What Historians Make of James Bradley's Claims About Teddy Roosevelt's Responsibility for Pearl Harbor


Mr. Tremblay is an HNN intern and Breaking News Editor.

James Bradley, in his recent book The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, alleges that President Theodore Roosevelt encouraged Japanese imperialism. Bradley argues that the Taft-Katsura agreement reached between the United States and Japan in 1905 amounted to a ‘secret treaty’ that left the door open to Japanese imperialism in the Far East and even led to the fateful bombing of Pearl Harbor 68 years ago.

Bradley has repeated these arguments in an op ed in the New York Times and in an interview with HNN. Criticism and controversy are building around these claims.


Lewis Gould, author of The Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (1992), told HNN in an email that calling the Taft-Katsura agreement a ‘secret treaty’ as Bradly does is “dead wrong.” In agreement with other scholars in the field,  Gould stated in his book: "The Taft-Katsura Agreement, as it became known during the 1920s, was not a clandestine treaty. There was no bargain as such. The Japanese and Americans had reasserted their positions in temporary partnership as the peacemaking process opened formally in New Hampshire during early August 1905."

Furthermore, fervently contesting the alleged secretive nature of the agreement,  Gould invited us to consult the works of two prominent authors on the subject, Raymond A. Esthus and John Gilbert Reid.  Esthus in his 1966 history, Theodore Roosevelt and Japan, found no significant evidence that the Taft-Katsura agreement involved the secret sacrifice of Korea to the Japanese throne in return for acquiescence in the American possession of the Philippines. Reid, in a scholarly article published in the Pacific Historical Review, “Taft’s Telegram to Root, July 29, 1905,” (Vol.9, No.1 [1940], pp. 66-70),  acknowledged that the agreement was indeed kept secret (for nearly twenty years) but insisted that it did not constitute a treaty and imposed no obligations on the United States. Reid was the first to publish the full telegram, excerpted below, sent by Taft from Tokyo to Secretary of State Elihu Root in Washington following his dealings with his Japanese counterpart: 

The following is agreed memorandum of conversation between Prime Minister of Japan and myself: "Count Katsura and Secretary Taft [foregoing two words deleted] had a long and confidential conversation on the morning of July 27th [not 29, as often stated]. Among other topics of conversations [sic] the following views were exchanged regarding the questions of the Philippine Islands, of Korea, and of the maintenance of general peace in the Far East. "First, inspeaking [sic] of some pro-Russians in America who would have the public believe that the victory of Japan would be a certain prelude to her aggressions in the direction of the Philippine Islands, Secretary Taft observed that Japan's only interest in the Philippines would be, in his opinion, to have these Islands governed by a strong and friendly nation like the United States, and not to have them placed either under the misrule of the natives, yet unfit for self-government, or in the hands of some unfriendly European power. Count Katsura confirmed in the strongest terms the correctness of his [Taft's] views on the point and positively stated that Japan does not harbor any aggressive designs whatever on the Philippines; adding that all the insinuations of the yellow peril type are nothing more or less than malicious and clumsy slanders calculated to do mischief to Japan.

“Second, Count Katsura observed that the maintenance on [sic] general peace in the extreme East forms the fundamental principle of Japan's international policy. Such being the case, he was very anxious to exchange views with Secretary Taft as to the most effective means of insuring this principle. In his own opinion, the best and in fact the only means for accomplishing the above object would be to form good understanding between the three governments of Japan, the United States and Great Britain which have common interest in upholding the principle of eminence [sic]. The Count well understands the traditional policy of the United States in this respect and perceives fully the impossibilities [sic] of their entering into a formal alliance of such nature with any foreign nation, but in view of our common interests he could (?) [not] see why some good understanding or an alliance in practice if not in name should not be made between those three nations insofar as respects the affairs in the far East.

“Third, In [sic] regard to the Korean question, Count Katsura observed that Korea being the direct cause of our [Japan's] war with Russia it is a matter of absolute importance to Japan that a complete solution of the peninsula question should be made as the logical consequence of the war. If left to herself after the war Korea will certainly draw back to her habit of improvidently resuscitating the same international complications as existed before the war. In view of the foregoing circumstances Japan feels absolutely constrained to take some definite step with a view to precluding the possibility of Korea falling back into her former condition and of placing us [Japan] again under the necessity of entering upon another foreign war. Secretary Taft fully admitted the justness of the Count's observations and remarked to the effect that, in his personal opinion, the establishment by Japanese troops of a suzerainty over Korea to the extent of requiring that Korea enter into no foreign treaties without the consent of Japan was the logical result of the present war and would directly contribute to permanent peace in the East. His judgment was that President Roosevelt would concur in his [Taft's] views in this regard, although he [Taft] had no authority to give assurance of this. Indeed Secretary Taft added, that he felt much delicacy in advancing the views he did for he had no mandate for the purpose from the President. …”

Pearl Harbor: “What are the Facts?”

In the HNN interview,  Bradly himself admited his “shock” at learning about the secret agreement between Theodore Roosevelt and Japan. However, some have questioned his particular conclusion that the president’s policy led to the destruction of the Pearl Harbor naval base in December of 1941.

Professor Sadao Asada taught American diplomatic history and the history of Japanese-American Relations at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan for more than 40 years.  In a letter to the editor of the New York Times (unpublished) he disapproved of  Bradley’s assessment:

What are the facts? The agreement in question was a secret"agreed memorandum" negotiated in Tokyo between Secretary of War Taft and Prime Minister Katsura by which the United States approved Japan's"suzerainty over" Korea in return for a Japanese disavowal of any aggressive intentions toward the Philippines. This agreement was not discovered by Bradley but was first unearthed by the Tyler Dennett in his now classical Americans in Eastern Asia (1922).

Some American and Korean historians have criticized Roosevelt's act of"sell-out" of Korea to Japan. They have a case. But to my knowledge no historian worth his salt has maintained that by this agreement TR"emboldened" Japan to expand to the rest of East Asia finally culminating in the Pearl Harbor attack.

Bradley entirely ignores and skips the course of real Japanese aggression from the Manchurian Incident of 1931 to Japan's advance to southern Indochina in 1941. In my view (shared by many of my Japanese colleagues and most of American specialists in TR's diplomacy), the Taft-Katsura Agreement was a part of TR's"realistic" policy of"peaceful coexistence" with Japan based on his sphere-of-influence policy and balance-of-power considerations.

Resorting to counterfactual history, we might even argue that had the United States consistently adhered to TR's legacy in the 1930s and 1941, perhaps there would have been no Pearl Harbor. But for better or worse, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the"soldier of freedom," chose to oppose Japanese aggression.

Is  Bradley worried about the criticism? When HNN contributor Aaron Leonard asked  Bradley if he was concerned with the brickbats that might come his way, he responded: “If anyone can read that book and not come to the conclusion that Theodore Roosevelt made a secret deal with the Japanese over a period of two years -- and was acting as an agent -- it's in his own handwriting.”

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More Comments:

Lewis Bernstein - 12/11/2009

I can only echo the other two writers and add the following--apparently James Bradley is ignorant of the enormous amount of scholarship on his subject in the last half century. This interview and his recent NY Times Op-Ed show that he will judge people of the past according to the mores of the present.

Ken Weisbrode - 12/10/2009

To draw a direct, causal link between Theodore Roosevelt's racial attitudes and the attack at Pearl Harbor isn't worth serious consideration. It's about as valid an argument as the claim that Franklin Roosevelt's feelings toward Ibn Saud were directly responsible for the attacks on 9/11.

If anything "emboldened" the Japanese, it was their own military victories over the Russians. That story--as well as Theodore Roosevelt's--are rich and ought to be retold. It's a shame to cheapen them with collective psychoanalysis or Pearl Harbor headlines.

D. M. Giangreco - 12/9/2009

For TR to "sell out" Korea he would have had to have something to sell. In 1905, America had no ability whatsoever to influence events in Korea. Likewise, Japan could make no move against Philippines that it could sustain for long. It was really just an agreement that when both sides actually had enough power in the region to genuinely threaten each other --- at some unknown time in the future --- that they would leave each other alone. It's relevance did not extend beyond the outbreak of World War I. Of far greater importance was the Washington and London Naval Treaties of 1922 and 1930 respectively.