National Archives, Getty Images
377869 26: Portrait of 26th United States President Theodore Roosevelt. (1858-1919)

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.”

The negotiations began in earnest in August. It was self-evident that Japan came to the negotiating table in the superior position, its military undefeated in any major battles. Yet the Russians had come prepared with only modest concessions. Witte spoke to American reporters constantly, assuring them that Russia would never given up any territory nor pay any indemnity, while the Japanese had been demanding the Russian port of Vladivostok, near the Chinese and Korean borders.

Roosevelt convinced the Japanese to give up their claim on Vladivostok and moderated the language of the treaty to imply that any money Russia paid to Japan would be considered merely a “reimbursement” rather than an indemnity.

Another point of contention was Sakhalin Island, a long, narrow strip of land off the Russian Pacific coast, just north of Japan. The Japanese had conquered the whole island during the war and now demanded recognition of their ownership of the island as part of any peace settlement, while the Russians demanded it returned and offered the Japanese only trade concessions on the island. The Russians, insisting their position was nowhere near as humiliating as the 1871 French defeat at the hands of Prussia, simply refused to budge, and the whole peace process appeared to be breaking down.

Roosevelt felt compelled to write a letter directly to Czar Nicholas II, trying to convince him to surrender half of Sakhalin:

“I earnestly ask Your Majesty to believe in what I am about to say and to advise. I speak as the earnest well-wisher of Russia and give you the advice I should give if I were a Russian patriot and statesman. … As Sakhalin is an island it is, humanly speaking, impossible that the Russians should reconquer it in view of the disaster to their navy. … It seems to me that every consideration of national self-interest, of military expediency and of broad humanity, makes it eminently wise and right for Russia to conclude peace substantially along these lines, and it is my hope that Your Majesty will take this view.”

The president, whom Morris described at this time as “a one-man electrical storm of cables to St. Petersburg, Peking, Paris, London and Tokyo,” also pressed the Japanese to be more flexible. Writing to one of the Japanese diplomats, Roosevelt 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.”

A brief recess and several tense, seemingly unproductive days followed. Finally, the Russians offered a new proposal. They agreed to divide Sakhalin Island, though they would offer Japan no compensation for returning the northern half to Russia. Russia still refused to pay any indemnity.

Morris wrote: “Komura sat impassive. Silence grew in the room. Witte took up another piece of paper and began to tear bits off it — a habit, intolerable to the Japanese sensibilities, that he had indulged throughout the conference. Eventually, Komura said in a tight voice that the Japanese government wanted to restore peace and bring the current negotiations to an end. He consented to the division of Sakhalin and withdrew the claim for the indemnity.

“Witte accepted the acceptance and said that the island would be cut at the 50th degree of latitude north. The Russo-Japanese War was over.”

The Russo-Japanese War had been an enormous conflict that is often forgotten in the shadow of World War I, which broke out only nine years after the Treaty of Portsmouth. It is also remarkable in that it was the first time in modern history that a non-Western nation defeated a Western nation militarily and proved false European notions of racial superiority over non-Europeans. The United States and its president played an essential role in ending the bloody stalemate in Asia.

When the treaty was finally signed on Sept. 5, Roosevelt reportedly said, “It's a mighty good thing for Russia, and a mighty good thing for Japan, a mighty good thing for me, too!” Indeed it was. For his services in mediating the Treaty of Portsmouth, Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: