A Monumental Quest for America's Heroes
October-December 2017
By: John Delury

Consider, for example, the overarching structure of the book. Green divides his chronology into a linear story of one rising power after another: the US (1784-1899); Japan (1900-1945); the Soviet Union (1945-1989); and China (1989- present). But was the United States really the rising power in the Asia-Pacific during the 19th century? The initial blow to Qing China’s hegemonic position in East Asia came in 1842 with a stunning defeat to the British in the First Opium War, and then with the eruption of the Taiping Civil War and defeat to Anglo-French forces in the Second Opium War, the Sino-centric order started to unravel. In the second half of the 19th century, Britain fortified its positions in Shanghai and Hong Kong, France pried loose Indochina and most importantly, Japan expanded into a formidable Asian maritime power – incorporating the Northern Territories and Hokkaido, annexing the Ryukyu Kingdom (Okinawa), and challenging Qing suzerainty over Korea. Meiji Japan’s stunning naval victory over China in 1895 added Formosa (Taiwan) to the empire, planting the flag of the Rising Sun in the South China Sea.

Green’s account of how the United States acquired “steppingstones” across the Pacific – Midway, Hawaii, Guam, Manila – makes for good reading. But a linear 19th century narrative focused on the rise of America oversimplifies the tangled skein of “great powers” contending for pieces of the unraveling Sino-centric order. Japan in particular was keeping pace with the United States, even posing a latent challenge for control over Hawaii, as Meiji modernization took the form of maritime power projection and territorial expansion.

As we move into the 20th century, another interpretive bias inherent in monumental history – the search for heroes – comes to the fore. Green has a few clear favorites in the list of presidents and strategists, and taken together they embody his preferred American strategy as an Asia-Pacific power. But the reader is left wondering at times if we are learning from history, or if history is being used to tell us what we think we already know.

The first real dynamic duo in Green’s telling of the history of strategy are US President Theodore Roosevelt and American strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. If Green could be reborn in any time or place, one imagines it would be as a member of Teddy’s National Security Council. He gives Roosevelt “perhaps the central place in establishing the core tenets that guide American strategy toward Asia today.” Teddy foresaw the need for an American armada that could patrol the Pacific and the importance of promoting American values (albeit with “blatant hypocrisy,” as Green acknowledges, in the case of the Philippines). Green pairs Roosevelt with his favorite strategic thinker, Mahan. Mahan’s prophetic “Influence of Sea Power in History” (1890) was finally realized in Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” that set off from Virginia in 1907 on a voyage of Pacific power projection that would take it all the way to Japan. It is an early apotheosis of what Green considers the ideal American strategy for the Asia-Pacific, although he faults Teddy for failing to appreciate the importance of free trade as part of that mix.

From Teddy Roosevelt, the mantle passes to Franklin D Roosevelt, who studied Mahan’s work like it was the Bible and admired his elder cousin as though he were a messiah. FDR, Green informs us, was nearly a Mahan scholar, but chose to run for office rather than devote himself to producing a new edition of “Influence of Sea Power in History.” FDR’s great strategic challenge in the Far East was the unabated rise of Japan, and Green’s account of the road to war is riveting, as one would expect given his expertise on Japan. As he recounts the argument over whether Japan’s trade dependence on the United States would prevent conflict or whether a “power transition” war was inevitable, the reader cannot help but think of America’s current policy debate about China. Green criticizes the lack of “strategic conceptualization” in the approach to Japan during the 1920s and 1930s, when the US State Department maintained an open-door posture on trade policy but the War Department failed to maintain the naval predominance to backstop it.

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