Review: “Diplomats in Blue” by William Braisted

What does a navy do when it is not at war? From 1922 to 1933, the U.S. Navy kept the peace in the volatile western Pacific.

In “Diplomats in Blue: U.S. Naval Officers in China, 1922-1933” (University Press of Florida, 2009), Professor Emeritus of History William R. Braisted depicts a bygone world in which admirals played almost as important a role as ambassadors in representing American interests abroad.

During peace-time, high-ranking naval officers worked first to protect American citizens and American business interests. And several of them labored, sometimes in conflict with State Department officials, to foster a stronger, more unified China that might be a better ally of the United States.

Historian William R. Braisted

Historian William R. Braisted

Braisted will turn 91 in March. He previously published two well-received accounts of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific covering the years 1897 to 1922. In “Diplomats in Blue” Braisted diverges from these books in that he was actually present for parts of the story. As he relates in a sprightly preface, the navy was a family affair back then.

Like many navy wives, Braisted’s mother followed her husband’s ship—to the Philippines, then to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Chefoo, China—with four to six-year-old Braisted in tow. Ten years later, when the family returned to China and spent two years in Shanghai, Braisted attended the Shanghai American School and confirmed his fascination with all things Chinese. He would later introduce the study of Chinese and Japanese history into the UT curriculum.

“Diplomats in Blue” will prove useful to students of U.S. diplomacy and naval history, but also to those interested in the development of modern China. The book is well illustrated with clear and well-placed photographs and excellent maps, and Braisted has a straightforward and engaging narrative style that doesn’t diminish a wealth of detail and attention to nuance.

Reviewed by Marian J. Barber, doctoral candidate in the Department of History at The University of Texas at Austin.