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Waging Peace in Portsmouth

Teddy Roosevelt makes Peace in Portsmouth

The centennial of the Treaty of Portsmouth has sparked an enormous tribute in Portsmouth -- exhibits, a parade, walking trails, lectures, a play and much more. Readers seeking a simple summary of this historic event may start here. In a nutshell, this is what happened in Portsmouth and Kittery in the summer of 1905, It was an event that galvanized the world -- war transformed to peace.  




SEE MORE: Peace Treaty Events 2005

It was Portsmouth's finest hour. In August 1905 two warring nations sent envoys half way around the globe to talk about peace. Half a million men had already died in a gruesome territorial conflict over a harsh Asian landscape. For 30 days Russian and Japanese negotiators haggled, almost sparking a return to war. Then church bells suddenly rang out across the city and everyone knew their meaning. The Treaty of Portsmouth had been signed.

Front page news in 1905/ SeacoastNH.comUntil President Theodore Roosevelt selected Portsmouth for the historic peace talks, for local residents, the Russo-Japanese War was an impossibly distant event – a foreign emperor battled a foreign czar in a vague and mysterious land. Yet this war arrived like none before in history, depicted in modern newspapers as it happened. Like unprecedented television coverage of the Viet Nam War or Internet reporting in Iraq, correspondents with sophisticated new communication tools were turning war into a spectator event. In the myriad of published combat photographs it looks to contemporary eyes like a rehearsal for World War I. Men in endless rows crouch in trenches or creep forward, bayonets fixed.

Thousands died in fierce encounters just to conquer a few additional yards of land. With France and Britain already taking sides, Roosevelt feared that other countries, eventually America, might be drawn into the fray.

Militarily, the island of Japan was showing remarkable skill against the massive Russian bear. Having taken on China in 1900 and having warned the Russian czar to stop his southern expansion toward Manchuria on the mainland, Japanese forces attacked Russian forces suddenly and successfully at Port Arthur on the Yellow Sea in neighboring Manchuria, much as it would at Pearl Harbor years later. When Russia responded by sending a fleet of sixteen modern destroyers and cruisers to retaliate, Japanese land artillery picked off all but one invading ship, suffering almost no losses of its own in the most successful military victory yet seen. But after 18 months of war, heavy losses and costs had taken their toll on both nations.

Roosevelt, the rough riding American President invited Japanese Emperor Mutshuhito and Russian Czar Nicholas II to lay down their swords and talk. Although Roosevelt earned the Nobel Peace Prize for the 1905 success, the president did not personally attend the discussions held at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard just across the harbor in Kittery, Maine. Both the Russian and Japanese delegations to the peace conference stayed at the Wentworth Hotel, recently renovated and re-opened in nearby New Castle.

War in Asia, Peace in NH /

Exactly why Roosevelt selected Portsmouth remains a hot topic among local historians. We know from a presidential memo that he was seeking "some cool, comfortable and retired place for the meeting of the plenipotentiaries where conditions will be agreeable and where there will be as much freedom from interruption as possible."

The city's immediate access to the sea, the close proximity of the historic shipyard to one of New England's most luxurious seaside resorts, the welcoming and largely unbiased acceptance of local citizens, and some old fashioned politicking by the New Hampshire governor -- all helped turn the world spotlight toward the Piscataqua region during the summer of 1905. Early newsreel footage chronicles the arrival of the Russian and Japanese delegates. Military bands marched through the center of a town thronged with visitors and decked out in bunting. Boys and girls in their Sunday outfits ran beside the horse-drawn carriages as Jutaro Komura of Japan and Sergei Witte of Russia doffed their top hats to the cheering crowds.

CONTINUE: Waging Peace in Portsmouth 1905

The Treaty of Portsmouth in a Nutshell (Continued)

Delegates at the Portsmouth Shipyard 1905 / Treatyofportsmouth.orgAll 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.

"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.

Peace at Porttsmouth 1905

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".

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J. Dennis Robinson, who lectures on local history, owns and edits the popular web site featuring thousands of web pages on Seacoast culture. He is the author of "Wentworth by the Sea: The Life and Times of a Grand Hotel".. Copyright © 2005 J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. 

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