The Education of Henry Adams By Henry Adams Summary and Analysis Chapter XXX - Vis Inertiae

Summary

Adams turns his attention back to international politics and his friend John Hay, now at "the summit of his career." Henry attempts to speak of the political influence of nations in terms of inertia and is specifically interested in Russia, China, and the Russo-Japanese War. He fears that the Open Door to China is about to be closed, perhaps permanently. Adams discusses his attitude toward women and comments on the emancipation of the gender in America in the early 1900s as well as the dangers that he thinks this entails. He mentions women's "superiority" but in a somewhat patronizing and limited way.

Analysis

Adams is an expert on international politics; his observations regarding the current scene, as well as the coming century, are always worth noting. John Hay has been brilliant in his efforts to open China to international commerce and to maintain its integrity after the Boxer Rebellion. However, Henry worries that this success may be threatened by the ambitions of two emerging modern powers: Russia and Japan. Japan sees itself as the dominant nation in Asia; it has already established economic influence in Korea and hopes to gain a strong foothold on the Chinese mainland. Russia is also interested in establishing control in China. Having invested military interests in Manchuria during the Boxer Rebellion, Russia (since 1898) has leased the seaport of Port Arthur (now Lüshun) in Liaoning province, the intent being to establish a center for Russian naval power in the Pacific. Tensions increase in 1903 as Russia refuses to withdraw its troops from Manchuria or to recognize Japan's interests. The Japanese attack Port Arthur on February 8, 1904 and blockade the Russian fleet. With superior naval power and effective use of land forces, Japan has the better of the war. The United States brokers a peace treaty on September 5, 1905, stipulating that Russia must withdraw from Manchuria and surrender its base at Port Arthur.

Henry's initial concern is that China will be closed to international trade. Six days after the Japanese surprise attack on Port Arthur, he writes Elizabeth Cameron that "the 8th of February will be a pretty serious and solemn anniversary I reckon, a good while after I have done my yawp." Henry further fears that Germany will be drawn into Asian interests by the inertia and gravitational pull of Russia. He hopes that Germany can be held in the Atlantic system, sharing interests with England and France, as Hay has arranged after several years of maneuvering. If Germany's interests are drawn away, Adams correctly anticipates "a century of friction" in Europe. He also wisely warns that, in the long run, Russia may be an even greater threat to Western interests than Germany will be.

As prescient and insightful as Adams can be regarding international affairs, his insistence on applying laws of force or mass to the movements of economics or diplomacy is less fruitful. As a metaphor, inertia may be of some interest; but the attempt to approach international politics, let alone world history, as if it were a scientific study of matter is more ambitious than informing. Here, for example, one may expect Russia to defeat Japan easily, considering only mass and inertia, but Japan wins the war. The reader may wish that Adams could just share his considerable political insight and not be quite so impressed with the methods of modern science.

When it comes to women, Adams is a hopeless romantic and idealist. In his letters to Elizabeth, for example, and often throughout the Education (including this chapter), he speaks of the "superiority" of women; but he does so with such grand chivalry that one wonders about the practical application of his evaluation. At best, women have a function in the home, the Church, and perhaps the arts for Henry. The ideal woman would seem to be the Madonna. He places women on a pedestal, which may be reverent from Adams's viewpoint but is out of step with the political and economic interests of actual American women in the early twentieth century.

At this point, women are struggling just to get the vote in the States. (The nineteenth amendment to the United States Constitution, passed August 18, 1920, will finally allow for women's suffrage.) With the industrial revolution, they seek a place in the workforce. Adams acknowledges the latter when he speaks of women who work as typists, clerks, factory hands, and "telegraph-girls." He warns, however, that joining the work force is abandoning "the cradle and the family." To succeed, he concludes, women "must become sexless like the bees." As much as he avows that women are superior, it would rarely occur to Henry, or most men in his generation, to have women serve in the Senate, in the House of Representatives, or on the board of a major corporation. Henry would say that women are far too fine for the nasty old worlds of politics or commerce. In practical terms, it is false flattery, more restricting than liberating. Henry's attitude toward women may better be evaluated by their scarce representation in the Education. He does say that he has learned more from women than from men, which begs the questions, "Which women educated him and in what way?" The reader never knows. Aside from that and a few mentions of women in domestic or social roles, there is little about women in the Education.

Glossary

vis inertiae (Latin) the force of inertia, later simply referred to as "inertia," the tendency of matter to remain at rest if at rest or to stay in motion if in motion.

enigma a perplexing, usually ambiguous, statement; a riddle.

Mikado the emperor of Japan, a title no longer used.

Cassini Count Arthur P. Cassini, Russian ambassador to the United States in 1903.

vis nova (Latin) new force.

ostentatiously in a showy manner.

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