Foreign Policy

Teddy Roosevelt and the Road to Pearl Harbor

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Historian James Bradley had a fascinating op-ed in yesterday's New York Times tracing the origins of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor back to the foreign policy of President Theodore Roosevelt, who famously intervened in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and earned himself a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. Yet as Bradley notes, Roosevelt was secretly acting on Japan's behalf, or as he wrote to his son, "not merely with her approval but with her expressed desire." Following that, Roosevelt actively encouraged Japan to emulate America's recent imperial expansion, though the results would prove disastrous in the long-term:

In a secret presidential cable to Tokyo, in July 1905, Roosevelt approved the Japanese annexation of Korea and agreed to an "understanding or alliance" among Japan, the United States and Britain "as if the United States were under treaty obligations." The "as if" was key: Congress was much less interested in North Asia than Roosevelt was, so he came to his agreement with Japan in secret, an unconstitutional act.

To signal his commitment to Tokyo, Roosevelt cut off relations with Korea, turned the American legation in Seoul over to the Japanese military and deleted the word "Korea" from the State Department's Record of Foreign Relations and placed it under the heading of "Japan."

Roosevelt had assumed that the Japanese would stop at Korea and leave the rest of North Asia to the Americans and the British. But such a wish clashed with his notion that the Japanese should base their foreign policy on the American model of expansion across North America and, with the taking of Hawaii and the Philippines, into the Pacific. It did not take long for the Japanese to tire of the territorial restrictions placed upon them by their Anglo-American partners.

It's also worth remembering that before he became president, Roosevelt was one of the central figures in the Spanish-American War, which resulted in the U.S. acquiring Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam and then waging a long, bloody, and undeclared war of occupation in the Philippines. Before he led his famous Rough Riders into battle in Cuba (a war that he relentlessly cheered on), Roosevelt was serving as assistant secretary of the Navy. From that position, he unilaterally ordered U.S. Admiral George Dewey to set sail for the Philippines, where the Spanish fleet was then anchored. At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, Dewey won an overwhelming victory at Manilla Bay, thanks in part to the cooperation of the Filipino rebels who were busy fighting Spanish imperialism. But rather than granting the Philippines the limited degree of liberty and self-government that was bestowed on Cuba, the U.S. went on to wage a war of occupation that lasted until the presidency of Woodrow Wilson and left tens of thousands of Filipinos and some 4,000 Americans dead.

The fighting started after a minor and otherwise totally forgettable skirmish between closely situated U.S. and Filipino troops. Yet for President William McKinley and the imperialist hawks circling him, it served as the perfect opportunity for the U.S. to attempt to seize control. As the great libertarian lawyer and Anti-Imperialist League leader Moorfield Storey wrote in his 1926 book, The Conquest of the Philippines by the United States, McKinley "sanctioned a war without the authority of Congress, he refused to parley, and he told Congress that the question would not be open until the Conquest by arms had been completed. What wearer of a 'kingly crown' could more despotically have dealt with a question of such vital importance to the nation?"

Thus the U.S. came to control the Philippines, where we'd fight Japan—who were following Teddy Roosevelt's imperialistic example and trying to push us out—during World War II.

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  1. Wars are generally not caused by strength. They are caused by weakness. One side is weak and that causes the other side to miscalculate and push too far.

    It should also be noted that the US stood by while Japan absolutely raped Korea. The Japanese colonization of Korea was absolutely brutal. The US gave them international cover because we were convinced that Japan was our friend. Instead, we just emboldened them.

    1. And then after that there was Japan’s rape of China. While there are always circumstances and/or excuses leading to war, there is no excuse for the barbaric behavior of the Japanese during these times.

  2. I am Tiger Woods!

  3. Wait a minute, Theodore Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering that peace deal between Japan and Russia. Now it turns out that, instead of being a man of peace, TR was a supporter of Japan’s warmongering? That really undermines my confidence in the Nobel Peace Prize. ?

    1. I’ve read, though, that a lot of people in Japan were resentful of the peace that Roosevelt brokered at Portsmouth, because they thought that the treaty left Japan with far less than they, as the clear victors on the battlefield, should have walked away with.

    2. I’d say it indicates that the Nobel Peace Prize went off the rails much earlier than I’d previously believed.

      -jcr

  4. For what it’s worth, this is probably tied in with his new book, “The Imperial Cruise” (which I only know about because it’s being advertised on WTOP); see the NYT review here and the one from USA Today here.

  5. The Nobel Prize Web site says TR got the Peace Prize in 1906 because he was a ‘[c]ollaborator of various peace treaties.’

    Collaborator with Japan is more like it.

  6. TR = giant douche. Noted.

  7. Of course, it was then Wilson’s introduction of Jim Crow into federal employment situations that convinced the Japanese that, as non-whites, they would never get fair treatment from the US.

    Wilson is still a worse president than TR.

  8. Hey, what do the Roosevelts have in common?

  9. I’ll read the oped later but I’m always skeptical about how the causal linch pin of any event is allways some US action. Really, do you think the Japanese would have never thought about imperialism, as a national strategy, without TR’s input? I’m sure they would have been the switzerland of asia.

    That said, TR was imperialist douche.

  10. It sounds like TR was just trying to make Japan an ally since it was the only Asian country with its act together.

  11. During the Russo-Japanese War, American public opinion was very pro-Japanese. For the most part, we didn’t find anything wrong with the fact that the Japanese began the war with a sneak attack on Port Arthur. We got pretty bent out of shape, however, when they did the same thing to us at Pearl Harbor.

  12. “Thus the U.S. came to control the Philippines, where we’d fight Japan?who were following Teddy Roosevelt’s imperialistic example and trying to push us out?during World War II.”

    I suspect the Japanese would have done what they did regardless of our example.

    Surely we’re not to blame for everything?

    1. Of course we are, you racist.

  13. And one could argue the U.S. would have stayed out of WWI under Taft if Roosevelt hadn’t undermined his candidacy. Then Germany may never have started WWII. But this guy gets to be one of four on Mt. Rushmore.
    So, perhaps Dubya and Obamessiah will up there someday…I’m sure today’s counterpart to Borglum could easily convert the two old, irrelevant dudes, W and J, so we could honor four war-mongers.

    1. The timeline doesn’t work. We didn’t enter World War I until 1917. Unless Taft ran for a third term, which was unheard of back then, he wouldn’t have been in office in 1917 to keep us out. Also, the Imperial Germany was so diplomatically incompetant (the XYZ affair and such), I am not sure any President could have kept us out of the war. Wilson campaign on keeping how he kept us out of the War in 1916. Maybe he was an evil liar who wanted war all along. But I think he was sincere and got drug into the war by public opinion and German lunacy.

      That said, Wilson was a terrible President in many other ways. And TR deserves some blame for underminng Taft and helping Wilson get elected.

      1. ‘the Imperial Germany was so diplomatically incompetant (the XYZ affair and such)’

        I hope this doesn’t come across as too picky, but the XYZ affair was with Revolutionary France at the end of the 18th century. Perhaps you’re thinking of the Zimmermann Telegram?

        1. You are not picky. Good catch. I was just being sloppy. Dumb mistake on my part.

        2. according to (British) historian Tuchman, Wilson never wanted to be in the war. she painted him as despicable basically for that reason. also for his handling of revolutionaries in Mexico. plus, if i remember correctly, TR had his hand in building support for the war through connected congressmen and driving public sentiment against the Germans after the revelation(s) of the Zimmerman telegram…

          none of that means Wilson wasn’t a douchebag in his own right…

          1. Barbara Tuchman was an American historian (though fairly described as pro-British), a member of her family was the U.S. ambassador to Turkey at the outbreak of the war which is part of what inspired her to write “Guns of August”.

            Anyone who wants to understand the depths of Wilson’s ineptitude as President should read her book “The Zimmerman Telegram”. One example: the Zimmerman telegram was transmitted over an American Wireless transmitter. The Germans did not have one that would reach the new world and Wilson felt that they should be able to use ours out of “fairness”, but he never even asked for the codes. The Brits were the ones who intercepted the message and decoded it-then they had to figure out how best to use it.

            1. thanks for the correction CM. is the guns of august as good a read as the Zimmerman Telegram? i thoroughly enjoyed it.

              1. Ransom147-Yes, I highly recommend it. Tuchman has that rare ability to combine good storytelling with excellent historical analysis. There are points that she makes in almost a throwaway fashion (“in this battle a young subaltern named Charles DeGualle was wounded in action”) that fascinated me.

  14. “…who were following Teddy Roosevelt’s imperialistic example and trying to push us out?during World War II.”

    Pushing the US out of the Philippines was just the tactic. Japan’s reason for the attack was to protect their flank from attack so could attack the then Dutch East Indies.

    Any sea power aligned with the Dutch that held the Philippines would have been a target for the Japanese. Who the sea power was would not matter, including a hypothetical independent Philippines or a Spain unhobbled by the Spanish-American War. The Japanese could not afford to have an open flank to the sea-lanes to Indonesia no matter who control the Philippines.

    Imperial Japan needed oil and was going to insure it was going to get oil by conquering the land required to obtain that oil. In the long-term Japan would have never been satisfied with some arraignment that depended on another power’s good grace to receive oil, so the argument that Roosevelt provoked the Japanese into war through embargo in anything but in the short term is rubbish

    1. Imperial Japan was also a military dictatorship run by a lose collection of lunatics.

      1. That was Commodore Perry’s fault.

    2. What GoNavy said. The Luzon strait is a natural chokepoint between the sealane that runs from Malacca to the Yellow Sea/Sea of Japan/Eastern Pacific.

      On Dec 8 (Japan Time) the plan was
      1) to defeat the British and Dutch forces around Singapore and the rest of modern day Indonesia to take the oil and rubber.
      2) Take the PI and Hong Kong to secure the sea lane between the Home Islands and the new South East Asia part of the GEACPS
      3) Neutralize the American Fleet to prevent it interfering with objectives 1 and 2.

      3 was the only objective where it was not sucessful.

      1. and rubber

        Yes, the strategic importance of rubber prior to the development of synthetic rubber is often forgotten. It is hard to have a mechanized military without rubber of some type.

  15. No Commodore Perry = Imperial Japan was also a military pre-industrial age, feudal dictatorship run by a lose collection of lunatics

    1. That was the first thing I thought of. If Commodore Perry hadn’t forced open access to Japan in 1854. The Japanese would never would have been advanded enough to attack Pearl Harbor in 1941.

  16. Japan began its imperialistic endeavors years before the US pounced upon Spain. (They had the French and British to learn from long before the US stepped into the mix.) Besides if the US had not taken the Philippines than they would have gone to one of the other colonial powers like Germany or Japan. Sure we treated the Filipinos like shit and we should have made the territory a protectorate instead of a full fledged colony.

    As for the Treaty of Portsmouth, like a certain later war, Japan was overstretched and needed a victory before Russia’s full power came to bear and they were completely kicked off of mainland Asia. So the turned to the US to broker a deal. When the Treaty didn’t give them everything the wanted they got pissy about it. But there were many in Japan’s government who realized that they had been saved from a potentially disastrous long and grinding war.

    This in no way caused the later Pacific portion of WWII. Japan set herself on that course by her own militaristic stupidity. Sure America enjoyed a not so healthy does of racist overconfidence but that was a cultural flaw largely unrelated to the geo-political shitstorm that was unfolding.

    Of course Japan jumped in whole hog and overextended herself, but this time there was no bailout and she got pounded. So now, 65 or so years later, Japan has one of the world’s largest economies and healthiest populations. And the US is the bad guy?

  17. So, Pearl Harbor was “browback”?

    1. If that was supposed to be “blowback”, then the answer is no.

      Read above – The PI is in a strategic location no matter who holds the PI.

      1. There is a tradition of substituting “R”s for “L”s in the context of Japanese language, intended as a crass humorous device.

        This is apparently an unsuccessful use of such device. Or, it may be a successful use further amplified by a reply making a serious response to something not intended as such.

        As always, our HnR panel will have to decide.

        1. ha, ha

          Unable to hear the infucktion in your voice.

        2. I raughed.

          1. I arso.

  18. Many of my fellow commenters are not giving Japan enough credit. Perry wasn’t the first European in Japan, and he wouldn’t have been the last. The Spanish and Portuguese were there long before, and the British were there afterwards. They would’ve forced Japan to modernize if we hadn’t. When Japan decided to modernize, it chose Germany’s form of government (Second Reich–absolute monarchy w/ subordinate oligarchical legislature), Britain’s type of navy, and France’s type of army. Japan then got Britain to train its navy & France to train its army (getting some army training from Germany, too).

    Yes, TR may have been pro-Japan in the Russo-Japanese War, but Wilson was militantly anti-Japanese, forcing the Brits to break off its alliance w/ Japan at Versailles. It was then that Japan became a rogue state, with the Army slowly taking over the country by assassinating civilian politicians that opposed their plans for Japanese imperial expansion.

    Japan invaded China in the early 1930s, and invaded all of southeast Asia a few years later. Japan planned to drive through India and link up with Germany in the Middle East. They never got anywhere near that far, thanks to Allied resistance. Nevertheless, this was the result of Japanese choices, not US intervention.

  19. >>>The Spanish and Portuguese were their long before….

  20. TR may have been pro-Japan in the Russo-Japanese War, but Wilson was militantly anti-Japanese, forcing the Brits to break off its alliance w/ Japan at Versailles. It was then that Japan became a rogue state, with the Army slowly taking over the country by assassinating civilian politicians that opposed their plans for Japanese imperial expansion.

    David Mayer
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  21. Japan’s declaration of war, in December 1941, explained its position quite clearly: “It is a fact of history that the countries of East Asia for the past hundred years or more have been compelled to observe the status quo under the Anglo-American policy of imperialistic exploitation and to sacrifice themselves to the prosperity of the two nations. The Japanese government cannot tolerate the perpetuation of such a situation.”
    In that situation was like an Asian playboy

    1. the kamikaze airplanes were like luxury cars for the Americans.

  22. The attack was an initial shock to all the Allies in the Pacific Theater. Further losses compounded the alarming setback. Three days later, the Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk off the coast of Malaya, causing British Prime Minister Winston Churchill later to recollect “In all the war I never received a more direct shock. The airplanes were like luxury cars for the americans

  23. The attack was an initial shock to all the Allies in the Pacific Theater. Further losses compounded the alarming setback. Three days later, the Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk off the coast of Malaya, causing British Prime Minister Winston Churchill later to recollect “In all the war I never received a more direct shock. the airplanes were for the Japanese like luxury cars for americans

  24. The attack on the military forces of the U.S. at Pearl Harbor Hawaii did not just happen nor was it a quick reaction to initiatives instituted by President Roosevelt. The Japanese believed that they were being pushed into a corner by Roosevelt and felt that they must act to protect the Empire. Gordon Prange in ‘At Dawn We Slept’ describes pre-attack luxury carsevents in detail. The description of these events note the mistakes made on each side.

  25. The attack on the military forces of the U.S. at Pearl Harbor Hawaii did not just happen nor was it a quick reaction to initiatives instituted by President Roosevelt. The Japanese believed that they were being pushed into a corner by Roosevelt and felt that they must act to protect the Empire. Gordon Prange in ‘At Dawn We Slept’ describes pre-attack luxury carsevents in detail. The description of these events note the mistakes made on each side.

  26. The attack on the military forces of the U.S. at Pearl Harbor Hawaii did not just happen nor was it a quick reaction to initiatives instituted by President Roosevelt. The Japanese believed that they were being pushed into a corner by Roosevelt and felt that they must act to protect the Empire. Gordon Prange in ‘At Dawn We Slept’ describes pre-attack luxury cars events in detail. The description of these events note the mistakes made on each side.

  27. The attack on the military forces of the U.S. at Pearl Harbor Hawaii did not just happen nor was it a quick reaction to initiatives instituted by President Roosevelt. The Japanese believed that they were being pushed into a corner by Roosevelt and felt that they must act to protect the Empire. Gordon Prange in ‘At Dawn We Slept’ describes pre-attack events in detail. The description of these events note the mistakes made on each side.

  28. With the continued German military rearmament program and European leadership capitulation at the Munich conference, President Roosevelt asked Congress for $500 Million to increase America’s defence forces. This action was done because he believed that Germany was a threat to the U.S. The Japanese saw this build up as a direct threat to their Empire
    luxury cars because, the U.S. was the only country in the Pacific which could impede their expansion.

  29. With the continued German military rearmament program and European leadership capitulation at the Munich conference, President Roosevelt asked Congress for $500 Million to increase America’s defence forces. This action was done because he believed that Germany was a threat to the U.S. The Japanese softsaw this build up as a direct threat to their Empire because, the U.S. was the only country in the Pacific which could impede their expansion.

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  31. Teddy is the man that put us on the road to Empire, and changed the America that should have been to what America is now. And to what America is about to become.
    Pearl Harbor was like a deadly bootcamps for teens

  32. Teddy is the man that put us on the road to Empire, and changed the America that should have been to what America is now. And to what America is about to become.
    Pearl Harbor was like a deadly bootcamps for teens

  33. I think that it is indisputable that the problem in WW2 that my Dad was sent to help extinguish was Japan going into Asia. They said in their declaration of war that the problem is Britain and America want to control Asia and we’re Asians, and we’re going to control it. Japan’s going to control it themselves.
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  34. Teddy is the man that put us on the road to Empire, and changed the America that should have been to what America is now. And to what America is about to become.
    Signs Austin

  35. FDR called the tyrant,,Joe Stalin,,,good ole Joe..he sent 11 billion dollars to Joe during ww2,gave him some 750 million people to torture at Yalta and thus it was to save communism that Pearl Harbor resulted.the former friends of stalin were beating him in Russia so FDR had to save his buddy and so he manuevered japan into attacking at Pearl Harbor..notice that most of our military strength went towards the european theatre..and if TR had not driven spain and thus germany out of Cuba and built the panama canal ,what would our fate had been without that ..TR was the greatest prsident of the 20th century and FDR the most evil..unless you are a communist supporter!

  36. Theodore Roosevelt was one of the first presidents whose voice was recorded for posterity. He was a great man.
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  37. Teddy was a great leader for USA… TR was the greatest president of the 20th century and FDR the most evil.
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  38. Teddy Roosevelt and the Road to Pearl Harbor ? Why Teddy Roosevelt?

  39. I don`t think that during the Russo-Japanese War, American public opinion was very pro-Japanese

  40. Maybe Theodore Roosevelt wanted to start a war, big profits can be done during a war.

  41. I still cannot believe that the japaneses thought that they can defeat USA

  42. I wonder if now USA will start a war against Japan or China, could win?

  43. Maybe USA will attack North Korea now.

  44. USA and other allies that`s for sure. It is a good opportunity to make some money

  45. To signal his commitment to Tokyo, Roosevelt cut off relations with Korea, turned the American legation in Seoul over to the Japanese military and deleted the word “Korea” from the State Department’s Record of Foreign Relations and placed it under the heading of “Japan.”

  46. Maybe USA will attack North Korea or Lybia now, who knows?

  47. I think that it is indisputable that the problem in WW2 that my Dad was sent to help extinguish was Japan going into Asia. 🙁

  48. I don`t think USA can fight against China; it is too powerful.

  49. Roosevelt got the Peace Prize in 1906 because he was a ‘[c]ollaborator of various peace treaties.’

    Collaborator with Japan is more like it.

  50. i like this website wonderful.

  51. I don’t think everybody like wars,
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  52. I think Teddy did a great job during his term. One of the best presidents we have ever had. I hope others can achieve more than he has.

  53. I just came across your blog and reading your beautiful words. I thought I would leave my first comment but I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

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  54. Good work! I always like to leave comments whenever I see something unusual or impressive. I think we must appreciate those who do something especial. Keep it up, thanks

    David Mayer

  55. We all learned about it in school but we didn’t hear any of this! Thanks for the info on one of our presidents. Who by the way was known for how to attract women back in his day!

  56. great post on old Teddy R! We didn’t get to learn these kinds of things in school.

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