How Theodore Roosevelt Mediated the Russo-Japanese War

In 1904, war broke out between Russia and Japan after long-simmering tensions. Western feeling was that the Russians would crush the little Japanese upstart. Then, like now in Ukraine, Russian power and competence were highly overrated. Japan stunned the Russians in battles on land and sea, revealing Eurasia’s bear as a declining great power. The war was costly for both sides, however, and threatened America’s interests in Asia if it spiraled further. With both sides making overtures to him for leadership, this is the story of how Theodore Roosevelt mediated the Russo-Japanese War.

Background

When the Russo-Japanese war broke out, elite opinion in Washington, including President Theodore Roosevelt, favored Japan. The President personally despised Russia’s “Tsarist form of government.” He was also impressed by Japan’s performance. Still, he knew that he couldn’t allow Japan to get too strong in Asia.

The thing he most wanted to preserve was the Open Door Policy in China. This policy, devised by Secretary of State John Hay (President Lincoln’s former personal secretary) was meant to preserve free trade with China, while maintaining its territorial and administrative integrity. If the war left Japan too strong and Russia too weak, the Japanese would simply take the Russians’ place of threatening the Open Door in Manchuria, which had been the case before the war broke out.

Theodore Roosevelt might have personally favored Japan, but he never took his eye off the ball. His job was to promote American interests, not to play personal favorites with either of the belligerents in the conflict. His plan for mediation would be to balance Japan’s ascendant power against Russia’s declining one, to make sure neither got too powerful in Asia. Secondarily, he knew that Russia was ripe for revolution and wanted to prevent that country from being destabilized by the reds.

How Theodore Roosevelt Mediated

Theodore Roosevelt gave his Ambassador to Russia, George von Lengerke Meyer this instruction:

I want a man who will be able to keep us closely informed, on his own initiative, of everything we ought to know; who will be, as an Ambassador ought to be, our chief source of information about Japan and the war – about the Russian feeling as to the continuance of the war (Theodore Rex, pg. 388).

“In other words, the President wanted Meyer to look at the war through Russian eyes. He, Roosevelt, already had his own American take on it,” Edmund Morris said in Theodore Rex. This is exactly how a diplomat ought to look at things. Empathy is the most powerful word in the world for a reason. It is the key behind all persuasion. It is sorely lacking among us now, no matter how much the contemporary left uses it as a weasel word.

If an end to the Russo-Japanese War could be mediated, Theodore Roosevelt would need to consider the Russian perspective. The stance worked, as Meyer made a good impression in Moscow, though Czar Nicholas II was, as always, indecisive. Fortunately, Theodore Roosevelt got a good break from the Japanese, who asked him on May 31st, 1905, to mediate.

Though Japan had defeated Russia on land and sea, the war was still costly. The President got the feeling that the Japanese were running out of gas. Still, Japan couldn’t make this fact public. Meanwhile, Russia was in the difficult position of being militarily defeated but needing to maintain face while exiting the conflict. Any attempt to mediate an end to the Russo-Japanese War would need to account for these factors.

A week after he received such overtures from Japan, President Roosevelt cabled Meyer something he wanted Nicholas II to see. He was frank:

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 inevitably disaster, the President most earnestly advises that an effort 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 (pg. 390).

Theodore Roosevelt promised secrecy and that no one else would get involved in this arrangement. After an agonizing wait, Czar Nicholas II agreed with Meyer and said he was open to hearing Japan’s terms. This was only the prelude, though. Both sides felt weak for having agreed to a negotiation, so they now took to quarreling over the details in an attempt to save face.

The President was patient, but he signaled, in polite terms, that he would not put up with their childish behavior. He was sensitive to the perspectives of both Russia and Japan, but was plain to the Russian Ambassador, Paul Nicolas, Count de Cassini, and the Japanese Ambassador, Kogoro Takahira, about their nations’ respective positions.

To him, Russia’s military was an embarrassment, and he made it clear to Cassini that his country would lose the Russo-Japanese War no matter how much harder or longer they fought. It was therefore imperative on Russia to talk peace now, before its negotiating position got even worse. To Ambassador Takahira, he said that Japan had won militarily, but prolonging the war any further would incur a tremendous cost in “blood and money.” Japan would be better off, he said, by not risking anything further, and to consolidate what it had already won.

Other Considerations

All great powers have an interest in the affairs of their peers. This conflict was no exception. Other nations had an interest in the outcome of the Russo-Japanese War. If the war were to be mediated, the mediator would need to recognize these other interests.

Britain had signed a treaty of alliance with Japan a few years before, while France was allied with Russia. Wilhelm II tried to convince the President that Britain, despite being Japan’s ally, wanted the war to continue in order to weaken both it and Russia. The Kaiser had his own reasons for saying such a thing, but Theodore Roosevelt was of the opinion that the British Foreign Ministry didn’t want peace.

Using a longtime contact there, Cecil Spring Rice, the President informed the British that if Russia were completely cut off from the Pacific, it would be able to concentrate its “energies” elsewhere, in Central Asia or the Middle East. This was a clever reference to the longstanding rivalry between the two powers there, the Great Game.

The President continued:

My feeling is that it is not to Japan’s real interest to spend another year of bloody and costly war in securing eastern Siberia, which her people assure me she does not want, and then to find out that she either has to keep it and get no money or indemnity, or else exchange it for a money indemnity which, however large, would probably not more than pay for the extra year’s expenditure and loss of life. .. Practically the only territorial concession they wish from Russia is Sakhalin, to which in my judgment they are absolutely entitled. (Theodore Rex, pg. 396)

In the letter above, we see the framework of a potential peace deal. Further, Roosevelt let his contact (who he had trusted for decades) in on the secret that Japan was the first to reach out to him, indicating that its resources were becoming strained. Britain made no serious move to undermine his mediation.

The President got further assistance in his mediation efforts by a delegation to Japan led by the jovial Secretary of War, William Howard Taft. 30 Congressmen were also on the journey, but the most effective use of American soft power came through the First Daughter, Alice. Attractive and sociable, Alice played the role of the high-status foreigner that respected Japan and its culture while not “going native.”

Alice Roosevelt in Japan
Alice Roosevelt on a steamer bound for the Far East.

As Alice did her thing, Taft and Japanese Prime Minister Taro Katsura agreed in principle to a peace proposal.

Japan’s paramount interest in Korea would be recognized, in return for recognition of the same for the United States in Hawaii and the Philippines. This done, the biggest obstacle would be for Russia to agree to an indemnity and the loss of Sakhalin. Russia could not easily do this without losing face. Nicholas II was adamant that this not be done, making the task of mediation a lot more difficult.

The two sides finally agreed to meet in the United States. Theodore Roosevelt treated both well, although sticking points remained. Prior to the direct negotiations, Japan’s demands were:

  1. Japan’s paramount interest in Korea be recognized.
  2. Russia to withdraw all troops from Manchuria, and with them its trade and transport privileges there.
  3. The Liaotung Peninsula and Sakhalin must be ceded to Japan.
  4. Japan would take control of the railroad to Port Arthur.
  5. Limits on Russian naval armament in the Far East.
  6. The few remaining Russian warships in the Pacific, currently in neutral ports, would be ceded to Japan.
  7. Russia must pay a large indemnity to Japan.
  8. The fortifications around Vladivostok must be disarmed.
  9. Japan’s fishing vessels should be given free access to Russian waters.

These terms sounded harsh, but Theodore Roosevelt sensed that they had been made with the idea to overshoot and get a more favorable compromise. Such is the craft of any wise negotiator. The President understood that Japan’s negotiators were not in a position to secure all of these terms. In the latest round of mediation, he said that Japan should broach the subject of an indemnity in principle, rather than in hard numbers (Theodore Rex, pg. 404). The Japanese negotiators did not object to this. It was a good move. Hard numbers carry much more authoritative weight. This is usually good, but it can ruin a sensitive negotiation if the timing is off.

Understandably, Russia chafed at these terms, but was open to some form of indemnity – if it were not called such a thing. Theodore Roosevelt was careful not to use the term. He mentioned “reimbursement” instead. As always, labels drive much of human thought.

Russia’s internal weakness and the inevitability of revolution aided the mediation efforts to end the conflict. The Russian negotiators knew full well that the Czar would need to end the Russo-Japanese War to head off the coming social unrest at home. Therefore, they came to the table with the mindset that their mission was to save Russia from far worse disaster than losing against the Japanese. They were therefore willing to concede some things, knowing that they had lost militarily.

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The Masculine Epic

How the Russo-Japanese War Ended

Theodore Roosevelt Mediated Russo-Japanese War

In the final act of mediation, President Theodore Roosevelt mediated a direct meeting with the Russian and Japanese negotiators, who then proceeded to Portsmouth, New Hampshire for direct talks (the President wisely wanted to keep them out of the sweltering August heat in Washington). These talks got off to an inauspicious start, requiring careful attention from the President. The Russians were saying they would agree to no territorial changes, while the Japanese had already moderated somewhat, at the suggestion of Roosevelt, to drop the point on Vladivostok and use the word “reimbursement” rather than “indemnity.” This suggested Japanese vulnerability the Russians wanted to exploit.

To make matters worse, Britain and France were conspiring to get involved and make a more favorable peace for themselves than the United States. Theodore Roosevelt now intervened directly, discarding neutral mediation. He told the Russian negotiators that Japan would back off on its naval demands but that they must accept that Japan would occupy Sakhalin since Japanese troops had already taken it and Russia was in no position to dislodge them. However, the President proposed that Russia buy the northern half of the island back from Japan – an indemnity without ever mentioning the word indemnity. This would thaw some of the ice in the negotiations. The Russians could transmit the idea to Nicholas II as “an idea expressed in private conversation (Theodore Rex, pg. 411).

Meanwhile, he told a Japanese diplomat that the “friends of Japan” were complaining about their continuation of the war in hopes of a large indemnity. He said:

Ethically, it seems to me that Japan owes a duty to the world at this crisis. The civilized world looks to her to make peace; the nations believe in her; let her show her leadership in matters ethical no less than matters military. The appeal is made to her in the name of all that is lofty and noble; and to this appeal I hope she will not be deaf. (pg. 413)

Ambassador Meyer also had to negotiate for hours with Nicholas II, who again insisted on no indemnity, but agreed to reimburse Japan for its upkeep of Russian prisoners of war. He also gave in on southern Sakhalin.

Still, the peace conference at Portsmouth appeared deadlocked for days. At the same time, four new Russian divisions moved toward Manchuria. Finally, Japan’s delegation sensed that they would not be able to get any more out of the Russians (whose demands were actually growing bolder), and that their new status as a great power was on the line here. Out of the blue, they agreed to the Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the Russo-Japanese War. The treaty’s major stipulations were:

  1. Japan’s interest in Korea would be recognized.
  2. Russia would withdraw all troops from Manchuria.
  3. Japan would take over Russian leases in Liaotung (which included Port Arthur).
  4. Japan would control the railroad to Port Arthur, but the Russians could maintain their own rail line in northern Manchuria.
  5. Russia would cede south Sakhalin to Japan. In exchange, there would be no indemnity. Russia did not “buy back” the northern half.

Conclusion

How had Theodore Roosevelt mediated the Russo-Japanese War? First, he understood his mission. It was not a moralistic crusade, but a realistic approach to end the conflict and preserve American interests. Second, he knew his own point of view and decided he would need someone to keep track of the Russian perspective. Ambassador Meyer proved talented at this. Empathy was the necessary foundation for everything else in the mediation.

Third, the President understood that Japan had come to him first, signaling that they, though the stronger party, were eager for a peace deal. He used this fact with decision and discretion, not revealing the secret (which would dishonor Japan and undermine trust in him as a mediator), but using it as leverage with both of the belligerents. To Nicholas II, he made plain that the Russo-Japanese War was lost, but that the latter would be willing to accommodate an exit on terms that didn’t completely humiliate Russia. To the Japanese, he made clear that they had won the war and the important things that they were after, but they shouldn’t be like Icarus and fly too close to the sun in their victory. After all, they had been the ones to come to him first, not the Russians. Once he told them that their position was strong, but exhausted, and that they had little left of value to gain, he then appealed to their honor, exhorting them to show their great power status diplomatically as they had just shown it militarily, and end the Russo-Japanese War on terms everyone could live with.

Finally, Theodore Roosevelt knew that he was not the only interested party in the mediation process. Britain, France, and Germany, the other great powers, also had interests. By reminding Britain that its rival in Asia, Russia, would be able to redouble its efforts in the west if it were defeated too badly in the Far East, he got acquiescence to his efforts. France and Germany, meanwhile, were embroiled in a Moroccan dispute, but neither would have wanted Russia to concentrate too many forces in Eastern Europe (even if France was allied to it).

Theodore Roosevelt understood the psychology that drives great power politics – fear, honor, and interest. He used all three as he mediated the Russo-Japanese War. He also used the principle of scarcity for added persuasion – one of the seven universal principles of influence. He also understood, again, that his role was not to let his feelings about one of the belligerents interfere in his mission of ending the war on terms favorable to American interests. This he managed to do, preserving the Open Door Policy and ensuring that Japan did not get too strong.

The treaty the President mediated was a realistic, un-romantic compromise that lies at the heart of so many things. It allowed Russia to exit the conflict with a semblance of honor and focus on its internal problems. Japan, meanwhile, officially emerged as a great power while getting the core of what it wanted.

The Treaty of Portsmouth was not popular with everybody. The Hibya riots broke out in Japan. Alice Roosevelt noted that her reception there after a stop in China and the Philippines was much cooler than it had been earlier in the year. The rioters came out in force against the treaty’s terms, considering it a humiliation for Japan, who had decisively defeated Russia and deserved more gains. While the Katsura government was pleased with their lot, as they knew the country had been depleted and could make no more gains, the rioters didn’t know this, and ensured its fall from power months later.

Japanese attitudes would grow increasingly militaristic and anti-American in the coming decades. Theodore Roosevelt knew the coming danger better than anyone. He even speculated that the Japanese could one day attack Pearl Harbor. For the remainder of his presidency, he made sure to strengthen American naval forces in the Pacific, and watch Japan closely. The President had successfully mediated the Russo-Japanese War, but in its aftermath, the first pieces on the board assembled for the far more terrible war to come.

For the moment, though, Theodore Roosevelt had made peace and preserved America’s interests. He had his sympathies with the Japanese over the Russians, but he did not let that interfere with his primary goal. As his predecessor, John Adams had once said to King George III:

I have no attachment to any country but my own.

The King replied:

An honest man will never have any other.

This is something clearly lost on some American policymakers today, who view foreign policy as more of an abstract moral crusade than a question of how best to preserve a balance of power favorable to American interests. Meanwhile as our own enemies gather, a quote from pages 312-13 of Theodore Rex proved irresistible:

Roosevelt, replying, looked instead to a victorious Japan as the “great new force” in the Far East. Should Korea and China proceed to develop themselves along Japanese lines, “there will result a real shifting of the center of equilibrium as far as the white races are concerned. If new nations come to power…the attitude of we who speak English should be one of ready recognition of the rights of the newcomers, of desire to avoid giving them just offense, and at the same time of preparedness in body and in mind to hold our own if our interests are menaced.”

The President was more race-centered than we are today, but like in so many other things, he was prescient here. The clash of civilizations (which he conflates with race) did not end in 1991. The current Russo-Ukrainian War signals that the world requires a new kind of America First realism. If only we had a smart mediator like in 1905.

You can read more about the character and domestic relevance of Theodore Roosevelt in Lives of the Luminaries (he appears on the cover).

And speaking of clashes of civilizations, chapter 4 of The Fall of the Fated Queen will be released later this weekend. This novella is part of a space opera series where these questions are as essential as they have always been. No technology allows us to escape. You can see the first two chapters for free here:

  1. The Woman Warrior, a World Away
  2. The Chieftain and the King
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