Treaty of Portsmouth: Definition & Negotiation

Instructor: Matthew Hill
The Treaty of Portsmouth negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese War. It took place in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and was organized by Theodore Roosevelt, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Russo-Japanese War

The Russo-Japanese War was a naval war between Russia and Japan. It was rooted in the expansionist designs by both parties to expand into Korea and Manchuria. Russia had secured leasing rights from China at Port Arthur on the Liaotung Peninsula, which pushed Japan out despite the fact that Japan had recently beaten China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. Following this, Russia signed a treaty with China allowing it to extend the Trans-Siberian Railroad into Manchuria thus threatening Japanese interest further.

In response, Japan attacked Russia. In a shockingly one-sided war, the Japanese navy crushed Russian forces at the naval Battle of Tsushima in May 1905. Furthermore, Russia was rocked by riots in 1905 and could little manage a foreign war along with its domestic troubles and decided to negotiate with Japan for peace.

The world was shocked that Japan had managed to beat Russia. Japan had only recently modernized from its feudal past, and given the immense size of Russia, it was expected to be an easy victory for Russia.

Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt Steps In

Like many international conflicts, third party mediation seemed necessary. President Theodore Roosevelt saw an opportunity and invited Russian and Japanese delegates to Portsmouth, New Hampshire for treaty talks. Each agreed and both expected preferential treatment. The U.S. had been close of allies of Russia in the previous century, and the U.S. had signed the Taft-Katsura Agreement in July 1905 with Japan, which was a secret, bi-lateral understanding whereby the U.S. recognized Japanese interest in Korea and Japan recognized U.S. interest in the Philippines. In essence, each pledged not to interfere in each other's Pacific territories. Given this background, Japan certainly expected favorable terms from the United States. But they were soon to be disappointed.

Photo of the Negotiations
Portsmouth Treaty

Negotiation and Treaty Terms

Formal talks were held from August 9 to September 5. Russia's chief negotiator was Sergei Witte, followed by Baron Roman Rosen. Japan was represented by Japanese Foreign Minister Komura Jutaro, and second chair by Kogoro Takahira, who served as Minister to the United States.

That Russia was beaten was undisputed, but Roosevelt felt it wise to provide both parties with something to walk away with. Given that Japan won the war, they expected the victor's spoils. The Japanese wanted to maintain control of Sakhalin Island (just north of Japan and bordering Russia), maintain a strong presence in Korea and southern Manchuria, and have Russia pay reparations for the cost of the war. Russia wanted to keep Sakhalin for itself and refused to pay repartitions.

Postcard of the building in which the negotiations were held in Portsmouth
Portsmouth Building

The central demand for total control of Sakhalin Island and reparations for the cost of the war proved the real sticking point. Russia had no intention of conceding so much, and negotiations dragged on for days. Reaching an impasse, Roosevelt suggested that the two split Sakhalin with the southern half going to Japan. Japan relented, but still insisted on reparations. Russia refused, and sensing that Japan was tired of war, threatened to restart the war if Japan continued to push for reparations.

Whether Russia was bluffing or seriously contemplating war is unclear, but Japan took the hint and dropped reparation demands. The Treaty of Portsmouth was signed on September 5.

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