The Far Eastern and Pacific Foreign Policies of Theodore Roosevelt
In May of 1903 after having been the President of the United States for just over one year, Theodore Roosevelt visited San Francisco. He was very impressed by the strength of the American Republic that he witnessed on this trip, and openly declared “Before I came to the Pacific Slope I was an expansionist, and after having been here I fail to understand how any man...can be anything but an expansionist.”1 This new type of expansionism was significantly different from the growth of the United States under the doctrine of Manifest Destiny which Roosevelt had criticized as a historian.2 The difference lay in the fact that it was not an attempt to gain adjacent territories for settlement but rather an undertaking to obtain and preserve strategic and commercial gains for the United States abroad.
This desire to pursue American interests expanded U.S. influence in many parts of the world as American businessmen and diplomats worked with or against those of other nations. One of the most dramatic examples of this struggle was the Spanish-American War in the 1890s which finally catapulted America into the ranks of the imperial powers through its acquisitions of territories in Latin America and the Pacific and demonstration of American industrial and military might to the various European powers. Nevertheless, despite the importance of other regions, a major part of the Foreign Policy of Theodore Roosevelt’s administration was focused on expanding and protecting American territorial and commercial influence in Asia and the Pacific through diplomatic and military means.
The clearest example of American expansion in the Pacific can be seen in the actual territories acquired in that region, namely the Philippines, Hawaii and several other small strategic islands which had been acquired throughout the last decade of the nineteenth century. In 1900 as debates about the future of American imperialism became more contentious, Senator Albert Beveridge defended American domination of the Philippines because, as he claimed, “the Pacific is our Ocean.”3 Roosevelt likewise believed that “If we are to be a really great people, we must strive in good faith to play a great part in the world…we cannot avoid the responsibilities that confront us.”4
To Roosevelt these territories, such as the Philippines, were not only strategic interests for the United States but commitments as well. He keenly felt what his long time friend Rudyard Kipling called “the white man’s burden”. Because of this he believed that the United States owed its possessions more than mere physical infrastructure and he became intent on improving the living conditions of the native populations in American territories at least theoretically. These were to be mutually beneficial relationships, an ideal that, although not entirely revolutionary, was certainly progressive.5
Even though Roosevelt did not himself play a major role in the attainment of these territories, he vigorously attempted to further American interests in these areas through various means. One of the most pressing military concerns in these new colonies was the so called Philippine Insurrection that had so plagued Roosevelt’s assassinated predecessor President McKinley. This rebellion against American colonial forces began in 1899, but most of the hostilities came to a close with the capture of the rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo several months before Theodore Roosevelt took office. Nevertheless despite the President’s declaration on July 4, 1902 that hostilities had ended and the fact that the rebel leader had been captured there were still occasional military engagements for the next decade.
Roosevelt saw these revolts as “sporadic in character” and declared that his intention was to “train them [the Philippines] for self-government as rapidly as possible.” Nevertheless, in his autobiography he states
I do not believe that America has any special or beneficial interest in retaining the Philippines...the time will come when it will be wise to take their own judgment as to whether they wish to continue their association with America or not. There is, however, one consideration on which we should insist. Either we should retain complete control of the islands, or absolve ourselves from all responsibility for them.6
Roosevelt did not see the contradiction between his pledge to allow Filipino autonomy and simultaneously putting down an attempt to accomplish said independence. This is because he although he believed in eventual independence for the Philippines, he qualified his support by saying “I did not believe in setting the time-limit within which we would give them independence, because I did not believe it wise to try to forecast how soon they would be fit for self-government”7 In other words the United States should retain possession of the Philippines as long as it didn’t have to make any binding commitments in the process. As for Roosevelt’s claim that the United States did not have a special interest in retaining the islands, his close friend and associate Senator Lodge had upheld American occupation of the Philippines simply because they were vital to “maintaining our interests vigorously in China and seeing to it that that vast market is not closed to our trade and commerce.” 8
Improving and solidifying Sino-American relations in order to promote American interests in China would prove to be the most important and difficult foreign policy objective in the Orient during the first half of the Roosevelt Administration. Part of the difficulty lay in the complex relationship that had developed between the United States had and China during the last part of the nineteenth century, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Open Door Policy that had been announced by John Hay in 1900. Another major complication was the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 which had significantly decreased the power of the Chinese government while simultaneously increasing the disgruntlement of the Chinese with foreign imperialists. Although Roosevelt had not played a direct role in the formation of these policies he made a major effort to expand and define them in such a way to meet changing American needs and interests. His first message to congress as president stated that “owing to the rapid growth of our power and interests on the Pacific, whatever happens in China must be of the keenest national concern to us.”9
Roosevelt frequently looked upon China as a warning to the United States that it should not follow the path towards disarming, especially if it wanted to maintain influence in the Pacific. It was because China had no military power that it saw “Japan, Russia, Germany, England and France in possession of fragments of her Empire.”10 Because of China’s inability to defend itself Roosevelt could not understand their legitimate national aspirations and according to historian Howard K. Beale Roosevelt became “a victim of the limitations of his own colonialism.”11 Because of this he was unable to appreciate the sentiments of the Chinese nationalists which were most poignantly demonstrated in the Boxer Rebellion. These nationalists were offended by the way the Chinese Exclusion Act had been applied not only to laborers but also to the supposedly exempt middle and upper class citizens traveling to the United States. They were also outraged by the way that Americans had behaved in China itself. These frustrations on the part of the Chinese culminated in a boycott of American goods in 1905. Roosevelt’s reaction to this crisis is perhaps one of the best examples in the Far East of the so called “Big Stick” diplomacy. He offered a compromise that he thought was just and acceptable and declared “we cannot expect China to do us justice unless we do China justice,”12 and in order to be fair with China he proposed to moderate the objectionable provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Act and to remit a large part of the Boxer Indemnity as a sign of good will in order to maintain American trade in China.13
Protection and expansion of the lucrative China trade had been a major reason for American interest in the Far East for some time. In order to secure this trade from experiencing possible barriers from other imperial powers McKinley had his Secretary of State John Hay issue what are called the Open Door Notes. Although Theodore Roosevelt inherited this policy from his predecessor he vigorously incorporated it into his overall vision of a Far East Policy while nonetheless reinterpreting and reapplying it to different situations such as the difficulties that would soon arise in Asia over the Russo-Japanese War.
The administration was especially desirous to promote and defend American business interests in Manchuria which, according to Senator Lodge, had reached “enormous proportions” and thus qualified as having equal importance with interests in the strategically and militarily significant Yangtze valley.14 Long term American interests in the region were, however, threatened by a possible clash between the two major Asian military powers; the Empires of Russia and Japan. Roosevelt and his administration tried unsuccessfully to enforce the Open Door in northern China and frequently accused the Russians of violating the principle of free trade. Originally Roosevelt had been friendly and welcoming toward Russian advances into China, but he began to change his mind as Russian influence proved detrimental to American interests. According to Beale by 1902 and 1903 “Roosevelt’s attitude toward Russia in the Far East had undergone a complete reversal” and he started to favor Japanese interests in that part of Asia. Thus when the Russo-Japanese War began in 1904 he could hardly contain his enthusiasm at the possible removal of Russian obstacle to American commercial expansion into Manchuria.15
Despite his admiration for the fighting qualities of the Japanese troops, Roosevelt frequently, according to Beale, “weighed...the relative dangers of a victorious Japan and a victorious Russia. He recognized the danger in either one.”16 If a choice had to be made, however, Roosevelt was ready to side with the Japanese. For although Roosevelt was “torn between admiration for Japanese efficiency and fighting qualities and fear of the country’s strength in war”17 the Japanese did provide an effective counterweight against the Russians in northern Asia. Furthermore his increasingly friendly attitude towards Japan was greatly increased in 1904 when Great Britain concluded an alliance with the Japanese he saw it as “advantageous to the peace of Asia, and therefore to the peace of the world”.18 Nevertheless, he was keenly aware of the importance of not allowing one power to totally destroy the other because of the upset in the balance of power that it would cause. In his Autobiography Roosevelt refers to the problems that the war between Russia and Japan was causing for American and European interests in the region. He wrote that:
The strain on the civilized world caused by the Russo-Japanese War became serious... from all the sources of information at hand, I grew most strongly to believe that a further continuation of the struggle would be a very bad thing for Japan, and an even worse thing for Russia...I believed therefore, that the time had come when it was greatly to the interest of both combatants to have peace, and when therefore it was possible to get both to agree to peace.19
Of course Roosevelt fails to point out that one of the greatest beneficiaries of both powers surviving with virtually no change to the status quo in the Far East was the United States, but it is hardly surprising that he would chose not to highlight the less magnanimous reasons that lead to him becoming the first American to receive a Nobel Peace Prize.
In order to prevent the collapse of the balance of power through a complete victory on either side he took it upon himself to bring the combatants together, and he did this in a rather remarkable way. With the sickness and eventual death of Secretary Hay during this time period, Roosevelt personally took over the responsibilities of the Secretary of State and pursued the treaty with the vigor and personal touch that were so characteristically his in order to secure an end to the war that would be favorable to the United States. Roosevelt was finally able to get the Japanese and Russia envoys to agree upon the conditions for negotiations and a meeting place power, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The choice of location undoubtedly pleased the president by demonstrating American naval power while at the same time showing American diplomatic strength and international prestige.
On September 5, 1905 the treaty was finally signed by the representatives of Japan and Russia. Herbert Parsons, a New York congressman who was with Roosevelt when he received the news, reported the president as saying “that peace was a might good thing for Russia and Japan, adding it was a ‘mighty good thing for me too.’”20 Unfortunately for Roosevelt the advantages he felt that he had gained in Portsmouth were quickly undermined.
His major goal in conducting the negotiations in New Hampshire had been to ensure that a balance of power would continue to exist in the East so that neither Russians or Japanese, or any other power (except the United States should it ever become feasible) could come to completely dominate the Western Pacific and China.
Nevertheless, events in Europe and the systems of alliances that the European powers were constructing would overthrow much of Roosevelt’s carefully planned balancing act. Japan was closely linked to Britain and Russia was locked into an alliance with France. As their allies became closer strategic partners in attempts to check the growth of German military strength in Europe, Russia and Japan were put under pressure to ease tensions in the East. Also Russia was unable to recover from the humiliating defeat of its navy in the battle of Tsushima Strait and proved to be an ineffective counterweight to Japanese naval expansion in East Asia. This collapse of the balance of power structure in the Pacific inaugurated a new stage in Roosevelt’s policy towards the Far East as it became apparent that the United States would be dealing more directly with Asian powers than Europeans in order to protect their interests.
Because of the Europeans abandonment of the Pacific after the Russo-Japanese War, Japan became the major power in the western Pacific. This was a major concern for President Roosevelt inasmuch as the United States was in a very difficult position because it was unable to simultaneously meet the Japanese challenge in the Pacific and participate in the naval build up in the Atlantic occasioned by a German and British naval arms race. In order to prevent total Japanese dominance in the Pacific Roosevelt implemented various polices that culminated in the signing of the Root-Takahira agreement.21
The first reaction to Japanese supremacy in East Asia was the Orange War Plan, a study made by U.S. military planers concerning a theoretical war with Japan that would involve a dispatch of the Atlantic Fleet to the Pacific-- essentially attempting to see if the United States could succeed where Russia had failed during the Russo-Japanese War. It was decided, however, that it would be impractical for America to attempt to deploy it’s military forces to give more than a token defense of the Philippines. Historian Choi Jeong-soo points to these plans as the reason for “Roosevelt’s decision to abandon the plans to establish a base in the Philippines in favor of one in Hawaii [Pearl Harbor].”22
Another important way in which Roosevelt attempted to limit Japanese military expansion was to impose an arms limitations agreement on the major powers during the Second Hague Peace Conference. Roosevelt was sure that the United States could keep up by replacing outdated ships and completing the Panama Canal if only it could limit Japanese growth for a short period of time. This plan to put a cap on warship tonnage was rejected by most of the European powers and proved to be unworkable. So Roosevelt made one last attempt to impress the Japanese and the world with American military might by sending the American battle fleet on a world tour.
Concerning this Great White Fleet, as the Navy during this voyage came to be known, Roosevelt said “in my own judgment the most important service that I rendered to peace was the voyage of the battle fleet round the world.”23 In his autobiography Roosevelt downplays, with good cause, the notion that the fleet was meant to start a war with Japan or intimidate her. On the contrary, he states that the Navy’s presence in the Pacific “was no more to be accepted as a mark of hostility to any Asiatic power than its presence in the Atlantic was...a mark of hostility to any European power” and says that this move was made mostly to impress the American people.24
Nevertheless, it was only shortly after the departure of the Fleet from Japan that the Root-Takahira agreement was signed in Washington D.C. guaranteeing the maintenance of the status quo in the pacific, an Open Door trade policy in China, Chinese territorial integrity and mutual recognition of territory between the United States and Japan.25 Although this can be seen as a diplomatic tactical retreat, Jeong-soo points out that the Roosevelt administration was buying time for the United States to be able to amass the necessary forces in the Far East to check Japanese growth in the region. The voyage of the Great White Fleet demonstrated that the United States was a potent naval power in the Pacific without the Panama Canal and pointed to the future unification of the Pacific and Atlantic fleets, one of the reasons why the canal was being built in the first place.
Roosevelt was keenly aware of the importance of Asia to the global strategic balance of power and how America with its vast Pacific coast and extensive military and economic interests in the region had a vital commitment to developing the region. Through his administrations colonial polices as well as the commercial, diplomatic and military displays he was able to further American interests in Asia and the Pacific in significant ways. He successfully maintained American territorial possessions and economic investments throughout the Far East though vigorous policies aimed at stabilizing the Philippines and China while preventing the complete domination of any foreign power over American interest in the Pacific region. In his autobiography he declared that while he was in office “not one shot had been fired against a foreign foe, and that “throughout the seven and a half years that I was President, I pursued without faltering one consistent foreign policy, a policy of genuine international good will and of consideration.”26
Roosevelt, Theodore. An Autobiography. New York: Macmillan Co., 1814.
Roosevelt, Theodore.“Review of The Influence of Sea Power upon History by Alfred Theayer Mahan.” Atlantic Monthly 66 (1890): 563-567.
United States Department of State. Papers relating to the foreign relations of the United States, with the annual message of the president transmitted to Congress December 3, 1901. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1901.
United States Department of State. Papers relating to the foreign relations of the United States, with the annual message of the president transmitted to Congress December 8, 1908. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1908.
Beale Howard K. Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1956.
Esthus, Raymond A. “Taft-Katsura Agreement—Reality or Myth?” The Journal of Modern History 31 (1959): 46-51.
Jeong-soo, Choi. “The Russo Japanese War and the Root-Takahira Agreement.” International Journal of Korean History 7 (2005): 133-163.
Leon Fink, ed. Major Problems in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
Kennan, George F. American Diplomacy: 1900-1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.
Lippmann, Walter. U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1943.
Marks, Frederick W. III. Velvet on Iron: The Diplomacy of Theodore Roosevelt. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.
Nearing, Soctt, and Joseph Freeman Dollar Diplomacy: A Study in American Imperialism. New York: Modern Reader Paperbacks, 1969.
Randall, Peter. There are no victors here: a local perspective on the Treaty of Portsmouth. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Portsmouth Marine Society, 1985.
Tilchin, William N., and Charles E. Neu, eds. Artists of power: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and their enduring impact on U.S. foreign policy. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Security International, 2006Wagenknecht, Edward. The Seven Worlds of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1958.
Trani, Eugene P. The treaty of Portsmouth; an adventure in American diplomacy. University of Kentucky Press, 1969.
Wagenknecht, Edward. The Seven Worlds of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1958.
1 Theodore Roosevelt “Address at a Mechanic’s Pavilion,” San Francisco, May 13, 1903 in Howard K. Beale Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power (Balitimor: Johns Hopkins Press, 1956), 172.
2 Frederick W. Marks III, Velvet on Iron: The Diplomacy of Theodore Roosevelt (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979), 93.
3 Senator Albert Beveridge, “Albert Beveridge Defends U.S. Imperialism, 1900”, in Leon Fink, ed., Major Problems in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 270.
4 Theodore Roosevelt “Theodore Roosevelt Links War in the Philippines to the Ideal of the Strenuous Life, 1899”, in Fink, 266.
5 Edward Wagenknecht, The Seven worlds of Theodore Roosevelt (New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1958), 53; Marks, 95.
6 Theodore Roosevelt, An Autobiography (New York: Macmillan Co., 1914), 516-518.
7 Ibid., 516.
8 Henery Cabot Loge, Jan 23, 1899 in Beale, 178.
9 United States Department of State Papers relating to the foreign relations of the United States, with the annual message of the president transmitted to Congress December 3, 1901 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1901); li-liii.
10 Roosevelt, An Autobiography 550.
11 Beale, 247.
12 Theodore Roosevelt, “Speech in Atlanta, October 20, 1905” in Beale, 237-238.
13 Marks, 137.
14 Lodge to Roosevelt, May 21, 1903 in Beale, 194-195.
15 Beale, 236.
16 Ibid., 269.
17 Eugene P. Trani, The Treaty of Portsmouth: An Adventure in American Diplomacy (Lexington, University of Kentucky Press, 1969), 9.
18 Theodore Rosevelt to Arthur Henry Lee, Sept. 21, 1905 and TR to Cecil Spring Rice, Nov. 1, 1905, in Beale, 155.
19 Roosevelt, An Autobiography 555.
20 Undated memo of Anson P. Stokes in Trani, 156-157.
21 Choi Jeong-soo, “The Russo-Japanese War and the Root-Takahira Agreement,” International Journal of Korean History 7 (2005): 146.
22 Ibid., 148.
23 Roosevelt, An Autobiography 563.
24 Ibid., 563-564.
25 United States Department of State Papers relating to the foreign relations of the United States, with the annual message of the president transmitted to Congress December 8, 1908 (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1908); 510-512.
26 Roosevelt, An Autobiography, 553, 572.