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The night of February 8–9, 1904, Japan launched a damaging surprise attack on the Russian fleet moored at Port Arthur, Manchuria, heralding the opening of the Russo-Japanese War. For the next two years a rising, rapidly modernizing Imperial Japan inflicted a series of severe defeats on a moribund tsarist Russia.

In America President Theodore Roosevelt closely followed events in the East. He had little sympathy for Russia, as word of the extensive penal system in Siberia and of anti-Jewish pogroms had recently reached America. “For several years, Russia has behaved very badly in the far East,” Roosevelt declared, “her attitude toward all nations, including us, but especially toward Japan, being grossly overbearing.” Yet despite his abhorrence of the tsarist autocracy and his belief that Japan was “a civilized, modern power,” he was more sympathetic to ordinary Russians than to the Japanese, since he felt Russian culture was more similar to his own. Consequently, Roosevelt didn’t want the Russians to fall too far, nor did he want to see a total Japanese victory. “If the Japanese win out, not only the Slav, but all of us will have to reckon with a great new force in eastern Asia,” he predicted. An empowered Japan would seek to organize China in its own interests, thereby creating “a real shifting of the center of equilibrium as far as the white races are concerned.”

On May 27–28, 1905, the Russian fleet was devastated again, this time in the Sea of Japan. Despite the Japanese victory in the Battle of Tsushima—the largest sea battle since Trafalgar—Roosevelt surmised that after 15 months of bloody warfare, Japan might be running low on resources and ready to negotiate. So he was happy to oblige when, on May 31, the Japanese approached him to ask that he “directly and entirely of his own motion and initiative…invite the two belligerents [Japan and Russia] to come together for the purpose of direct negotiation.”

On Roosevelt’s orders, the American ambassador in St. Petersburg went to work convincing a reluctant Tsar Nicholas II to agree to talks by telling him an end to the war would mean saving “possibly hundreds of thousands of lives.” Nicholas consented to the talks on condition that the Japanese not know he desired a negotiated peace. Roosevelt’s next challenge was getting the parties in the same location. “Oh Lord! I have been going nearly mad in the effort to get Russia and Japan together,” he fumed. With the United States considered neutral ground midway between Europe and Asia, Roosevelt pondered his American options. Ultimately, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, was chosen as the treaty site because its naval yard offered good security, international communications links, and some shelter from the public glare. The talks were to begin on August 9.

On August 5 an introductory meeting was held aboard the presidential yacht, Mayflower, anchored in Long Island Sound near Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill summer home. Japan’s leading negotiators were Foreign Minister Baron Jutaro Komura and Ambassador Kogoro Takahira. Baron Roman von Rosen and Count Sergei Witte represent Russia. and the cranky Witte complained about the lack of wine and tablecloths aboard Mayflower and the “almost indigestible” food. When the Russian and Japanese plenipotentiaries traveled on to Portsmouth, the president remained behind at Sagamore Hill but kept a close eye on developments.

The conference did not begin well. In defiance of the actual course of the war, Witte insisted to Komura, “There are no victors here, and therefore, no defeated.” Komura, for his part, demanded a “reimbursement”—really an indemnity—a sure sign, if paid, that Russia acknowledged Japan as victor. The Russians refused outright.

 On Roosevelt’s advice, the Japanese had softened some of their other original demands before the talks even began, but they still wanted recognition of their supremacy in Korea and territorial concessions in Manchuria and on Sakhalin Island to their north and Russia’s east. Russia would not agree to any of that, a stance Roosevelt, watching from afar, found irrational. In a message to the tsar, he warned that a continuation of the war might mean not just the loss of some Asian territory but all of eastern Siberia as well. In the interest of peace, he counseled Russia to “purchase” the northern half of Sakhalin from Japan, which controlled it at that point. Roosevelt felt that if money, in any guise, flowed to the Japanese, their demand for a war indemnity would be satisfied. At the same time, this solution would ensure that the Russians got back part of Sakhalin without having to pay anything actually called an indemnity to the Japanese.

Though the Japanese had shown some willingness to compromise on Sakhalin, as August wore on peace seemed a dim prospect. “I am having my hair turned gray by dealing with the Russian and Japanese peace negotiations,” Roosevelt told his son Kermit. “The Japanese ask for too much, but the Russians are ten times worse than the Japs because they are so stupid and won’t tell the truth.” At root, the Russians knew they had been defeated, but the tsar especially was reluctant to admit it. His empire was in the throes of an incipient revolution that would one day topple it, and his negotiators were well aware of Russia’s precarious position. They refused to make any payment to Japan, and word spread that the Russian delegation was about to leave Portsmouth.

Instead, on August 29, the impasse was at last broken when Count Witte made what he said were Russia’s final concessions. Peace could be had if the Japanese returned the northern half of Sakhalin Island to Russia, without any form of compensation for the restored territory, and dropped its demand for an indemnity. Baron Komura, likely realizing that a continuation of the war would be financially ruinous for Japan, agreed. The two sides signed the Treaty of Portsmouth on September 5, 1905. “It’s a mighty good thing for Russia, and a mighty good thing for Japan. And a mighty good thing for me too!” Roosevelt declared. A year later he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts and a commendation from historian Henry Adams as the “best herder of Emperors since Napoleon.”


Lawyer Marc G. De Santis is a frequent contributor to MHQ’s War List.

Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.