Military victory, psychological shock and the imagination: why the Japanese succeeded at Portsmouth.

The following question was asked in the Strategy & Policy course, U.S. Naval War College, for the academic year 2001-2002.

"Many contemporaries were struck by the fact that the Peace of Portsmouth was exceptionally lenient to Russia, given the Empire's military performance. Could Japan have secured a more advantageous peace?"

Contrary to contemporary public opinion in 1905, the Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japanese War was generous and it is difficult to believe the Japanese could have achieved a more advantageous peace. Understanding the contradictions between contemporary perception and actual results requires an analysis of three inter-related factors. These are the diplomatic relationship of Japan and Russia to other powers both before and during the war, the military and financial balance of power between the two powers at the time of the Portsmouth negotiations, and the changing psychological state of leaders and the public in Russia and Japan. An examination of these factors will show that Japan managed to achieve both extensive territorial gains in Asia while at the same time appearing very generous in offering peace terms. The results were acceptable to the Russians and, more importantly, resulted in an enduring and lasting peace.

Diplomatic and military factors before and during the Russo-Japanese War

By the 1890s, given the growing competition among European powers in Asia, Meiji leaders in Japan had begun to implement policies to increase the nations' military and economic modernization. They recognized that failure to do so might lead to the nations' dominance or dismemberment by foreigners, a fate suffered by China earlier in the century. As Prime Minister Yamagata Arimoto wrote in an 1890 memorandum, "…the heritages and resources of the East are like so many pieces of meat about to be devoured by tigers." Desperate to avoid falling under European domination, Japanese statesmen worked very hard to make friends and establish cooperative relationships with the European powers. The center piece of this policy was preventing European (i.e. Russian) control of Korea. On this point, the Japanese were adamant, with four senior leaders agreeing in 1903 that the nation should "never give up Korea no matter what difficulties are encountered."

As events unfolded in Asia at the turn of the new millennium, the most worrisome issue to most powers was the aggressive diplomacy engaged in by Tsarist Russia. Attempts by Russian ministers to obtain exclusive economic rights in northern China following the Boxer Rebellion were particularly alarming to the British, which ultimately led to a British-Japanese rapprochement. The resulting treaty, signed 30 January 1902, helped to reinforce Japan's position in the region and gave her leaders more freedom to maneuver. After several diplomatic blunders-including a widely publicized anti-Jewish pogrom in Kishinev and free trade restrictions in Manchuria -isolated Russia, the Japanese were able to embark on a war "to solve the Korean question" without immediate fear of third party intervention.

Despite her favorable diplomatic position, the Japanese took an immense gamble when they attacked the Russian Empire. The armaments industry in Japan was immature and her shipyards could not produce capital ships or large caliber guns. With little or no depth to her industrial infrastructure, Japan would essentially have to fight the war with equipment on hand. The Japanese army was also small-about 280,000 men-and there was no expectation to expand it beyond her 400,000 trained reserves. In contrast, the Russian Empire could boast an army of 1.1 million men-with a reserve of another 2.4 million men-a fleet almost twice the size of Japan's and a large (if somewhat inadequate) domestic industrial munitions base. Unfortunately for the Russians, logistical problems, heavy costs, and the unfinished state of the Trans-Siberian railroad in 1904 meant only 98,000 Russian troops and supporting units had been deployed to the Far East. The fleet at Port Arthur and Vladivostok was also smaller and less ready, leaving both Russia's land and naval forces in Asia outnumbered at the start of the war.

Audacious moves by Japanese forces on the outbreak of war in February 1904 proved successful, with Korea quickly brought under military control, the Russian fleet blockaded in Port Arthur and that fortress put under siege. In May, the Russian army in Manchuria was driven back from the Yalu River on the Korean border. This successful battle, combined with the failure of the Russian cruiser squadron at Vladivostok to interdict trade to the Home Islands, firmly established the Japanese credit rating on the London and New York capital markets. The ensuing £10 million sterling loan was soon oversubscribed. Two more Russian defeats in the field-one at Liaoyang in September and another at Mukden in October-further consolidated the Japanese position and a second £12 million sterling loan was raised in London and New York on 14 November.

From Tsar Nicholas Romanov's point of view, the year was an almost unmitigated disaster. The fleet in the Far East had been defeated and blockaded after several naval battles and the army, despite fighting in defensive positions, had been pushed back to Mukden, virtually sealing the fate of the Port Arthur garrison. The final surrender of that fortress on 1 January 1905, and the destruction of the fleet in the harbor, was a difficult psychological blow. Partly in response to these defeats, widespread strikes and protests engulfed St. Petersburg starting on 22 January. Although rapidly crushed by cossacks and the police on "Bloody Sunday," the thousands of killed and wounded protesters severely damaged the Tsar's diplomatic standing. The strikes and agrarian disturbances quickly spread into other provinces of the Empire. Perhaps more importantly, the combination of internal dissent at home and military setbacks in the Far East made it very difficult for Russia to borrow more money on the Paris stock market.

Despite Russia's poor position, the great size and resilience of the Empire now began to tell. Supplementary men and equipment were stripped from garrisons in the West, including new Model 00 and Model 02 field guns and vast quantities of mobilization stores. At the second battle of Mukden in February 1905, the Russians outnumbered the Japanese almost 3:2 (roughly 290,000 v 210,000) and, although defeated, were once again able to avoid encirclement. At no point had the Japanese army been able to destroy the Russian army in the field and the balance of forces could only get worse for Japan. Although several huge war loans were obtained by Japan on 24 March 1905, totaling some £30 million pounds, it was highly unlikely Japan would be able to win a decisive victory on the battlefield in the future. Only an additional 10,000 men could be scraped up in Japan and, given the pace of reinforcements arriving in Manchuria via the Trans-Siberian railroad, the Russians soon fielded an army of 800,000 men, dwarfing the remaining Japanese troops in the theater. In addition, the expenditure of £1 million sterling a day on the war effort-about 53% of the budget-was unsustainable in the long run. Given this gloomy assessment, the Japanese government quickly accepted President Theodore Roosevelt's offer to mediate peace in March 1905.

Psychological conditions, peace negotiations and the Treaty of Portsmouth

Fortunately for Japan, the Tsarist leadership was already psychologically defeated and ready for peace despite the improving military situation in Manchuria. The cumulative losses suffered in the Far East, reports of low morale & food shortages among the troops and especially the destruction of the Baltic Fleet at Tsushima in May 1905 proved disheartening. At the same time, disagreements with France over how to handle the April 1905 Tangiers crisis further imperiled Russian finances at a time when the war was costing £2 million a day. All these events reinforced the Tsar's inclination to shift Russia's military and diplomatic attention to Europe. On 6 June, in the light of new nationalist disturbances in Finland and Poland, the Tsar accepted the American offer to mediate peace. The Russians therefore went into the peace negotiations at a distinct disadvantage, with the poor showing on the battlefield making them look militarily incompetent and widespread domestic unrest making the Tsarist government look morally bankrupt. In July, Russia suffered an additional psychological blow when a small Japanese force seized Sakhalin Island in the Sea of Okhost.

Despite all these difficulties, the Russian negotiators at Portsmouth-ably led by the former Russian finance minister Sergei Witte-managed to "spin" the Japanese position in a negative light. Over the course of the summer, Witte's press conferences and interviews succeeded in portraying Japan as avaricious and helped shift journalistic and American public opinion against Japan. This did not change the situation on the ground in Manchuria, however, and the Japanese continued to negotiate from a position of strength. Their demands included a monetary indemnity, domination over Korea, and the Russian lease of the Liaotung Peninsula from China, control of the railroad north from Port Arthur to north of Mukden, Sakhalin Island, and extensive fishing rights in the Sea of Okhost.

The success of Witte's efforts to shift in public opinion, therefore, simply eased the two parties on the path toward agreement. Indeed, the eventual compromise by Japan on terms seemed extremely generous to world public opinion. In particular, the decision to annex only southern Sakhalin and receive no monetary indemnity whatsoever gave the Russians a positive diplomatic boost at home and abroad. The result generated furious criticism in Japan and among foreign journalists, who saw the treaty as a Russian victory. One London Times reporter wrote "A nation hopelessly beaten in every battle of the war, one army captured and another overwhelmingly routed, with a navy swept from the seas, dictated her own terms to the victors."

This opinion was ironic, given Russia's growing military strength in Manchuria and the financial strains on the Japanese government, but since they were both hidden from public view contemporary observers mistakenly assumed the above terms were lenient. Seen from a materialistic point of view, the Japanese were probably lucky to escape the war with the positive results they achieved. Indeed, rather than the Japanese being magnanimous with their peace terms, a truer characterization of September 1905 might praise the Russians for their generosity.

Clausewitz, war termination, and a lasting peace

Karl von Clausewitz wrote in On War that terminating a war was a constantly evolving negotiation between two parties. At the very start, both sides need to want peace enough to start talking and must be able to overcome internal and external opposition to ending the war. Once this occurs, the negotiations themselves are very complex, as battlefield information is incomplete, the other sides' perceptions and willingness to continue fighting is often unknown, and irrational factors such as public opinion, national prestige, and escalating war aims can shape the course of negotiations in unexpected ways. In this environment, Clausewitz notes, "… how difficult it is in some cases to determine which side has the upper hand. Often it is entirely a matter of imagination."

At the same time, Clausewitz states, "In war, the result is never final." By this he means that any unjust peace, one that does not take into account the defeated parties legitimate interests, will last no longer than it takes the defeated to prepare for a new round of conflict. Only by compromise and negotiation will a common interest be created and the results accepted by the defeated side. The conditions of the peace must also appear generous, or at least reasonable to the loser, especially if public opinion played a major role in the war. An enduring peace, Clausewitz concludes, is the result of reciprocal, compromise negotiations.

These two themes-the complexity of war termination and the requirements of a lasting peace-explain both the short and long term advantages obtained by Japan in the Treaty of Portsmouth. Given the failure of the Japanese to destroy the Russian armies in Siberia, the continuing flow of reinforcements along the Trans-Siberian railroad would inevitably defeat the Japanese in Manchuria. The longer the war went on, therefore, the more likely an eventual Russian victory in a battle of industrial attrition. This was the reason Japan was eager to seek terms in March 1905. Rightly or wrongly, however, the Russians decided that breaking the military impasse in Manchuria would require too high a cost. In Clauswitzian terms, both sides accepted that military stalemate now meant a negotiated end to the fighting.

In the end, it was still the Russian's who "blinked first." Unable to imagine themselves out of a situation of military defeat and domestic unrest, the Russians signed the Treaty of Portsmouth. This not only allowed Japan to eke out a military victory against Russia but also removed the danger of European intervention in Korea and opened vast new geographic regions and economic markets for Japanese exploitation. Despite the supposed compromises, it is difficult to believe Japan could have obtained better peace terms. This is especially the case because in appearing generous to Russia, Japan obtained that most precious of victories-an enduring peace that lasted almost thirty-five years.

Source: Dr. Timothy L. Francis, Naval Historical Center