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Rabbit a la Roosevelt
In early May, Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a measure prohibiting Chinese nationals from purchasing land in the state. DeSantis described the law as essential to preventing the Chinese Communist Party from infiltrating Florida. “Today, Florida makes it very clear we don’t want the CCP in the Sunshine State,” he said. “We want to maintain this as the free state of Florida.” DeSantis provided no evidence that Floridians were actually endangered by Chinese communism, but he was preparing to announce his candidacy for the 2024 Republican nomination for president, and he appeared to believe that China-bashing would play well with Republican voters.
A century earlier similar posturing had occurred on the opposite side of the country. California politicians gearing up for 1906 state and congressional elections targeted immigration from Japan as the peril from which voters required protection. With federal help the Californians had already forbidden most Chinese immigration, but Japanese nationals entered America under a loophole. For decades large numbers of Japanese workers had emigrated from Japan to independent Hawaii, which the United States annexed in 1898. The annexation carried Hawaii and its residents, including those Japanese workers, across the legal frontier of immigration, allowing them to move freely to California and other American states.
Californians, having succeeded in barring the Chinese, found themselves facing a new wave of workers who, they judged, threatened their livelihoods by a willingness to work for low wages. Because treaties trump federal statutes, the Californians couldn’t appeal to Congress, the way they had in excluding the Chinese. Nor could they expect sympathy from the executive branch, headed by Theodore Roosevelt, an admirer of Japanese generally and a hardline opponent of intrusion by state officials—or anyone, for that matter—upon his prerogatives in conducting American diplomacy.
So the Californians pulled a DeSantis move. With backing from the state government, the San Francisco school board ordered the segregation of Asian schoolchildren into something called the Oriental Public School. Chinese and Korean kids were included in the order, but the governments of China and Korea were beset by other problems at the moment and unable to protest effectively. The government of Japan, however, full of itself from having thrashed China in war and imposing its will on Korea by threat of force, not to mention having just smacked Russia militarily, expressed its outrage that Japanese in California were being treated no better than Chinese and Koreans.
Roosevelt didn’t really care who went to which school in San Francisco, but he cared very much about the insult the Californians were conveying to Tokyo and the damage the insult might do to America’s national interests. The American annexation of the Philippines in 1899 had seemed to Japanese strategists a move to keep Japan from expanding southward, as indeed it was in part. Japanese militants were talking about war against America. Roosevelt himself had been a war hawk in the 1890s and an enthusiast of American expansion across the Pacific, but as president he discovered that most Americans were less gung-ho. He couldn’t persuade Congress to fund the defense of the Philippines adequately, with the result that he chose diplomacy over force. He mediated an end to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, and he hoped to prevent the outbreak of another conflict, especially one involving the United States. The antics of the Californians, combined with the fire-breathing of the hotheads in Tokyo, made his job more difficult. “I am perfectly willing that this nation should fight any nation if it has got to,” he told his son Kermit, “but I would loathe to see it forced into a war in which it was wrong.”
Roosevelt’s problem was that he had little leverage over the Californians. They were playing to a local audience which cheered the slap at the Japanese. The president tried to explain this to Kaneko Kentaro, with whom he had worked in negotiations to end the Russo-Japanese War. “Our form of government, which has many advantages, has some disadvantages, and one of them is in dealing with movements like this,” Roosevelt said.
He did what he could. He summoned California’s congressional delegation and lectured its members on their duty to the country, above the prejudices of their constituents. He wrote to the governor of California, James Gillett, explaining that the national government had been working quietly with the government of Japan to secure an informal agreement that would keep additional Japanese workers from emigrating to America. “The National Government has met with only one difficulty in securing this object,” Roosevelt told Gillett, “and that is the difficulty caused by these foolish or designing agitators who most loudly repeat the cry of Japanese exclusion at the very moment that they are doing all they can to prevent its becoming a fact.” The Japanese government couldn’t abandon its principles in the face of the public insults coming from California. But if the Californias would simply shut up, they might get what they wanted.
Ah, for those quainter times. Roosevelt’s appeal to national interest had the desired effect. Governor Gillett enlisted allies in the California senate, who reined in the worst of the Japan-baiters. The San Francisco school board revised its policy for immigrant children, focusing on facility in English or lack of same rather than national origin in placing the students. Within weeks what came to be called the Gentlemen’s Agreement was concluded. America would not discriminate against Japanese in immigration or domestic policy, and Japan would prevent further emigration to America. The threat of war passed.
It’s hard to imagine Joe Biden having any such luck today with Ron DeSantis. Nor is Biden’s problem solely with governors or Republicans. Last year Democrat Nancy Pelosi, then speaker of the House, ignored administration pleas not to visit Taiwan. Biden was trying to maintain a delicate balance in relations with China, over issues including Taiwan. Pelosi’s freelancing damaged Biden’s credibility and riled “wolf warriors” in China who contend that America aims to tear Taiwan from China’s grasp. Their shouts provoked American counterparts who proclaim that China is bent on world domination.
The Gentlemen’s Agreement bought America time with Japan, but not eternity. New issues emerged during the 1930s, culminating in the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet in the world of diplomacy, thirty-five years of peace counts as a big win and something worth emulating. Many of those who today fear war between the United States and China would consider a new Gentleman’s Agreement, between America and China, a godsend.
There’s just one thing. The proverbial first step in making rabbit stew is catching the rabbit. The first step toward a new Gentleman’s Agreement is finding gentlemen. Posterity should wish us luck; we’ll need it.