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Waging Peace in 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth

 

Treaty_Parade_1905

All through August the delegates shuttled back and forth by navy cutter from the Wentworth to the secure brick "Peace Building" at the shipyard. A treaty room was hastily created in just four days, and a small memorial to that room survives. The world press, many of them housed at the Rockingham Hotel, reported every step of the process, formal and informal. The media sent constant dispatches, whether there was news or not. On a slow news day, the fact that the delegates enjoyed New England brown bread and beans was telegraphed around the globe, thanks to the high-tech transatlantic cable "hub" located in the town of Rye.

Photographers immediately captured the extraordinary difference between the giant bearded Witte, more than six and a half feet tall, and the delicate frame of Komura, more than a foot shorter. Cartoonists exaggerated the difference to the point where Komura appeared small enough to sit on Witte's knee. In American political cartoons, Roosevelt often appeared larger than both men.

Russian delegates on the porch of Wentworth Hotel in 1905

"PEACE!" the Portsmouth Herald announced in five-inch high letters on August 29, 1905. "Peace! That is the word that has electrified Portsmouth and sent a thrill throughout the world." The Treaty of Portsmouth was signed officially at the Navy Yard on September 5.

A century after the Russo-Japanese war, historians remain intrigued by just what went right in Portsmouth. The success of the treaty was by no means inevitable. Something intangible spoke to Witte and Komura and to all the members of their delegations as they spent time among Seacoast residents who urged them toward peace. Meanwhile Roosevelt worked behind the scenes from his New York summer home. Historians now have evidence that Witte and Komura did communicate secretly on the final details of the treaty, possibly during private walks through the hotel rose garden.

Delegates posed for group photographs on the hotel veranda and met there with Roosevelt's emissary. Both groups, housed in separate parts of the hotel, mingled openly with the guests. Now called Wentworth by the Sea, the grand Victorian resort provided a safe, comfortable home base from which both Japanese and Russians could make day and evening trips into the surrounding community.

The teams moved in seemingly orchestrated actions as the diplomatic dance played out. After the Russians motored about the coastal roads in spiffy 1905 Pope-Toledo motorcars, the Japanese did the same. When the Russians attended church in Portsmouth, the Japanese went to church in Kittery. The Russians met with a Jewish group and the Japanese visited a Bahai community in Eliot, Maine.

Only the elements refused to cooperate. Not even the Wentworth, known for its cool island breezes, could escape an oppressively hot and muggy summer. The heat wave brought on an aggressive army of mosquitoes that plagued the peace process. A cold wave followed.

Like most treaties, the compromise ultimately pleased neither side. By backing down, the Japanese lost face, and Baron Komura suffered the anger of the Japanese people back home. Both nations, for a time, became American allies, then enemies, then allies again as the twentieth century unfolded. But the 1905 treaty is still seen by many as a textbook example of successful diplomacy. An escalating war stopped. Lives were saved. And for one brief shining moment, Portsmouth was another word for "peace".

Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is owner and editor of the history Web site SeacoastNH.com. He is the author of "Wentworth by the Sea: The Life and Times of a Grand Hotel." His column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday.

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