Mark Albertson, author and Professor of History at the Lifetime Learners Institute at Norwalk Community College, returned last Friday to Westport Sunrise Rotary to talk about America’s Great White Fleet. This talk, like his previous one about WWI, placed its subject in its larger strategic context – what was the Great White Fleet, what was its strategic purpose and what were the lessons learned?
The Fleet was led by 16 coal burning battleships. It departed Hampton Roads, Virginia on December 16, 1907 in a three mile long single file, headed out on a 14 month, 43,000 mile voyage that crossed the equator six times and took its 14,500 sailors and Marines to 20 ports on six continents.
Albertson termed it the “greatest peacetime naval assemblage in U.S. history.” Ostensibly deployed as a public relations tour, it served as a powerful display of President Theodore Roosevelt’s “big stick” policy.
The Great White Fleet gave notice that the “U.S. had arrived as a global power.”
Victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898 made Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines U.S. possessions. Japan’s routing of the Russian fleet in the Battle of Tsushima in 1905 (the first defeat of a western nation by an Asian nation in modern times) and anti-Japanese riots in San Francisco in 1906 made Roosevelt determined to show other countries, Japan particularly, that the U.S. could – and would – defend its interests in the Pacific.
Some of the tension between the U.S. and Japan was tamped down in 1908 when they signed the Root-Takahira Agreement that defined each country’s spheres of interest. But each remained wary of the other.
From Hampton Roads the Fleet sailed to Trinidad, then through the Straits of Magellan – the Panama Canal had not been completed – to San Francisco. From there the ships visited Hawaii, New Zealand, the Philippines, Japan and China, back to the Philippines, then Ceylon, Suez, Gibraltar, and back home to Hampton Roads.
This grand voyage yielded many soft and hard benefits to the U.S. Strategically, our Navy learned that these ships were fully capable of long distance operations, and that battleships need not be used primarily for coastal defense – as had been their mission 20 years before.
To the negative, the Fleet found itself dependent on third party collieries and maintenance facilities because the U.S. did not have a network of naval bases in the Pacific. And design flaws were discovered that were left unattended until WWI.
The voyage became a great public relations coup for the United States. In every port thousands of people turned out to greet and see the fleet. Our sailors became good will ambassadors. The visit to Australia encouraged that country to build its own navy. And in Yokohama the Japanese government showed their great desire for peace with the U.S.
Four ships at port in Egypt were dispatched to assist Italy in the aftermath of the earthquake in Messina, Sicily in December, 1908.
Yet not everyone responded positively. The U.S. had surpassed Great Britain as the world’s economic power during the 1890s. Winston Churchill took the Fleet as an affront and as “competition” to his Empire, in part because Great Britain was moving much of its navy from the Pacific to the Atlantic to prepare for a “rising German threat.”
U.S. Navy ship building entered the modern era in the 1880s. In 1892, at the beginning of what came to be called the “Pre-Dreadnought” era, they began replacing ironclad coast defense ships with their first all steel heavily armed “blue-water” battleship, the USS Texas.
Between 1890 and 1906 some 175 Pre-Dreadnoughts were added to fleets around the world, during what Albertson called the “great battleship race.” This became, a few years later, the “first major strategic initiative of the U.S. in the 20th century.”
One of these was the Fleet’s flagship, the USS Connecticut, the fourth to bear our state’s name. Her keel was laid in 1903 and she was commissioned the next year. She saw less service once oil began replacing coal, before WWI, was decommissioned in 1922 and finally sold for scrap one and one-half years later.
Successful as the Fleet’s mission was, it came as new, larger and better armed vessels were under already under construction. The tipping point vessel was the HMS Dreadnought, which had been commissioned in 1906.
These “Dreadnought Era” battleships were larger, faster “all big gun” ships with more powerful steam turbine engines. They were superseded during the 1930s by still larger oil burning battleships. As air power developed and strategy changed, the aircraft carrier became the dominant naval weapon.
Among the interesting and important actors Albertson introduced was John McCain, Sr., then a young Ensign who would go on to become an Admiral. He was the father of Admiral John McCain, Jr., and the grandfather of Senator John McCain III. All three were Annapolis graduates, as is the Senator’s son, John McCain IV.
Another was a Marine, Major General Smedley Darlington Butler, one of 19 Americans to win two Medals of Honor and, after retiring, the author of War Is A Racket, a 1935 book that warned of what came to be called the military-industrial complex.
Anyone interested in learning more about the Great White Fleet can read Albertson’s book They’ll Have to Follow You!: The Triumph of The Great White Fleet.