The Echoes of Peace

IN THE FIRST PART of this discussion, The Echoes of War, I revisited the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. This follows from previous articles Odyssey to Tsushima and The Sound of the Guns, archived on Whiskey & Gunpowder Web site. 

I referred to the point that some historians call this “World War Zero,” because it was, in many respects, a dress rehearsal for the Great War (World War I) that would break out in 1914. The consequences of the Russo-Japanese War are still with us, more than a century after the last shot was fired. In previous articles, I have discussed the battles. In this article, I want to discuss the peace.

Time to End the War

After the glorious news of their overwhelming victory over the Russians at the Battle of Tsushima, the Japanese determined that it was an opportune time to end the war. The Japanese had been successful on the battlefields of Manchuria and the Sea of Japan. But the war was inordinately expensive, and the Japanese could not afford much more of such success. Still, they had every reason to believe that they could dictate favorable terms to the much-defeated Russians.

Anticipating the need to bring hostilities to a conclusion, the Japanese had sent an ambassador to the United States early in the war to entice the U.S. president, Theodore Roosevelt, to serve as an intermediary. Roosevelt, in turn, was eager to lend his efforts to assist in bringing about a peaceful settlement of the conflict in far-off Asia.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire

By June 9, 1905, not long after Adm. Togo visited the wounded Russian Adm. Rozhdestvenski at Sasebo, Roosevelt had contacted the governments of both Russia and Japan to offer to assist in brokering a deal. The Japanese immediately accepted Roosevelt’s offer. The Russians were smarting from their defeats on land and at sea. There was the distinct whiff of revolution, and a smell of gunpowder in the streets of St. Petersburg and elsewhere. The Russians at first dallied. 

After a time, the Russians accepted the Roosevelt offer to assist in negotiating a settlement, but then quarreled over the site of the meetings. The Japanese army and navy, in turn, staged a series of landings on the Russian island of Sakhalin, occupying it entirely in a matter of weeks. This was one further shock to the Russians, because it was the only truly “Russian” territory that had been lost during the war, all the rest of the fighting taking place in Chinese Manchuria or at sea.

The hot, muggy summer weather of Washington, D.C., in 1905 made that location unsuitable for negotiating a peace treaty. Roosevelt suggested the U.S. Navy base at Portsmouth, N.H. The weather was relatively cool, and it was a secure military facility with access to overseas telegraph lines. Portsmouth was close enough to Boston to be considered a civilized place. But it was far enough away from big cities that people could actually get some work done. 

And so the parties sent their emissaries to Portsmouth. The Japanese sent Marquess Komura Jutaro, the first Japanese to graduate from Harvard. The Russians sent Count Sergei Witte, adviser to the tsar, in truth because no one else would take the job. 

Negotiating Peace, Shaping Events

The Japanese walked into the Portsmouth negotiations with an air of superiority, a legacy of their military victories on land and at sea. Witte, in turn, immediately began to characterize the Japanese as “aggressors” in the war, and attempted to curry sympathy from the worldwide band of press that was covering the event. Witte even used such a simple act as attending church services for propaganda purposes, in an overt effort to characterize the non-Christian Japanese as “pagans.” On another occasion, when the Japanese raised the issue of Russia paying an indemnity to Japan, Witte characterized it as the Japanese simply having “waged war for money,” thus diverting the focus from Russian treaty violations as a casus belli. 

Meanwhile, as Witte played for time in New Hampshire, over in the Far East, during the summer of 1905, the Trans-Siberian Railway was ferrying enormous numbers of fresh Russian troops and mountains of supplies to the front lines. By August 1905, this resupply effort had utterly changed the military equation between the Russians and Japanese. It would matter greatly, and profoundly influence the course of events.

The Controlling Influence of Reality

Roosevelt had suggested breaking the negotiations into singular issues, so that no one problem would stall the entire process. This was a good idea, and several elements of a peace treaty were rapidly resolved, such as delivery of mail, re-establishing commerce, and the repatriation of prisoners. But when the hard issues finally stalled the process, Witte played a new set of cards. 

The two hardest issues were the Japanese insistence on the Russians paying an indemnity to Japan and the issue of Japanese occupation of Sakhalin Island. The Japanese wanted Russian money. At home in Japan, this was a major political issue. China had paid a substantial indemnity to Japan about 10 years earlier, after the Sino-Japanese War of the mid-1890s. Now the Japanese people wanted and expected a similar indemnity from Russia. The war had taken the lives of tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers. Many Japanese families who had lost relatives in the war were counting on Russia paying an indemnity, from which the Japanese government would compensate them for the loss of a son or husband or father. The Tsar’s instructions to Witte were crystal clear: “Not one kopek.”

The Russians, in turn, wanted the return of Sakhalin. The Japanese would not hear of it. Sakhalin was conquered territory. 

By the end of August 1905, Witte announced the two sides were deadlocked, and that he was returning to Russia. Witte declared that Russia was prepared to renew the war in Manchuria, knowing that the Japanese were aware of Russia’s legions of fresh and newly equipped troops.

The Japanese were aware of Russian preparations for a new offensive by these fresh Russian troops, and Japanese military commanders advised the emperor and his assistants that there was little hope of stopping the reinforced Russian brigades if they began to attack. 

The Japanese negotiator made one last demand for indemnity. Witte made a scene of tearing up the paper on which was written the Japanese demand for compensation. Witte announced that the war would continue. 

At this stage, the Japanese negotiators knew that they had to concede the point. Japan could not afford more war with Russia. Japan needed to end the conflict. The Japanese negotiators publicly withdrew their demand for indemnity by Russia, and offered to return to Russia the northern half of Sakhalin. Under these terms, the Treaty of Portsmouth came into creation and ended the Russo-Japanese War.

An Astonishing Victory

The New York Times characterized the outcome as a Russian “victory.” The Treaty of Portsmouth was “as astonishing a thing as ever was seen in diplomatic history. A nation hopelessly beaten in every battle of the war, one army captured and another overwhelmingly routed, with a navy swept from the seas, dictated her own terms to the victors.”

But the public perception of “diplomacy” was not the reality of the operational military or strategic situation. It was one thing for the parties to negotiate in the pleasant clime of Portsmouth. It was another thing entirely for Russia to continue to shape the situation, the correlation of forces on the other side of the world. 

Russia had changed the equations of power by reinforcing its troops in the Far East. Time, space, and force were rapidly swinging to the side of Russia. Japan could not match these new Russian forces, or otherwise counter the Russian buildup. Thus did the Japanese negotiators accept the terms of the Portsmouth Treaty, because they and their government understood that there were new military factors at work in the Far East. The reinforced Russian army was vastly superior to the Japanese forces in Manchuria, and those were the facts that mattered.

Count Witte returned to Russia a hero’s hero. He was feted at every stop along the way. He was celebrated as a “peacemaker” and “the man of the hour.” And by avoiding the payment of an indemnity to the Japanese, and by recovering half of Sakhalin for Mother Russia, Witte saved face for the tsar. Those who understood the reasons behind why Japan had gone to war also understood that it was the missteps of the tsar that paved the way. It is not overstating the case to opine that perhaps Witte kept a lid on forces of social unrest that would, a decade later, drag Russia into revolution and eventual communism. Witte knew, and he understood. “All this is trifling,” said Witte, “compared with what is going to happen in Russia one of these days.”

The Bitterest Defeat

At home, the Japanese were outraged by the results at Portsmouth. The Japanese had expected an indemnity from Russia, with which to pay the costs of the very expensive war. Instead, they gained no compensation and lost half of Sakhalin. 

Flags draped in black crepe appeared around Tokyo. Leaflets denounced the national government. One newspaper called the result “an insult to the nation.” Another called the Portsmouth result “the bitterest dose that the nation has ever been compelled to take.” 

Effigies of the Japanese negotiators were burned. Citizens were seen urinating into the moat of the Imperial Palace, an act of utter and all-but-unconscionable disrespect for the emperor. People rioted and attacked government buildings. Christian churches across Japan were burned to the ground. The government sent out troops to quell the disturbances, and soon there were more than 1,000 dead in the streets. Rapidly, and with a sense of utter viciousness, Japanese popular opinion turned very much against the United States and President Theodore Roosevelt. The perception in Japan was that their nation had been betrayed.

As if the gods themselves were outraged, on Sept. 11, 1905, the Japanese battleship Mikasa, Adm. Togo’s flagship at Tsushima, blew up and sank in Sasebo Harbor. Two hundred fifty-one Japanese navy crewmen died, more than all the Japanese casualties at Tsushima. The technical cause was a shipboard fire, caused by careless sailors who spilled a flammable liquid that began to burn. But many superstitious Japanese believed that Mikasa had committed hara-kiri, out of shame for the lost victory over Russia.

Matters Pacific & Atlantic

Roosevelt had intended his efforts to promote peace between Russia and Japan as a means of marking the United States as a great new power in the world. In particular, U.S. efforts to bring peace to Northeast Asia were an outgrowth of the U.S. position in the Pacific theater. The U.S. was the new colonial master of the Philippines, part of the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898. 

But as the old expression states, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Russia was not particularly grateful for the U.S. effort, and in fact, many Russians blamed the U.S. for their earlier battlefield losses because U.S. bankers had made loans to the Japanese during the war. That is, in the Russian view, U.S. bankers enabled Japanese militarism.

And the Treaty of Portsmouth instantly earned the U.S. the utter enmity of many Japanese. Lacking the expected indemnity from Russia, the Japanese wanted a scapegoat, and the U.S. filled that bill. The facts of the military correlation in Manchuria, with Russia’s overwhelming buildup of combat forces, were never explained to the Japanese people. The perception of U.S. betrayal, being seen as the cause of the unfavorable terms from Portsmouth, took on a life of its own.

Roosevelt was concerned that U.S. relations with Japan were deteriorating rapidly. Adding to his concern was the fact that the U.S. was ill-prepared for a war with any power, certainly not with Japan. Most U.S. shipbuilding and related industrial base was on the East Coast, and there were limited facilities on the West Coast. The canal at the Isthmus of Panama was still under construction; hence, there was no relatively short means for U.S. ships to transit from one coast to the other. 

The U.S. Navy battle fleet was concentrated in the Atlantic Ocean, and there were only a handful of armored cruisers on duty in the Pacific, mostly around the Philippines. In the event of war with Japan, this small contingent that made up the “Asiatic Fleet” would have to abandon the Philippines for West Coast ports until the U.S. had sufficient strength to go on the offensive. This circumstance became the origin of a military planning effort that came to be known as War Plan Orange, with “Orange” representing Japan as the potential adversary.

But Roosevelt believed that something had to be done, and soon. So to impress upon Japan that the U.S. Navy could shift its battle fleet from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, Roosevelt ordered the Navy ships to be painted white, as a sign of peace, and also ordered that this “Great White Fleet” sail around the world. Included in the itinerary was a port call in Japan.

The Great White Fleet

The records state that it was a warm, cloudy morning on Dec. 16, 1907, when President Theodore Roosevelt stood on the weather deck of the presidential yacht Mayflower, anchored in the waters off Hampton Roads, Va. To the familiar strains of a Navy band playing “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” a procession of 16 modern battleships passed before the president at 400-yard intervals, with their crews smartly manning the rails.

Roosevelt flashed his famous broad, toothy grin and said to several guests that he thought it was just “bully” to see an armada of U.S. ships passing in review. These 16 battleships of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet steamed in a long column out of Hampton Roads to the open sea, flanked by their attending auxiliary ships.

Thus did the U.S. fleet embark upon a naval deployment the scale of which had never been attempted by any nation before, even by Rozhdestvenski. This was the first around-the-world cruise by a fleet of steam-powered, steel battleships. The 43,000-mile, 14-month circumnavigation included 20 port calls on six continents. It was, in its own way, historic and a great peacetime achievement of the U.S. Navy.

Pretty Battleships

When the U.S. fleet called at Japan, it was permitted to anchor. The U.S sailors went ashore, and there were no serious incidents. Officially, the Japanese were abrupt and perfunctory towards the U.S. visitors. One senior Japanese official referred disparagingly to the White Fleet as an assemblage of “pretty battleships.” The Japanese held a grudge against the U.S., the long-term legacy of the results at Portsmouth. 

Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in bringing about the Treaty of Portsmouth. But Japanese resentment of the outcome of the Russo-Japanese War focused on what they perceived as their betrayal by the U.S. at Portsmouth, and this resentment lasted for many decades. The results of the Treaty of Portsmouth were very much on the minds of the Japanese, who years later planned and executed the attack on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. Even in modern Japanese history books, the outcome of the Russo-Japanese War is painted in a light that is not favorable to the U.S.

What if…?

Was the result of all of this worth Roosevelt receiving a Nobel Prize? What if Roosevelt had not offered to broker peace between Russia and Japan? What if the U.S. had remained uninvolved in the termination of a distant war that was not truly its fight? What if the Japanese had just gone broke, unable to pay for the war that they initiated in February 1904 with an attack on the Russian fleet anchored at Port Arthur? What if the Russians had built up their forces in Manchuria, and in the summer of 1905 simply attacked south and routed the Japanese army back to the shores of the Yellow Sea? 

What would such a different military outcome to the Russo-Japanese War have done to the respective historical development of Russia and Japan, if not to the world? Would the tsar have strengthened his hold over his empire and snuffed out the burning embers of the socialist revolution that would erupt into conflagration a decade later? Would a stronger and more stable Russia have changed the equations of power that led to the Great War, which started in 1914? 

Would the Japanese have been chastened as to the limits of military power and have chosen a less bellicose pathway of political evolution in the 1920s and 1930s? Would the Japanese have come to fancy their nation as a “world power,” or at least as the leading economic and military power in Asia? Would the Japanese have decided that they should aspire to create and dominate in a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”?

Certainly, if the Japanese had been routed from Manchuria, there would have been no colonial occupation of the place by Japan, and no area on the map labeled “Manchukuo.” What would this have done to the evolution of politics and society in China? Would the world ever have heard of Chiang Kai-shek or Mao Zedong, both of who gained immense political traction by resisting Japanese occupation? Absent their colonial presence in Manchuria, would the Japanese have been able to colonize Korea to the degree they did? Without Korean and Chinese resources supplying its domestic economy, would Japan have grown to be the military power that it became in the 1930s?

There are many more such questions, many “what ifs.” Of the answers, we can only speculate, because we live in the world that we have inherited from the past. But I also believe that it is important to realize that the Russo-Japanese War led to consequences that are still with us a century after the last shot was fired. Keep your eye on that ball. 

And it is important at least to wonder how things could have been different. The Battle of Tsushima, the culminating battle of that long-ago war, was a pivotal point in time. In the space of one afternoon at Tsushima, the Japanese scored a major victory and the Russians suffered a major defeat. The Japanese perception was that it was time to end the war. The U.S. offered to “help.” And the effort changed the destiny of the world.

Until we meet again…

Byron W. King
October 5, 2006

The Daily Reckoning