Theodore Roosevelt’s involvement in the peace talks which lead to the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War was a natural outgrowth of his experience and foreign policy.  Perhaps the most widely traveled U. S. President since John Quincy Adams, Roosevelt had spent large portions of his life overseas.  At the age of 10, Roosevelt left with his family on a Grand Tour of Europe, which lasted over a year, including England, France, Italy, Switzerland and Germany.  Two and a half years after their return, the family was off on another tour featuring Egypt, the Holy Land, Austria, Turkey, Greece and Germany.  His first honeymoon was to Ireland, England, France and Italy.  His second wedding took place in London, followed by tours through England, France and Italy.  His much celebrated exploits in Cuba as Colonel of the Rough Riders completed his pre-presidential international travels.

A prominent pro-imperialist politician, Roosevelt led American foreign policy into fields unplowed by prior administrations.  Whereas prior administrations were satisfied to limit their interests largely to the Americas, Roosevelt fished in any waters in which the United States, as an emerging world power, had interests.  While his intervention in the Venezuelan Crisis of 1902 over debts owed to Britain and Germany could be justified as enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine, his involvement in the 1906 Algeciras Conference over influence in Morocco was part of a new movement into the wider world of diplomacy.

Roosevelt’s diplomacy was always calculated to advance American interests, usually by maintaining a balance of power which would permit American trade.  The American interest in maintaining a balance of power in East Asia and China played a major role in his intervention in the Russo-Japanese War.

Although Roosevelt had never been to either Russia or Japan, he had formed opinions about their national characters.   Roosevelt was influenced by a group of friends which included Brooks Adams and Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan.  In a prophecy, perhaps ahead of his time, Adams had concluded that future conflicts would pit a declining Britain against a rising Russia.  Adams felt that America would have to enter the lists in order to maintain a balance of power which would prevent Russia from gaining a preponderant position.  He felt that dominance by either Russia or Germany would be ominous for America, with Russia, because of its larger size, a greater long term threat.  He envisioned China as the focal point of the struggle.

Seeing the competition as between Teuton and Slav, Mahan saw Russia, the great land power, as the more potent long term threat.  Mahan also saw China as focal point of the struggle, with the means of containment of Russia as the strength of the sea powers, primarily Britain, Germany, the United States and Japan.

In the years leading up to the Russo-Japanese War, Roosevelt viewed Russia as a friendly power and an effective agent of the white race in its dealings with Asiatics.  In 1898, he had written “Russia, and Russia alone of European powers, has been uniformly friendly to us in the past” although “I have no question that this friendliness came almost solely from self-interest.”  He identified Russia as the agent of “civilization” in containing the “backward peoples” of Asia.  He viewed Russia as a potential dominant power in Asia if it could mobilize North China as an effective addition to its empire.

While American interests did not conflict with those of Russia, Roosevelt remained a Russian booster.  Around 1900, as interests began to clash over access to Chinese markets, Roosevelt’s outlook toward Russia became less favorable.  As Russia became a rival to Anglo-American interests, TR viewed Russian actions less as an advancement of civilization over backward races and more as a contest between civilized powers.  In August, 1901, Roosevelt said “I feel that an immense boon to humanity has been conferred by...Russia when she expanded over Turkestan, and for the matter of that, over Manchuria.  It was a hard task but a task for the benefit of the provinces taken.” Further, “I should not regard it at all for the advantage of mankind to have one civilized power expand at the cost of another, I am glad to see Russia expand in Asia.  I am very sorry to see her expand over Finland.  I should regret to see Germany take Switzerland or Holland or Denmark, but I should hail with delight Germany getting control of Asia Minor.”  He envisioned China as an uncivilized power which “would be benefited by Russia’s advance.”  He did note that “it may be that if I knew more of the trade needs between China or Asia generally and our Pacific slope, I might alter my views.”

Roosevelt’s disposition toward Japan drifted as Japan presented a threat to or a support of American interests.  In the 1890s, when annexation of Hawaii by the United States and Japan was in the balance, Roosevelt saw Japan as a threat and urged a build up of the American Pacific fleet to counter the threat posed by the Imperial Japanese Navy.  After Japan accepted the American annexation of Hawaii, Roosevelt began to view Japan more favorably.  Always an admirer of Japanese efficiency, Roosevelt began to see Japan, by then a British ally, as a counter weight to Russian expansion in the Far East.  He even began to overlook Japan’s racial makeup, as evidenced by his statement “Japan, shaking off the lethargy of centuries, has taken her rank among the civilized, modern powers.”

By the time that the Russo-Japanese War started, Roosevelt was hoping for, and expected, a Japanese victory, but one which would leave a balance of power which left room for American trade in the region.  With a view to the security of Hawaii and the Philippines, Roosevelt said “I like to see the war ending with Russia and Japan locked in a clinch, counter weighing one another, and both kept weak by the effort”.  His expectations were betrayed by his statement that “The Russians think only with half a mind...I think that Japanese will whip them handsomely.”

Roosevelt’s involvement with the Russo-Japanese War began with a close following of the battlefield developments.  By January, 1905, Roosevelt was seen as a possible peace mediator.  In diplomatic negotiations, Roosevelt kept telling his Harvard classmate, Baron Kaneko, that Japan should not make “exorbitant” demands as a price for peace.  As neither belligerent wanted to be seen as asking for peace, Roosevelt maneuvered an invitation to intervene.  While Roosevelt was vacationing in Colorado, French peace initiatives were spurned by Japan which distrusted France due to its alliance with Russia.  Japanese Ambassador Takahira extended feelers to Secretary of War William Howard Taft, regarding American involvement in the peace process.  Roosevelt agreed with the proviso that Japan must continue her support of the Open Door in Manchuria and for the restoration of the province to China.  On April 24, 1905, Japan agreed to Roosevelt’s conditions.  Roosevelt’s offer of mediation, transmitted through Ambassador George von Lengerke Meyer, was ignored by Czar Nicholas II.   Although Nicholas seemed to be out of touch with the perilous condition of his empire, Roosevelt tried to save Russia from collapse and Japan from bankruptcy.  Roosevelt told Russian Ambassador Arturo Cassini to convey to the Czar that the situation was “absolutely hopeless for Russia.”  He relayed that, if the Czar was receptive to the concept of a peace conference, he thought that he could obtain Japan’s participation.

Despite the Czar’s reluctance to receive ambassadors on his birthday, he did receive Meyer on June 7.  Meyer read Roosevelt’s message:

It is the judgment of all outsiders, including all of Russia’s most ardent friends, that the present contest is absolutely hopeless and that to continue it would only result in the loss of all of Russia’s possessions in East Asia.  To avert trouble, and as he fears, what is otherwise inevitable disaster, the President most earnestly advises that an effort be made by...representatives of the two Powers to discuss the whole peace question themselves, rather than for any outside Power to do more than endeavor to arrange the meeting-that is to ask both Powers whether they will not consent to meet...If Russia will consent to such a meeting the President will try to get Japan’s consent, acting simply on his own initiative and not saying that Russia has consented...and the President believes he will succeed.  Russia’s answer to this request will be kept strictly secret, as will all that has so far transpired, nothing being made public until Japan also agrees.  The President will then openly ask each Power to agree to the meeting, which can thereupon be held.

After much delay, Nicholas agreed to the terms with the stipulation that Russia’s acceptance would be kept secret in the event that Japan did not agree.  Nicholas relayed the Czar’s response to Washington and by June 10 both sides had accepted Roosevelt’s invitation to the conference.

With the invitation accepted, the negotiations over the conference began.  TR encouraged Russia to grant its plenipotentiaries full powers as the Japanese had indicated that they would do.  In pressuring the powers he pointed out to the Russians that they had experienced a total military ”failure.”  He focused the Japanese on the immense cost in “blood and money” that the continuation of the war would require.

As the parties accepted the reality of the conference, a location offering security, communications facilities and a pleasant climate had to be chosen.  TR’s suggestion of the navy yard at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, actually across the river in Kittery, Maine, was immediately accepted by both parties.

The Emperors appointed their respective plenipotentiaries.  Nicholas chose the tall Iulievich Witte, a former Finance Minister who felt that economics, not force, determined international questions.  Japan designated its Foreign Minister, Baron Jutaro Komura, providing cartoonists with a real Mutt and Jeff contrast.  Each was joined by their ambassadors to the United States, Baron Roman Romanovich von Rosen and Kogoro Takahira.

The legations assembled until their scheduled meetings at the President’s home at Oyster Bay.  The Japanese chose to make a call on the President in advance of the formal meeting.  Arriving an hour early, they waited on the porch until they heard a greeting from the trees below and saw their casually attired host approach the house.  Escorting the delegation to the “North Room”, TR cautioned the Japanese against demanding too much.  The Japanese replied with their demands, including recognition of Japan’s dominance in Korea, withdrawal of Russian troops from and economic concessions in Manchuria, cession of the Liaotung Peninsula, Sakhalin Island and the Port Arthur Railway, along with a promise not to base a Russian fleet in the “Extreme East” and payments of indemnity.  Roosevelt counseled softening of the territorial demands and suggested that a proposal for reparations might be more acceptable to Russia than a demand for indemnity.

The Russian delegation arrived later, on August 4.  They came, torn between their own recognition that the war had been lost and their Czar’s insistence that it was not.  They new that their task was to win a peace in such a way as to delay the revolution seething in their homeland.  Arriving with instructions incompatible with Japanese demands, TR had been warned that they intended to give the conference ten days in which to yield acceptable Japanese concessions.  During their two and one half hour conference, Witte established the Russian position that they were not conquered and would not consider any indemnity payments while offering some concessions.  While betraying his pro-Japanese preferences, Roosevelt opined that peace was in the interests of both parties and that indemnities may be a price which Russia should pay, if necessary.

The President hosted both delegations to a luncheon aboard the U. S. S. Mayflower.  Transported by identical cruisers, each delegation was greeted upon arrival by Roosevelt who then introduced the senior plenipotentiaries to each other.  Taking Witte on one arm and Komura on the other, Roosevelt escorted each of them into lunch.  At the conclusion of lunch, TR bade each of them farewell and left them to conduct negotiations on their own.

As the conference began, TR remained at Oyster Bay where he was available for any needed intervention.  By August 18 he received word that a deadlock was developing.  Russia was regressing into an unwillingness to grant necessary concessions.  Hearing that Britain and France were considering intervention in the peace process, Roosevelt summoned Baron Rosen to Oyster Bay.  He proposed compromises on the issues of naval vessels and naval limitations and control of Sakhalin, which, he thought, should permit a settlement.  Questioning the trustworthiness of the Russian delegates, Roosevelt wired a message to Ambassador Meyer in St. Petersburg, which he directed the Ambassador to personally read to the Czar.  In the message Roosevelt appealed to the Czar to reach a compromise by returning the southern half of Sakhalin to Japan.

While Ambassador Meyer was working with Czar Nicholas in St. Petersburg, Roosevelt was sending strident cables around the world in order to pressure the Japanese on the issue of indemnity.  He pointed out that another year of war would cost more than Japan could hope to recover from Russia.

For days the conference dragged on, apparently toward failure.  On August 25, Witte presented Russia’s final proposal: cession of the southern half of Sakhalin Island, with no indemnity.  Komura, citing Japan’s desire for peace, accepted on behalf of his emperor and government.  Peace had been restored.

Theodore Roosevelt, in the words of Henry Adams, “the best herder of Emperors since Napoleon,” hailed the signing of the treaty on September 5 as “a mighty good thing for Russia and a mighty good thing for Japan” and “a mighty good thing for me, too!”  Roosevelt was not spared international and domestic criticism for his actions. Anti-American riots rocked Japan.  Long time foreign policy expert, George Keenan, regretted that TR did not delay his intervention until Japan had won more victories and Mark Twain fretted that the peace had irreparably delayed Russia’s “liberation from its age-long chains.”  By contrast, the President's former commander, Gen. Leonard Wood, believing that the financial strain would have limited Japan’s continued participation, decried the lost opportunity that “A peace of exhaustion would have prevented Japan from becoming a great world power and hence a menace to others in Europe.”  His former law professor, John W. Burgess, described the treaty as “one of the most disastrous things that has ever occurred to the peace of the world...the lodgment of Japan in Northern Asia was bound to result in driving half Asiatic Russia back upon Europe, to the ruin of European civilization and indirectly to the injury of North America.”

Despite the criticism, his participation in the process, lead Theodore Roosevelt to become, in 1906, the first American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  America had advanced its standing as a great power of the world.  The Romanov dynasty had bought itself a little time before dissolving in revolution in 1917.  Japan had ratified its place as a power in the Orient.  In the process of all this, Japanese resentment over its treatment introduced a wedge into relations between the United States and Japan, a wedge which would grow for 36 years before erupting in the blast and fire of Pearl Harbor.  That is for another story, and another Roosevelt.

James M. Gallen is an attorney practicing in St. Louis, Missouri.  He is also an amateur historian who has taught continuing education classes on Theodore Roosevelt and other topics through the St. Louis Community College.


Japan “Japan is playing our game” p. 312
Miller- “Thoroughly well pleased” 443

“Great new force” in the Far East  If Korea and China develop along Japanese lines “there will result a real shifting of the center of equilibrium as far as the white races are concerned.”
“The Russians think only with half a mind”...”I think that Japanese will whip them handsomely.” 352

Beale- “Japan, shaking off the lethargy of centuries,  has taken her rank among the civilized, modern powers.” p. 159

Beale: Attitude toward Japan, 233-6
“ I like to see the war ending with Russia and Japan locked in a clinch, counter weighing one another, and both kept weak by the effort”  This would safeguard the security of Hawaii and the Philippines. p. 356

Trip to Colorado, p. 380
Japan a “civilized, modern power” p 387

“What I cannot understand about the Russian is the way he will lie when he knows perfectly well that you know he is lying.”
389 expectations

Closed Open Door in Manchuria  Miller, p. 442.

Adams & Mahan- 227-8
Attitude toward Russia, p. 229-32
America’s duty to play a part, Beale, p159

Impact of outcome: Beale237-9

Copyright © by James M. Gallen, July 6, 2009