TR intervened in the negotiations to end the Russo-Japanese War at several points as described in this delightful essay by Brian B. Wagner of U.S. Grant High School in Portland, Oregon. Wagner was the winner of the first TR essay contest sponsored by the newly formed Oregon Chapter of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, an outgrowth of the Rough Rider Restoration 2000 Committee*.
Speak Softly and Carry a Diplomatic Stick
by Brian B.
Theodore Roosevelt is remembered by many as the man who coined the oft-misinterpreted phrase "speak softly and carry a big stick." Numerous critics have convinced themselves that Roosevelt was a testosterone-pumped chest-thumper who lacked any semblance of diplomatic skills and exemplified many less than admirable traits. But one must only look to Roosevelt's exquisite handling of the Russo-Japanese War to see that he was, despite being one of the world's greatest fighters, also one of the world's premier diplomats.
When Russia stepped into China in the late 1890's and established a strong presence in Manchuria, Japan was understandably infuriated. They had just defeated China 1895 and felt as if their prize was being snatched from them. They insisted that Russia leave Manchuria. They even went as far as to sign a treaty with England, a treaty which declared the two countries' support for the integrity of China and for Japan's interest in Korea.(1)
Into this disagreement entered Theodore Roosevelt, the new President of the United States. Despite his early confession to an advisor that, " I have not any but the most muddled idea as to what is to happen in China," Roosevelt soon became immersed in the situation and proved an adept diplomat. (2)
During the period leading up to the actual fighting among Russia and Japan, Roosevelt and Secretary of State John Hay undertook a single project intended to counter Russian dominance in Manchuria. In 1903 they started negotiations with China to open more of the Manchurian cities to trade. This forced the Russians into an undesirable position, for they did not want to blatantly oppose the United States, yet they could not simply allow the United States to stick its foot in the door to Manchurian trade. They eventually, after much stalling, gave into the United States' demands, which in no small part weakened their stranglehold over Manchuria and led to their acquiescence at Portsmouth.(3)
Though Roosevelt, and much of the world, had a more favorable view of Japan than of Russia, he chose to publicly appear neutral, so as not to offend the Russians, who would prove to be valuable allies in world War I and II. Roosevelt instead chose to offer his services in appeasing both sides and to try to bring about a deal that would be favorable to the United States and Japan. Roosevelt, for all his professions of ignorance, quickly learned that weakening Russia and strengthening Japan could be beneficial for the United States, but he also recognized that if Japan gained too much ground, the balance of power in the Far East could be disturbed. He understood that by leaving the Russians some control in Asia, he could safeguard the United States' Asiatic interests.
By 1903, the Russian military had occupied Manchuria for three years, with no end in sight. At the same time, Russia's Tsar Nicholas fell under the influence of an ambitious group that had designs on Manchuria and Korea. At this point, Japan felt pushed to the brink of war. In attempt to avoid fighting, the Japanese presented Russia with a treaty that would be relatively fair to both parties. Roosevelt, though hoping for an outcome that would benefit Japan, remained silent so as not to appear biased. According to some historians, he did not remain totally silent. It is believed that he warned Germany and France to refrain from aiding the Tsar. He was prepared to "proceed to whatever length was necessary" to insure that Japan was not robbed of the fruit of her military victory.(4) Russia, to the surprise of no one, would not accept any terms for the treaty that did not grossly favor themselves. Left with no choice, Japan declared war on January 10, two days after a successful attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur, Manchuria. The Japanese, far better prepared than the Russians, drove them out of Korea and pushed them back to North Manchuria, having won a major victory by overrunning the critical Russian stronghold in Port Arthur.
It was at this point that Roosevelt began to seriously consider offering his services as a mediator. His concept of Realpolitik led to his belief that the creation of a balance of power in East Asia that would be beneficial to Russia and Japan, and most importantly the United States. Though he was still pro-Japanese, he began to believe, around July 1905, that his diplomatic intervention was required to save the remaining Russian possessions.(5)
Roosevelt, by that time knowledgeable in East Asian affairs, knew that he alone could not bring about peace. Using his considerable connections with political figures in other key powers, he was able to bring pressure on Russia and Japan from numerous sides.
Finally, on August 5, 1905, Roosevelt brought the two delegations together onboard the yacht Mayflower. When on the ship, they traveled to Portsmouth New Hampshire, where the conference was to take place. The diplomats from the two countries, tried of war and thankful of a chance to negotiate, quickly reached agreement on the various terms each brought to the table. But agreement could still not be made on a few matters and the Russians began to threaten to end the peace conference. So Roosevelt, who later said that if the belligerents had not met at Portsmouth, " they would not have made peace," stepped in.(6) His intervention as the Russians were preparing to leave may have possibly saved the talks.
Through discussions with Japan's Baron Kaneko, he helped work out a compromise proposal in which Japan would give up demands regarding Russian ships and the Russians would give up Sakhalin Island. Additionally, Roosevelt cleverly decided that the monetary reparations each side would pay would be decided in arbitration, which would stretch for a time so long that neither party would be willing or able to continue fighting over the amount.(7)
Unfortunately, Russia was unwilling to accept this proposal, which they deemed unfavorable to themselves. Instead, other diplomats, Sergius Witte of Russia, and Jutaro Komura of Japan, came up with a separate plan, which was slightly more favorable to Russia. When Roosevelt learned of this separate compromise, he decided to intercede even more directly. He sent a message to Tsar Nicholas approving the Witte-Komura plan and adding his own spin. At the same time as his letter was being sent, the Tsar was sending a letter to Witte informing him to break up the peace conference. Because Roosevelt was waiting for a response to his letter, Witte told the Tsar that he was unable to break off the treaty, so as not to offend Roosevelt. Thus, by interjecting his opinions, Roosevelt saved the conference from total failure.(8)
After much discussion, the Tsar agreed to cede the southern half of Sakhalin Island to Japan, a most significant concession at the time. But that was all the Tsar was willing to give up, and the peace conference's future began to look bleak. Witte was now urging the Tsar to break off negotiations. Roosevelt refused to accept this situation and sent another appeal to the Tsar. Around that time, Roosevelt had confided in his son, Kermit, that, " The Japanese ask too much but the Russians are ten times worse..." It was the Russians who had attempted to break off communications several times, all the while faced with what was a nearly reasonable Japanese plan. Roosevelt had fallen into a deep depression, for the peace conference seemed a failure, but he decided to give it one more try.(9)
Luckily, the final time was the charm, with Russia agreeing to cede the southern part of Sakhalin Island and the Japanese agreeing to restore the northern part of Sakhalin to the Russians and withdraw any demands for payment.
Due to his part in convening the Portsmouth Peace Conference and bringing about what was thought to be an impossible peace, Roosevelt became, in 1906, the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, a prize he strongly deserved. Through his tactful handling, a drawn-out war was averted. The Conference illustrated a quality that few ever associate with Roosevelt-patience. By waiting six weeks between the initial Japanese request for mediative help and the time that he proposed the conference, he was able to prepare himself to a degree where he was knowledgeable about the situation and the other powers' stance on the Russo-Japanese War. Instead of the imperialistic pushing and shoving that many historians associate with him, he displays a surgical skill in his gentle prodding and poking whenever the two belligerents began to stall or fight.(10)
Theodore Roosevelt never denied that he was an adventurer or a fighter, yet he never denied that he was a diplomatic creature. In fact, despite his reputation, he was one of the best President-diplomats that this country has ever seen. His success in Portsmouth was but one of his numerous diplomatic victories throughout his two terms of presidency. Theodore Roosevelt is long gone, but he will by no means be forgotten. While much of his legacy has died away, his diplomatic successes still stand, in the form of the Treaty of Portsmouth, the Panama Canal, and many others.
1. Raymond A. Esthus, Theodore Roosevelt and Japan, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966, ch. i, pg. 6.
2. Ibid, ch. i, pg. 7.
3. Ibid, ch. i, pg. 9.
4. Frederick W. Marks III, Velvet on Iron, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979, ch. ii, pg. 37.
5. Esthus, Theodore Roosevelt and Japan, ch. v, pg. 76.
6. Marks, Velvet on Iron, ch. ii, pg. 65.
7. Esthus, Theodore Roosevelt and Japan, ch. v, pgs. 81-82.
8. Ibid, ch. v, pgs. 83-85.
9. Ibid, ch. v, pgs. 86-94.
10. Marks, Velvet on Iron, ch. iv, pg. 148.
Esthus, Raymond A. Theodore Roosevelt and Japan. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966.
Japan and Russia. The Treaty of Portsmouth, 1905 - September 5, 1905: The Conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War, signed at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Portsmouth, 1905.
Marks III, Frederick W. VELVET on IRON: The Dipolomacy of Theodore Roosevelt. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.
*The Rough Rider Restoration Committee was formed initially to raise funds to restore the famous Rough Rider statue of TR on horseback, by sculptor Phimister Proctor, dedicated in 1922, located on Portland's Park Blocks.