By David Kurlander

The Time Machine will now explore the themes that Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discuss on each week’s episode of Now & Then. Listen to the first episode, “Entangling Alliances,” wherever you get your podcasts!  

President Biden this week is preparing for a June 16th summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It will be the first time the two leaders meet since Biden’s election and it comes amid a tense time in U.S.-Russia relations, from a rash of Russia-linked hacks on U.S. businesses, to military tensions between NATO and Moscow, to Biden’s condemnation of Belarus, Russia’s ally. 

In the debut episode of Now & Then, “Entangling Alliances,” hosts Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman argue that foreign and domestic politics are becoming increasingly connected under the emerging Biden Doctrine. “You see all of that bound together—the domestic, foreign, rights, and democracy, all in one statement,” Heather noted in response to Biden’s statement criticizing Belarus’ jailing of dissident journalists. 

Heather and Joanne also note how President Teddy Roosevelt’s boosting of ostensible democracy in Cuba triggered his subsequent commitment to progressive legislation in the United States. 

Roosevelt, like Biden, walked a significant tightrope in Russia. In 1905, in the midst of a domestic battle over business reforms in Washington, Roosevelt brokered a peace in the bloody Russo-Japanese War, further boosting America’s confidence and his legislative agenda at home. His navigation of the bloody imbroglio—like his other linkages between foreign affairs and his ambitious vision for American democracy—increasingly resembles the sensitive work that must now be accomplished with Putin.

As Japan’s military power grew in the first years of the 20th century, the rising power looked to secure a warm-water port at Port Arthur, Manchuria (now China). Russia’s Czar Nicholas II, desperately trying to hold onto his regional dominance, refused to acknowledge Japan’s control of the Port or its claims on Korea. Japan attacked, and Russia lost a series of increasingly bloody Pacific sea battles and land engagements in Manchuria. 

At the naval Battle of Tsushima in May 1905, Japanese forces killed 5,000 Russian soldiers and took hostage the famous leader of Russia’s Navy, Admiral Rozdestvenski. Something had to give. 

Roosevelt was profoundly suspicious of Czar Nicholas, whose repressive tendencies had received increasingly scathing reports in the American press. “For years Russia has pursued a policy of consistent opposition to us in the East, and of literally fathomless mendacity…It has been impossible to trust any promise she has made,” Roosevelt wrote to his Secretary of State, Elihu Root. Roosevelt’s populace agreed; at war’s start, most Americans supported a Japanese victory. Matters were made even worse for Russia by their own domestic unease. A communist revolt against the Czar matured through 1905, amid calls from Roosevelt and world powers to improve Russia’s treatment of Jews, who had been victims of a brutal wave of pogroms. 

Roosevelt’s statements on Japan, however, were just as critical, betraying his focus on white control of Asia. “I am not sure that the Japanese people draw any distinctions between the Russians and other foreigners, including ourselves,” Roosevelt wrote to George Meyer, his Ambassador to Russia. “I have no doubt that they include all white men as being people who, as a whole, they dislike, and whose past arrogance they resent.”

Despite his distrust for both sides, Roosevelt began a convoluted campaign of letter-sending to push for peace talks. In July 1905, he convinced Japan and Russia to send diplomats to Portsmouth, New Hampshire for a prolonged negotiation. Russia’s former Finance Minister Sergei Witte and Japan’s Foreign Minister Baron Jutaro Komura arrived at Roosevelt’s home in Oyster Bay, Long Island, where the president toasted them and sent them to Portsmouth aboard the war yacht Mayflower.  

Roosevelt did not attend the often-tense negotiations, where much of the disagreement centered on whether Russia should have to pay a war indemnity to Japan. He followed closely, however, and at an ebb in the debate, Roosevelt made a splash when he—at the controls, no less—went underwater in the Plunger, one of the new submarines that the Navy was developing in Connecticut. Biographer Edmund Morris wrote, “He seemed to be miming, albeit unconsciously, the negotiations at Portsmouth, where the issue of indemnity had become a dead weight.” 

Roosevelt’s dramatic “miming” paid off. On September 5th, 1905, after the President sent final pleas to both sides, Russia and Japan agreed to give up the fight. Russia would pay no indemnity but would evacuate Manchuria and recognize Korea as within Japan’s sphere of influence.  

“It’s a mighty good thing for Russia, it’s a mighty good thing for Japan, and it’s a mighty good thing for me, too,” Roosevelt told reporters following the treaty’s signing. 

Roosevelt’s victory gave the American press a chance to differentiate their own human rights record from that of Russia. The popular political humor magazine Puck several times in mid-1905 offered ironic dictums about Russia’s new position as a de-powered and violent society. In the September issue, an opening spoof headline read: “Unhampered now by a war with men in Manchuria, the Cossacks may devote their entire time to the war with women and children in Russia. Against the latter, unarmed and helpless, the Czar’s chivalrous cavalrymen have achieved their most notable victories.” 

The timing of this boost in American self-image could not have been better for Roosevelt’s reformist ambitions. “For the moment, he was still exulting in the afterglow of Portsmouth,” Morris wrote. After a tearful send-off by the adoring townspeople of Oyster Bay, Roosevelt returned to Washington. During the busy 59th Congress in late 1905 and 1906, he helped to push through the Hepburn Act, which regulated the railroad industry, and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which established the Food and Drug Administration. 

Roosevelt became the first American to win a Nobel prize when he won the 1906 Peace Prize for his efforts surrounding Portsmouth. He promptly donated his $40,000 reward to create a congressional “Industrial Peace Committee,” which he envisioned as bolstering “fair dealings between classes of society” at home.  

In addition to aiding Roosevelt’s domestic momentum, Portsmouth also gave him a further mandate for expanding America’s self-styling as a global military and political power. Shortly after the treaty, one of Roosevelt’s fiercest political opponents, isolationist, former Secretary of the Interior, and one-time German Revolutionary Carl Schurz, wrote a letter to the president pleading that he use his new stature to advocate “disarmament” around the world. 

Roosevelt included Schurz’s poignant request in his memoirs, arguing that he instead recognized as a result of Portsmouth the positive impact on the American psyche that diplomatic victories could create. “I had become convinced that for many reasons it was essential that we should have it clearly understood, by our own people especially, but also by other peoples, that the Pacific was as much our home waters as the Atlantic.”

To that end, Roosevelt began planning a massive tour of the Great White Fleet, 16 state-of-the-art battleships that circumnavigated the globe in a highly publicized voyage beginning in 1907. Roosevelt, again in his memoir, summed up his motivations for the exercise, in a statement of purpose that described his post-Portsmouth strategy at large: “My prime purpose was to impress the American people; and this purpose was fully achieved.” 

As Biden strives to define the U.S.-Russia relationship, the upcoming summit will offer a first glance at the posture that he will take with Putin—and that will perhaps, as with Roosevelt, impact his legislative legacy at home.

Edmund Morris’ Theodore Rex, the third installment of his masterful Roosevelt biography, provided much of the context for this piece. For more on the Roosevelt administration’s interventions in Asia, read James Bradley’s The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War.

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