In case you’ve been living in a deep dark cave, you may not have heard that Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. Most news stories I’ve seen, to their credit, have mentioned previous American presidents to win. The first was Theodore Roosevelt, indeed the first American to win any of the Nobels, who won it in 1906 for something directly related to Russian military history: the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth which ended the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War.
Roosevelt was awarded the prize, according to the Nobel committee, for his
“happy role in bringing to an end the bloody war recently waged between two of the world’s great powers, Japan and Russia.” Roosevelt brokered the peace talks, which took place predominantly in Portsmouth, New Hampshire thanks to its relatively cool climate.
The standard story has long been that Russia was decisively defeated on the battlefield, and only two things saved Russia from a far more draconian peace: first, the diplomatic skill of Sergei Witte, Russia’s chief negotiator at Portsmouth, and, second, Roosevelt’s tipping the scales in favor of the Russians. This last is often attributed to a desire to maintain a balance in the Pacific or out of racial solidarity with the Russians. My sense of the literature is that this conventional wisdom is getting a little shaky; the Japanese were running short of men and especially money, so both sides were interested in settling things in a peace of exhaustion. Bruce Menning’s Bayonets before Bullets is particularly good as a brief introduction to the battlefield developments.
In any event, as a sitting president, Roosevelt did not travel to Norway to accept the prize until four years later, visiting only in 1910 as part of world travel and lecture tour. I’d never read his Nobel lecture–looking at it now, I’m struck by two ideas that seem to belong to a later post-war era–one of Bolshevik revolution and pacifist utopianism, but already clear to Roosevelt in 1910. One is his emphasis on the need to prevent class warfare. His initial acceptance of the prize by telegram in 1906 originally included his intent to use the prize monies to support industrial peace; in fact, the money was spent after World War I on causes relating to war relief. Roosevelt’s son Quentin was killed in the war; two other sons were wounded.
But speaking in 1910, he was still preoccupied with the need to avert class warfare, something that he’d spent a lot of time on as president. Labor militancy, industrialist greed, and middle-class consumerism were equally dangerous:
in our complex industrial civilization of today the peace of righteousness and justice, the only kind of peace worth having, is at least as necessary in the industrial world as it is among nations. There is at least as much need to curb the cruel greed and arrogance of part of the world of capital, to curb the cruel greed and violence of part of the world of labor, as to check a cruel and unhealthy militarism in international relationships. . . No nation deserves to exist if it permits itself to lose the stern and virile virtues; and this without regard to whether the loss is due to the growth of a heartless and all-absorbing commercialism, to prolonged indulgence in luxury and soft, effortless ease, or to the deification of a warped and twisted sentimentality.
Roosevelt’s other priority was international organization, presaging the League of Nations and later United Nations. He wanted extensive arbitration treaties, at least among “all really civilized communities,” along with strengthening of the international judicial institutions already in existence at the Hague. Finally, he wanted the world’s powers to create a “League of Peace, not only to keep the peace among themselves, but to prevent, by force if necessary, its being broken by others.” Recognizing the problem of enforcement, Roosevelt envisioned a policing power made up of the great powers “which sincerely desire peace and have no thought themselves of committing aggressions.” He clearly includes here the United States, probably Britain, maybe France, but it’s not evident to me who else he includes in his list. What seems implicit is his idea that the great states ought to be, and at least some are, status quo powers, satisfied in their possessions and uninterested in expanding them. World War I would make that view difficult to sustain.