The American Diplomat Responsible for the Pacific War

Introduction

Walk softly but carry a big stick is a South African axiom most often attributed to former President Theodore Roosevelt.  I find no fault in this adage because I believe that a quiet voice is more respected than a loud bully tone, and when reinforced by a no-nonsense foreign policy, the world becomes much safer for everyone.  The saying, along with President Washington’s sage advice —beware of foreign entanglements — should be the foundation of American foreign policy, but that has not been our diplomatic history.  We are forever involving the American people in foreign affairs that are really none of our business.

Over many years, I have developed a low opinion of diplomats, generally, because their fatuousness has cost the American people dearly in material wealth and the loss of loved-ones.  And, or so it seems, US diplomats never seems to learn any worthwhile lessons from the past.  Worse, diplomats never answer for their ghastly mistakes.  If it is true that military intervention is the product of failed diplomacy, then all one has to do to reach my conclusions (about American diplomacy) is count the number of our country’s wars.

There is no reason to maintain a strong, technologically superior force structure if we never intend to use it.  The decision to employ our military is, of course, a political question.  Once the question has been answered, the military’s civilian masters should step back, out of the way, and allow the military to achieve our national objectives — which hopefully have something to do with national defense.  If the American people must give up a single soldier or sailor to military action, then the United States should walk away from the conflict with something to show for having made that sacrifice.  This has not been case in every conflict.

Background

On 3 July 1853, US warships under the command of Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed into Tokyo Harbor; their arrival threw the Empire of Japan into turmoil.  The purpose of Perry’s visit was to end Japan’s long practiced isolationist policies.  The Tokugawa Shogunate (government) initially had no interest in meeting with Commodore Perry, but a modest demonstration of the U. S. Navy’s firepower convinced the Japanese that it could be in their national interests to at least hear what the Americans had to say.  Negotiations were proceeding well enough, after a rough beginning, but before they could be concluded, the Shogun (generalissimo), Tokugawa Ieyoshi, died of a stroke.  Whether Commodore Perry’s unexpected visit contributed to Ieyoshi’s death is unknown, but he was soon replaced by his physically weak son Iesada[1].

Soon after Perry’s agreement with the Shogunate to open its ports to American ships for purposes of reprovisioning ships and trade, Great Britain, Russia, and other European powers imposed their own treaties upon the Japanese.  Since Iesada was physically unable to participate in negotiations with foreigners, the task was assigned to the rōjū (elder[2]) Abe Masahiro.  Rather than participate in this national embarrassment, Masahiro also resigned, replaced by Hotta Masayoshi.  Masayoshi was responsible for the treaties negotiated with the United States, United Kingdom, and Russia — collectively known as the “unequal treaties.”

These treaties were regarded as unequal because they stipulated that Japan must allow foreign citizens to visit and reside in Japan, because they prohibited the Japanese from imposing tariffs on imported goods, and because the treaties exempted foreigners from the jurisdiction of Japanese justice courts. When senior samurai became aware of these unequal treaties, radically nationalist/anti-foreign disturbances erupted throughout Japan.  In a short time, the entire nation was wracked with unrest.

If this mischief wasn’t enough, between 4-7 November 1854, the Nankaido earthquakes and tsunamis killed 80,000 Japanese.  This horrific incident was followed by the Tokai earthquake on 23 December with destruction from Edo (Tokyo) to Tokai — a distance of 210 miles, killing an additional 10,000 people.  These were natural occurrences, of course, but superstitious samurai leaders viewed them as a demonstration of the gods’ displeasure with the Shogunate.  Meanwhile, on 14 August 1858, Iesada died from Cholera.  His replacement was Tokugawa Iemochi — who at the time was twelve years old.  Meanwhile, rōjū Masayoshi continued to run the show.

Iemochi died in 1866; he was 22 years old.  His son, 3-year-old Tokugawa Iesato was next in line to become Shogun.  The nation was in crisis and needed adult leadership.  For this reason, the rōjū bypassed Iesato and chose Tokugawa Yoshinobu to serve as Shogun.  Yoshinobu was the fifteenth and last Tokugawa shogun (and the only Tokugawa that never entered Edo Castle).  With civil unrest unraveling the country, Yoshinobu too resigned his office and retired to the countryside.  At that point, the Japanese had emptied out their closet of potential leaders.  In that year, 1868, radical samurai convinced the 15-year old Emperor Meiji to end the Tokugawa shogunate and assume power in his own right.  It is referred to in history as the Meiji Restoration.

The royal family moved from the traditional home of the Emperor in Kyoto (Western Gate) to Edo and changed its name to Tokyo (Eastern Gate).  While the Emperor was restored to political power and assumed nominal power, the most powerful men in Japan were the Meiji oligarchs, senior samurai from Chōshū and Satsuma provinces.

The Meiji Oligarchs wanted Japan to become a modern nation-state — one technologically equal to the western nations that had caused so much civil unrest in Japan.  The oligarchs included such men as Okubo Toshimichi and Saigo Takamori (of the Satsuma Clan) and Kido Takayoshi, Ito Hirobumi, and Yamagata Aritomo from Chōshū.  Among the emperor’s first edicts was the abolishment of the old Edo class structure.  The great lords of Japan and all of their feudal domains became provinces with governors who answered to the emperor.  After this, the Japanese government began the process of modernization.  In less than ten years, the Meiji government confronted another internal upheaval, known as the Satsuma Rebellion, a revolt of disaffected samurai against the modernization efforts of the Emperor Meiji.  Change is never easy.

Chinese Diplomacy

On 12 March 1867, the American merchant ship Rover, while en route from Swatow, China to Newchwang, struck a submerged reef off the coast of Formosa, (also, Taiwan) near the modern-day city of Hengchun.  The ship’s captain, Joseph Hunt, his wife Mercy, and twelve surviving crewman made it to shore only to be massacred by Paiwan natives, the aboriginal people of Formosa.  The Paiwan were fiercely protective of their land and this violent behavior was a revenge killing for earlier depredations by foreign sailors.

When the United States Minister to China, Anson Burlingame, learned of the incident, he ordered his subordinate serving closest to Formosa to investigate.  Burlingame’s subordinate was Charles Guillaum Joseph Émile LeGendre (1830-1899), who served as Consul General in Fujian Province of the Qing Empire.  As Consul General, Legendre was responsible for matters involving United States interests in and around five treaty ports facilitating US trade with China.  LeGendre took an interest in and helped to suppress the illegal trade in coolies (peasant workers) and indentured laborers working on American-flagged ships.  LeGendre was known as a compassionate man.

LeGendre, who was born and raised in France, had the good fortune to marry a woman whose father was an influential New York lawyer.  Through this marriage, LeGendre migrated to the United States and took up residence in the City of New York.

Charles LeGendre 1864

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, 31-year old LeGendre helped recruit young men for service with the 51st New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment.  His recruiting success earned him a commission as a major in the US volunteers.  During the war, LeGendre fought with distinction in several campaigns, was twice wounded, and eventually retired from military service.  In recognition of his courage under fire, the US volunteer army discharged him as a brevet brigadier general.  LeGendre, despite his physical wounds, was an ambitious man.  In 1866, President Andrew Johnson appointed LeGendre to serve as Consul General in China.

In compliance with his instructions to investigate the Rover Incident, LeGendre traveled to Fukien and Chekiang for the purpose of petitioning the Chinese governors-general for their assistance in obtaining guarantees for the safety of American sailors shipwrecked off the coast of China.  The governor-general of Fujian had a better idea — rather than taking direct action himself, he granted LeGendre permission to travel to Formosa and plead his case directly to the island’s governor-general[3].  Action passed (to others) is action complete — Time Management 101.

LeGendre soon learned that the Paiwan natives were barbaric and hostile to all foreigners.  During his investigation, he also learned about the Chinese shuffle, which was how Chinese officials avoided responsibility for unseemly events transpiring within their areas of authority.  The Chinese governor of Formosa actually did not control much of the island — only the small western plain; the Paiwan natives controlled the entire southern region.

When LeGendre’s efforts on Formosa failed[4] the United States government decided to mount a military punitive expedition against the Paiwan natives.  Responsibility for conducting this expedition fell to Rear Admiral Henry Bell, US Navy.  A force of sailors and Marines were organized under Commander George E. Belknap, USN with Lieutenant Commander Alexander S.  MacKenzie serving as executive officer.  Captain James Forney, USMC commanded 31 Marines from USS Hartford, and 12 Marines from USS Wyoming.

Several problems hindered the Belknap Expedition from its beginning.  First, the force was too small for operations in such a large area.  Next, the men were not accustomed to the high humidity of Taiwan and heat exhaustion overwhelmed them as they hacked their way into the dense jungle.  Because the thick foliage easily concealed the island’s hostile defenders, Belknap’s men became sitting ducks for vicious attacks.  When the Paiwan natives opened fire for the first time, LCdr MacKenzie was one of several Americans instantly killed.  Commander Belknap ordered his force to withdraw, and the so-called punitive expedition ended.  Captain Forney’s journal eventually found its way back to HQ Marine Corps where it was later incorporated into what eventually became the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual[5].  This may have been the expedition’s only positive note.

Upon LeGendre’s return to South China, he persuaded the governor of Foochow to send a large military expedition to Formosa.  LeGendre recommended a force of 400-500 men, but the governor reasoned that he could achieve his goals with fewer men.  The Chinese expedition departed for Formosa in July 1867.  Admiral Bell denied LeGendre’s request for a gunboat to assist in the Chinese expedition, so LeGendre chartered SS Volunteer and made his way to Formosa, informing Burlingame that he intended to observe the action.  Upon arrival, however, LeGendre assumed command of the Chinese force.  How he accomplished this is unknown.  What made the Chinese expedition difficult was that the Chinese had to first construct a road into the interior.  Ultimately, LeGendre turned to British diplomat William A. Pickering[6] to help broker a treaty with the Paiwan natives for the protection of American and European shipwrecked sailors.

In early September 1871, a merchant ship from the Ryukyu Islands[7] (present-day Okinawa) was wrecked off the coast of Formosa.  Paiwan natives, as they had with the Rover, massacred the ship’s surviving 54 crewmen.  The treaty brokered by LeGendre and Pickering only applied to shipwrecked Americans and Europeans, not to other Asians.  In February 1872, LeGendre (believing that the Ryukyu Islands belonged to Japan — see note 7) returned to Formosa and attempted to have the earlier treaty extended to include shipwrecked Japanese sailors.  LeGendre’s mission failed once more when the Paiwan natives refused to extend the treaty.  LeGendre’s meddling upset the Chinese government, and this placed LeGendre at odds with his superior.  Minister Burlingame ordered LeGendre to return to the United States.  In December 1872, while en route to the United States, LeGendre stopped off at Yokohama, Japan (a treaty port in Tokyo Bay, south of Tokyo).

Toward Japanese Imperialism

While in Yokohama, LeGendre met with Charles DeLong, the United States Minister to Japan.  It may be remembered, by some, that DeLong was the diplomat who first announced to the Japanese government that the United States was pleased to recognize Japanese sovereignty over the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa) – an interesting revelation for two reasons: first, because insofar as the Chinese were concerned, the Ryukyu Islands was a sovereign territory of China; second, because it provides some clarity about the ineptness of the US Diplomatic Corps — which unhappily continues to plague the US State Department.

Minister DeLong introduced Charles LeGendre to Japan’s foreign minister, Soejima Taneomi[8]There could not have been a more portentous meeting in the early days of the Meiji Era because it was this former Army brigadier turned diplomat who, having been hired by the Meiji government as an advisor to the foreign ministry, first gave the Japanese government the idea that it had a moral responsibility to expand its empire through colonization.  Japanese expansionism ultimately led to war with China (1894, 1931, 1937), with Russia (1904), Korea (1910), and with the United Kingdom and United States (1941).

LeGendre’s involvement in the Rover Affair and the issue of the shipwrecked Ryukyu ship interested Soejima.  As Soejima’s hired advisor, LeGendre provided a wealth of information about Formosa’s Paiwan natives, the geography of the island, the difficulty of two military expeditions, and likely, LeGendre’s own view about how Chinese officials reacted to both incidents.  Minister Soejima subsequently organized a diplomatic mission to China, which included LeGendre, which took place in 1873.  Soejima’s first achievement was that he was able to meet personally with the Qing Emperor, Emperor Tongzhi.  As it turned out, meeting with China’s Emperor was Soejima’s only success.

The Qing Emperor emphasized to Soejima that the 1871 incident was an internal matter, emphasizing that it was of no concern to the Japanese because Formosa was part of China’s Fujian Province.  Moreover, insofar as the Ryukyu sailors were concerned, the Ryukyu Kingdom was a vassal state of China.  Wisely ignoring China’s assertion that Formosa and the Ryukyu Island were Chinese territories, Minister Soejima argued that several of  the crewmen were Japanese from Okayama Province.  He suggested that it would be proper for China to pay a just compensation for the death of the Japanese sailors.  When the meeting ended, Tongzhi rejected Soejima’s request for compensation because, he said, the Paiwan natives were beyond the control of Chinese officials.

Tongzhi had said too much.  His claim that China exercised no control of the Paiwan natives opened the door for the Meiji government to take other actions.  Both LeGendre and a French legal advisor Gustave Émile Boissonade de Fontarabie[9] urged Japan to initiate a military response.  Once again, LeGendre proved useful to Soejima in formulating plans for a Japanese military punitive operation.  The Japanese hired two additional Americans as advisors to the Japanese foreign ministry: James Wasson[10] and Douglas Cassel[11].  US Minister John Bingham, who had replaced DeLong, objected to both Wasson and Cassel because he felt that their involvement with the Japanese government would violate American neutrality and place the United States in a difficult position with other Asian nations.

Between 1866-73, Japan was faced with several natural disasters and civil upheavals.  Emperor Meiji was hesitant to authorize a military expedition to Formosa.  Meiji also discarded Soejima’s suggestion for a Japanese invasion of Korea.  Soejima promptly resigned his office.

Owing to Japan’s internal difficulties, Meiji delayed the Formosa expedition until 1874.  Japan’s prime minister assigned the expedition to Saigō Tsugumichi.  His publicly announced mission was three-fold: (1) ascertain the facts surrounding the violence committed against Japan’s countrymen; (2) punish the wrong-doers, and (3) ensure that such violence would not reoccur.

The Prime Minister’s private instructions to Saigō were more specific.  After discovering the facts of the matter, Saigō must first consider employing peaceful means to lead “the natives toward civilization.”  He must try “to establish a profitable enterprise.”  If these measures fail, only then was Saigō authorized to use punishing force against them.  Note: it is one thing to translate the Japanese language into English, but quite another to establish clever nuance from those words.  Historians specializing in such matters suggest that Saigō’s instructions were very likely influenced by Charles LeGendre.

Within the historic context of the Taiwan affair, we discover (not for the first time) Japan’s interest in broader objectives: imperial expansionism and establishing a regional influence in East Asia.  The Meiji government’s expedition to Taiwan was a “re-start” of Japanese expansionism[12] — this time, however, adapted to America’s quest for manifest destiny (which the Japanese later called their Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere (1931)).  Historians again claim that LeGendre’s fingerprints are all over Japan’s expansionistic long-term modernization plan.  The expedition proceeded despite objections by UK and US ministers.

The invasion began on 6 May, led by Douglas Cassel to select a beachhead. Four days later, Japanese troops went ashore.  On 15 May, Cassel petitioned the head of the Island’s sixteen southern tribes to hear Saigō’s proposals.  The Paiwan chieftain, named Issa, identified the Island’s Botan tribe as the trouble-makers and, since the Botan people were out of his control, granted his permission for the Japanese to punish them.

Whether Issa was playing fast and loose with the Japanese is unknown.  What is known is that a series of confrontations evolved with casualties on both sides — and so it went until July when an outbreak of malaria wrecked the Japanese expeditionary force.  Ultimately, the Japanese agreed to withdraw from Taiwan after the Chinese government agreed to pay Japan an indemnity amounting to around 18.7 tonnes of  silver.  In total, the Japanese lost 12 men killed in action, 30 men wounded, and 560 dead due to disease.  Both Wasson and Cassel came down with malaria, as well.  Cassel was returned to his home in Ohio where he died from the disease nine months later.

Some historians claim that Japan’s invasion was a failure; other say that given China’s indemnity, it was an unparalleled success.  The latter claim appears valid for several reasons.  First, when China attempted to subdue the Paiwan natives in 1875, the natives defeated the Chinese, and this sent a signal to the Japanese that China was unable to exert its control over areas claimed as part of their empire.  Second, Japan supplanted Chinese influence in the Ryukyu Islands.  Third, China acknowledged Japan’s claim of seeking only to “civilize” barbarian societies — for the greater good of all mankind, and the Japanese were emboldened to exert their influence throughout the Far East region.   

The Meiji government demonstrated its focused interest in learning about western thought, not only by hiring foreign advisors to guide government functionaries, but also by the fact that at one time, nearly every Meiji cabinet official went abroad to study the Americans, English, Dutch, and Germans.  Within two decades, one will discover that the Imperial Japanese Navy was modeled almost exclusively on the British Royal Navy, and the Imperial Japanese Army modeled on Imperial Germany.

From the time when Soejima hired LeGendre in 1872, the Japanese wasted no time employing westerners to help modernize Japan and expand its influence throughout the Far East.  Japanese officials exchanged volumes of correspondence relating to “western thought” and sharing their analyses of information collected by Japanese spies dispatched throughout the United States and Europe.  At no time did the Japanese take their eye off the prize: implementing their own form of manifest destiny.  Charles LeGendre was part of this correspondence group — and we know this because his letters remain available to researchers through primary and secondary sources.

LeGendre’s papers offer several insights into the long-term objectives of Meiji Japan.  The Japanese challenged China’s claim of sovereignty over Taiwan and Okinawa — which they did most effectively, particularly with China’s help.  China’s claims and diplomatic arguments were at best ambiguous and at all times beyond their ability to reinforce with military power.  Secondly, the Japanese sought to impress the western powers and establish their diplomatic bona fides among them, which they accomplished by hiring western advisors, paying them a fortune for their services, and flattering them with prestigious awards.  Japan had begun to negotiate treaties and relationships based on western logic — which the western power fully understood.

The issue of sovereignty over Taiwan and Okinawa demonstrate the differences in how China and Japan addressed the challenges of western imperialism.  The Japanese gave the impression of fully incorporating western influence but limited foreign presence in Japan; the Chinese persistently resisted the foreign devils who took what they wanted anyway.  Japan became an ally; China was always the antagonist — even though both countries relied to some extent on foreign employees/advisors to modernize their military forces.

The foreign advisors in both countries belonged to a small club; they all knew each other, shared information about their clients without qualm, and nearly all of them were in some way associated with treaty ports in both China and Japan.

We must therefore recognize the efforts of Charles LeGendre — at least to some degree — for Japan’s developing interests in Taiwan and Okinawa and the beginning of an ever-widening interest by the Japanese in all of East Asia[13].  Accordingly, or at least I so believe, the American brigadier-turned-diplomat Charles LeGendre was at least indirectly responsible for Japan’s aggressive behavior over the following fifty years.  He preached colonialism to the Japanese, and they accepted it and adapted it to their own purposes.  “Leading the natives to civilization” thereafter became a Japanese codeword for Imperial domination and it could not have been tendered at a better time in Japan’s long history.

Subsequently, the United States lost its corporate memory of Charles LeGendre — but what he accomplished while in the employ of the Japanese government had a lasting impact on US-Japanese relations through 1945.  By extension, we might also note that LeGendre was indirectly responsible for 8.4 million deaths in the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II.

Conclusion

Charles Guillaum Joseph Émile LeGendre may have been a compassionate man.  His motivation to involve himself as an advisor to the Japanese Imperial government may have been well-intentioned.  The result, however, was disastrous for well-over 8 million people.  Compassion, without a healthy dose of reality, more often than not leads to great sorrow.  America’s diplomatic corps has never learned this worthwhile lesson.

Sources:

  1. Bender, A., and others.  Taiwan.  Lonely Planet Publishers, 2004.
  2. Fix, D. L. and John Shufelt.  Charles W. LeGendre: Notes of Travel in Formosa.  London: Cambridge Press, 2013.
  3. Tartling, N.  A Sudden Rampage: The Japanese Occupation of Southeast Asia, 1941-1945.  Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001.

Endnotes:

[1] Historians think he may have suffered from cerebral palsy.

[2] The elder of the shogunate was ranked just below the Shogun in power and prestige.

[3] Chinese officials were not known for have a great deal of patience with foreign envoys.  In granting LeGendre permission to proceed to Formosa, it might have been that the governor-general of Fujian hoped the American would receive a similar fate.  In those days, the Formosans were as easy to get along with as Texas Comanches.

[4] As the governor-general of Fujian likely suspected it would.

[5] The Small Wars Manual provided information and guidance on tactics and strategies for engaging certain types of military operations.

[6] Pickering had served for ten years in Hong Kong as Chinese Maritime Customs Supervisor.  He spoke many Chinese dialects and was very useful in dealing with obstinate Chinese officials.

[7] The Ryukyu Kingdom was a tributary state of China.  The location of the islands made the kingdom an important location for maritime trade between East Asia and Southeast Asia.  What made the Ryukyu Island kingdom unusual was that both China and Japan considered the Ryukyu king a vassal to their empires.

[8] Soejima was a student of the English language and a scholar who focused on the United States Constitution and the New Testament.  During the Boshin War, he was a military leader who was committed to the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate and restoration of Imperial rule in Japan.  Soejima was the lead negotiator in the mission to Beijing to protest the murder of 54 crewmen of a Ryukyuan merchant ship by Paiwan (Formosan) aborigines. 

[9] Fontarabie was responsible for drafting most of Japan’s legal codes during the Meiji Era.

[10] James Wasson was a Civil War veteran who later obtained an appointment to the USMA.  Graduating in 1871, and having established a close friendship with Frederick Grant, the President’s son, Wasson was appointed to serve as a secretary to the American Diplomatic Legation in Japan, 1871-72.  After serving in this capacity, he returned to the United States to resign his commission and then accepted the employment in Japan as a surveyor.  In 1874, Japan commissioned Wasson a colonel of engineers and in this capacity, he participated in Japan’s invasion of Taiwan.

[11] Douglas Cassel was a veteran naval officer who, while serving on active duty with the Asiatic Squadron, was granted a  leave of absence to serve as a  naval advisor to the Meiji government.  Cassel, as it turned out, was an abrasive man who found much fault with the Japanese and did not hesitate to express his misgivings over the Japanese inability to relinquish their samurai ways and adopted a more modern approach to naval warfare.

[12] In 1592, the Japanese samurai and daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi — regarded as the second great unifier of Japan, led an expedition to the Korean Peninsula with the intent of conquering the Korean people.  This expedition involved two separate wars.  The first begun in 1592 (the Imjin Disturbance), a truce in 1596, and in 1597 (the Chongyu War).  The contest ended in a stalemate and the Japanese forces were withdrawn in 1598.

[13] In his lengthy negotiations with Chinese authorities over the Rover Incident LeGendre urged the Chinese to assume responsibility for civilizing the Paiwan natives.  LeGendre believed that China’s failure to assume the undertaking would lay the groundwork for any other civilized country to civilize these barbarians.  I cannot say whether LeGendre was a cynic or simply idealistic, but it would appear that he believed that the Paiwan natives deserved someone to bring them into the light — and if the Chinese wouldn’t do it, then perhaps the Japanese should.