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Examination Of A Legend

March 2023
4min read

In December of 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt sent sixteen battleships out of Hampton Roads on the first leg of what turned out to be a cruise around the world. This irritated both the United States Navy and the chancelleries of Europe, gave an unexpected turn to American foreign policy, and indicated that the country had reached physical maturity without entirely shedding its innocence. Baffled but proud, the American people at last concluded that it was a Good Deed, and the fantastic cruise of the new battle fleet passed into a legend that endures to this day.

The trouble with legends is that sooner or later you have to ask what they really mean. This particular legend holds that in addition to making a fine romantic spectacle, the world cruise was a demonstration of American naval authority that induced American friends abroad to take hope and made American enemies take thought and walk softly. Today, more than half a century later, the business does not look quite as it looked at the time. It may be that the legend needs re-examination.

Re-examination it gets in Robert A. Hart’s outspoken new book, The Great White Fleet . A member of the history faculty at the University of Massachusetts, Mr. Hart turns a historian’s eye on the whole performance and concludes that it contained a good deal that we never stopped to think about.

Like a good historian, Mr. Hart goes to the sources—Navy Department papers, State Department correspondence, papers of President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Elihu Root, British and German official documents, letters written by naval officers who made the cruise, and various learned studies of the affair. He finds that the basic reason for the cruise was a simple desire to win prestige—to dramatize American emergence as a world power, to make a big gesture, to impress the American people and to “advertise the United States to the world.” Because relations between America and Japan were badly strained, it was also felt that to get the battle fleet into the Pacific might convey a useful warning to Tokyo: useful, and not really dangerous because the President’s economic advisers assured him that Japan had been so drained by her recent war with Russia that it would be at least a decade before she would be able to go to war again. And so, late in 1907, with naval officers (firmly muzzled, by stern presidential orders) privately expressing grave doubts about the whole matter, the sixteen battleships set sail, all painted white, as spectacular an armada as the world had ever seen.

Reactions abroad were not what Mr. Roosevelt had expected. Great Britain was deeply perturbed. The Admiralty felt that this mighty gesture had to mean something—probably war with Japan, a valued British ally—and even if it really meant something less, the whole venture struck London as a bull-in-a-china-shop affair. The German Kaiser, on the other hand, was delighted. He too believed that America was going to make war on Japan, and if she did he wanted to help her. When the fleet got into Japanese waters, the Kaiser sent the German High Seas Fleet cruising far out in the Atlantic and massed a cruiser squadron in the Far East as a blunt warning that if Britain joined Japan in a war on the United States she would have another navy to contend with. At one point the Kaiser was even prepared to announce a firm alliance between Germany and the United States, and Berlin openly speculated that the two nations might join hands with China to bring about a new order of things in the Orient.

The Great White Fleet, by Robert A. Hart. Little, Brown and Co. 362 pp. $6.95.

The Latin-American countries had no idea what was up, but they felt, like the British, that this exercise of battleship diplomacy must mean something, and as the fleet cruised down the Atlantic coast of South America and up the Pacific coast, they competed bitterly for the right to entertain it, each in the hope that a lucrative alliance with the colossus of the North might be forthcoming. All in all, this part of the cruise created a rather large amount of misunderstanding and ill feeling.

When the fleet got to the west coast of the United States, the citizens there took it for granted that it had come to the Pacific to teach Japan a lesson, and they said so in jubilant chorus. A little later, when the fleet moved on to visit Australia and New Zealand, the uninhibited people down under reached the same conclusion and made even more noise about it. London newspapers remarked glumly that the cruise had vastly increased the tensions of an uneasy world.

And then the fleet sailed up to pay a formal visit to Tokyo.

By now Washington was worried. It was impossible to call the visit off, and yet it seemed fearfully risky to go through with it. The sixteen battleships were impressive fighting machines, yet they were on the far side of the Pacific without a chain of supplies and without proper bases; it seemed that if the Japanese felt like having a war they could have one with all of the advantages on their side. As it happened, the Japanese did not want a war (apparently the British exerted some pressure on their ally at this point), but they did want to turn this visit into something that would benefit Japan—and, in the end, they succeeded.

By mutual agreement, then, the fleet visited Tokyo and got an extremely cordial reception. At the same time, American plans for an ostentatious visit to China were whittled down almost to the vanishing point; furthermore, in Washington, Japan and America concluded an agreement to settle their differences in the Far East. The agreement included a perfunctory pledge to respect the Open Door in China, bound both nations to respect each other’s territorial possessions in the Pacific, agreed to maintenance of the status quo in Asia, and promised that “the integrity of China” would be protected. The original draft had spoken of “territorial integrity”; the word “territorial” was dropped, in the final version … in effect, says Mr. Hart, China was left helpless.

Presumably both governments were happy. A desperately dangerous situation had been met and passed. Americans were able to say that the mere appearance of their fleet had forced Tokyo to stop acting warlike and to assume an attitude of friendship: Japan had assurance that she could follow her own course in respect to the moribund Chinese empire and could pursue her activities in Manchuria without interruption. The Japanese indeed were very well pleased by the whole affair, considering that they had won a diplomatic victory. Great Britain also was happy; the projected German-American alliance, which at one point looked so real, went down the drain and was never heard of again.

The rest of the voyage was anticlimactic. The fleet at last made its way home, coming up through the Suez Canal and the length of the Mediterranean, and in February of 1909 it got back to Hampton Roads. Technically, the cruise had been an impressive achievement. Never before had so many battleships gone so far without mishap. A new respect for the capacities of American naval officers appeared in foreign navies. But the officers themselves were not happy. As Mr. Hart puts it, they considered this cruise “the most detested task ever undertaken by the Navy.” Also, they reflected that they had shown the world an obsolete fleet: the new dreadnoughts were coming in, and the sixteen fabulous battleships were out of date before they got home. Professionally, they felt that the trip had been wasted effort.

But it had made a prodigious splash in the world.

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