This week in history: Teddy Roosevelt mediates end to Russo-Japanese War

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 4 2013 5:30 p.m. MDT

On Sept. 5, 1905, the empires of Japan and Russia signed the Treaty of Portsmouth, an instrument which ended the Russo-Japanese War. Arbitrated by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, the treaty was named after the Portsmouth Naval Shipyards in Kittery, Maine, across from Portsmouth, N.H., where the negotiations had taken place.

In his book “Flyboys: A True Story of Courage,” James Bradley wrote: “The unsuspecting navy ships lay peaceably in their Pacific harbor that winter morning. … With no advance warning, Japan launched the infamous sneak attack. Deadly torpedoes and bombs came out of nowhere, and soon the harbor was a flaming mess of sunken ships. Screaming sailors swam for their lives through fiery oil-blackened waters.

“President Roosevelt admired the sneak attack. 'I was thoroughly well pleased with the Japanese victory,' the president said.”

The above refers not to the infamous 1941 Japanese attack upon American naval forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, but rather the February 1904 Japanese attack on Russian ships at Port Arthur, Manchuria. The Roosevelt in question was not Franklin, but rather his cousin and predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt.

The Japanese sneak attack, launched in retaliation for perceived Russian slights and a desire to gain more territory through military conquest, touched off a major war between Japan and Russia. With the Russian Pacific fleet smashed, the Japanese began an invasion of Russian-held Manchuria. The February-March 1905 Battle of Mukden was the largest battle fought since Napoleon's 1813 Battle of Leipzig, the armies dwarfing those that had clashed at Gettysburg 42 years earlier. During the battle 97,000 Russians fell.

Wishing to restore their position in the Pacific, the Russians had dispatched their Baltic fleet. Sailing around Europe and Africa and through the Indian Ocean, the fleet arrived in the Pacific in the spring of 1905. The Russian ships engaged with the Japanese fleet in the May 1905 Battle of Tsushima Straits, and once again the czar's admirals met with a crushing defeat. The Russians lost all eight of their battleships.

Not long after the battle, both sides had come to unpleasant realizations. Militarily exhausted and thoroughly demoralized, Russia could no longer effectively wage war. Additionally, the idea that they had been beaten by the supposedly racially inferior Japanese infuriated the Russians. The Japanese, though victorious on land and sea, did not have the resources to capitalize on their victory. Though Japan could claim various Russian interests in the Pacific, it was not logistically possible for the Japanese to march their army through Asian Russia all the way to St. Petersburg to dictate peace terms. Both sides needed a way to shut down the war.

In her book “The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914,” historian Barbara Tuchman wrote: “Though the Russian fleet was annihilated, its defeat did not end the war. … Japan's victory startled the Old World and warned the new. Three months after Tsushima, in July 1905, the president of the United States offered to mediate between Russia and Japan, less to save the Russians than to halt the Japanese, who seemed to him to have gone far enough.”

Russia and Japan soon sent delegates to the United States. Serge Witte and Roman Rosen led the Russian delegation, while Komura Jutarō and Takahiri Kogorō represented Japan.

In his biography of the 26th president of the United States, “Theodore Rex,” Edmund Morris wrote about the choice of location for the conference.

“The pretty little town boasted a navy yard — strictly speaking, in Kittery, across the bay in Maine — and ample hotel accommodations for both delegates and press. Authorities at the yard made available a big, dignified, vaguely Petrovian building with its own railway siding and plenty of exposure to sea breezes. Its oblong design, centering on a pedimented entrance facade, was symmetrical enough to satisfy the most stickling insistence on equal space.”

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