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Reviewed by:
  • Diplomats in Blue: U.S. Naval Officers in China, 1922–1933
  • Roger Dingman
Diplomats in Blue: U.S. Naval Officers in China, 1922–1933. By William Reynolds Braisted. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8130-3288-7. Maps. Photographs. Appendix. Notes and references. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xvii, 406. $75.00.

This volume is the third in its ninety-one year-old author’s magisterial history of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific since 1897. While its predecessors followed the navy virtually everywhere west of Hawaii and explored naval policy as such, this book focuses on the Asiatic Fleet and its commanders in and around China. It illuminates [End Page 1366] as never before the role naval officers played in shaping and implementing American East Asian policy in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Braisted’s understanding of these men derives from two sources. For fifteen of his early years, he followed his father who served with the fleet, shuttling between the Philippines, China, and occasionally Japan. He saw at first hand the life of the naval officer corps and the ways of the expatriate community in China. Years later he spent decades researching user-unfriendly American naval and diplomatic documents in Washington. The result is a history unparalleled in narrative detail and rich in analytical insight.

The book might well have been titled “the double diplomats,” for its protagonists had to deal simultaneously with chaos in China and conflict within their own government. That combination of circumstances gave commanders of the relatively small Asiatic fleet and their fellow officers far more responsibility than they might otherwise have borne. Their greatest challenge was to find the proper answer to the central question that confronted American policy-makers in China during the 1920s and early 1930s: When and how to use–or not use–force to stave off chaos, promote stability, and preserve foreigners’ privileges as enshrined in old treaties and affirmed in the so-called open door policy.

They wrestled with that problem in three distinct periods, and Braisted divides his narrative accordingly. From 1922 to 1925, when warlords ravaged China and threatened foreigners’ special position there, three fleet commanders struggled to balance the demands of worried expatriates, restrain lesser ranking army and marine officers eager for action, and thread their way between hawkish American diplomats in China and more dovish presidents and cabinet members in Washington. During the next three years, two quite different naval men wrestled with the question of how to deal with Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists as they attempted to unify China. One, Admiral Clarence S. Williams, gave precedence to defending hoary treaty rights accorded to foreigners. Braisted clearly favors the other, Admiral Mark L. Bristol. The admiral drew upon his recent experience as American commissioner in Turkey and a healthy but justifiable skepticism of British motives to avoid intervention and promote sympathetic understanding of the Chinese revolutionaries. From 1929 to 1933, when Japan’s actions in Manchuria and Shanghai threatened the existing order in China, Admiral Montgomery Meigs Taylor, who had not served in Asian waters since 1898, added a much-needed note of realism to American policy. While his civilian superiors in Washington dithered between bluff and empty condemnation of Japan’s actions, he rejected action by the paltry forces at his disposal as something likely to prove ineffective and counterproductive. American intervention would only disappoint the Chinese and fuel Japanese resentment of the United States.

A few words cannot do justice to this massive study. Braisted brings order to a chaotic tale and presents it in clear and graceful prose. International historians will welcome its addition of vital naval detail missing from earlier studies of revolution in, and diplomacy about, China. Naval specialists will delight in its anecdotes, [End Page 1367] its operational detail, and its assessments of previously little known naval leaders. Anyone interested in the relationship between force and diplomacy can read the book with great profit. I suspect readers will readily recognize this book for what it is–the crowning achievement of a master naval historian.

Roger Dingman
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California