The Dead Tell Tales Of The North Pacific



By Walter A. McDougall

Basic x 793pp x $30

Just what kind of book is this, I had to wonder as I read Let the Sea Make a Noise. On one level, it's a grand historical narrative of the turbulent North Pacific--a region bordered by North America, Japan, China, and Russia. Walter A. McDougall chronicles the rise of the region's great empires and the precarious balance of power among them. His conclusion is sobering: "The United States will never again enjoy the Pacific supremacy that it pursued for so long, and briefly attained."

But McDougall tells his tale most unconventionally. The opening features him pecking away on his laptop, searching for the right "grabber" with which to begin. He bounces from a bloody anti-Christian purge in Japan of 1638 to the harsh shores of Alaska of 1899, where hustlers reign supreme, to San Francisco in 1906 in the wake of a devastating earthquake. "The opener has to convey a sense of majesty and tragedy, the North Pacific as a place of explosions," McDougall muses at one point. "On the Pacific Rim people live life on the rim, waiting for the next typhoon or drought, or fire or volcanic eruption, or--F7 to exit! Save 'Alaska.' New document. Go!"

And that's only the beginning. As the book progresses, McDougall brings to life six characters who figure prominently in his history. Interspersed with the chronology of events are chapters of dialogue between the author and these luminaries, who debate, defend, or deny his assessments. They heatedly discuss everything from Spain's inability to defend its American colonies to Japan's motives for attacking Pearl Harbor. Resurrected are Kaahumanu, a 19th century Hawaiian queen who helped tilt her nation toward the U.S. by embracing Christianity; William Henry Seward, U.S. Secretary of State during the Civil War; Saito Hirosi, Japan's ambassador to the U.S. in the 1930s; Count Sergey Witte, Prime Minister to Tsar Nicholas II; and Father Jun pero Serra, the first Westerner to establish a settlement in California. Later, Homer Lea, an American adviser to Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, joins the group.

But this is not a historical novel. McDougall, who won the 1986 Pulitzer in history for ...The Heavens and the Earth, about space exploration, terms this work "novelistic history" and "serious nonfiction." The good news: He pulls it off.

At first I thought McDougall was using semifictionalized figures to leaven what might otherwise be a turgid history. But these strong-willed, highly opinionated thinkers do more than supply lively conversation. Their comments--drawn in part from their writings--serve to challenge McDougall's modern, very American take on the evolution of the Pacific. The dialogues strengthen the book by conveying views that are often at odds with the author's.

The book's real strength, though, is McDougall's geopolitical analysis. He unfolds his saga chronologically, moving from, say, Nagasaki in 1638 to Peking in 1644 to Nerchinsk in 1689. Readers can see how developments in one place--be they political, technological, demographic, or economic--set off reactions elsewhere. The move to annex slave-holding Texas led to the rise of the U.S. as a Pacific power, for example, as it prompted the annexation of free California and Oregon.

In McDougall's view, there's no one reason the Pacific has crackled with conflict for the past 300 years. The region's fortunes have rested in the hands of a power triangle made up of the U.S., Russia, and Japan, he writes, and "whenever two nations clashed the third benefited, which allowed the loser of one round to recoup in the next round." Each of the three has had its moment of glory, only to lose it by pushing too far. McDougall argues, for example, that while the U.S. became the Pacific's mightiest power after World War II, attempting to police Asia against communism and opening U.S. markets to Asian competitors in the spirit of free trade helped push it into decline.

One flaw is McDougall's underestimation of China's role. For the last 150 years, China has been weak, torn by regional rivalries, and that, he suggests, is its fate. But from my perch in Asia, I see Beijing's economic and military star on the rise--which is sure to reconfigure the region's balance of power.

Without question, McDougall is provocative. He lets Homer Lea argue that America's ethnic diversity is a weakness. In Japan's more homogeneous society, Lea contends, the people's religious, cultural, and ethnic bond gives them a strength and vision America increasingly lacks. Says Lea: "A mongrelized nation soon loses the will to defend its own city's streets, or its borders against aliens, or its markets against commercial invasion." While most Americans may resent that view, many Asians do believe America's lack of homogeneity will drag it down.

This unusual and intriguing history is a must-read for anyone interested in Asia, especially as political and economic power shifts to the East. The research is amazingly thorough, the writing lively, and the pace fast for a historical work of this magnitude. From start to finish, this book is an original.