Why the Treaty of Shimonoseki Matters

Why the Treaty of Shimonoseki Matters
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So we exchanged some witty banter in seminar this week—well, banter, anyway—about how to trace historical cause and effect. Precipitating the debate: the question of whom to blame for World War II. It came during a week spent examining Great Britain’s travails during the interwar decades.

Western Europe and the Middle East dominated discussions, as you might imagine. After all, British leaders seemingly contracted strategic ADHD at the Versailles Conference terminating World War I. London added vast Middle Eastern acreage to the British Empire at the bargaining table, while letting the army needed to police restive territories melt away. Tough problem.

Nor was that the worst of it. By the 1930s, London had to fret not just about policing a bloated empire but about the re-rise of Germany under new, Nazi management. The latter directly endangered the British Isles—and defending the homeland is the top priority for any government.

Worst of all, the British armed forces had to manage these myriad challenges with resources reminiscent of a MacGyver episode. Successive governments allotted the military the equivalent of a Swiss army knife, a piece of string, and a piece of bubble gum—typical implements the TV secret agent used to perform amazing feats. 

Doing virtually everything with virtually nothing is just hard.

But I digress—not for the first or the last time. How far back in history do you trace the causes of some historical event like World War II? With apologies to Henry Ford, history is not bunk. Neglect causes beyond the immediate and obvious and you may miss important insights. Go back too far, however, and you find yourself in James Michener territory. The earth cools and human history undulates from there.

Historian John Lewis Gaddis proposes a Goldilocks thumb rule. Gaddis counsels historians to draw the line somewhere as a matter of scholarly prudence, neither shortchanging distant but influential causes nor going so far back in time that the cause-and-effect relationship thins into irrelevance.

Yes, the earth has to cool for Japan to attack Pearl Harbor. But c’mon. You have to impose some self-discipline. If some long-ago event caused everything, it explains next to nothing. 

So much for the Second World War in Europe. What about Asia? Here’s a proposition: the roots of the Pacific War are here in Newport. After all, it was Commodore Matthew Perry—a son of these parts—and his famous U.S. Navy “black ships” that opened Japan to the outside world at gunpoint in the 1850s following the island state’s quarter-millennium of seclusion. 

The black-ships squadron set a cascade of events in motion. Japan’s martial feebleness stunned the shogunate, the islands’ military rulers … which fired the leadership’s resolve to industrialize, constructing a modern army and navy … which gave the Meiji emperor (following the imperial “restoration” of 1868) the wherewithal to prosecute aggressive policies in maritime and continental Asia. 

And it took Commodore Perry—one of history’s more consequential Rhode Islanders, interred an easy walk from the Naval War College—to goad backward Japan into action. So it’s all Newport’s fault. How’s that for cause and effect? Let the conspiracy-mongering commence in a certain big Asian country prone to hyperventilating about Japanese militarism!

Which brings us back to where we left off last time: the Treaty of Shimonoseki, concluded 120 years ago today. Perry’s voyage might be a tad remote, but it’s certainly fair to cite the first Sino-Japanese War as a cause of World War II. It set Imperial Japan on the trajectory that culminated in invasions of Manchuria and China in the 1930s and conquests across the Pacific basin in the 1940s.

China’s Qing Dynasty resented the outcome of the Sino-Japanese War, not just because of debacles on land and at sea but because the war turned China’s world upside down. Accustomed to sitting atop the Asian hierarchy, China now found itself second to Japan. That rankles. As my colleague and pal Sally Paine points out, it has spent the ensuing 120 years trying to undo the conflict’s outcome.

Carl von Clausewitz observes that a war’s result is never final. The vanquished can always try to reverse the verdict of arms later on, either by renewing the fighting or through political means. China’s protracted assault on the Treaty of Shimonoseki carries Clausewitz’s logic to the nth degree.

But even the victor soured on the results of the Sino-Japanese War. Sure, Tokyo got what it wanted. France, Germany, and Russia, however, executed a “triple intervention” after Shimonoseki, using diplomacy to deprive Tokyo of important concessions codified in the accord. Needless to say, having gains won by Japanese arms nullified sat poorly with the populace and leadership.

The snub was also a stage-setter for future conflict. For instance, the Western powers denied Japan control of Port Arthur, which sat astride the sea lanes connecting the Yellow Sea with the Bohai Sea, the nautical gateway to Beijing. Russia later seized the seaport for itself—adding insult to injury.

Tokyo avenged the insult a decade later, demolishing Russian fleets at the battles of the Yellow Sea and Tsushima Strait. Having left Russian sea power adorning the seafloor, Tokyo reclaimed Port Arthur, ensconced itself in Korea and Manchuria, and established itself as the Far East’s naval hegemon. 

Again, though, Japan came away from a victory feeling it had gotten a raw deal. And again it blamed Westerners. Russian diplomats essayed some deft diplomacy during peace negotiations, while mediator Theodore Roosevelt helped fashion a compromise treaty at Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The Portsmouth Peace Treaty didn’t require St. Petersburg to fork over a hefty indemnity the way China had at Shimonoseki. Japan had virtually bankrupted itself fighting a stronger enemy—and it ended up paying the bills for the war rather than getting the foe to do so. The costs of victory proved steep.

From 1905 forward, consequently, Japan nursed a grudge against TR, and against America. Yet it convinced itself it could crush the U.S. Navy should a transpacific war come. Like Europe-based Russian fleets, the U.S. Pacific Fleet had to traverse vast distances—potentially under fire—just to reach the scene of battle.

Tokyo came to believe its navy could protect the Asian order instituted at Shimonoseki using tried-and-true methods of sea combat.

Effect, cause.

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