The Imperial Russian Response to American Contraband during the Russo-Japanese War: Controversy and Effects

By Leshchenko, Oksana | East European Quarterly, June 1997 | Go to article overview

The Imperial Russian Response to American Contraband during the Russo-Japanese War: Controversy and Effects


Leshchenko, Oksana, East European Quarterly


Although the broad outline of American-Russian relations of the beginning of the twentieth century has been well documented, including the evolution of American attitudes from anti-Russian to Roosevelt's mediation in ending the Russo-Japanese War some of the aspects of American-Russian relations during the war remain unclear. The present paper will be an attempt to analyze a controversy, largely neglected by historians -- the issue of the American contraband during the Russo-Japanese war, particularly its crisis in the summer and fall of 1904, its causes and the impact it had on the relations between the USA and the Russian empire. It is not the goal of this paper to analyze the details and complex nature of American-Russian relations during the Russo-Japanese war at large, but rather to reveal the origins of misunderstandings that occurred over the issue of contraband between the two governments, and to find the place of these events in the history of American-Russian relations during the Russo-Japanese war. The paper will also examine the imperial Russian response to American contraband trade in the summer and fall of 1904, its consequences and effects.

The major sources used in this paper are Russian periodicals published during the Russo-Japanese war, as well as the numerous documents from the collection at the National Archives of the United States which deal with different aspects of American contraband during the war and imperial Russian policy on this issue. The collection includes correspondence between the Secretary of State of the United States John Hay and the American Ambassador to the Russian empire Robert McCormick, as well as instructions and circulars coming from Russian and American governments in respect to incidents involving American contraband trade.

Some historians feel that American President T. Roosevelt "showed more and more admiration for Japan"(1) during the Russo-Japanese war. Others suggest that the Japanese victories in 1904 and the possible Russian collapse changed the President's attitude to a more favorable one toward the Russian empire.(2) There is also an opinion that during the war and even in the course of the Portsmouth conference the American public felt distrust of the Russian tsarist autocracy and its Asiatic imperialism and held to well-established pro-Japanese sympathies.(3)

American historians suggest that there is not much evidence from either the Japanese or the American side that Americans encouraged the Japanese to declare the war. I. Nish even believes that in 1904 there were efforts at appeasement by France, Britain and the United States, but they failed partially because of the opposition from Japan and also because they were started too late.(4) But it was quite obvious for the Russian contemporary that the Japanese were "cultivating foreign opinion and had financial motives, if no other, for staying close to the United States."(5) He believed that Japan was egged on by the United States and felt that American politicians were moved first and foremost by the country's economic interests in the region and the desire to establish a balance of power in the Far East by the weakening of both belligerents: "Whether Japan will lose or win, her friends will be the winners," concluded the witness of the events.(6)

Notwithstanding these disagreements, the consensus among historians is that the conditions were more favorable for Japan, partially because: "The United States took a pro-Japanese position in the Russo-Japanese conflict: from the earliest signs of war up to the conclusion of the Portsmouth Treaty of 1905, the American government brought into full play the principles of balance of power, supporting Japan against Russia."(7)

As soon as Japan broke diplomatic relations with the Russian empire, T. Roosevelt declared the American policy of strict neutrality and issued a presidential order that "all government officials remain neutral in speech and action in order to avoid offending either of the combatants. …

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