Russia Against Japan, 1904-05: A New Look At The Russo-Japanese War
by J. N. Westwood. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press 1986, $34.50 Hb.
Reviewed by Samuel Edward Konkin III
Ever wonder what a revisionist book might read like if it were published by, and with the consent of, the Establishment? If such could happen, it would have to be about an obscure little war whose impact on modern ruling relations was considered unexceptional. Such a book was published this year by SUNY in Rockefeller-land, written by an Honorary Research Fellow at Birmingham University in Round-Table Rhodes country.
The Russo-Japanese War of 1904 is nearly forgotten today; ask anyone for a quick list of the twentieth-century wars. Yet it was fought between the two major empires in Asia, decided not only the new balance of power in the East but also the West, and shifted the perception of modern warfare in the minds of those who would plan the strategies for World War I.
Conspiracy miners will find plenty of nuggets in Westwood's slim tome. Perfidious Albion is deeply involved against Russia only two years before the Triple Entente. Both Russian and Japanese court intrigue is covered. And even the finance-capitalists' loans to the belligerents are detailed.
Those JHR readers fascinated with the early political role of Zionism will find relevancy in the peace process, which happened in the U.S.A. in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with arch-imperialist Theodore Roosevelt acting as arbitrator. Even then, says Westwood.
[Russian statesman and Finance Minister Sergei] Witte also took care to conciliate the American Jewish community, which was influential and could determine the success of any further Russian attempts to raise loans on the American market. Displaying some courage and adaptability, Witte visited the Russian Jewish community where he defended Russian policies m the presence of people who had left Russia to escape the anti-Jewish discrimination and violence of Nicholas's government. As Witte was known to be opposed to governmental anti-semitism, his reception was not unfriendly. /1
Sergei Witte was the key figure of the Russo-Japanese War in that he created the Russian situation in the Far East, lost control of it in the power struggles, watched the war destroy his efforts and then returned to favor just in time to clean up the mess by negotiating the peace.
The Russo-Japanese War was fought neither on Russian nor Japanese soil. It was the purest imperial war, fought by two now-dead empires. The Russian Empire had all the advantages except proximity; it lost through bureaucracy and decadence. In several battles when Russian troops attacked with high morale and valour they were ordered to retreat following a new strategic theory.
The situation in 1904 can be summed up fairly quickly. Witte had expanded the Trans-Siberian Railway through Manchuria and established a Russian city at Harbin. The fiction of a private railway, Chinese Eastern (CER), covered the sovereignty lapse. The CER was linked to the Russo-Chinese Bank, by which Witte controlled Manchurian finance. Witte portrayed Russia as China's friend against Japan, who had beaten China in the war of 1894-5.
Pseudo-entrepreneurial groups, lead by A.M. Bezobrazov, won the Czar's ear, overruled Witte's cautious, well-worked-out plan, and had Russia expand southward to Port Arthur, the Liaotung Peninsula, and expand the CER branch to Port Arthur. Then the statist speculators moved into Korea, via the tried and true imperialist method.
After several false starts this group had set up its East Asian Development Company. Bezolzrazov had frankly described dais company as modelled on that of the old British East India Company, and its aim was to exploit a concession in Korea ... /2
Japan thought they had won Korea (a weak kingdom, supposedly independent) and Port Arthur in the Sino-Japanese War. With the Europeans consolidating their "concessions" in China after the Boxer Rebellion (an anti-imperialist insurgency by "a secret society"), this further advance into what Japan regarded as its rightful sphere of influence was intolerable. In 1902, Japan signed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in preparation for war against Russia Since at least the Crimean War, Russia and Britain had been at odds. As Westwood says, "... in the British press and Parliament 'Russian scares' were as frequent in the nineteenth century as 'red scares' in the twentieths." /3
The British Empire clearly assisted the Japanese during the war, particularly through their formidable international press control (which pressured the U.S. State to join the British alliance against the Central Powers only a decade later), and actually passed up cases of Russian ships accidentally firing on British trawlers to avoid conflict. Later, the Japanese would uphold the treaty to scoop up the German far-eastern colonies in World War I.
Both sides lied to their people and both suffered domestic political upheaval in return. The Russian State -- on the advice of the rehabilitated Witte -- gave in to the strikes and mutinies and created the Duma, opening power to the liberal bourgeoisie. But the Japanese, too, suffered "anti-peace riots" when their hardest-lining politician, eking out a fairly favorable settlement, fell drastically below the unrealistic expectations of the deluded populace.
The actual conduct of the war can be summarized simply (Woodward does a credible narrative of the detail). After two years of negotiation with both sides convinced of war's inevitability, the Japanese struck à la Pearl Harbor. In fact, as Pearl was the American Empire's western most naval outpost, Port Arthur was Russia's easternmost. The surprise attack was far less successful than Pearl Harbor was to be, but the Russians frittered away time in harbor, running their fleet out eventually, suffered losses, returned to port and suffered final destruction by the land artillery of the slowly encroaching Japanese forces.
The Japanese marched into the Liaotung Peninsula, drove the Russians back from Port Arthur to Mukden, and captured the Manchurian capital -- all to heavy losses from Banzai charges. Port Arthur fell after a long siege. Unbelievably, at this point the Russians were stronger than-ever, their reinforcements finally arriving over the railway, while the Japanese were drafting bottom- of-the barrel, aged reserves and their officer corps was depleted to crisis levels.
The Russians did suffer a decisive defeat: on the sea The Baltic Fleet sailed through the English Channel, under harassment, around the Cape of Good Hope (smaller ships passed through Suez) and Dough the Indian Ocean. The French bent their neutrality to counteract the British and let the Russian ships rest and rendezvous in Madagascar. Germans supplied coaling ships to feed the voracious Russian boilers. (Kaiser Wilhelm supported his cousin the Tsar in Eastern expansion.) After that epic voyage around the globe, the Russian fleet attempted to run the Straits of Tsushima between Korea and Japan to rendezvous with the cruisers raiding out of Vladivostok and ran into the Japanese fleet under Naval Commander Admiral Togo.
Westwood makes a plausible case that the Russian fleet of Admiral Rozhestvensky could have come out better with a few better breaks; nonetheless, Togo gambled on the classic "crossing the T" tactic and pulled it off. After several hours, and an attempt by some cruisers to break through to Vladivostok, all the Russian capital ships were sunk, surrendered or were scuttled.
(Historical coincidence: The Russian fleet's last safe port had been Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, then French Indo-China The Soviet fleet uses it again today.)
Both sides were racist; the Russian press portrayed the Japanese as "yellow monkeys" and the Japanese portrayed the Caucasians as subhuman barbarians. But other Asiatics, particularly the Indians suffering under the British imperial yoke, took heart at an Asian victory over Europeans. (The Japanese "Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere" propaganda of World War II cashed in on the good will they reaped from this war.) But both sides were fairly careless with the lives of their own soldiers in battle. The Russian reserves mutinied on their way home during the 1905 uprising.
Nicholas relieved General Kuropatkin after the fall of Port Arthur and the Battle of Mukden, rightly considering that the land war would swing over to them. But the naval disaster of May 1905 at Tsushima nearly toppled him and he agreed to Roosevelt's offer of arbitration. The Japanese, equally desperate, sought him out first, and accepted his "suggestion" of peace talks on June 10, two days before the Russians. Because it implied a loss of face, it was the first inkling the Japanese populace had that all was not going well. The Japanese ruling caste was willing to go for almost anything that left them intact and in control of Korea Even though Witte was out- negotiating them, showing remarkable understanding of manipulation of the modem press by "generous leaks," Nicholas gave up the south end of Sakhalin Island to seal the deal without conceding any indemnities. The lack of monetary compensation left Japan deep in the debt of international finance.
Military buffs and wargamers will enjoy Russia Against Japan not only for battle details but also for their impact on World War I. According to Westwood, the military historians studied this conflict for a decade, drawing correct -- and erroneous -- conclusions. Most of their publishing was lost through bad timing when the guns of August 1914 sounded. All the military protagonists of World War I studied the Russo-Japanese War, most of the Russian generals were veterans and the defeated General, Kuropatkin, "displayed the same quality of bureaucratic caution."4 Two of these generals, Samsonov and Rennenkampf, carried their feud to 1914 where Rennenkampf failed to rescue Samsonov at the Battle of Tannenberg, a major German victory.
Though the beloved British balance of power was maintained in the Far East, Russia and Japan maintained a healthy respect for each other for forty years. The Soviet policy continued the Imperial Russian; when Japan was clearly defeated, they moved into Korea back to their 39th parallel division of 1903, recaptured Sakhalin, and reestablished Manchurian control -- only to lose it to Emperor Mao after 1949.
Japan preferred war with the U.S. to another round with Russia in 1941.
The war shifted European alliances. Britain was now ready to enter an entente with the weakened Russian Empire, especially after the Moroccan crisis of 1905 turned the German Empire into the new prime enemy. Bismarck's plans to avoid a two-front hostile alliance failed.
Libertarians will enjoy the brief allusions to counter-economic activity of the always-enterprising Chinese on both sides of the war. Although the war was fought on Chinese (and Korean) territory, nobody consulted or cared what the Manchu court thought. The Manchus fell to Sun Yat-Sen's bourgeois revolt six years later.
Foreshadowing World War I, the Russo-Japanese War ended with massive loss of human lives and economic treasure, loss of faith and "sacred honour," and an insurgent, revolting populace anxious to reform or sweep away ancien régimes. The Russian State, fighting two senseless wars in a decade on foreign soil, for gains incomprehensible to those fighting and paying, reaped the whirlwind of revolution. And the Japanese State, learning all the wrong lessons in the war, collapsed in two mushroom clouds almost exactly forty years after the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed.
- Op.cit., pp. 158-59.
- Op.cit., p. 13.
- Op.cit., p. 16.
- Op.cit., p. 135.
From The Journal of Historical Review, Fall 1986 (Vol. 7, No. 3), pages 363-368.
About the Author
SAMUEL EDWARD KONKIN III is a member of the Editorial Advisory Committee of the Journal for Historical Review. He is editor of New Libertarian and the Executive Director of The Agorist Institute, a free-market think-tank which investigates the counter-economy as an alternative to government interference in the market-place.