Ambassador George W. Guthrie (1848–1917)

George W. Guthrie, U.S. Ambassador to Japan (1913-1917), did not live to see the end of the war. Nevertheless, the former mayor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, helped the United States navigate several thorny issues with Asia’s emerging power. Although Guthrie was originally President Woodrow Wilson’s choice to be U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Wilson refused to recognize the new Mexican government under Victoriano Huerta and decided against sending an emissary. He nominated Guthrie instead to lead the U.S. mission in Tokyo.

Ambassador George Guthrie and his wife in Tokyo

Guthrie nurtured the bilateral relationship as war spread into Asia and the Pacific in 1914. Japan declared war on Germany and Austro-Hungary in August, in order to support its chief ally, the United Kingdom, and to seize Germany’s possessions in China and the Pacific. Japan’s actions put the United States in a difficult position as Wilson attempted to maintain neutrality. Moreover, as a neutral nation, the United States represented the interests of Germany in Japan as it did in other world capitals, further complicating matters. The United States also opposed Japan’s “Twenty-One Demands” that Japan placed on China in January 1915, through which Japan hoped to gain, among other things, control over Manchuria. These demands threated China’s sovereignty and the United States’ Open Door policy in China. Nevertheless, the United States did little to blunt Japan’s expansionism in order to safeguard U.S. interests in the Pacific, primarily the Philippines.

Throughout these crises, Guthrie endeavored to keep relations with Japan on an even keel. He had the respect of the Japanese government, and was invited by the Japanese to represent the United States at both the funeral of the Empress Dowager, widow of the Emperor Meiji, in April 1914, and the coronation of Emperor Taisho in November 1915. Guthrie’s unexpected death in March 1917 of apoplexy while playing golf in Japan shocked and saddened both nations. The esteem the Japanese government had for Guthrie and the United States was evident in Japan’s final gesture to the fallen diplomat. Not only did representatives of the Imperial family attend his funeral, but the Japanese government provided a warship to transport Guthrie’s body back to the United States. The Japanese Foreign Minister publicly expressed that Guthrie’s death was an “unmeasurable loss” to Japan and that he had “done an incalculable service in promoting and cementing the closer friendship between the United States and Japan.”1

  1. “Japan Honors Guthrie,” Washington Post, Mar. 11, 1917, p. 12.