The Passing of Korea : Theodore Roosevelt Administration's Korean Non-Intervention Policy
Some people say that today's international and security situations surrounding the Korean Peninsula are much similar to the situations at the turn of the century from the 19th to the 20th. Many are saying the words like ‘power politics,’ ‘balance of power,’ ‘off-shore balance,’ and even ‘the passing of Korea.’ At the turn of the century from the 19th to the 20th, Korea became a ‘scapegoat’ because of her geo-political location. Despite the Korean-American Treaty of 1882, the Theodore Roosevelt Administration never intervened to prohibit Japan from encroaching on Korea. Why?
This short paper examines the reasons and the backgrounds of the American non-intervention at the time. Author’s arguments here shall be based largely on the original sources, such as Theodore Roosevelt’s letters. He was a vigorous letter-writer. Therefore, this paper will reconstruct from his words his views, motives, and estimates of the situation at the time. TR asserted that no opportunity for intervention occurred during his presidency.
TR even expressed that he was thoroughly pleased with the Japanese victory over Russia, for “Japan is playing our game.” However, Pro-Japanese and anti-Russian inclination itself could not be the real reason why TR encouraged Japan’s annexation of Korea. Rather, TR did it for America’s own interest. TR of course considered the overgrowth of Japanese power would be hazardous not only to the safety of the Philippines, but also to the balance of power in the Far East and to his 'open door’ policy in Manchuria. This was his concept of the balance of power.
Key Words : Theodore Roosevelt, Korean Intervention, Russo-Japanese War, American-Russian Rivalry, balance of power
The United States was the first Western power to enter the gate of seclusive Korea. By the Korean-American Treaty signed at Chemulpo (Port Inchon, Korea) on May 22, 1882, the simple-minded Korean government and people believed that America would stand sponsor to Korea for her political independence and territorial integrity. The Koreans thought that there was at least one great nation that was unselfish and honest, upon which they could rely for support, as was provided in the treaty, whenever their country was in jeopardy.
At the turn of the century, however, Korea become a ‘master key’ to Far Eastern problems because of her geographical location. The individual rights and interests of Great Britain, Russia and Japan, and partly of France, Germany and the United States, and problems involved in the distribution of their respective power in the Far East were the Major Factors of diversifying political phenomena in the Far East. the protection of territorial integrity, independence and sovereign rights of Korea was solely in the hands of the great powers and subjected to their Far Eastern strategies. Because significant interests of the great powers intersected, Korea became the object of scramble and bargain among them like a fish on the chopping block.
As far as Korean-American relations were concerned in those critical moments for Korea, the Theodore Roosevelt Administration had brought a renewed interpretation in the Korean-American Treaty. The United States which belatedly arrived in the Far Eastern area recognized the vested rights of Great Britain, Russia, and then newly emerging Japan in exchange for their reciprocal consent to American rights in the Western Pacific area. The united States intended to participate in semi-colonized China for her commercial interest, to check Russia’s advance into Manchuria and Korea, and to seek from other great powers a consent to the vested interests and rights of America in the Philippines. Therefore, despite the Korean-American Treaty of 1882 stating that “if other powers deal unjustly or oppressively with either Government, the other will exert their good offices, on being informed of the case, to bring about an amicable arrangement, thus showing their friendly feeling,” the Roosevelt Administration(1901-1909) even encouraged rather than prohibited Japan from encroaching on Korea.)
President Roosevelt’s mediation of the Russo-Japanese peace settlement on Manchurian and Korean problems without any regard for the victims led to the Japanese annexation of Korea. As a compensation for the balance of power in the Far East, Korea had been sacrificed.
There are several different explanations why President Roosevelt did not intervene in Korea. For example, Theodore Roosevelt later defended himself claiming that there were no opportunities for intervention during his presidency. On the other hand, most Korean scholars have argued that President Roosevelt was not willing to intervene in Korea mainly because of for his pro-Japanese inclination.
This paper, composed of two major parts, shall endeavor to examine the validities of their viewpoints: the first part examines President Roosevelt’s argument that there were no opportunities to intervene in Korea; and the latter part analyzes some other works’ explanations for Roosevelt’s nonintervention. At the end this paper shall suggest the author’s own explanation. In both parts this paper shall be based largely on Theodore Roosevelt’s letters. Theodore Roosevelt was a vigorous letter-writer. It is therefore possible to reconstruct from his own words his views, motives, and estimates of the situation at that time.
Ⅱ. Reason of Non-intervention: No Opportunities?
According to a letter of Theodore Roosevelt, there was a basic reason for not intervening in Korea during his tenure as president. He stated that no opportunity for intervention occurred during his presidency. It read partly as follows :
As for Korea . . . the only action that could have been taken
by the United States about Korea would have had to be taken
either before or after (underline added) I was president.
Before I was president the Russians practically established a
protectorate over Korea. . . . the formal action about the
abolition of Korean independence took place in 1910, long
after I had ceased to be president. . . .)
Roosevelt commented that the opportunities for successful intervention in Korea occurred either before or after his term in office. The accuracy of this statement is highly questionable. In the period before Roosevelt’s presidency the situation in Korea was relatively not so serious that the United States intervention was urgently needed. Certainly Russia controlled Korea affairs during the residence of Emperor Ko-Jong at the Russian Legation in Seoul. However, after 1898, Russian dominance over Korea gradually declined, mainly because of the rise of an active Korean independence movement manifesting the patriotic spirit of the Korean youth, led by the Independence Club.) In March of 1898, the Russian Minister in Seoul ordered the Russian experts to return to Russia. In the following month, the Russo-Korean Bank was closed, and Korea seemed to become really free and independent of foreign countries. In actuality, from 1898 to the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, Russia and Japan had an equal footing in Korea. Their equal footing situation and Korea’s relatively free hand underlined the questionable nature of the ‘Russian protectorate’ in Korea, alluded to by Roosevelt, and of the good opportunity for American intervention ‘before’ Roosevelt’s presidency.
Roosevelt also asserted that an excellent opportunity for intervention had presented itself when the Japanese annexed Korea in 1910, ‘after’ his term in office. But his interpretation of the Korean situation in this respect also can be regarded with some suspicion because the annexation of 1910 was a mere post facto formalization of that had occurred in 1905, in the very middle of Roosevelt’s presidential tenure. The fact was that opportunities there did occur for American intervention in Korea, but The Roosevelt Administration avoided them. Furthermore, the Roosevelt Administration even encouraged the Japanese to absorb Korea.
There are various evidences that the Roosevelt Administration, from its early stage in office, supported Japan in her course of encroachment on Korea. In the first, on September 30, American Minister in Korea Horace N. Allen argued with William W. Rockhill, President Roosevelt’s trusted advisor on Asiatic matters, that the United States should not support Japanese expansionist program (Harrington, 1944, pp. 313-316). Rockhill’s reply was that japan should be allowed to swallow Korea, and that he thought when this (the Japanese annexation of Korea) came about it would be better for the Korean people and also the peace in the Far East (Harrington, 1944, pp. 323-324).
Secondly, when the Japanese troops landed on Korea in early 1904 to launch an attack against the Russian forces, Emperor Ko-Jong appealed to President Roosevelt to protect Korea’s neutral right and independence (Harrington, 1944, pp. 326). But President Roosevelt ignored the Emperor’s plea, holding that “we can not possibly interfere for the Koreans against Japan. They couldn't strike one blow in their own defense.”) Later, President Roosevelt strengthened his argument against the Korean intervention problem claiming that he did not feel the obligation of justification to intervene even if the opportunity had offered itself. As he mentioned the reasons:
It would of course have been not merely improper but absurd for
the United States to interfere to protect people who themselves
were guilty of wrongdoing and who made no effort whatever either
to fulfill their obligations or to protect their rights. If people will not
themselves try to protect their own rights, it is useless for others
to try to protect them.)
According to his rules of statecraft, since Korea was unable to stand by herself, President Roosevelt met Korea’s request for the implementation of the treaty of 1882 with a discreet silence. However, in actuality, President Roosevelt gave the silence to the Korean Emperor’s plea not because of his rules of statecraft mentioned above, but because of his taking sides with the Japanese in the crucial month of January, 1904, the period just before the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War. According to Baron Rosen, Russian Minister in Washington, the Japanese would not have attacked in February of 1904 without prior assurance of American sympathy and support. He concluded that “the material and moral support of America was of decisive influence in the counsels of the Japanese Government.”) The German Minister in Washington, Hermann Speck von Sternburg, came to the same conclusion (Zabriskie, 1946, p. 103).
Thirdly, even before the signing of the Portsmouth Treaty, Secretary of War William H. Taft agreed with Japanese Prime Minister Katsura Taro That the Japanese taking over Korea’s foreign affairs was “the logical result” of the Russo-Japanese War and was “in the interests of permanent peace in the Far East.”) President Roosevelt sent a telegram to Secretary Taft on July 31, 1905, that : “Your conversation with Count Katsura absolutely correct in every respect. Wish you would state to Katsura that I confirmed every word you had said.”) Roosevelt thus confirmed the Taft-Katsura secret agreement whereby the United States recognized Japanese hegemony in Korea in return for a promise by Japan to leave the Philippines intact.)
Fourthly, in September of 1905, by the Article Ⅱ of the Portsmouth Treaty agreed upon under President Roosevelt’s good offices, Korea was arbitrarily awarded to Japan. On this matter, Roosevelt wrote as follows :
I entirely approved the treaty . . . . By my direction,
Taft reiterated this in a talk with the Japanese Prime Minister,
Katsura; saying specifically that we entirely approved of
the Japanese position about Korea. . . as acknowledged in the treaty
Finally, when the Japanese forced a protectorate treaty upon Korea in November of 1905, the Roosevelt Administration again gave a deaf ear to the Korean Emperor’s appeal. Emperor Ko-Jong sent a personal message of appeal to President Roosevelt seeking American assistance against the impending Japanese threat. The urgent message was entrusted to Homer B. Hulbert, the Emperor’s trusted advisor in educational work since 1886.) Emperor Ko-Jong asked the American Government’s sympathy and the application of the “good offices” clause of the Korean-American Treaty of 1882. However, this effort also was in vain. Although the Secretary of State Elihu Root was too busy to meet Hulbert on November 18, he was not too busy to see the Japanese representatives who came to notify him that the Korean Emperor had accepted the Japanese protectorate and had confided to Japan sole authority to conduct Korean foreign relations.) Only after he acknowledged the protectorate treaty, Secretary Root met Hulbert and said that the Emperor’s letter had come too late for the United States to take any action. President Roosevelt fully agreed with Secretary Root’s arrangement through his letter to the Secretary on November 25, 1905.) In a later day Hulbert wrote his own testimony in the New York Times on the full particulars of the Emperor’s attempt to get American intervention against Japan. His main argument was whether Korea had received a fair deal at the hands of the Roosevelt Administration.)
Moreover, the Roosevelt Administration was really agile in putting the finishing touch; on November 25, 1905, only a week after the cognizance of the protection treaty, the United States withdrew its legation from Korea. As an American official at the scene wrote, “As it was, the American Government not only remained silent, but it was the first to announce the withdrawal of its Legation from Seoul and so to acknowledge the extinction of Korean independence” (quoted in Croly, 1924, p. 192). The withdrawal of the American Legation in Seoul was followed immediately by other powers, which removed the last virtual barrier against the Japanese move for annexation of Korea.
To sum up the facts mentioned above, there were clearly many opportunities for President Roosevelt to intervene in Korea in spite of his refutation. Rather, he engaged in the Japanese annexation of Korea, positively and very actively. In actuality, President Roosevelt was responsible as much as the Japanese statesmen for what followed in Korea after the Russo-Japanese War.
Ⅲ. Reason of Non-intervention: Pro-Japanese Inclination?
It might be worthwhile now to examine the other reasons why President Roosevelt took such an unfavorable stand in handling the Korean intervention problem. It is difficult to find the works of American scholars related to this particular issue. It seems to be that the issue is a rather dark corner of American foreign policy in which few people are interested. Only a group of Americans who had personal relationships with Korea and Korean people had paid attention to this issue. However, they hardly paid attention to the nonintervention background. Their attention and arguments largely centered on the problem of America’s unfair dealings with the Koreans. For example, Hulbert wrote bitterly on the withdrawal of American Legation from Korea: “Americans of every class had been telling Korea for a quarter of a century that the American flag stood for fairness and honesty, that we had no purely selfish interests to subserve, but stood for right, whether that right was accompanied by might or not, but when the pinch came we were the first to desert her, and that in the most contemptuous way, without even saying good-bye” (quoted in Hulbert, 1906, pp. 222-223). This might be a true and fair criticism. However, with only that kind of emotion, it could hardly be possible for them to penetrate into the heart of the issue of why President Roosevelt displayed such an inept handling with the Korean problem.
On the other hand, most Korean scholars who have dealt with this issue were excessively attached to President Roosevelt’s ‘pro-Japanese’ inclination, Thus, they generally failed to explain the real reasons of the pro-Japanese policy of the Roosevelt Administration.
Of all the works, Ro Kwang-Hae and Robert T. Smith have done the most intensive analysis of this issue in their article, “Theodore Roosevelt and the Korean Intervention Question” (Ro and Smith, 1969, pp. 84-92). They have suggested three main influences that affected President Roosevelt’s judgment. Firstly, poor support from the State Department partially explains the inaccurate data President Roosevelt used to bolster his case against intervention. According to Ro and Smith, on assuming the presidency Roosevelt inherited an inefficient State Department which failed to serve the function required of it. For example, John Hay, who occupied the post of Secretary of State until his death, was unable to adequately perform his duty during his last two years in office. After Hay’s death President Roosevelt claimed in a private letter to Henry Cabot Lodge that Hay’s inadequacies forced him to handle all the important matters regarding foreign relations personally, and that often he felt that even the minor ones were badly done or not at all.)
Secondly, Roosevelt’s growing dislike for the Russian Government prior to the Russo-Japanese War and his corresponding infatuation with the Japanese no doubt also influenced his policy. Ro and Smith have enumerated many examples from Roosevelt's letters, which revealed his anti-Russian and pro-Japanese inclination.
Finally, the anti-Korean image existing in the American press must also have contributed to the unfavorable opinion that Roosevelt held of the Korean people. An excellent Example of this type of journalism was George Kennan’s article, “Land of the Morning Calm,” which appeared in Outlook, a magazine with which Roosevelt maintained a close association. According to Ro and Smith, Kennan’s biased article could probably never be printed in these more enlightened times.) Even though Ro and Smith did not give examples in their article, there is clear evidence that President Roosevelt accepted Kennan’s opinion expressed in his other article, “Korea: A Degenerate State.”) As Roosevelt wrote to Kennan: “I very much like your first article on Korea, in the Outlook.”) It was not at all surprising, thus, when President Roosevelt defended himself that it would have been absurd for the United States To interfere to protect people who themselves were “guilty of wrongdoing” and who made “no effort” whatever either to fulfill their obligations or to protect their rights.)
Ⅳ. Conclusion: TR's Balance of Power
As Ro and Smith suggested, all of the three factors mentioned above must have clouded Roosevelt’s judgment. However, they still ignored a most important factor. That was Roosevelt’s strategic and political philosophy itself. Without understanding it nobody could explain properly Roosevelt’s policy on the Korean intervention issue. Pro-Japanese and anti-Russian inclination itself could not be the real reason why President Roosevelt encouraged the Japanese annexation of Korea. Rather, Roosevelt did it for America’s own interest. In fact, President Roosevelt naturally acted under a strong sense of obligation to make American foreign policy serve her own interests and general peace in the Far East.
In the early Twentieth Century, America’s major interests in the Far Eastern area could be summarized into two categories: to keep the vested rights of America in the Philippines; and to take part in China’s problem for her commercial expansion with China. In the first, to keep the rights in the Philippines, the Roosevelt Administration needed a close relationship with Japan, a rising new power in the Pacific area. In fact, President Roosevelt worried about possible Japanese encroachment against the Philippines. As he wrote to John Albert Tiffin Hull, Chairman of the House Committee on Military Affairs: “It may be that the Japanese have designs on the Philippines. I hope not; I am inclined to believe not . . . . But I believe we should put our naval and military preparations in such shape that we can hold the Philippines against any foe.”) Thus, President Roosevelt tried to build up a strong navy on the one hand, and to give Japan a correspondent award instead of receiving a promise from Japan not to encroach on the Philippines on the other hand.) President Roosevelt promised to Japan not to interfere with Japanese action in Korea in order to protect the Philippines, through the so-called Taft-Katsura secret agreement in July, 1905 (Dennett, 1924, pp. 15-18).
Next, to expand trade with China the Roosevelt Administration needed to check Russia who then had dominant influences over Manchuria and denied an ‘open door’ policy in Manchuria. And to check Russia, Roosevelt needed to encourage Japan. Even before he assumed the presidency, Roosevelt already had that kind of political idea. As he wrote to Hermann Speck von Sternberg, German Minister to the United States, on August 28, 1900: “I should like to see Japan have Korea. She will be a check upon Russia, and she deserves it for what she has done. But I do earnestly hope there will be no slicing up of China. It will be bad for everybody in the end.”) Nothing can explain better than this letter on the real reasons and the limits of Roosevelt’s pro-Japanese inclination. Moreover, Secretary of State Hay in May of 1903 wrote to President Roosevelt that, “if we gave them a wink (Japan) would fly at the threat of Russia in a moment.”) The Russo-Japanese War broke out in February, 1904, as President Roosevelt expected. In a letter to his son, President Roosevelt wrote about the war as follows: “I was thoroughly well pleased with the Japanese victory, for Japan is playing our game (underline added).”)
However, President Roosevelt of course considered the overgrowth of Japanese power would be hazardous not only to the safety of the Philippines, but also to the balance of power in the Far East and to his ‘open door’ policy in Manchuria. Japan could not be strengthened so powerfully that she would have dominant influences over Manchuria in place of Russia. This was Roosevelt’s concept of the ‘balance of power.’ President Roosevelt thus came to attach as a condition for his services in bringing about a peace that Japan pledge herself to the principles of the open door in Manchuria. As he explained his view in a letter to Taft, “I heartily agree with the Japanese terms of peace, in so far as they include Japan having the control over Korea . . . while restoring Manchuria to China with the guarantee of the open door (underline added).”) The pledge of respecting the open door in Manchuria and restoring Manchuria to China was made by Japan in April of 1905 (Dennett, 1925, pp. 178-179). Nevertheless, prudent President Roosevelt stressed it again in his letter to Kentaro Kaneko, Japanese Minister in Washington. He wrote that, “ethically it seems to me that Japan owes a duty (underline added) to the world at this crisis”.) Japan’s ethical duty here was nothing but the pledge for the open door guarantee in Manchuria.
In short, the real reason of President Roosevelt’s sympathy toward Japan was to keep the balance of power between Russia and Japan in the Far East for the safety of American interests. For the purpose of protecting America’s own interests, the Roosevelt Administration acted depending on its own diplomatic wisdom. In fact, the difference between pro-Japanese and anti-Russian inclination of Roosevelt’s foreign policy was not beyond the marginal line of American interests in the Far East. As he expected Japan had checked Russia, and his power politics obtained the anticipated result at the expense of Korea only. Korea was just a scapegoat at the wrong time and at the wrong place in terms of power politics.
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_______, _______. “President Roosevelt's Secret Pact with Japan,” Current History, Vol. XXI, No. 1 (October 1924), pp. 15-18.
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Kennan, George. “Land of the Morning Calm,” Outlook (October 8, 1904), pp. 363-369.
_______, _______. “Korea: A Degenerate State,” Outlook (October 7, 1905), pp. 311-315.
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_______, _______. Korea's Fight for Freedom (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1920).
O'Gara, Gordon C. Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of the Modern Navy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1943).
Ro, Kwang-Hae and Smith, Robert T. “Theodore Roosevelt and the Korean Intervention Question,” Koreana Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 3(Autumn, 1969), pp. 84-92.
Sin, Yong-Ha. “Social Philosophy of Tongnip Hyophoe,” Korea Journal, Vol. 14, No. 3 (March 1974), pp. 21-30, 39.
Zabriskie, Edward H. American-Russian Rivalry in the Far East, 1885-1914 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1946).
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