counterinsurgency campaigns that followed killed hundreds of thousands of Filipinos.
Teddy’s Antisocial Network kept the war going by presenting it as a War for Civilization. We were just helping out the uncultured “Filipino Negroes” (illustrations of the time depicted Filipinos as Africans). Eventually reports of waterboarding and mass killings of civilians trickled home into Life magazine and the Washington Post. Teddy’s PR team countered by bringing 1200 Filipinos dressed as primitives and roasting dogs over open fires to the 1904 World’s Fair, displaying (at taxpayer expense of course) them next to Amerinds to drive home the point of Aryan racial superiority over the lesser races.
So the Philippines became a money pit for US taxpayers and a quagmire for the US Army… a perfect habitat for ambitious US generals and Filipino foreign-aid governments. Thus it remains; the US Army was still fighting rebels in Zamboanga when Bradley visited the Philippines in 2005.
The Philippine occupation story has been told elsewhere (though most Americans have never heard of it). The unique chapters in the Imperial Cruise deal with the link between a US President and Japanese militarism.
Teddy didn’t hate all non-Aryans equally. The Japanese clique that had risen to power behind the mask of the suddenly very divine Meiji emperor was right up his alley. He thought that a "Japanese Monroe Doctrine," combined with Japanese colonization of Korea and Taiwan, would be a fine thing.
History has reported on Roosevelt's praise for the Japanese sneak attack on the Russian fleet without a declaration of war. The irony in light of later naval events is obvious. What is not so well known is the extent of his diplomatic efforts to convince the Japanese government to expand into Korea (which had signed a treaty with the US for protection) and Taiwan. With the cooperation of the English government, Roosevelt made the Japanese ruling clique feel that they had an "alliance" with the US… and of course none of this was ever brought before the US Senate for its advice and consent.
The weak point of The Imperial Cruise is that it doesn't go into any depth on the natures of the Filipino, Korean or Chinese regimes. This is ironic in that the book is constantly criticizing the "white-centric" views of Roosevelt. The Koreans, like the pre-Perry Japanese, lived under a stagnant government that prohibited all foreign trade. The Chinese government also severely limited their subjects' trade and other rights, and the Filipino "freedom fighters" assassinated each other in power struggles that weakened them for US takeover.
This is no argument for US imperialism, but an understanding of other governments is necessary to understand events. If Asian countries had been free-trade zones, they would have been economically strong enough to resist colonization. There would also have been less profit for businesses in lobbying to "open" ports with military force if they had already been open.
The US is still on the "Imperial Cruise" that was started back in the 19th century. Our taxes still pay to "civilize" the "backward" nations; the justification for the Afghan war is now not that we are defending ourselves against terrorists or WMDs, but that we are "helping empower women." (That those women might empower themselves if we quit subsidizing the warlords and allowed free trade is never considered. That would require that we recognize that foreigners are as capable of intelligence and action as our selves… not something that Teddy Roosevelt could ever bring himself to believe.)
In many respects not much has changed since 1902. The "Antisocial Network" of Porcellian Club types still tries to maintain itself as a parasitic class, above mere productive work. It uses mass media to delude working people into supporting foreign wars, to distract them from the real drains on their lives from taxes, regulations, and prohibitions.
One difference between 1902 and 2011 is that now the Imperial Cruise has expanded to cover most of the globe. The US subsidizes nearly every bad government on the planet, with money that it borrows from other governments. Our Imperial Cruise has become a shortcut back to the Middle Ages. We are spending resources we don't have, to support whatever warlords that will pretend to be in our "Empire"… till the day we go broke. That day the Imperial Cruise will end with a crash.
The other difference is that mass media is ceasing to be all-powerful. The Social Network, not just Facebook but the whole Internet, steadily eats away at the ability of mass media to maintain synchronized delusion.
Perhaps the Social Network will beat the Antisocial Network yet.
Bill Walker [send him mail] is a research technologist. He lives with his wife and four dogs in Grafton NH, where they are active in the Free State Project.