Lessons for America from the Russo-Japanese War

Summary:  Just as tactical military victory does not guarantee strategic military victory, tactical victory at the peace table does not guarantee the accomplishment of national strategic goals. From the start through the termination of the Russo-Japanese War, at the strategic level, Japan understood this fact to a much greater degree than did Russia.  We could learn much from their example about the successful waging of war.


“The Russo-Japanese War: Defining victory”

by Drew A Bennett (Colonel, USMC)
Originally published in the Marine Corps Gazette of November 2002.
Republished here with their generous permission.

A conversation on 25 April 1975 in Hanoi:

“You know you never defeated us on the battlefield” – Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. (Chief of the U.S. Delegation, Four Party Joint Military Team)

”That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.” – Colonel Nguyen Don Tu (Chief, North Vietnamese  Delegation)

— From On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War by Harry G. Summers Jr. (1982)

The Russo-Japanese War highlights the need for national leaders, both military and civilian, to understand long-term national strategic objectives and all of the elements of national power available to achieve those objectives. In the early 20th century, conventional wisdom on this conflict mistakenly evaluated the lack of war indemnities required from Russia as a lenient peace-a Russian success and a Japanese failure. This evaluation narrowly focused on the conduct of military operations and failed to consider the larger strategic implications of the Russo-Japanese War. Conventional wisdom of the day failed to comprehend that, despite the lack of indemnities, the termination of conflict established by the Peace of Portsmouth Treaty allowed Japan to achieve its limited objectives.

Nations do not accomplish strategic goals with military power alone. As stated in Joint Publication 1-02, the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, elements of national power encompass “all the means that are available for employment in the pursuit of national objectives” and include diplomatic, economic, informational, and military power. These elements of power must be constantly evaluated and applied across the spectrum of war and peace at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels.

Just as tactical military victory does not guarantee strategic military victory, tactical victory at the peace table does not guarantee the accomplishment of national strategic goals. From the start through the termination of the Russo-Japanese War, at the strategic level, Japan understood this fact to a much greater degree than did Russia.

Causes of the Russo-Japanese War


The Russo Japanese War was fought with new technologies by imperialist powers struggling for imperial expansion in the same region. Russia had expanded its influence through China leasing Port Arthur in 1898 and constructing the 5,500-mile TransSiberian railroad to link Moscow to the port. In effect, Russia had annexed the Liaotung peninsula. This link provided Russia with a year-round, ice-free access to the Pacific.

During the Boxer Rebellion in 1900, Russia rushed troops into Manchuria. Later agreeing to remove these troops, Russia never kept this promise. Japan, transitioning from a feudal kingdom to an industrialized power in less than half a century, also wanted to dominate this region and was concerned over Russian expansionism. In order to gain control in East Asia and revenge against Russia for interfering after the Sino-Japanese War, Japan spent 3 years preparing for war. When Russia rejected a Japanese proposal to recognize Japan’s interest in Korea and guarantee the integrity of China and Korea, Japan decided on military action. 1

Overview of the Russo-Japanese War

In actions that foretold the attack on Pearl Harbor 38 years later, on 8 February 1904, without a declaration of war, the Japanese launched a surprise attack from the sea on the Russian Pacific fleet at anchor in Port Arthur. Japanese motor torpedo boats and battleships inflicted heavy damage on the Russian fleet and then blockaded the port. After the Russian flagship, the Petropavlovsk, struck a mine and sank with all hands in April, the remainder of the Russian ships confined themselves to the port.

Because both sides were fighting for areas outside their borders, the war became a race to build up and maintain combat power. The Japanese landed forces in what is now Inchon on the Korean peninsula and in Pitzuwu, only 40 miles northeast of Port Arthur on the Liaotung peninsula. At the same time, the Russians began to move troops on the TransSiberian railroad. Fighting centered in three areas.

The first area of conflict was the siege of Port Arthur. Having established a blockade at sea starting in August 1904, the Japanese conducted five separate and very costly land assaults on the defenses around the port. The Russian defenders, starving because of mismanagement of supplies, finally surrendered in January 1905. The Japanese lost 59,000 casualties while the Russians lost 31,000. 2

The second area of general fighting occurred in central Manchuria. Although the Russians generally outnumbered the Japanese forces, superior Japanese leadership pushed the Russians back all the way to Mukden. The battle of Mukden, February and March of 1905, had the largest number of troops engaged-624,000 men– at that time in history. After fighting along a 40-mile front, the Russians were pushed back from this position as well, although they fell back in good order. In central Manchuria the Russians lost over 162,000 men, and the Japanese lost over 115,000. 3

The third general area of fighting occurred at sea. By placing elements of their fleet in the Baltic and in the Pacific, at Port Arthur and Vladivostok, the Russians violated Alfred Thayer Mahan’s central dictum. According to Mahan, a country should never “divide the battle fleet, even in times of peace, into fractions individually smaller than those of a possible enemy.”4 With its Pacific fleet confined to Port Arthur, the Russians set their Baltic fleet to sail for the Pacific in mid-October 1904.

While en route the Russians learned that Port Arthur had fallen. Despite this information, the Russian Baltic fleet decided to continue. After the main body sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, it was joined by a smaller number of ships that sailed through the Suez Canal. Having traveled over 18,000 miles and around three continents, the Russian Baltic fleet then tried to run the Straits of Tsushima in order to relieve their comrades bottled up in Vladivostok. Once in the straits the Russians met the Japanese fleet. Although the Russian Baltic fleet had twice as many battleships, it had half as many destroyers and auxiliary ships as its enemy did. Additionally, the Japanese fleet was a modern fleet almost twice as fast as the Russians. This fact, combined with superior leadership, allowed the Japanese, on 27 May 1905, to win “the greatest naval battle of annihilation since Trafalgar.” The Russians lost 10,000 men to the Japanese 1,000. 5

Reasons to Negotiate Peace

While Japan appeared to have won its limited objectives and had been militarily victorious, the country was almost bankrupt at home and had exhausted its limited manpower. The repeated Japanese “banzai” charges, or human wave attacks, into Russian machineguns had taken its toll on the Japanese Army and depleted the officer corps. To replace the large number of casualties from Japan’s limited population, the country began drafting older reserves.

Russia faced internal rebellion as the populace tired of “fighting two senseless wars in a decade on foreign soil, for gains incomprehensible to those fighting and paying.” 6 Having moved enormous numbers of troops from the heart of Russia to the fighting in Manchuria, the Russians were now required to move these same troops back to Moscow to put down domestic revolt. Both countries had reasons to negotiate. When President Theodore Roosevelt offered to host peace talks, Japan and Russia agreed. When Japan, the military victor, agreed to negotiate 2 days before Russia did, it was the first indication that the peace might not result in terms expected by many contemporaries.

Overview of the Peace Treaty of Portsmouth

“There are no victors here. ”
— Russian diplomat Sergius Witte commenting on the final peace treaty

Japan believed it was justified in going to war to stop Russian expansion. Furthermore, after winning the largest land battle and the largest modern ship naval battle ever fought between two countries up to that time, Japan believed they had won the war militarily. However, while Japan could clearly boast to her people that she had won the military victory, she was not able to convince the Japanese people that her performance at the negotiating table was as successful. The reason the Japanese people were not satisfied is that they expected the peace treaty to force Russia, as the military loser, to pay the full cost of the war.

Japan had set the stage for a negotiated peace early in the war and had even approached President Roosevelt with the intent of having him mediate at an appropriate time. Unfortunately for the Japanese, when that time came and the belligerents accepted America’s invitation to Portsmouth for the purpose of negotiating an end to the war, President Roosevelt was neither proJapanese nor anti-Russian.

He wanted Russia to be weakened rather than altogether eliminated from the balance of power-for, according to the maxims of balance of power diplomacy, an excessive weakening of Russia would have merely substituted a Japanese for the Russian threat. Roosevelt perceived that the outcome which served America best would be one in which Russia `should be left face to face with Japan so that each may have a moderative action on the other.’ 7

As the Japanese were to learn, and should have anticipated, President Roosevelt would primarily look out for the interests of the United States.

Faulty Conventional Wisdom – The Russian ‘Victory’

Both Russia and Japan were ready to negotiate a peace. Russia, however, was not willing to give up her honor in the process. The peace negotiations quickly centered on the topic of war indemnities. Traditionally, the victor imposed the payment of war indemnities as a reprisal on the loser. As an example, after suppressing the Boxer Rebellion, the Western Powers imposed an enormous indemnity on China to the equivalent amount of $317,700,000. 8 Japan had witnessed this practice and now expected Russia to pay the Japanese cost of the war.

Although Russia had started the war in better financial condition than her enemy had, she was in terrible shape by the time of the negotiations. Russia had lost one-quarter billion rubles in sunken shipping and had spent 2 1/2 billion to run the war. 9 Unwilling and unable to pay an indemnity, Russia skillfully used the elements of diplomatic, military, and informational power to tactically shape the negotiations in an effort to protect her limited economic resources.

  • First, Russia asserted that she had not been “conquered” and, therefore, was not required to pay an indemnity.
  • Second, Russia backed up this position by stating that, while she was willing to negotiate on all issues, she would resume hostilities before she paid an indemnity.
  • Finally, Russia used information as power. The press extensively covered the Russo-Japanese War and the peace negotiations. The chief Russian delegate, Sergius Witte, the former imperial minister of finance, befriended and used the press to Russia’s advantage. Witte leaked to the newspapers Japan’s demand for money in an attempt to persuade the world that Japan was fighting for material gain. 10

Who Accomplished Their Objectives?

To the contemporaries of the Russo-Japanese War, the fact that Russia suffered more casualties and lost more battles than the Japanese meant that Russia lost the war. These same people made the conclusion that because Russia did not pay war indemnities, Japan had lost the peace. Both of these viewpoints focused on the tactical level.

The question should have been, who accomplished their national strategic objectives? The definition of victory is not the public relations campaign, but the accomplishment of national objectives. Unlike Russia, Japan had carefully defined limited objectives for the war, realistically calculated the potential cost, and methodically evaluated the risks involved. For her efforts in the war, Russia lost her possessions in Asia and, through the revolts that followed, her government at home. 

While Japan did not achieve total victory in the Peace of Portsmouth Treaty, she did accomplish the limited objectives she had established for the war. Russia was forced to transfer the lease of Port Arthur to Japan. The treaty required Russia to give the portion of the Trans-Siberian railroad in southern Manchuria to Japan without compensation. Russia gave Japan the southern part of the Sakhalin Island and fishing rights adjacent to Russia in the Bering Sea. Most importantly, Russia, and all of the world powers, now recognized the “paramount political, military, and economic interest” of Japan in Korea. As a result of the treaty, Korea became a protectorate of Japan, setting the stage for Japan to annex Korea in 1910. Japan had become a recognized imperialist power ending the era of white invincibility.

Could Japan Have Secured a Better Peace?

While Japan could have conducted a more successful media campaign at home before negotiations and at Portsmouth during negotiations, it is doubtful that she could have secured a more advantageous peace agreement. The reason is that Japan understood how much the war would cost, and she realized that she had reached the temporary limits of her military and economic power. While Japan taxed the public to the point of exhaustion for manpower and money in support of the war, the effort was worth the investment.

Japan fought to secure economic resources in Asia and limit Russian expansion. Having accomplished its war aims, Japan could now complete its evolution from a feudal nation, to an industrial nation, and into a world power. This was possible because Japan defined her objectives, conducting a risk/benefit analysis, and developed a strategy that accomplished those objectives and successfully terminated the war. The quote at the beginning of this article illustrates that winning battles is not enough to secure national objectives. This article also illustrates that winning the media campaign during the peace negotiations is not enough either.


  1. Fuller, William C., Jr., Strategy and Power in Russia, 1600-1914, New York: The Free Press, 1992, p. 367 and Ernest R. Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History, New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 4th Edition, 1993, pp. 948-49 and 1008.
  2. Dupuy and Dupuy, p. 1012.
  3. Palmer, R.R., and Joel Colton, A History of the Modern World, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 6th Edition, 1984, p. 84 and Dupuy and Dupuy, pp. 1011-12.
  4. Mahan, Alfred Thayer, “Retrospect Upon the War Between Japan and Russia,” Naval Administration and Warfare, Boston: Little Brown, 1918, p. 167.
  5. Dupuy and Dupuy, p. 1014.
  6. Konkin, Samuel Edward, book review of Russia Against Japan, 1904-1905: A New Look at The Russo-Japanese War, by J.N. Westwood, The journal for Historical Review, Fall 1987, Vol. 7, No. 3, p. 362.
  7. Kissinger, Henry, Diplomacy, New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1994, p. 42.
  8. Storry, Richard. Japan and the Decline of the West in Asia 1894-1943, New York: St, Martin’s Press, 1979, p. 35.
  9. Fuller, William C., p. 406.
  10. Warner, Denis and Peggy, The Tide at Sunrise: A History of the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905, New York: Charterhouse, 1974, p. 530.

For More Information on the FM website

A related question concerns grand strategy.  Does America need a grand strategy?  If so, what should it be?  Answers to these questions illuminate many of the questions hotly debated about foreign policy and national security.

  1. The Myth of Grand Strategy , 31 January 2006.
  2. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy , 1 March 2006.
  3. America takes another step towards the “Long War” , 24 July 2007.
  4. One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy? , 28 October 2007.
  5. ABCDs for today: About Blitzkrieg, COIN, and Diplomacy , 21 February 2008.
  6. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I , 7 June 2008.
  7. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part II , 14 June 2008.
  8. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past , 30 June 2008  – chapter 1 in a series of notes.
  9. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles , 2 July 2008 — chapter 3.
  10. America’s grand strategy, insanity at work , 7 July 2008 — chapter 4.
  11. The King of Brobdingnag comments on America’s grand strategy, 18 November 2008.
  12. Is America a destabilizing force in the world?, 23 January 2009.
  13. The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”, 13 February 2009.



5 thoughts on “Lessons for America from the Russo-Japanese War”

  1. First off, I can glean from the opening quote that the US can’t win a 4GW or at least has failed in each one it’s waged. Secondly, that we need to have a more humble and rational integration of our ends, ways, and means. The main problem being what are those ends, ways, and means and how to go about it. As well as the problem of our leaders not really being able to plan with long time horizons in mind.

    1. (1) “US can’t win a 4GW or at least has failed in each one it’s waged. ”

      Quite so. Not just us, but almost every foreign army has failed at COIN since Mao brought 4GW to maturity.

      1. More paths to failure in Iraq, 16 December 2006 — Myths about COIN in Iraq
      2. How often do insurgents win? How much time does successful COIN require?, 29 May 2008
      3. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., 21 June 2010 — Boot discusses 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgencies.
      4. A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, 28 June 2010 — Andrew Exum (aka Abu Muqawama) points us to the doctoral dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson in Political Science from Harvard. She examines the present and past analysis of counter-insurgency. This could change the course of American foreign policy, if we pay attention.
      5. A look at the history of victories over insurgents

      (2) “that we need to have a more humble and rational integration of our ends, ways, and means.”

      Agreed. That is one of the great themes of the FM website.

  2. In COIN, getting your army out without a Dien Bien Phu-style debacle is “success.” US COIN strategy, at this time, could best be described as “timing the evacuation so as not to negatively affect the sitting President’s chances of re-election” From a grand strategic standpoint, redefining “defeat” as “victory” works if your defeat or victory on the battlefield is irrelevant as, in the case of Afghanistan, it always has been.

    If Obama gets re-elected, we ought to expect him to move quickly on getting the US out of Afghanistan so that it won’t be hanging over the heads of the next Democrat hopeful to come along. If Romney gets elected, it’d be interesting to see him go for a quick pull-out too, and then say it was necessary because of how mis-managed the war was under Obama. I see the latter as an unlikely scenario (Romney getting elected, that is…)

  3. Oh, the other thing I should have added, with respect to re-defining “success” is the old skeptic’s joke:

    Q: How many legs does a dog have, if you define its tail as a “leg”?
    A: 4. You can call it a “leg” but it’s still a tail.

  4. Pingback: Causes Of Russo-japanese War | Information

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