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Ulysses S. Grant: International Arbitrator

two men sitting in chairs with a table, vase, and flowers between them.
Ulysses S. Grant with Chinese General Li Hongzhang during the former's world tour in 1879.

Library of Congress

Towards the end of his world tour in 1879, former U.S. general and president Ulysses S. Grant visited China and was approached by Prince Kung, the Chinese regent, and Viceroy Li Hung-Chang. The two men knew that Grant would make his way to Japan on the final leg of his tour after visiting China. They also understood Grant’s global popularity and influence. Whispers of Grant’s possible running for a third presidential term made him a very important person in their continuing dealings with both Japan and the United States moving forward. Prince Kung and Li asked him to help mediate an ongoing dispute with Japan over a group of islands claimed by both countries. Grant agreed to do what he could to resolve the conflict.

The disputed Loo Choo (Ryukyu) islands stretched from just south of Japan to the north of Taiwan (what was then called Formosa). The years-long dispute left both countries fearing the possibility of war. During his stay in China, Grant and Viceroy Li Hung-Chang formed a close relationship. Li had watched from afar when Grant helped resolve a dispute between the United States and Great Britain over the "Alabama Claims" during his presidency. These claims were grievances over ships used by the Confederacy that were built in Britain and used to destroy Union shipping during the Civil War. After the war, some U.S. politicians sought a huge indemnity from Britain and openly threatened war between the two countries. Li followed events as President Grant favored a peaceful settlement and arbitration rather than saber-rattling. Eventually the claims were settled peacefully in Geneva, Switzerland through international arbitration. Li hoped Grant could repeat this feat for China’s dealings with Japan.

Japan had struck the first blow by occupying the Loo Choo Islands in 1874. China never recognized their right to occupy the islands and immediately protested. Grant was President at the time, but other issues required his attention. Nevertheless, Grant was now immersed in Asian politics and began generating his own thoughts about the continent’s future. He concluded that much of Asia was exploited by the West, especially by European powers, but that countries like Japan and China would soon assert themselves on the global stage. Grant’s hosts appreciated his "willingness to listen, rather than to talk, and to converse at the pace of his hosts." He marveled at the way he was treated by his Asian dignitaries, attending banquets, military reviews, even getting a personal handshake from the Emperor of Japan.

The Japanese would not directly deal with the Chinese to settle the fate of the Loo Choo Islands. Upon meeting Grant, however, the Japanese Emperor Meiji formed a respect for him and agreed to privately discuss the matter. Grant argued that "war between China and Japan would be a grave misfortune," and that "arbitration between nations...satisfies the conscience of the world and must commend itself more and more as a means of adjusting disputes."

For all his success in pushing the peaceful arbitration between the United States and Great Britain during the Alabama Claims crisis, Grant was only able to get negotiations started between China and Japan. He worked hard to serve as an effective mediator, but his stay in Japan was limited and the peace negotiations were unsuccessful. After Grant's death in 1885, negotiations between China and Japan broke down and Japan fully occupied the Loo Choo Islands, foreshadowing a growing imperialism that would start them on the path towards World War II.

Despite the tense relationship between China and Japan, both countries had a similar idea for honoring Grant's visit to their countries: planting trees. During the world tour, Julia and Ulysses were asked to plant memorial trees in both Nagasaki and Tokyo, Japan. In Nagasaki, Ulysses gave an inscription for a memorial plaque near the trees written in Japanese and English. Ulysses wrote, "Nagasaki, Japan, June 22 1879. At the request of Governor Utsumi Togatsu, Mrs. Grant and I have each planted a tree in the Nagasaki Park. 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." Ironically, the tree Ulysses S. Grant planted, a sacred fig, was destroyed during World War II. Later in 1897, never forgetting his friendship with Grant, an appreciative Li Hung-Chang planted a 7 foot Gingko tree at Grant's temporary tomb in New York City. That tree still stands today as testimony of the relationships Grant forged during his trip to China.

Last updated: April 30, 2020