Print More

(HOST) The Battle of Tsushima is far from well-known now in the United States. But for a century, that critical naval engagement has cast a very long shadow. Commentator Peter Gilbert explains.

(GILBERT) With the end of the Russo-Japanese War, the year 1905 set the stage for the geopolitics of the 20th century – from World War I and the Russian Revolution to Pearl Harbor and Vietnam.

The Russians had been besieged by the Japanese for nearly a year in Port Arthur, the key naval base for the Russian fleet in Manchuria. Eventually, the Japanese captured the port, but as Tim Newark ex- plains in his book Turning the Tide of War, the Russian and Japanese armies fought on elsewhere in Manchuria in an indecisive but bloody trench war.

Russia sent its Baltic Fleet to support its troops in this effort. Half the fleet sailed through the Suez Canal, half around the Cape of Good Hope: the voyage took more than six months. The Czar’s fleet sounded big and impressive, but the ships were outdated, comparatively slow and manned with poor quality crews. The Japanese fleet, on the other hand, was modern in design. Their ships were smaller than the Rus- sians’; they had greater armor protection, but were still light enough to be fast and maneuverable, and their crews were highly motivated and well trained.

On the afternoon of May 27, 1905, exactly 100 years ago today, as the Russian fleet sailed through the Tsushima Strait between Korea and Japan, the Japanese fleet attacked. Of the Russian’s eight battleships, eight cruisers and nine destroyers, all were sunk except for a cruiser and two destroyers. More than 10,000 Russian sailors were killed or wounded. In contrast, the Japanese lost only three small torpedo boats and comparatively few crew.

The Battle of Tsushima increased the desire of both exhausted nations to end the war. President Theodore Roosevelt worked dip- lomatic back channels with subtlety, and in September 1905 he served as host and broker for peace talks in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Russia withdrew from Manchuria, Korea fell under Japan’s influence as well, and Russia’s defeat significantly under- mined the czar. Although he survived the First Russian Revolution
later in the year, he didn’t survive for long.

As Tim Newark explains, Japan’s military success caused the nation to see itself as an equal to any world power. Militarization of Japan followed. Russia’s defeat caused nationalists in colonies across Asia to believe that western imperialism could be defeated. The 200-year- old assumption of European military invincibility was gone, and that fact would influence not only the Second World War, but the Vietnam War as well.

Unfortunately, British and German military observers who personally witnessed the Russo-Japanese War drew the wrong conclusions from the devastation and massive casualties caused by the prolonged but inconclusive trench warfare. They attributed the catastrophic stalemate to Russian incompetence and Japanese inexperience. They were certain that such a war would never happen in Europe. Of course, we know now that their confident military predictions would prove horribly wrong.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studios in Montpelier.

Comments are closed.