Posted on January 17, 2020

1905: The End of the Omnipotent White Man

F. Roger Devlin, American Renaissance, January 17, 2020

Russo-Japanese War

The beginning of the 20th century may be taken as the approximate high point of Western world domination, if not necessarily of European civilization itself. Whites made up some 30 percent of the earth’s population and directly or indirectly controlled most of its territory; white economic and technological dominance were even more complete. American writer Lothrop Stoddard describes in colorful language our race’s serene confidence at that moment:

The thought that white expansion could be stayed, much less reversed, never entered the head of one white man in a thousand. Why should it, since centuries of experience had taught the exact contrary? The settlement of America, Australasia, and Siberia, where the few colored aborigines vanished like smoke before the white advance; the conquest of brown Asia and the partition of Africa, where colored millions bowed with only sporadic resistance to mere handfuls of whites: both sets of phenomena combined to persuade the white man that he was invincible, and that the colored types would everywhere give way before him and his civilization.

But in 1905, a surprising turn of events shocked white and non-white alike. Japan gained a decisive military victory over a sprawling European empire with a population more than three times its own: Russia. No one expected such an outcome, yet it was to prove a sign of much to come.

The road to war

Count Sergei Witte, chief architect of Russia’s industrial modernization in the late Imperial period, considered the Far East the most promising export market for Russian manufactured goods, and persuaded Tsar Alexander III (reigned 1881 – 1894) to authorize construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway to connect European Russia with its Pacific port city of Vladivostok. In 1895, he further proposed shortening the eastern segment of the route by cutting across Chinese-held Manchuria. China agreed to the proposal in exchange for a few bribes and the promise of a defensive alliance, and on the understanding that her sovereignty over Manchuria would be respected. But Russia had other plans, and quickly sent police and military units into Manchuria.

In 1898, Russia acquired a long-term lease on Port Arthur (now part of the Chinese city of Dalian), a naval base in southern Manchuria, and began building a new railroad linking it with the Trans-Siberian. By the winter of 1902-3, plans were afoot for outright Russian annexation and intensive settlement of Manchuria.

China was in a very weak condition and could do little but protest. The more serious threat came from Japan, which had its own imperial plans for the Korean peninsula bordering Manchuria. In 1902, the Japanese strengthened their position by concluding an alliance with Britain, also wary of Russian expansionism in the Far East. The two countries pledged to assist one another in safeguarding their respective interests in the region.

At this time, the Japanese offered Russia recognition of its interests in Manchuria in exchange for a free hand in Korea. In retrospect, this would have been best for both parties. However, Count Witte was dismissed in August 1903, and Russia’s Far Eastern policy started to drift, with no one in charge. Prominent Russian industrialists began displaying an ominous interest in Korea’s lumber resources. Japan, despairing of negotiation, started preparing for war in late 1903.

The Russians knew this, but did not bother with counter-preparations. They had nothing but contempt for the Japanese: Tsar Alexander III called them “monkeys who play Europeans,” and ordinary Russians joked that they would smother the “macaques” with their caps. It was a largely race-based overconfidence, and it was to prove fatal.

The fortunes of war

On February 8, 1904, Japan began military operations by attacking and besieging Port Arthur, sinking some Russian ships and incapacitating the rest. Having secured control of the sea, they landed troops on the Korean peninsula and advanced rapidly on Manchuria. Russia faced formidable logistical difficulties since the Trans-Siberian Railway was not yet fully operational; accordingly, they spent most of 1904 playing for time.

“Blow to a Head – Russo-Japanese War” by Toshihide Migita. “Private First Class, Ohashi Keikichi, scouted the depth of a river so that the fellow troop could cross it. He encountered an enemy soldier, snatched his rifle and killed him.”

At the beginning of 1905, the Japanese forced the surrender of Port Arthur. A more decisive engagement, however, began the following month near the town of Mukden (modern Shenyang), some 240 miles to the north. It was the largest battle since Napoleonic times, pitting 330,000 Russians against 270,000 Japanese over a period of 18 days. The Russians abandoned the field after losing 89,000 men. The land war was over.

Japanese riflemen during the Russo-Japanese War.

But Russia had one more card to play. Its Baltic and Black Sea fleets had been ordered to the Far East for the relief of Port Arthur: a journey of 18,000 nautical miles via the Indian Ocean. Once Port Arthur fell, their mission was redefined as linking up with Russia’s pacific fleet at Vladivostok to coordinate a naval attack on Japan. The Baltic Fleet never reached Vladivostok, however; the Japanese correctly guessed the Russian ships would try to pass through the Tsushima Strait between the Japanese Islands and Korea, and lay in wait as they approached on May 27, 1905. The Russian fleet was more heavily armed, but in poor condition after its long journey. Japan’s ships, some of which had been built in Britain and the United States, were more maneuverable. The Japanese won a decisive victory, destroying two-thirds of the Russian fleet.

“Illustration of the Furious Battle of Japanese and Russian Torpedo Destroyers outside the Harbor of Port Arthur” by Yasuda Hanpō, 1904. Click here for a larger version.

In every engagement of the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese were better commanded, fought more zealously, and enjoyed superior military intelligence. Gen. Alexei Kuropatkin, Russia’s Minster of War during the conflict, later reflected on Japanese cultural factors which he and other Russian military leaders had missed at the time:

For many years the education of the Japanese people had been carried out in a martial spirit and along patriotic lines. Children in the elementary schools are taught to love their nation and to be heroes. The nation’s deep respect for the army, the individual willingness and pride in serving, the iron discipline maintained among the ranks, and the influence of the Samurai spirit [all] escaped our notice.

Russia’s own soldiers were mostly unwilling, conscripted peasants. One officer left a memorable description of the reserve units with whom the officers had to contend:

These uncouth, heavy bearded men look discontented [and] are clumsy, slothful and cowardly. Their propensities are anything but warlike; they like to sleep well, eat their fill, raise a fuss behind one’s back, while in battle they are too quiet.

The French journalist René Pinon witnessed the arrival of the first Russian prisoners of war in Japan — probably regular soldiers and not “uncouth” reservists — and describes how conscious all his fellow-observers were of the event’s racial significance:

What a triumph, what a revenge for the little Nippons to see thus humiliated these big, splendid men who, for them, represented not only Russia but those Europeans whom they so detest! [NB: Japanese were literally smaller than Europeans at the time due to inferior nutrition.] This scene tragic in its simplicity, these whites vanquished and captive, defiling before those free and triumphant yellows — this was not Russia beaten by Japan, not the defeat of one nation by another; it was something new, enormous, prodigious; it was the victory of one world over another; it was the revenge which effaced the centuries of humiliations borne by Asia; it was the awakening hope of the Oriental people; it was the first blow given to the other race, to that accursed race of the West, which for so many years had triumphed without even having to struggle. And the Japanese crowd felt all this, and the few other Asiatics who found themselves there shared in this triumph. The humiliation of these whites was solemn, frightful. I completely forgot that these captives were Russians, and I would add that the other Europeans there, though anti-Russian, also were forced to feel that these captives were their own kind.

“Nurse Looking Over a Wounded Soldier.” This postcard, when held to light, revealed the Russian patient.

The peace settlement

While Japan had won every major engagement of the war, its victory had not been easily bought; its economy had been put under severe strain, and the army had sustained heavy losses. The Japanese even showed a willingness to negotiate immediately after their triumph at Mukden, but Russia was not prepared to accept defeat until its loss at Tsushima nearly three months later. Thereupon, both sides accepted an offer from American President Theodore Roosevelt to mediate a peace conference, which was held in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Russia agreed to evacuate Manchuria, recognize Japanese interests in Korea, and cede the southern half of Sakhalin Island; Japan agreed to seek no financial indemnity from Russia.

In Russia, this unexpected loss to a despised enemy left the tsarist autocracy more unpopular than ever, sparking three years of revolutionary upheaval that the authorities barely managed to contain. It would prove a dress-rehearsal for the catastrophe of 1917, with whose legacy the country continues to struggle to this day.

The rise of modern Japan

For Japan, victory would prove even more consequential. The country had deliberately isolated itself from the outside world between 1600 and 1853, a period of revolutionary progress for the West. Once this isolation was broken, the Japanese authorities became painfully aware of how far their country lagged behind the rest of the world. They planned sweeping reforms, and in 1868 the Emperor declared in a programmatic statement: “Knowledge shall be sought all over the world, and thereby the foundations of imperial rule shall be strengthened.”

It was, of course, overwhelmingly to the West that Japan looked at this time for inspiration, and sometimes their admiration bordered on infatuation. One writer of the time described the United States as “an earthly paradise,” while another referred to the “slow comprehension and weak physique of our people.” The study of Western languages was introduced in secondary schools, and the military was reformed along Western lines, with the Navy copying the British.

In such a context, it is easy to understand the profound effects the 1905 victory over Russia had on Japanese self-regard. Those formerly humiliated by their nation’s need to learn from and imitate superior Western models began to declare Japan the equal of any nation, and Japanese behavior on the international stage became more assertive. Just five years after making peace with Russia, Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula outright.

A convenient home-grown doctrine of racial superiority was developed to rationalize the country’s new ambitions. As early as 1916, we find a Japanese author fantasizing about a “billion Japanese with their slaves” colonizing North America, dismissing Americans as “a few chattering mongrel Yankees . . . a race of thieves with the hearts of rabbits.”

By the 1930s, such arrogance had come to dominate the Japanese military, and the country embarked on a campaign of foreign conquest. It annexed Manchuria in 1931, invaded the rest of China in 1937, and attacked the US in 1941. Within four decades, the humble imitators of Western models had become reckless imperial adventurers prepared to challenge the entire West. This was certainly in part an excessive reaction to its earlier experience of backwardness and humiliation, and the Russo-Japanese War had marked the single most critical psychological turning point in this process.

The rest of the world

Appreciation of the Russo-Japanese War’s racial significance was not limited to the actual combatants. Lothrop Stoddard writes that the war inspired “an understanding between Asiatic and African races and creeds . . . a ‘Pan-Colored’ alliance against white domination.” He wrote that Japan’s victory “produced intensely exciting effects all over the Dark Continent [and] sent a feverish tremor throughout Islam.”

Chinese statesman Sun Yat-sen was sailing through the Suez Canal in 1905 when the news of Japan’s victory broke. The locals, mistaking him for a Japanese, enthusiastically congratulated him on his people’s great victory, calling it a triumph for all colored people. Muslim leaders called for political alliances and commercial relations with the Japanese — even for the reorganization of Oriental armies under Japanese direction. A few dreamed of converting them to Islam.

At the same time, as Stoddard noted, white solidarity seemed to be eroding; the Asiatic cause was finding “zealous white sponsors and abettors.” Among the most dangerous symptoms was an expansion of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1905, in the immediate aftermath of Japan’s victory.

The original alliance, signed in 1902, was negotiated for a definite, limited objective — the checkmating of Russia’s overweening imperialism. Even that instrument was dangerous, but under the circumstances it was justifiable and inevitable. The second alliance-treaty, however was so general and far-reaching in character that practically all white men in the Far East, including most emphatically Englishmen themselves, pronounced it a great disaster.

A century after Stoddard wrote, the problems he diagnosed are not only still with us but far more serious. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904‑5 may have been a more dramatic turning point than any that has occurred since.