William Howard Taft and the 1905 U.S. Diplomatic Mission to Asia

The Photographs of Harry Fowler Woods

Since the mid-19th century, relations between the United States in the West and Asian countries in the East have been an aggregate of diplomatic miscues and achievements, of trade policy successes and failures, and of cultural chasms and bridges. From the Treaty of Wangxia in 1844 that provided America with trading rights in China on a par with European countries to the contemporary political debates and educational partnerships in nations like Japan, Vietnam, India and China, the element of understanding and appreciating differences has been paramount.

A singular event in this heritage of almost 150 year is the 1905 mission that sent William Howard Taft on a combination trade and culture junket to Asian countries. Occurring just a few years after U.S. Secretary of State’s John Hay’s 1899 Open Door Note that sought to keep China open to equitable trade with all countries, the Taft delegation primarily visited China, Japan, and the Philippines to shore up America’s interests and to learn more about their emerging partners in the new century.

“I am in favor of helping the prosperity of all countries because, when we are all prosperous, the trade of each becomes more valuable to the other.”


—William Howard Taft, in 1909, the first year of his presidency and four years after his diplomatic mission to Asia

William Howard Taft, U.S. Secretary of War in 1905



    At the beginning of the twentieth century, the U.S. Congress enjoyed a summer recess that spanned three months. For many senators and congressmen, the prospect of accompanying Secretary Taft on a peace mission aboard the S.S. Manchuria to such exotic places as Japan, the Philippines, and China must have seemed particularly alluring. Alice Roosevelt celebrated their arrival in San Francisco by shooting off fireworks and taking potshots at telegraph poles from the train platform with her hand-held revolver. It was July 4, 1905, an auspicious beginning to one of America’s first and largest missions to Asia. During the eight years that he was civil governor of the Philippines and Roosevelt’s secretary of war, Taft would travel over 100,000 miles. As a Taft historian, Henry Pringle, noted, “The S.S. Manchuria, steaming westward in July, was a Congressional ark with Taft as its Noah.”

    The Taft party spent four days in San Francisco, which nine months later would be largely destroyed by the legendary 1906 earthquake and fire. On board the Manchuria, the travelers passed time with activities that might seem odd by today’s standards—a mock trial, a sheet and pillow-case party, martial arts demonstrations, evening wagers on the day’s run, and fancy dress parties. They also listened to lectures including a series of talks on the Philippines, played bridge, and walked miles around the deck.

    After the Taft party left San Francisco, they steamed across the Pacific for five days, briefly stopping in Honolulu, marking America’s recent takeover of the Hawaiian Islands. Their annexation in 1898 initiated the United States as a Pacific power. Here, the U.S. authorities staged a seventeen-gun salute for Secretary Taft and his party. Although their stopover was just for twelve hours, they managed to visit Pearl Harbor, tour a sugar plantation, and observe a hula dance. Alice Roosevelt almost missed the boat and delayed their departure.

  2. JAPAN

    An undisclosed goal of the 1905 trip was to prepare for the final negotiations of the Portsmouth Peace Treaty that President Theodore Roosevelt would broker in September to end the Russo-Japanese War. In a July 27th discussion, Count Katsura, the Japanese premier and Secretary Taft agreed to an arrangement that would allow the Japanese to dominate Korea in exchange for Japan’s promise to stay away from the Philippines.The S.S. Manchuria docked at Yokohama, Japan, with every building in that city decked out in the Taft party’s honor. They were greeted with salvos of “Ohio,” the Japanese salutation. Possibly in anticipation of the Portsmouth Peace Treaty, the reception for the Taft party was extraordinary with generous expressions of hospitality including fireworks that lit up the nights and extravagant receptions. The Taft party took a special train to Tokyo where they were met by high officials and Japanese royalty.

    After staying overnight at the Shiba Detached Palace, Secretary Taft and his group had lunch with the emperor, who greeted and individually shook each person’s hand. The Taft group toured the palace gardens, a place which no Westerners and very few Japanese had ever seen.

    The following day the prime minister requested an interview with Taft, and at that famous meeting, the agreements on the continuing American authority in the Philippines in exchange for Japan’s suzerainty over Korea were framed.

    Following the signing of the Portsmouth Peace Treaty on September 5, 1905, the mood of the Japanese people changed almost overnight. Upon her return from China, Ms. Roosevelt was advised to pretend that she hailed from England to avoid the ire of the populace. The Japanese had sought a large indemnity from Russia; President Roosevelt was blamed for thwarting this. Rioting was quelled only by aggressive military action. Irresponsible journalism and overly zealous politicians had apparently coalesced to ignite the emotions of the public and create unrealistic expectations about the fruits of Japan’s victory over Russia.


    After prevailing in the Spanish-American War (April to August, 1898), the United States would dominate the Philippines until World War II. When Taft departed as the first civil Philippines governor (1900—03), rumblings of the archipelago’s discontent had increased under Luke Wright, Taft’s successor. Roosevelt vested Secretary Taft and his 1905 delegation with the responsibility of re-invigorating confidence in the American government’s ability to prepare the Filipinos for eventual independence. The delegation also reviewed the economic condition of the Philippines.

    During Taft’s governorship, schools were constructed and opened, harbors and highways were expanded, sanitation was improved, fairer taxes were levied, and civil graft was all but eliminated. The development of a new political structure included the revising of civil and criminal codes. Taft was concerned with eliminating illiteracy, and he also engaged the Spanish friars for land reform. Though he held steadfast to his belief that they were not yet prepared for independence, Taft had promised the Filipino people that their welfare would be one of his primary concerns as secretary of war.

    Under Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt, maintaining peace in the Philippines was viewed as a necessity by many Americans in the struggle to strengthen their presence in China. The administrative colonization of the Philippines represented America’s first and last experiment in administrative colonial rule and reflected her new status as a world power.

    After spending a week in festivities in Manila, the Taft party went ashore at Iloilo in a fleet of launches which passed the triumphal arch. A procession demonstrated primitive Filipino agricultural and transportation technology, perhaps to show their difficulty in competing in the sugar market with the United States.

    While visiting Jolo in mid-August, the Taft party met the sultan of Sulu and attended Moro games, including a “field day of sports”—sham battles, a bull fight, native dances, and a military ball attended by the sultan. The Moro warriors had been traditionally viewed as fierce, unruly combatants who were a constant irritant during the recent Spanish domination of the Philippines. Soon after the 1905 trip, the Moros launched the “Battle of the Clouds,” a bloody offensive which from their perspective was a battle to retain their way of life against the “civilizing” efforts of the Americans. The Taft party stopped off at Cebu, Tacloban, Albay, and Sorsogon before returning to Manila for a few days of farewell events.

  4. CHINA

    As the Western powers advanced into China in the late 1800s and carved it up into “spheres of influence,” China lost much of the territory it had acquired during the previous two centuries, including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Korea. These humiliating losses led to a series of rebellions against the Qing dynasty, and it ultimately collapsed. While Secretary of State John Hay and the Americans described an Open Door Policy which would ensure equal trading rights for all nations within China, the Chinese rebel “Boxers” marauded through the countryside, slaughtering missionaries and attacking Christian missions. Encouraged by the Empress Dowager Cixi to drive out “foreign devils,” they soon attacked foreigners in Beijing and the Forbidden City. The Boxer Rebellion was finally quelled in 1900.

    During her audience with the Empress Dowager, Alice Roosevelt described the impressive and cruel power of the tyrannical ruler contrasted with the young emperor who huddled in a drug-induced stupor, devastated by an opium addiction then ravaging the country since the drug’s arrival through trade with the British. Eight bearers carried Miss Roosevelt through the imperial gardens in a yellow tasseled chair. In 1905 some groups in China were engaged in an active boycott of American goods in an effort to change discriminatory U.S. immigration laws.

    After taking a transport to Hong Kong, the Taft party attended a ball at the Hong Kong Club. At the race track, they watched riders mounted on native ponies. Aside from regular races, the party viewed a rickshaw-race, egg-and-spoon races, and other gymkhana events.

    From Hong Kong to a brief interlude in Canton, Taft attended meetings on the Chinese boycott of American goods, but none of the women in the party were allowed off a gunboat due to the magnitude of anti-American feelings. Back in Hong Kong, the delegation split up. Alice Roosevelt, Nicholas Longworth, Harry F. Woods, and others went to Beijing. The rest of the party with Secretary Taft sailed to Shanghai on the Korea. While in Shanghai, Taft received news of riots in Tokyo which he attributed to dissatisfaction with the Japanese ministers who negotiated the Portsmouth Peace Treaty and excessive police interference with the protestors.

    On a transport through the Yellow Sea, the remaining group including the Newlands, Nicholas Longworth, Bourke Cockran, and Harry Fowler Woods landed at Tientsin and went directly to Beijing. Alice Roosevelt and her group drove by rickshaws to the Temple of Heaven and then to the summer palace where they had an audience with the Empress Dowager.