When Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, there was much carping about how it was undeserved. That may be true, but it would take a lot for President Obama to do more damage than did the first American president -- and the first American, period -- to win that award. One hundred and three years ago today, President Theodore Roosevelt won the Peace Prize for bringing the Russians and Japanese to the negotiating table to end the bloody Russo-Japanese War. In fact, Roosevelt did little to abet peace, and much to catalyze millions of deaths to come.
Before I began researching my new book, "The Imperial Cruise", I thought of Teddy Roosevelt as a great American hero, and most biographies of him do nothing to discourage such admiration. But as I dug deeper, I discovered that there was another side of Roosevelt, one buried by most popular accounts -- and one that, had even a fraction of it been known at the time, would have scuttled his Nobel dreams.
The world was understandably fascinated when, in June of 1905, Roosevelt invited the Russians and Japanese to America for peace talks. The president posed as a neutral intermediary, but as he revealed in a private letter to his son: "I have of course concealed from everyone -- literally everyone -- the fact that I acted in the ﬁrst place on Japan's suggestion ... . Remember that you are to let no one know that in this matter of the peace negotiations I have acted at the request of Japan and that each step has been taken with Japan's foreknowledge, and not merely with her approval but with her expressed desire."
Roosevelt viewed Asia through strict ideological lenses. One of his theories was that the Chinese and Koreans were declining "impotent" races. In contrast, Roosevelt believed that the Japanese were a rising "potent" race, "a wonderful and civilized people ... entitled to stand on an absolute equality with all the other peoples of the civilized world." About the Russians, Roosevelt wrote, "No human beings, black, yellow or white could be quite as untruthful, as insincere, as arrogant -- in short, as untrustworthy in every way -- as the Russians."
By supporting Japan, Roosevelt believed he was championing America's long-term interests in North Asia. When the Japanese military ignited the Russo-Japanese War with a surprise attack (which would resemble their later attack on Pearl Harbor) on the Russian navy at Port Arthur without a declaration of war, the Russians naturally condemned the action as a shameful violation of international norms. Not so Roosevelt, who wrote privately to his son, "I was thoroughly well pleased with the Japanese victory, for Japan is playing our game."
The "game" that Roosevelt believed the Japanese were playing was the advancement of American interests in North Asia. As Professor Franklin Giddings of Columbia University had declared, "The great question of the twentieth century is whether the Anglo-Saxon or the Slav is to impress his civilization to the world." Roosevelt wanted the U.S. to partner with Britain to counter the Russians in North Asia and because he couldn't get Congress to fund troops there, he sought to use the Japanese army as a surrogate placeholder for American interests. But his Secretary of State cautioned him, "Public opinion in this country would not support such a course. We could never get a treaty through the Senate [regarding a] scheme of concerted action with England and Japan." Roosevelt fumed, "I hate being in a position of seeming to bluster without backing it up" -- and secretly went around the Senate to craft a series of disastrous clandestine agreements.
Roosevelt knew that Japan had long sought to control the Korean peninsula, their first necessary step for expansion onto the Asian mainland. In 1900, Roosevelt had written: "I should like to see Japan have Korea. She will be a check upon Russia . . ."
In early July of 1905, Roosevelt invited a Japanese diplomat for an overnight stay to his estate on Long Island Sound in Oyster Bay, New York. Years later the diplomat paraphrased Roosevelt's words from memory:
Japan is the only nation in Asia that understands the principles and methods of Western civilization. She has proved that she can assimilate Western civilization, yet not break up her own heritage. All the Asiatic nations are now faced with the urgent necessity of adjusting themselves to the present age. Japan should be their natural leader in that process, and their protector during the transition stage, much as the United States assumed the leadership of the American continent many years ago, and by means of the Monroe Doctrine, preserved the Latin American nations from European interference. The future policy of Japan towards Asiatic countries should be similar to that of the United States towards their neighbors on the American continent.
Three weeks later in a secret presidential cable to Tokyo, Roosevelt approved the Japanese takeover of Korea and agreed to "an understanding or alliance . . . among Japan, the United States and Great Britain . . . as if a treaty had been signed." The "as if" was key, because by making this secret treaty without Senate approval, Roosevelt was committing an unconstitutional act.
Roosevelt saw Japan's takeover of Korea as a progressive social experiment that would beneﬁt millions of Asians: for the ﬁrst time in history, an Asian nation was assisting the West with The White Man's Burden. And he assumed that the Japanese would stop at Korea and leave the rest of North Asia to the Americans and English.
It didn't work out that way. Korea was only the first victim of Japan's Roosevelt-sanctioned westering. Ba Maw, the president of Burma during the Japanese occupation in WWII observed,
There was only one way to do a thing, the Japanese way; only one goal and interest, the Japanese interest; only one destiny for the East Asian countries, to become so many... Korea's tied forever to Japan.
And that was as Roosevelt may have wanted it: after all, it was he who had so fervently encouraged the Japanese to think in "Monroe Doctrine" terms about their continent. No doubt, the Japanese, and their military, had ambitions with regard to Asia. But such aims were undoubtedly encouraged by Roosevelt-his bogus even-handedness in the Russo-Japanese peace process perhaps the most potent evidence of his bias. Oslo may not have known the truth -- and most Americans still don't know the truth, either -- but the cost of Roosevelt's subterfuge would be profound.
Teddy would not be around on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese, borrowing straight from the Russo-Japanese playbook, attacked Pearl Harbor in order to protect their sphere of influence. Nor would he be around for the millions of deaths to come as war raged throughout the Pacific. Such are the long fuses of history.
Today, the Roosevelt Room in the White House is just across the hall from the Oval Office. Along one wall is a portrait of the famous Rough Rider on a horse. Along another wall is Roosevelt's Nobel Peace Prize. Let us hope that, years from now, it will have been displaced by a nobler Nobel.