Skip to main content

Roosevelt, the Peacemaker

ISSUE:  Winter 1926

Roosevelt and the Russo-Japanese War.
By Tyler Dennett. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company. $3.50.

The hero of the book,—for it has a hero,—is singularly fortunate in his author. Mr. Dennett was prepared for this piece of writing by his long study of American diplomacy in the Far East, which culminated, in an earlier book, “Americans in Eastern Asia.” That background of study was essential to proper perspective. And perspective is really the most difficult problem for the writer of history. Mr. Dennett, moreover, has not merely a bookish knowledge of the Far East. His travel and work in that area opened an avenue toward understanding the problems involved in making peace between Japan and Russia.

The story is well told. The author was a journalist before he was a historian, and his journalistic experience gives not only a lively and vigorous character to his style, but a quality to the arrangement of his matter unusual in a historical work. He has the journalist’s trick of telling his story in the first paragraph and then filling in the sketch. He summarizes his progress now and then, knitting the whole narrative into a compact argument. He is not afraid to smile. There are moving passages, but there is precious little of high historic seriousness. The author has a lively sense of humor, and an eye for anecdotes to “decorate a page.” He quotes with keenest relish Roosevelt’s comment to Secretary Hay: “that the more he saw of the Kaiser and the Czar the more respect he had for American Senators,” and Hay’s response that “he was unable to make such fine distinctions.” The book is a thesis for the Doctor of Philosophy degree but no one would ever suspect it, for the author was a historian of secure reputation before he turned aside to work for an advanced degree, and this volume bears none of the marks of apprenticeship and none of the scars of the candidate’s first efforts at constructive writing. He is fitted to understand Roosevelt. One can see at once that he is enamored of his hero. Roosevelt’s vigor, his energy, his insistence upon justice, his moderation, his tact, his modesty, his political intuition—all these come in for praise. There are admissions that the President made mistakes, but they arose from the deficiencies of the American diplomatic service which made him see world events as through a glass, darkly. There is appreciation of Roosevelt’s difficulties; there is enthusiasm for his policy and achievements, and criticism only for the period after his presidency when Roosevelt had lost touch with events and judged a new situation upon an old basis.

To an author thus equipped by training, experience, and temperament to write an accurate and sympathetic account of an historic diplomatic incident came a great opportunity. He gained access to the private papers of President Roosevelt, deposited in the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress. Material lay before him such as no foreign office in the world would have made available, material, much of it, that the Department of State did not have in its files. It was the sort of opportunity historians dream of. And he made the most of it. Not content with that treasure chest he scoured about to find all the memoirs and documentary material which had been printed. Having studied those, he gave critical attention to a wide range of secondary works. An experienced workman was supplied with a remarkable set of tools.

The actual account of Roosevelt’s proposal for a peace conference and of the exercise of his good offices toward peace occupies a relatively small part of the book. The narrative of those events is not given in great detail, nor is it burdened with the anecdotal embellishments which have become common in speaking of that occasion.

Indeed the great value of the book arises from its wide angle of vision. It deals with one incident of an active presidency—a side issue which occupied only a fraction of the president’s attention for a few months. But it becomes a revealing incident, throwing important side fights upon the world situation, the Department of State and the American foreign service, Roosevelt’s methods of administration, and a whole host of other subjects.

The fundamental thesis is that the problem of the Far East does not stand by itself and that Roosevelt was singularly wise in deciding that it must be solved with reference to the European situation. In proving this point Mr. Dennett discusses the origins of the war and points out their connection with events in the great game of the European balance of power. He weaves the events connected with the famous visit of the Kaiser to Tangier and the resulting Mor-rocco crisis into the fabric of his story of events in Eastern Asia. The result is entirely convincing. At some moments the dramatic interest growing out of the meshing cogs of eastern and western diplomacy rises to a high pitch.

Roosevelt’s prescience in threading the maze was the more remarkable because his diplomatic eyes and ears did not serve him well. Mr. Hay had passed the period of important work in the Department of State. Much of the time he was away in search of health. Mr. Taft appears in charge for a time, acting as Secretary of State, as well as Secretary of War and generally as the President’s alter ego while his chief was hunting in Colorado. Mr. Root became Secretary before peace was made, but he had no significant part. Mr. Roosevelt kept matters closely in his own hands. One might think, on occasion, that he was reading the letters of Walter Hines Page dealing with his relations with Colonel House and Mr. Wilson. “The Department of State was utilized only occasionally. . . . Roosevelt continued to be his own Secretary of State so far as the relation to the peace conference was concerned. . . . The regular diplomatic channels were used very little.” The American representatives abroad, save for George von L. Meyer, in Russia, had very little of his confidence and contributed even less to his information. Mr. Dennett reveals Roosevelt as irregular in his choice of diplomatic channels as Mr. Wilson was ever charged with being. He was even more so in some ways, for while Mr. Wilson used unofficial Americans, Mr. Roosevelt gave his confidence to officials of other countries, notably to Spring-Rice, “Springy,” Secretary of the British Embassy in Russia. The breezy informality and the perfect candor of the communications between these men were remarkable.

The use of such channels was not evidence of any lack of caution on Roosevelt’s part. Indeed this book presents new evidence to support the growing belief that Roosevelt did not form his judgments as hastily as appeared. The appearance of impetuousity was in almost everything he did. He wished it so. His vigor of utterance and velocity of action heightened the impression. Those were the mere externals. In his dealings with the Russo-Japanese War Roosevelt gained a reputation for hasty and gratuitous interference, and for pressing his role of peacemaker to the detriment of the power which had the sympathies of the American people.

Both these traditions Mr. Dennett has effectively destroyed. Roosevelt was in no haste to offer his services. By documentary evidence of indisputable character it is revealed that Roosevelt made no move until he had been brought into the situation by Japan, by Germany, and by Russia. He was utterly unwilling to bring pressure to bear upon either of the belligerents and preferred, rather, to risk the ^continuance of the war. Before he issued his formal and public suggestion he had the most explicit assurances from both powers that it would be welcomed and accepted. Neither wanted the world to know that fact. It might look as though they feared victory could not be won. Roosevelt loyally kept the secret, and, amid the storm of criticism of his “premature” act, kept his tongue between his teeth.

Once American good offices had been tendered, he moved with gingerly caution. When he was sure of his ground, he raised his voice and indulged in gestures to end petty obstinacies. But save for smoothing the path to conference he kept his hands off. He played no active part in peace negotiation until a crisis was reached. He did not intrude his advice, and intervened only when it seemed likely that peace might be made in Europe rather than America. Peace was coming; that was sure. The only issue was whether it should be made in Portsmouth or in Europe. He believed that the peace of Portsmouth would be a better peace for American purposes and from the point of view of justice than peace made in Europe. He knew, moreover, that American prestige was involved so deeply that a transfer of the negotiations to Europe would injure the standing of this country before the world. Under such circumstances he intervened in the last days of the peace conference.

Those facts lead to the demolition of another of the traditions that have clustered about this incident. Mr. Dennett destroys the contention that Roosevelt sought to be a peacemaker for his own ends. However prejudiced one may be at the beginning, the conviction grows that he did not seek to be one of the blessed by that means. He displayed a modesty which was indubitably genuine and kept silent to his own hurt when he could have vindicated himself by pubfishing documents in his possession. He sought peace more for .American purposes than to put an end to strife in the world. He believed that a balance of power in the Far East was the best guarantee of American position and influence in that part of the globe. He was eager to steady the balance of power, and in his time he measurably succeeded. A balance is, by definition, an unstable thing. The fact that Japan later upset the balance in its own favor has little relation to the wisdom or the success of his policy.

He achieved his aim by solid diplomatic bargaining. John Hay, by clever diplomacy, had established the principle of the open door. Fact and principle had come to be at variance. Roosevelt gave something real and demanded a tangible return. It was when America reverted to the policy of asking something and giving nothing—a policy for which Hay said the Senate was responsible—that American aims were frustrated once more. The book is not without some weaknesses. The journalistic method does not do well with documents. We are told what the document contained. Then the document appears, and finally there is a summary of its contents. The impression of repetition is strongest in the chapter on “Peace Overtures.” The author seemed to become conscious of it and in the succeeding chapter on “Good Offices” he abandoned that method, telling the story himself and relegating the documents to appendices.

Mr. Dennett is not so good a constitutional lawyer as he is historian. He is rather too tender of our instrument of government; he is constantly afraid that it will be “broken.” “The weakness of” Roosevelt’s “policy lay in the fact that it could not be continued except at the expense of the constitution of the United States,” If that were true, it would be a desperate weakness. In point of fact, the assertion lacks support. It rests upon the statement that Roosevelt’s policy was his own and never could command the assent of two-thirds of the Senate. But that point is not pertinent. Confusion arises from the failure to distinguish sharply between the field of policy, which is in the control of the executive, and treaties, which require the approval of the Senate. It is a legal distinction of capital importance. If Mr. Taft had chosen to pursue the give and take methods of Mr. Roosevelt, he could have clung to a similar, if not the same, policy without doing violence to the constitution.

The same confusion leads Mr. Dennett into the assertion that the United States was “an unsigned member of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.” Mr. Roosevelt gave notice that in certain circumstances he would support Japan. In making that assertion, he was within his rights. Whether the Congress as a whole, if it came to making war, or the Senate, if it came to a treaty, would stand behind his policy is a wholly different question. If presidents had waited upon pledges of support before making important diplomatic moves the story of our diplomacy would read far differently. In making that assertion Mr. Roosevelt was not joining the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. Similarity of interest which leads two nations to the same or a similar course of action is not to be confused with identity of obligation. Great Britain was pledged to a course of action by contract. Mr. Roosevelt was induced to propose a similar course of action, but his proposal had neither the binding force nor the continuing force of the British agreement. Long before the obligations undertaken by Great Britain were brought to an end, the American government, moved by its own judgment as to its interest, had abandoned Roosevelt’s policy. His suggestion that American interests might lead him to support Japan in certain circumstances had little in common with a treaty obligation. This legal distinction is not only real but vital.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading