AuthorBar Journal Author - Attorney James E. Fender

New Hampshire Bar Journal


2005 Summer, 68.


New Hampshire Bar Journal Volume 46, No. 2, Pg. 68 Summer 2005 ROOSEVELT, THE MIKADO AND THE CZAR Bar Journal Author - Attorney James E. Fender

Theodore Roosevelt's Mediation of the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth


In a surprise attack launched the evening of February 8, 1904, two days before an official declaration of war, Japanese naval forces commanded by Admiral Heihachiro Togo attacked and neutralized the Russian Pacific fleet at Port Arthur, Manchuria. The Russo-Japanese War,(fn1) the first modern war of the 20th Century, ended 19 months later in an unlikely venue, a United States Naval Shipyard located in the Piscataqua River estuary between New Hampshire and Maine. The Treaty of Portsmouth that officially concluded hostilities between the belligerent empires of Japan and Russia was adroitly mediated, albeit with great tact behind the scenes, by President Theodore Roosevelt, and earned for him the first Nobel Prize for Peace awarded to an American.(fn2) While the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard appeared a most unlikely choice of venue to diplomats and reporters at the time, the Portsmouth preference was a shrewd election by one of America's greatest presidents, who happily was as well versed in naval matters as he was in international diplomacy - and who had long enjoyed a cordial relationship with one of Japan's most influential statesmen.


In 1872 two Japanese students arrived in Boston to enroll in Harvard University. One of them, Kentaro Kaneko, met the 18-year old Theodore Roosevelt shortly after Roosevelt matriculated at Harvard in September 1876.They struck up a friendship that would endure for the rest of Roosevelt's life. Kaneko delighted in his life and studies in the United States, and embarked upon a distinguished career in his government's service immediately upon his return to Japan. His rapid rise came through merit, and in 1889 be was the principal framer of the Meiji(fn3) Constitution. In 1890 he was actively involved in adapting the parliamentary form as the preferred political system of Japanese government. At various times he held the portfolios of Minister of State for Agriculture and Commerce (where he strongly supported the right of workers to form trade unions); Secretary of the Privy Council; Chief Secretary of the House of Peers; and Minister of Justice. Among Americans with whom Kaneko conducted an extensive correspondence was John H. Wigmore, who studied and wrote extensively about Japanese law, and whose name is known to every American law school student for his monumental Treatise on Evidence. In later life Kaneko founded the America-Japan Society, and was that Society's first president.


Without going into extensive detail, suffice it to say that the causes of the Russo-Japanese War grew out of expansionist desires and competing spheres of influence. The Japanese Government, resolved to prosecute the war aggressively, threw all the ground troops at its disposal into Manchuria, winning major battles on the Yalu River and Dairen in 1904. However, the Russians, confidently anticipating overwhelming reinforcements via the Trans-Siberian railway, remained passively on the defensive, inflicting significant loses on the attacking Japanese troops and refusing to counterattack, all the while falling back upon the fortifications around Port Arthur.

The Japanese, bereft of allies and aware that at some point hostilities would have to move from the battlefield to the negotiating table, cast about for - if not allies, at least friends - and if not friends, at least facilitators willing and able to get the belligerents into the same room. The Japanese did not expect, nor did they wish assistance from Germany or France - Russia's partners in the Tripartite Intervention that forced Japan to give up much of the spoils it had gained in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. In mid-1904 two envoys were dispatched to sound out public opinion and political backing in the two countries upholding the Open Door Policy towards China's commercial interests: Kencho Suematsu to Great Britain, and - mindful of his long friendship with the American president - Kentaro Kaneko to the United States.

Kaneko lost no time in soliciting his colleague from Harvard days to devise some way to intervene. Although incensed at the Czar's autocratic despotism and the widespread pogroms targeting Russian Jews, Roosevelt was concerned about possible Japanese designs on the Philippines and Hawaii. However, he realized America's and the world's interests would best be served by a balance of power in the Pacific Basin - and his humanitarian instincts wanted to see an end to the bloodshed and destruction the war was causing. Roosevelt signaled his willingness to engage the belligerents in settlement negotiations when the opportunity presented itself.

Opportunity arose after May 27-28, 1905, when the Japanese Navy in the most decisive sea battle since Trafalgar, intercepted and annihilated the unwieldy Russian Second Pacific Fleet(fn4) as it entered the Tsushima Strait between Japan and Korea.(fn5) Three days later Japan's ambassador, Kogoro Takahira was instructed by his government to ask Roosevelt to mediate. Roosevelt immediately agreed, "primarily to save lives and stabilize the military and diplomatic situation in the Pacific, but also to demonstrate to voters the constructive possibilities of getting more involved with foreign affairs".(fn6)

In truth, both belligerents were desperate to end the war. Despite overwhelming victories that ensured Japanese control of the seas, Japan had accumulated such massive debt that she was tottering on the edge of bankruptcy. Furthermore, Japan had lost proportionately far more young men from her population than Russia had, and the lack of labor to bring in the rice harvest might mean famine. Despite horrific losses of lives and materi

On June 11, 1905, two weeks after the battle at Tsushima Strait, the Department of State formally announced that the belligerent powers had accepted President Roosevelt's offer to sponsor peace negotiations in the United States - but Roosevelt had been preparing the ground for months, as early as his inaugural in March of 1905.(fn8) In a letter to his son, Kermit, dated the day of the Department of State's formal announcement, Roosevelt wrote:

"During the past fortnight, and indeed for a considerable time before, I have been carrying on negotiations with both Russia and Japan, together with side negotiations with Germany, France and England, to try to get the present war stopped. With infinite labor and by the exercise of a good deal of tact and judgment - if I do say it myself - I have finally gotten the Japanese and Russians to agree to meet to discuss the terms of peace. Whether they will be able to come to an agreement or not I can't say. But it is worthwhile to have obtained the chance of peace, and the only possible way to get this chance was to secure such an agreement of the two powers that they would meet and discuss the terms direct. Of course, Japan will want to ask more than she ought to ask, and Russia to give less than she ought to give. Perhaps both sides will prove impracticable. Perhaps one will. But there is the chance that they will prove...

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