Looking East

Background of the 1905 Mission to Asia

PH1304 Secretary Taft on Arrival in Manila. August 5, 1905 On July 8, 1905, one of the first and largest U.S. foreign diplomatic delegations to Asia embarked from San Francisco for a three-month goodwill tour, stopping in Japan, the Philippines, and China. Under the leadership of Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, the entourage of thirty-five U.S. congressmen, seven U.S. senators, and a group of civilians included Alice Roosevelt, daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt and the media darling of the era.

Highlighting the Buckeye state's importance in national affairs at the turn of the century, many members of the eighty-three person delegation were Ohioans, including Congressman Nicholas Longworth (then a freshman member who later became Speaker of the House) and Congressman Charles Grosvenor; J.G. Schmidlapp, banker and philanthropist, and his daughter, Charlotte; R. Clough Anderson IV, from a distinguished Cincinnati family; Harry Fowler Woods, businessman and photographer; and Secretary of War William Howard Taft.

From the unprecedented visit of foreigners to the Japanese imperial gardens to their audience with the Dowager Empress, the participants of this trailblazing diplomatic trip to the Far East forged alliances and fomented conflicts that affected the world into the foreseeable future. On board the Manchuria, the amateur photographer Harry Fowler Woods brought along a new technology, portable, hand-held cameras, and he recorded more than 700 photographs during the three-month mission. While many of the photographs by Burr McIntosh, the official trip photographer, tended to be staged, the Woods photographs were generally spontaneous and informal.

Until the appearance of the portable Kodak camera, photography was a field reserved for professionals. Both the introduction of the dry plate negative in 1879 and the new light-weight, hand-held camera in 1888 signaled the beginning of the “snapshot” craze. Woods would later assemble his snapshots in carefully captioned albums and store them in a family hunting camp in the Adirondack Mountains where they remained for nearly a century.

Many of the Woods photographs represent the crucial significance of sea power and the developing technological superiority of the West. For example, a number of his images contrast massive steamers and warships with the delicate frames of indigenous sailing vessels and canoes. In a photograph of two simple, graceful Moro women who hold umbrellas on horseback, the contrast of the bold industrial-age form of the umbrella contrasts with the soft organic surroundings of trees, garments, and horses. Furthermore, the cruise itself was emblematic of America’s emergence as an international force. While historically maintaining an isolationist foreign policy, the United States, under the new policy of expansionism beyond its borders, had only recently moved to dominate distant territories such as Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Guam.

The 1905 voyage carried two serious diplomatic purposes: to assist with peace negotiations in order to end the Russo-Japanese War (1904—05); and to demonstrate American accomplishments in the Philippines. The basic goals of Roosevelt and Taft were to shore up the Open Door Policy in China, advance U. S. trade in Manchuria, and enhance its competitive standing in the Far East. The Harry Fowler Woods 1905 photographs not only illuminate a little known foreign policy trip, but they also mark a major turning point in world history.

Viewed from a historical perspective, some of these photographs portray a defining moment of Western and U. S. history that marked the end of the great European colonial empires and the birth of an American empire. They symbolize America’s newly developing imperial relationship with the rest of the world, and her unique administrative colonial relationship to the Philippines. For his efforts on the Far East mission and for the subsequent Portsmouth peace negotiations, Theodore Roosevelt received the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize. William Howard Taft amassed experience as both the first Civil Philippines governor and as secretary of war that would convince Roosevelt and others of his qualifications for the U.S. presidency. While the encounters portrayed in many of the Woods photographs create an enduring legacy that would play out in unpredictable ways over the following centuries, the Woods photographs themselves provide insights into a significant, but previously neglected diplomatic mission.

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