[April 11, 2020] As I go about my business to teach leadership to young folks, the one complaint I hear often is that history courses are dull and mostly useless. We can and, of course, we should learn and do so quickly, else we are destined to repeat past mistakes. U.S. strategic leaders have learned from them, and one we rarely hear about is the Russo-Japanese War.
In 1905 at the Battle of Tsushima, Russia was dealt its final blow against their navy. Losing fifty of fifty-three ships, the Russians settled the war against Japan with a lopsided agreement. The U.S. took several lessons from the Russo-Japanese War, mostly how Russia was outfought both tactically and strategically.
America’s small navy was split between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Until the early 20th century, it took months to move navy ships from one ocean to the other. In case of war, this risked piecemeal defeat at the hands of a much smaller naval adversary. Leaders searched for a solution, and a shortcut across the land in Central America appeared to have the most practical, yet most difficult, answer.
In his book, Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans, USN (Retired) Admiral James Stavridis wrote about this war and its value to the U.S. in terms of crucial lessons learned. He also noted that the age-old principle of warship captains “striking their colors” and surrendering their ships, as practiced for the last time. When those Russian captains came home, they were court-martialed and sentenced to death. Today, “don’t give up the ship” (the willingness to fight to the end) is the philosophy practiced by the U.S. Navy and most navies.
More importantly, the U.S. learned that the prosperity and independence of our nation depended deeply upon our naval forces. The risk of not being able to concentrate warships quickly was simply too significant to ignore. In 1881, the French attempted to build a canal in what was then Colombia’s province of Panama but found the project to be too difficult.
The U.S. looked upon the French project with renewed vigor. With complex negotiations and a threat of the use of military force, America would soon gain the authority to start the largest engineering project at the time. In 1914, the Isthmus of Panama was crossed and opened to traffic.
Building a canal solved the naval risk that had concerned so many military leaders for so long. This is why the Russo-Japanese War loomed large in the minds of those thinking strategically.