This week James Bradley, author of Flags of our Fathers, wrote in the New York Times that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was Theodore [yes, you read that right: Theodore] Roosevelt’s fault. TR probably would have hugged to his flabby bullet-scarred chest the notion that he could start wars twenty-three years after his death. But let us attempt to take this case seriously.

In 1905 Roosevelt recognized Japan’s annexation of Korea in return for Japanese recognition of U.S. possession of the Philippines. He did so through an executive agreement, negotiated by his envoy William Howard Taft with Prime Minister Katsura Taro. Walter LaFeber writes in The Clash,

This executive agreement, one of the first important such agreements made by a president on his own, avoided possible embarrassing ratification debates in the U.S. Senate. The agreement was also sealed in secrecy. The Taft-Katsura deal was not known publicly until the historian Tyler Dennett discovered Taft’s memorandum in the Roosevelt Papers nearly twenty years later. The United States, the first Western nation to recognize Korea in 1882, became—at Japan’s request, which Roosevelt immediately met—the first nation to withdraw its diplomats from Korea in 1905. (86)

Bradley writes that in permitting Japan to have Korea, Roosevelt “emboldened them to increase their military might — and their imperial ambitions. In December 1941, the consequence of Theodore Roosevelt’s recklessness would become clear to those few who knew of the secret dealings.”

Sadao Asada points out what should have been obvious to Bradley and the editors of the New York Times: “Bradley entirely ignores and skips the course of real Japanese aggression from the Manchurian Incident of 1931 to Japan’s advance to southern Indochina in 1941.” Of course: there was plenty of policy and policy change in both the US and Japan between 1905 and 1941. But more, “In my view (shared by many of my Japanese colleagues and most of American specialists in TR’s diplomacy), the Taft-Katsura Agreement was a part of TR’s ‘realistic’ policy of ‘peaceful coexistence’ with Japan based on his sphere-of-influence policy and balance-of-power considerations.”

Right. Bradley thinks that Roosevelt did Japan’s bidding because he was reckless, or foolish, or acting as “an agent” of Japan. He quotes Roosevelt saying in 1900, apparently naïvely, “I should like to see Japan have Korea.” Bradley does not quote Roosevelt saying why: “She will be a check upon Russia.”1 As Asada says, Roosevelt was thinking in balance-of-power terms.

He was also thinking, as Asada says, in realistic terms. Roosevelt told John Hay in 1903, “We can not possibly interfere for the Koreans against Japan … [because] they could not strike one blow in their own defense.” More, he said, “It was out of the question to suppose … that any other nation, with no interest of its own at stake, would do for the Koreans what they were utterly unable to do for themselves.”2

Which suggests another problem with Bradley’s interpretation: what should Roosevelt have done? In 1905, the US had 108,000 men in uniform, as against Japan’s 250,000. The most recent experience of U.S. mobilization for war, in 1898, had not inspired confidence—rather, it inspired a resolve to reform the military that in 1905 had only just begun.

Indeed much of Roosevelt’s thinking about Japan took place amid an awareness of American military weakness in Asia. War Plan Orange, drafted in 1906, ceded the indefensibility of the Philippines. LaFeber again:

Roosevelt now found himself back with Lincoln and Seward: the nation’s [i.e., the USA’s] open-door interests in China and Manchuria had to be protected by cooperative diplomatic and military efforts with allies, not by the world’s second-greatest fleet, which lacked the power to act unilaterally in Asia. (90)

The sail of the “White Fleet” in 1908, depending as it did on the assistance of allies, further demonstrated America’s limited ability to project military power overseas.

Bradley is certain Roosevelt “was acting as an agent [of Japan] — it’s in his own handwriting.” He’s relying on a letter from Roosevelt to his son saying, “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.” Even if we read this as an admission that he acted as an agent of Japan, we should also note that Roosevelt said lots of other things about why he did what he did, so there’s no necessary reason to seize on this one. After all, as Kipling famously said of Roosevelt, he was a persuasive and compulsive “spinner.” He liked to tell stories, especially amusing and provocative ones. Which means one shouldn’t take any one of his pronouncements too seriously—as Kate Beaton knows:

Sometimes you should pretend not to hear Mr. President, especially if you’re trying to craft a serious interpretation of American history.

1Quoted in Beale, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power, 314.
2Ibid., 323.

Thanks to Elliott Harwell for forwarding the Kate Beaton comic.
Sadao Asada discussed previously.