How Teddy Roosevelt Won the Nobel Peace Prize

In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, for helping to negotiate an end to the Russo-Japanese War. Roosevelt was the first of four American Presidents to win the Prize.

roosevelt Portsmouth_-_1905
Newspaper illustration celebrating the Peace Treaty

At the end of the 19th century, eastern Asia was an arena of conflict. The prize was China. The vast country, with its numerous resources and its huge potential commercial market, was far too weak to defend itself from outsiders, and was occupied by a number of Western powers. Germany had control of several Chinese ports; the British held large coastal areas and had fought the Opium Wars to protect its commercial interests. The United States, which had just entered the world stage after beating Spain in the Spanish-American War in 1898, had declared its “Open Door” policy in China (guaranteeing free American access to the Chinese market) to expand its own commercial and military interests in the Pacific.

Another newcomer was Japan. For centuries Japan had closed itself off from the world, expelling foreigners and closing its ports to outsiders. But after the United States sent a naval fleet to Tokyo force a treaty, the Japanese realized that their only survival strategy was to beat the West at their own game and to become an imperial power herself. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan under its new Emperor began an enthusiastic program of “modernization”. Western styles of dress were adopted, and students were sent to universities all over the world to be trained in Western science, economics and technology. The traditional samurai warrior class was abolished, and a modern Army and Navy, trained by British and German officers, was formed. By 1894, Japan was strong enough to claim her own piece of China, seizing Korea and Taiwan in the Sino-Japanese War. And when Japanese ambitions then turned towards Manchuria, it brought her into direct conflict with Russia.

By the first decade of the 20th century, the Russian Empire, ruled by Tsar Nicholas II, was already rotting from the inside. It was a backward agrarian nation that lacked modern industry, and it was torn by political rebellion against its autocratic government. But Russia had a huge Army and Navy, and was still considered a world-class military power. Most of the territory that Japan now coveted in the Far East was claimed by the Tsar, and Russia had a large naval base at Port Arthur to protect it. If the Japanese wanted to sieze their own piece of Asia, they would have to deal with the Russians.

In February 1904, the Japanese made their move, with a surprise attack on Port Arthur. Thousands of Japanese troops swarmed ashore and, although they failed to capture the fortress, they did surround it and kept it cut off from the rest of the war, as other Japanese troops siezed coastal areas in Manchuria. The Tsar dispatched his Baltic Fleet to the area; both he and the rest of Europe, confident in the superiority of the “white race” over the “Asiatics”, assumed he would quickly crush the Japanese upstarts. Instead, to everyone’s shock, the Imperial Japanese Navy intercepted the Russian Fleet in the Straits of Tsushima in May 1905, and completely destroyed it.

But now the Japanese faced a problem. Although they had proven themselves militarily superior to the Russians, Japan did not have the enormous manpower reserves or economy that Russia did, and did not have the necessary resources to carry the war through to the end. So the Japanese Emperor looked for a diplomatic solution through a negotiated peace, and turned to the United States for help, asking President Theodore Roosevelt if he would act as a mediator with the Russians.

Roosevelt had his own expansionist reasons for becoming involved. The US had territories in the Pacific, including Hawaii, the Philippines, and Guam, and also had its own commercial interests in China. The Japanese, with their willingness to use military force in the cause of expansionism, had demonstrated that they were now potential rivals, and Roosevelt wanted to limit their territorial expansion as much as possible. So when the US agreed to the Japanese diplomatic request, it had its own agenda in mind. Roosevelt agreed to act as an intermediary only after Japan first agreed to accept the US “Open Door” policy in China.

At first, Russia flatly refused negotiations. Despite his heavy military losses, the Tsar was still convinced that he would win. It took an extraordinarily blunt diplomatic message from US Ambassador George Meyer, informing the Russian Government that not only the US but all of Europe believed that the Russians would be defeated by Japan and lose all of their Asian possessions, to change the Tsar’s mind. He reluctantly agreed to send a representative to negotiations to be held in Portsmouth, Maine.

When the talks began in August 1905, the two sides were far apart. Japan wanted all the territory it had conquered during the war to be permanently ceded to it, and also wanted Russia to pay a lump sum of money as “war reparations”. Russia refused both demands. Roosevelt went into action behind the scenes, talking with representatives from both sides and encouraging them to find common ground for a settlement. Through diplomatic channels, he talked other world leaders into pressuring Tsar Nicholas for concessions (including Nicholas’s cousins, King George of England and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany), and also sent cables to the Japanese Government advising it to not be “greedy” and to moderate its territorial demands.

In September 1905, agreement was finally reached. Japan would be allowed to keep a portion of the territory she occupied, and Russia would not be obligated to make any payments of reparations or indemnities. The Treaty of Portsmouth ended the Russo-Japanese War.

In 1906, in recognition of his diplomatic success in ending the war, Teddy Roosevelt became the first American to win a Nobel Peace Prize. The award was not without controversy. Many European leftists considered Roosevelt to be an unapologetic imperialist who had seized territory for the Panama Canal and had waged a bloody counter-insurgency in the Philippines, and whose actions therefore made him unsuitable for a Peace Prize. There were also whispers that the Nobel Committee itself had political reasons for awarding Roosevelt: when the Nobel Prize Committee had been formed, Norway was a part of Sweden, but in 1906 Norway had just become an independent nation, and it was suspected by many that the Norwegian committee that awarded the Peace Prize was trying to kiss up to America in a bid to win political support for Norway from an emerging world power. Roosevelt himself would go on to advocate the creation of an international political organization that would have “police power”–but then he opposed American affiliation with the League of Nations in 1919.

The issues that sparked the Russo-Japanese War, meanwhile, were never settled. Japan was still determined to carve out an empire of her own in East Asia, and after fighting on the side of the Entente Allies in the First World War, Japan would invade Manchuria in the 1930’s, leading to direct conflict with the United States in the Second World War.

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