Just at the end of April, Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China offered to help negotiate a peaceful end to the war Russia has been waging against Ukraine.
This news put me into a bittersweet mood. I remembered that moment — in 1905 — when American President Theodore Roosevelt offered to mediate the Russo-Japanese War.
The Russian Empire and the Empire of Japan had been fighting a bloody war in the Far East for a couple of years, at great cost to both sides. Russia wasn’t ready to give up, but it was badly beaten both on land and sea. The Japanese had shocked the world in its stunning victories: taking Port Arthur with little loss of life; occupying the southern half of the contested island of Sakhalin; annihilating Russia’s Baltic Fleet that had traveled all the way around the world to take on the Japanese navy. Meanwhile, Japan’s treasury was exhausted, but it was stubbornly vowing to continue the war to achieve all of its territorial aims.
President Roosevelt’s diplomatic intervention was effectively the moment when the United States announced to the world that it was ready to join the handful of first-tier nations, even in the ancient art of diplomacy. It was, in effect, the birth of the American Century.
My sense of loss came from observing China step up in the same way 119 years later. Nature abhors a vacuum. China has been asserting itself in the South China Sea for a number of years, and threatening — plausibly — to invade and occupy Taiwan, which it regards as sovereign China territory.
The United States, it is true, is a proxy belligerent in the Russia-Ukraine war, and has so far played a critical role in preventing Ukraine from being overrun by the stronger — though not apparently superior — Russian forces, including the Wagner Group of mercenaries that has been instrumental in the fight.
Roosevelt Gallops into the Geopolitical Arena
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”
— Theodore Roosevelt, “Citizenship in a Republic” at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23, 1910
The story of Roosevelt’s startling intrusion of himself into the rarified world of geopolitical diplomacy is wonderful, and quintessentially American.
TR intervened in the faraway war for several reasons. First, although he was not sorry that the Japanese had defeated and humiliated the haughty Russians, he did not want Japan’s victory to be so great that it upset the balance of power in East Asia. Roosevelt understood that Japan was a rising power and that at some future point, the U.S. would find itself in a struggle with Japan for control of the Pacific. He wanted to delay that war as long as possible. Second, he believed it was time for America to take its rightful place in the world’s arena. He was prepared to drag the people of the United States — kicking and screaming if necessary — into the 20th century and international greatness. Third, he was “Theodore Roosevelt” who wanted, as his snarky daughter Alice later put it, “to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.”
The Unlikely Diplomat
Roosevelt talked the Japanese into vaguely requesting that the United States intervene. Then he persuaded the Russians to reluctantly acquiesce. Such is the nature of diplomacy. Both sides wanted to find a negotiated end to the war, but neither side wanted to appear too eager to do that which they both desperately needed to do. The belligerents wanted to meet in Washington, D.C., but Roosevelt, worried that a failure of the peace conference in Washington would reduce his domestic and international stature, suggested The Hague, instead. In the end, Russia and Japan insisted on a U.S. venue, and Roosevelt determined to move the peace conference away from the summer heat and humidity of Washington, D.C.
Roosevelt himself chose Portsmouth, N.H.
Ambassador Kogoro Takahira was Japan’s plenipotentiary to the conference, and Ambassador Baron Roman Romanovich von Rosen Russia’s plenipotentiary. The principal negotiators were Count Sergei Yulyevich Witte, for Russia, well more than 6 feet tall, and the comparatively diminutive Baron Komura Jutarō for Japan.
Before all the diplomats made their way to Portsmouth, Roosevelt entertained each delegation separately at Sagamore Hill. The Japanese diplomats were charmed by the way Sagamore Hill was less a presidential palace than a shambling family compound complete with a menagerie of children, cousins, pets, hunting trophies and TR’s hectic-heroic recreational schedule. Russia’s Sergei Witte, on the other hand, was offended that Roosevelt did not provide his guests more high-falutin’ protocol at his Oyster Bay home. Witte said lunch at Sagamore was “almost indigestible” with no wine served and no tablecloth. The Russians found more and more ways to annoy Roosevelt, especially when the official envoy offered what TR called “his usual rigamarole to the effect that Russia was fighting the battles of the white race.”
Then Roosevelt brought both delegations to the presidential yacht the Mayflower, anchored in Oyster Bay, where he provided plenty of imperial pomp and circumstance — including ceremonial raising of national flags, cannon fusillades and a stiff formal toast. When the two nations squabbled over which should enter the yacht’s salon first, Roosevelt impatiently took each envoy by the arm, one on each side, and pulled them simultaneously through the door.
Roosevelt promised to stay out of the arena and let Japan and Russia work out the peace agreement for themselves, but being Roosevelt and refusing to fail at this critical moment of his own and his nation’s history, he found himself again and again in the thick of it. “I know perfectly well that the whole world is watching me,” he said, “and the condemnation that will come down on me, if the conference fails, will be worldwide too. But that’s all right.”
Alternately cajoling, needling, flattering, conciliating and at times bullying both sides until he made them understand that neither was going to get more than a fraction of what it wanted from a just treaty, Roosevelt finally persuaded the combatants to accept a compromise peace — or maybe he just wore them down. The resulting settlement was precisely what Roosevelt had envisioned from the start. He was perhaps the best intellectually prepared president in American history and a brilliant student of the international order. Not one of our more recent presidents, including his fifth cousin Franklin and World War II General Dwight Eisenhower, had his geopolitical depth and breadth.
Roosevelt was not a natural diplomat. He was a blunt speaker and a man of action. He preferred to cut the Gordian knot rather than study its intricacies. At the beginning of the Portsmouth conference, when negotiations deadlocked because Russia would make virtually no concessions, Roosevelt experienced one of his characteristically Rooseveltian impulses, which fortunately he resisted. He wrote that he would like to march the Russian tsar and his diplomats to the end of Cove Neck on Long Island and “run them violently down a steep place into the sea.” On another occasion, he wrote, “To be polite and sympathetic in explaining for the hundredth time something perfectly obvious, when what I really want to do is to give utterance to whoops of rage and jump up and knock their heads together — well, all I can hope is that the self-repression will be ultimately helpful for my character.”
TR’s Worst Fears
As the conference seemed about to break down entirely, both Britain and France made noise about stepping in to handle the international situation as only “fully mature and sophisticated” nations could. This was just what Roosevelt feared most — that the American gamble would fail and represent a dramatic setback for its rising stature in the world. Roosevelt summoned Baron Rosen to Sagamore Hill by a 2 a.m. telegram. The president told his bewildered guest that most of the outstanding issues could be worked out, but that the Japanese were entitled to keep at least half of Sakhalin Island, because they had won it in the war and now occupied it. To get the other half back, the Russians would have to pay something that amounted to an indemnity, no matter how it was labeled. Roosevelt also sent a long earnest telegram directly to Czar Nicholas II, saying that realism mattered in these affairs, and that Russia would have to agree to what it regarded as humiliating terms (but with no loss of its continental territory). “The proposed peace,” he wrote, “leaves the ancient Russian boundaries absolutely intact.” If Russia balked and the war dragged on, Roosevelt foresaw that Japan might take much of eastern Siberia.
At the same time, Roosevelt rebuked the Japanese delegation pretty severely. “I think I ought to tell you that I hear on all sides a good deal of complaint expressed among the friends of Japan as to the possibility of Japan’s continuing the war for a large indemnity.” He warned the Japanese that if their primary reason for holding out was money, they would lose their moral advantage in the world community. Roosevelt’s language would get more direct and aggressive as negotiations dragged on. He told the Japanese delegation, “Japan owes a duty to the world at this crisis. The civilized world looks to hear you make peace.”
In the end, Czar Nicholas II came to accept the loss of half of Sakhalin Island. Just before the diplomatic breakthrough, each side presented its final “irreducible set of demands.” Russia agreed to give up half of Sakhalin Island, but only if Japan formally renounced any ambition for the northern half. And Russia said it absolutely would not pay an indemnity by any name or subterfuge. Finally, the chief Japanese negotiator broke a long impassive silence by saying that because Japan wanted to restore peace in the western Pacific, it would withdraw its demand for an indemnity.
Declaring Victory and Moving On
When they learned of the terms of the settlement, the Japanese people were livid. There were riots, including anti-American riots, in Japanese cities.
Roosevelt’s greatest biographer, Edmund Morris, concludes: “By sheer force of moral purpose, by clarity of perception, by mastery of detail and benign manipulation of men, he had become, as Henry Adams admiringly wrote of him, ‘the best herder of Emperors since Napoleon.’”
The Treaty of Portsmouth was signed on Sept. 5, 1905. TR said this: “It’s a mighty good thing for Russia and a mighty good thing for Japan.” And “a mighty good thing for me, too.”
In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt became the first American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, for his masterful intervention in the Russo-Japanese War. America had arrived. From that time until now, no nation has ever successfully failed to understand America’s enormous global power.
You can also hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s most recent book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller. Clay welcomes your comments and critiques of his essays and interviews. You can reach him directly by writing firstname.lastname@example.org or tweeting @ClayJenkinson.