Waldorf 12

Baron Komura Fights For Peace

(Originally printed in 1931)

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There was another guest of the Waldorf-Astoria who had a significant interest in Port Arthur. But it wasn’t in Texas. It was a fortified port on Liatung Peninsula, Kwangtung Province, Manchuria. It was, in fact, the direct cause of the Russo-Japanese War.

Although the Russian-Japanese Peace Treaty was signed at Portsmouth, N. H., its terms and provisions were haggled over and virtually determined during an amazing “peace battle” waged from two New York hotels. While Baron Rosen, the plenipotentiary for Russia, was intrenched in his rooms in the Hotel St. Regis, Baron Komura, in an elaborate suite in the Waldorf, shot out cable after cable to japan in an almost frenzied effort to force the statesmen at home to recognize his—and his country’s—peculiar predicament.

What went on along the battle fronts was no more serious—certainly no more important—than what transpired between the distinguished occupants of the Waldorf and the St. Regis. For it was in that battle that Russia, while losing the war, practically won (in the opinion of some experts) the peace.

It was in the early summer of 1905 that Baron Jutaro Komura (afterward Count) arrived at the Waldorf-Astoria. He was accompanied by a large retinue of secretaries, clerks, and other assistants. He took over a large suite of rooms. His arrival was the indirect result of an overwhelming victory by the Japanese navy.

The war, as our history books point out, was a product of Russian imperialism which came in contact with the aspirations of Japan. The lease of Port Arthur and its conversion into a strongly fortified naval base was intended to keep Japan out of Korea and Manchuria. Indeed, we are told that Russia hoped to cut off her connections with China. But Japan, in close alliance with Great Britain, demanded that Russia should evacuate both Korea and Manchuria.

The evasive answers returned by Russia resulted in Japan, without a formal declaration of war, beginning the eighteen months’ conflict with a naval attack at Port Arthur. The world assumed, as the war progressed, that Russia was in dire straits, which, in many particulars, was true. Although the Russian militarists, imperialists, and orthodox priests supported the war, the masses of the people were seeking internal reforms. Taking advantage of their country’s military collapse, all classes, parties, and nationalities hostile to Russian autocracy repeated attacks within, while the enemy without was doing enough damage. Modern representative government was demanded. There were outbreaks, reaching their climax in the “Red Sunday” of 1905, when men, parading the streets of St. Petersburg to air their protests, were shot down. Poland, Finland, the peasants of the Baltic provinces, the Armenians and Georgians, were up in arms.

Then the great Russian fleet of twenty-nine ships, under Admiral Rozentvensky was attacked in the Sea of Japan. The Russian fleet was wiped out, 4,000 men were
killed or drowned and 7,000 taken prisoners. The Japanese lost only 116 men.

The effect of this victory was electrical. Though Russia’s fighting power was by no means so impaired as to prevent her continuing the struggle indefinitely, it was obviously the psychological moment to suggest negotiadons. There was, on the other hand, no advantage in Japan continuing on, for, as Baron Komura knew only too well, the victory of japan in that naval engagement was a straw to grasp in a moment of danger. Both England and France had made some move toward mediation, but general fitness pointed to President Roosevelt as the proper person to intervene. The President, therefore, called the Conference at Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

The Russians, as we have said, selected as their peace plenipotentiaries Baron Rosen and Count Witte, who took up their headquarters in the St. Regis Hotel in New York. The Japanese sent to the United States Baron Komura. His reputation as a diplomat already had been regarded highly. He was somewhat “Americanized,” also, for he had graduated at Harvard in 1877. He entered the foreign office in Tokyo in 1884. He served as charge d’affaires in Peking, as Japanese minister in Scoul, in Washington, St. Petersburg, and Peking. In 1901 he received the portfolio of Foreign Affairs.

Obviously, japan had chosen an ideal man for this mission. Oscar and Augustus Nulle remember him as a quiet, kindly man, undisturbed by the pressure of victory, or at least concealing it behind his Oriental stoicism. When he spoke it was with perfect English. When he smiled it was with a friendliness and a personality that deserved a richer reward than he garnered at the peace table.

From the first day of his arrival, even if the baron didn’t show it, there was intense excitement about the place. The majority of hotel attendants, of course, considered him merely as another distinguished guest. They were hardly aware that up in that suite of rooms history was being made. When, once in a while, they used to get a glimpse of the baron, pacing the floor, they did not know that he might even then have been trying to stave off for himself and his country a diplomatic defeat. The outside world did not realize that at the moment we speak of, japan itself was in a critical condition, in spite of her victories. Certainly Baron Rosen, over at the St. Regis, did not know it. He and his associates were preparing to go to the peace table, as later events proved, and agree to pay an indemnity, and a big one, too. They were, during their stay at the St. Regis, devising arguments that would enable them to keep that indemnity as low as possible. Even with their brilliant and ramified espionage system they did know that over in the Waldorf, Baron Komura was resigning himself to the fact that japan would be unable to command any indemnity!

If only Baron Rosen, or anyone else, could have read the cables that poured in and out of the Waldorf-Astoria that summer, what a dramatic story they would have revealed. What was transpiring no one knew. But now this much is known: that while Baron Komura was at first triumphantly planning for the conference, he was in-formed by the authorities at home that, in spite of Japan’s almost unbroken string of military and naval victories, it was by no means sure of winning the war in a large sense.

The war was costing the nation a million dollars a day and it was becoming increasingly difficult to contract loans. The lack of men was endangering the rice harvest.

No one at the Waldorf-Astoria, however, suspected that such worries were on the mind of the Japanese states-man. People who met him were inclined to greet him with expressions of congratulation on his country’s victories in the war.

But he was not at the hotel more than a few weeks when he saw clearly that a great part of the credit accruingto his country for its successful conduct of the war would be forfeited in the negotiations. The people of Japan, on the other hand, had accustomed themselves to expect that Russia would assuredly recoup the expenses incurred by their country. Only a few statesmen in japan knew that Baron Komura had no hope of getting a payment of indemnity. They knew that Russia, after all, was a country whose territory had not been invaded effectively, nor its existence menaced. To browbeat it into paying a huge indemnity would be futile.

Nevertheless, diplomacy required that this conviction should be concealed. Everything went on in his suite of rooms with the greatest secrecy. The publicity barriers were air-tight—and the Waldorf-Astoria played a splendid part in seeing that they were kept that way. Through its own efforts newspapermen and others were watched carefully, so that the baron and his retinue would not be disturbed. This was, you see, the duty of the hotel in such a crisis to its guests. To the credit of the St. Regis, the same strict attention to the Russian envoy’s desire for complete isolation was given.

Thus, in spite of the possibilities of leakage, Japan and Russia were able to keep their important secrets to themselves until they went to the peace table. Japan’s secret, of course, was that it could not hope for any indemnity and would be willing to pass it up, so desirous was it for peace. Russia’s secret was that it was resigned to the necessity of paying 150 millions sterling in order to effect peace and devote its attention to conditions at home!

It was no wonder that whenever Oscar and Mr. Nulle saw Baron Komura there was a tense, solemn reticence about the man. Most of the time, however, he was shut up in his rooms, pouring out cable after cable in his frantic efforts to achieve a fairly triumphant treaty. A special corps of messengers, engaged by the baron, handled a large amount of dispatch service for the Japanese peace workers. The cables that went out from Baron Komura’s quarters in the hotel amounted to, Mr. Nulle estimated, hundreds of dollars a day in tolls.

Their results are now history. With the preliminary negotiations completed, the envoys of the warring countries went to Portsmouth. There was a moment when the onlooking world believed that unless Russia agreed to ransom the island of Sakhalin by paying to Japan a sum of 12o millions sterling, the conference would be broken off. But Baron Komura knew better. Russia surrendered to Japan the southern half of the island of Sakhalin, a protectorate over Korea, and agreed to give Manchuria back to China.

But it did not pay one cent of indemnity to Japan!

The world was astonished, of course. The absence of an indemnity and the failure of Baron Komura to secure all of the island of Sakhalin caused a terrific uproar in Japan. The people there believed that if he had held out he would have won the whole island as well as a juicy indemnity. The peace negotiations were further unpopular in Japan because of the tremendous sacrifices of the people and their holy fervor to win.

Yet they might have been satisfied with what they got if they had known with what ardor—and what despair —Baron Komura worked in behalf of his country in a foreign land.

As it was, Baron Komura went back home and resigned his portfolio. He later, however, became Privy Councilor, then was transferred to the embassy in London, and in 1908 again took over the portfolio of Foreign Affairs.

Surely if he has ever recalled one place that served as the most important and stirring background for his life’s experiences he has remembered that suite he occupied in the summer of 1905 in the Waldorf-Astoria.

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