This closing phase of Grant’s journey proved important as he became the first ex-president to undertake personal diplomacy abroad. Meeting with Prince Kung, the Chinese regent and de facto head of state, he touted the benefit of railroads and warned against excessive reliance on foreign debt. Then the prince directed Grant’s attention to the fate of the Loo Choo (Ryukyu) Islands over which Japan and China had sparred for control, a conflict that had brought them to the brink of war. The Japanese had deposed the local sovereign and occupied the islands and Prince Kung wanted Grant’s aid in reversing this. At first Grant begged off as someone out of office. “But we all know how vast your influence must be,” the prince urged, “not only upon your people at home, but upon all nations who know what you have done.” Acknowledging that war between China and Japan would be a grave misfortune, Grant volunteered to serve as mediator between the two nations during his stop in Japan, invoking the Alabama settlement as his model. “An arbitration between nations . . . satisfies the conscience of the world, and must commend itself more and more as a means of adjusting disputes,” he declared.
The Grants steamed toward Japan aboard the Richmond in mid-June and at their first port of call, Nagasaki, received a twenty-one-gun salute—Julia’s gold standard—in the harbor. Emissaries of the emperor escorted them to a fifty-course meal at an ancient temple. The Grants were invited to plant banyan trees at a local park to honor their visit, and Grant minted a beautiful message that would be etched in stone nearby: “I hope that both trees may prosper, grow large, live long, and in their growth, prosperity and long life be emblematic of the future of Japan.” Of all the countries included on his worldwide caravan, none captivated Grant quite like Japan, which he found a model of beauty, balance, and cultivation. He loved the green hills, fertile valleys, and fine streams and found the people “the most kindly & the most cleanly in the world.” The Japanese, he believed, had perfected their school system, educating all classes, male and female, and producing “the superior people of the East.” So smitten was Grant that he wanted the United States to negotiate a commercial treaty with the country.
The Japanese reciprocated his affection. After his arrival in Tokyo on July 3, a high-level reception committee paid homage to Grant’s accomplishments: “How you crushed a rebellion, and afterwards ruled a nation in peace and righteousness, is known over the whole world.” The emperor wanted to receive his illustrious visitor on the Fourth of July, and Grant’s carriage, flanked by cavalry, had to penetrate an enormous crush of people and ride under floral arches before reaching the emperor’s summer palace. The young, slim emperor then did something unprecedented: he strode up to Grant and shook his hand in profound respect, after which Ulysses and Julia Grant exchanged bows with assorted princes. The emperor later said nobody during his reign had impressed him more than “the unassuming bourgeois Civil War hero and president.”
At a subsequent meeting with the emperor, Grant decried colonial exploitation of Asian countries, making an exception for British rule in India. “But since I left India I have seen things that made my blood boil, in the way the European powers attempt to degrade the Asiatic nations.” Grant made good on his pledge to mediate the dispute over the Loo Choo Islands, showing a deft, diplomatic touch. He succeeded in getting negotiations started between the two sides, and the Chinese acceded to Japanese control of the islands. Grant became the first American president to accomplish such a solo feat, and the Chinese and Japanese were deeply grateful, even though talks later foundered. Grant contrasted his selfless diplomacy with the self-interested approach of European powers who “have no interests in Asia . . . that do not involve the humiliation and subjugation of the Asiatic people.” It formed a fitting finale to a trip in which Grant defined a new role for ex-presidents abroad, showing how they could use their prestige to settle intractable foreign conflicts and promote peaceful arbitration.
17 May 2019
U.S. Grant in China and Japan
From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 879-881: