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The question of how the United States should respond to the rise of China has dominated the foreign policy debate in recent years. Democrats and Republicans alike agree that the days of cooperative engagement have passed and that Washington should take tougher steps in dealing with Beijing, even as they disagree between and among themselves on where the dividing line lies between “tough” and “reckless.” As that debate proceeds—and it could heat up as Election Day approaches—it’s worth remembering that this is hardly the first time a president has had to decide on how to respond to a rising Asian power. Indeed, one hundred and fifteen years ago today, President Theodore Roosevelt, facing the emergence of a different power in Asia, signed off on a document known as the Taft-Katsura Memorandum that opted not for confrontation but for accommodation.
To understand the Taft-Katsura Memorandum, some context is necessary. By the start of the twentieth century, U.S. foreign policy had begun to turn outward, and especially toward Asia. During the Spanish-American War—the “splendid little war” as Secretary of State John Hay called it—the United States took the opportunity to annex Hawaii and seized control of the Philippines from Spain. Instead of giving Filipinos their independence, Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt saw the archipelago as a foothold from which to project and protect U.S. interests in the Western Pacific. To ensure U.S. control, they pursued a bloody counterinsurgency campaign that lasted three years, killing 4,000 Americans and more than 220,000 Filipinos. Nor did U.S. interests in Asia stop at the Philippines. In 1900, McKinley dispatched several thousand U.S. troops to China as part of an international effort to put down the so-called Boxer Rebellion.
As the U.S. presence in the Western Pacific was surging, so too was Japan’s. In May 1905, the Japanese Navy sank thirty Russian ships at the Battle of Tsushima Strait, giving Tokyo the upper hand in the Russo-Japanese War. Roosevelt had initially applauded the Japanese surprise attack on the Russian fleet at Port Arthur in February 1904 that began the war. By the time of the Japanese victory at the Tsushima Strait, Roosevelt’s thinking had changed. Japan’s naval prowess and reach now threatened not just Russia but potentially also the United States.
Looking to head off the threat, Roosevelt dispatched his secretary of war, William Howard Taft, to Tokyo. Taft happened to be sailing to East Asia that summer to lead a congressional delegation on a goodwill tour. (Ironically, by this time, the Japanese, worried about their ability to sustain their war against the Russians, had asked Roosevelt to mediate the conflict. The parties met in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in August 1905. For his efforts in negotiating what became the Treaty of Portsmouth, Roosevelt was awarded the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize.) Taft’s charge was to sound out the Japanese on their attentions in the Western Pacific and to do what he could to dissuade them from casting a covetous glance toward the Philippines.
Taft’s delegation arrived in Japan on July 25. Two days later, Taft met with the Japanese prime minister, Count Taro Katsura. According to the memorandum summarizing the discussion, their conversation had three parts. The first dealt with Japan’s interest in the Philippines. Taft asked for assurance that Japan’s sole interest in the islands would be “to have these islands governed by a strong and friendly nation like the United States.” Katsura “confirmed in the strongest terms” that was in fact the case, adding that “Japan does not harbor any aggressive designs whatever on the Philippines.”
The conversation then shifted to conditions in East Asia. Katsura said the only way to maintain peace in the region was to “form good understanding between the three governments of Japan, the United States, and Great Britain.” Taft responded that President Roosevelt could not enter into such an agreement without the consent of the U.S. Senate. That said, the secretary of war noted:
without any agreement at all the people of the United States were so fully in accord with the policy of Japan and Great Britain in the maintenance of peace in the far East that whatever occasion arose appropriate action of the Government of the United States, in conjunction with Japan and Great Britain, for such a purpose could be counted on by them quite as confidently as if the United States were under treaty obligations to take [it].
The conversation concluded with a discussion of Korea. Katsura said it had been the “direct cause” of the Russo-Japanese War and that he saw Japan’s oversight of Korea as the “logical consequence” of Japan’s military success in the war. He continued:
If left to herself after the war Korea will certainly draw back to her habit of improvidently resuscitating the same international complications as existed before the war. In view of the foregoing circumstances Japan feels absolutely constrained to take some definite step with a view to precluding the possibility of Korea falling back into her former condition and of placing us [Japan] again under the necessity of entering upon another foreign war.
Taft “fully admitted the justness of the Count's observations,” and said that “in his personal opinion the establishment by Japanese troops of a suzerainty over Korea” was justified, but cautioned that “his judgment was that President Roosevelt would concur in his [Taft's] views in this regard …he [Taft] had no authority to give assurance of this.”
After the conversation concluded, the “agreed memorandum” on what had been discussed was drafted, most likely by Katsura. On July 29, Taft wired the memorandum to Secretary of State Elihu Root. The memorandum was then forwarded to Roosevelt, who was at his home in Oyster Bay, New York. On July 31, Roosevelt responded: “Your conversation with Count Katsura absolutely correct in every respect. Wish you could state to Katsura that I confirm every word you have said.”
The upshot of the discussion was that Roosevelt had signaled that he would not oppose Japanese designs on Korea. That fact would be codified in the Treaty of Portsmouth, which recognized the legitimacy of Japanese claims in Korea and South Manchuria. When Korea in November 1905 cited its 1882 treaty of amity and friendship with the United States in asking for diplomatic help in fending off Japanese pressure, Roosevelt declined. By mid-November, Japan had taken control of Korea’s foreign policy. Two weeks later, the United States closed its legation in Korea and placed “Korea” under the heading of “Japan” in the State Department’s Record of Foreign Relations.
Although Taft acknowledged to Katsura that no agreement could be binding on the United States without the Senate’s consent, Roosevelt never informed the Senate, or Congress more broadly, of what Taft and Katsura had discussed. (Roosevelt’s attitude toward the Senate on such matters was best summarized by his response three years later when he was asked if the Senate should be informed of another secret agreement he negotiated with Japan: “Why invite the expression of views with which we may not agree?”) The Taft-Katsura Memorandum also wasn’t covered in the press. For nearly two decades it remained unknown and forgotten. Then in August 1924, Tyler Dennett, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins, revealed its existence. He had stumbled upon it while going through Roosevelt’s papers at the Library of Congress. He asked Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes if he could make the document public. The document had never been classified as secret, so Hughes said yes. The memorandum was subsequently published in Current History with the title “President Roosevelt’s Secret Pact with Japan.”
Dennett argued that the memorandum amounted to a binding agreement between Japan and the United States wherein Japan would leave the Philippines alone if the United States let Japan oversee Korea. Historians have been debating that claim ever since. Some argue that Taft-Katsura was not an agreement at all, let alone one with a quid pro quo. In this view, the memorandum merely constituted an exchange of views that the two sides had previously shared. Others argue that it was a quid pro quo agreement precisely because Taft “expressed United States approval of Japanese control over Korea in return for Japanese respect for United States presence in the Philippines.” Some go further and argue that the Taft-Katsura Memorandum served as a precedent to the division of Korea nearly a half-century later. And these arguments generate their own counter, namely, given the isolationist sentiment of most Americans at the start of the twentieth century, would any American president have done anything to oppose Japan’s colonization of Korea beyond issuing a stiff, and ultimately inconsequential, diplomatic note?
Regardless of which side of the historical debate you fall on, the geographic settlement outlined in the Taft-Katsura Memorandum lasted for thirty-six years, until December 7, 1941.