Sunday, December 16, 2007

December 16, 1907:

TR's Great White Fleet Sails

One hundred years ago, during the waning of Theodore Roosevelt's time as president, he oversaw the sailing of the Great White Fleet -- an armada of 16 new battleships, plus many other support ships -- on a cruise around the world. The move could easily be characterized as an example of carrying a big stick, and in this case, showing it off. Whether that counts as speaking softly is a matter of opinion.

JO2 [Journalist Second Class] Mike McKinley of the Naval Historical Center wrote: "On the warm, cloudy morning of Dec. 16, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt stood on the weather-deck of the presidential yacht Mayflower, anchored in the waters off Hampton Roads, Va. He flashed his famous broad, toothy smile and thought how "bully" it was to see a mighty armada of US battleships passing in review before him. The President, and indeed the throngs of onlookers gathered on shore, felt a great sense of pride and exhilaration as 16 battleships of the US Atlantic Fleet, all painted white, save for gilded bows, steamed in a long majestic column out of Hampton Roads to the open sea, flanked by their attending auxiliary ships.

"To the familiar strains of 'The Girl I left Behind Me,' the procession of battlewagons passed before the President at 400-yard intervals with their crews smartly manning the rails. This newly designated battle fleet was made up of ships commissioned since the end of the Spanish-American War....

"The four squadrons of warships, dubbed the 'Great White Fleet,' were manned by 14,000 sailors and marines under the command of Rear Adm. Robley 'Fighting Bob' Evans. All were embarking upon a naval deployment the scale of which had never been attempted by any nation before -- the first 'round-the-world cruise by a fleet of steam-powered, steel battleships. The 43,000 mile, 14-month circumnavigation would include 20 port calls on six continents; it is widely considered one of the greatest peacetime achievements of the US Navy.

"The idea of sending the new battle fleet around the world was the brainchild of the energetic 'Teddy' Roosevelt... [who] brought to the White House a deep conviction that only through a strong navy could a nation project its power and prestige abroad.

"In 1898, at the end of the Spanish-American War, the United States was thrust into the mainstream of international affairs and gained status as a world power, acquiring as possessions the Philippines and Guam in the Pacific, then Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. In 1904, the United States also established a naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to ensure the safety of the Panama Canal, then under construction.

"Roosevelt stressed the upgrading and expansion of the US fleet in order to protect American interests abroad. From 1904 to 1907, American shipyards turned out 11 new battleships to give the Navy awesome battle capabilities. This was timely, for, in 1906, hostilities with Japan seemed possible; the Japanese navy dominated the Pacific and posed a potential threat to the Philippines.

"Roosevelt didn't want a break with Japan, as the United States was ill-prepared for war. Most of our battle fleet was concentrated in the Atlantic, and there were only a handful of armored cruisers on duty in the Pacific. In the event of war with Japan, this small contingent that made up the Asiatic Battle Fleet would have to abandon the Philippines for West Coast ports until the United States had strength enough to go on the offensive.

"Thus, to impress upon Japan that the US Navy could shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Roosevelt ordered the Great White Fleet to sail around the world."

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