Foreign Policy

Teddy Roosevelt and the Road to Pearl Harbor


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.