The Great White Fleet

The Great White Fleet

At 10:00 a.m. on December 16, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt gave the order. With a tug on the halyard, tightly wrapped cloth bundles at the yardarm broke open into brilliantly colored signal flags with the order “Proceed upon duty as assigned,” and sixteen of America’s proudest battleships painted immaculate white to symbolize peace got underway for what was to be a 46,000-mile voyage around the world. To Roosevelt, the ships and their missions were symbol and substance of America’s proclamation to the whole world that she was assuming a broader obligation toward maintaining world peace than ever before.

The Great White Fleet was the popular nickname for the powerful United States Navy battle fleet that completed a journey around the globe from 16 December 1907, to 22 February 1909, by order of United States President Theodore Roosevelt. Its mission was to make friendly courtesy visits to numerous countries while displaying new U.S. naval power to the world.

It consisted of 16 battleships divided into two squadrons, along with various escorts. Roosevelt sought to demonstrate growing American military power and blue-water navy capability. Hoping to enforce treaties and protect overseas holdings, the United States Congress appropriated funds to build American naval power. Beginning in the 1880s with just 90 small ships, over one-third of them wooden and therefore obsolete, the navy quickly grew to include new modern steel fighting vessels. The hulls of these ships were painted a stark white, giving the Armada the nickname “Great White Fleet”.

In the twilight of his administration, United States President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched 16 U.S. Navy battleships of the Atlantic Fleet on a worldwide voyage of circumnavigation from 16 December 1907 to 22 February 1909. The hulls were painted white, the Navy’s peacetime color scheme, decorated with gilded scrollwork with a red, white, and blue banner on their bows. These ships would later come to be known as the Great White Fleet.

The purpose of the fleet deployment was multifaceted. Ostensibly, it served as a showpiece of American goodwill, as the fleet visited numerous countries and harbors. In this, the voyage was not unprecedented. Naval courtesy calls, many times in conjunction with the birthdays of various monarchs and other foreign celebrations, had become common in the 19th century. Port calls showcased pomp, ceremony, and militarism during a period of rising pre-war nationalism. In 1891, a large French fleet visited Kronstadt, Russia, in conjunction with negotiations between the two nations. Although France and Russia had been hostile to each other for at least three decades prior, the significance of the call was not lost on Russia, and Tsar Nicholas II signed a treaty of alliance with France in 1894. As navies grew larger, naval pageants grew longer, more elaborate, and more frequent. The United States began participating in these events in 1902 when Roosevelt invited Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany to send a squadron for a courtesy call to New York City. Invitations for U.S. Navy ships to participate in fleet celebrations in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany followed.

Additionally, the voyage of the Great White Fleet demonstrated both at home and on the world stage that the U.S. had become a major sea power in the years after its triumph in the Spanish–American War, with possessions that included Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. It was not the first flexing of U.S. naval muscle since that war, however; during the Algeciras Conference in 1906, which was convened to settle a diplomatic crisis between France and Germany over the fate of Morocco,  Roosevelt had ordered eight battleships to maintain a presence in the Mediterranean Sea. Since Japan had arisen as a major sea power with the 1905 annihilation of the Russian fleet at Tsushima, the deployment of the Great White Fleet was therefore intended, at least in part, to send a message to Tokyo that the American fleet could be deployed anywhere, even from its Atlantic ports, and would be able to defend American interests in the Philippines and the Pacific.

That gesture capitalized on diplomatic trouble that had resulted from anti-Japanese riots in San Francisco. Those problems had been resolved by the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 and the fleet visit was a friendly gesture to Japan. The Japanese welcomed it. Roosevelt saw the deployment as one that would encourage patriotism, and give the impression that he would teach Japan “a lesson in polite behavior”, as historian Robert A. Hart phrased it. After the fleet had crossed the Pacific, Japanese statesmen realized that the balance of power in the East had changed since the Root–Takahira Agreement that defined relevant spheres of interest of the United States and Japan.

The voyage also provided an opportunity to improve the sea- and battle-worthiness of the fleet. While earlier capital ship classes such as the Kearsarge, Illinois, and Maine were designed primarily for coastal defense, later classes such as the Virginia and Connecticut incorporated lessons learned from the Spanish–American War and were conceived as ships with “the highest practicable speed and the greatest radius of action”, in the words of the appropriation bills approved by the United States Congress for their construction. They were intended as modern warships capable of long-range operations. Nevertheless, the experience gained in the recent war with Spain had been limited.

Roosevelt’s stated intent was to give the navy practice in navigation, communication, coal consumption, and fleet maneuvering; navy professionals maintained, however, that such matters could be served better in home waters. In light of what had happened to the Russian Baltic Fleet, they were concerned about sending their own fleet on a long deployment, especially since part of the intent was to impress a modern, battle-tested navy that had not known defeat. The fleet was untested in making such a voyage, and Tsushima had proven that extended deployments had no place in practical strategy. The Imperial Japanese Navy was close to coaling and repair facilities; while American ships could coal in the Philippines, docking facilities were far from optimal. An extended stop on the West Coast of the United States during the voyage for overhaul and refurbishment in dry dock would be a necessity. Planning for the voyage, however, showed a dearth of adequate facilities there, as well. The main sea channel of the Mare Island Navy Yard near San Francisco was too shallow for battleships, which left only the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Washington, for refit and repair. The Hunter’s Point civilian yard in San Francisco could accommodate capital ships, but had been closed due to lack of use and was slated for demolition. President Roosevelt ordered that Hunter’s Point be reopened, facilities be brought up to date, and the fleet to report there.

Also, the question of adequate resources for coaling existed. This was not an issue when the Atlantic Fleet cruised the Atlantic or Caribbean, as fuel supplies were readily available. However, the United States did not enjoy a worldwide network of coaling stations like that of Great Britain, nor did it have an adequate supply of auxiliary vessels for resupply. During the Spanish–American War, this lack had forced Admiral George Dewey to buy a collier-load of British coal in Hong Kong before the Battle of Manila Bay to ensure his squadron would not run out of steam at sea. The need had been even more pressing for the Russian Baltic Fleet during its long deployment during the Russo-Japanese War, not just for the distance it was to steam, but also because, as a belligerent nation in wartime, most neutral ports were closed to it due to international law. While the lack of support vessels was pointed out and a vigorous program of building such ships suggested by Rear Admiral George W. Melville, who had served as chief of the Bureau of Equipment, his words were not heeded adequately until World War II.

Federal regulations that restricted supply vessels for Navy ships to those flying the United States flag, complicated by the lack of an adequate United States Merchant Marine, proved another obstacle. Roosevelt initially offered to award Navy supply contracts to American skippers whose bids exceeded those of foreign captains by less than 50 percent. Many carriers declined this offer because they could not obtain enough cargo to cover the cost of the return trip. Two months before the fleet sailed, Roosevelt ordered the Navy Department to contract 38 ships to supply the fleet with the 125,000 tons of coal it would need to steam from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to San Francisco. Only eight of these were American-registered; most of the other 30 were of British registry. This development was potentially awkward since part of the mission was to impress Japan with the perception of overwhelming American naval power. Britain had become a military ally of Japan in 1905 with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, which obliged it to aid Japan should a foreign power declare war against it. Technically, the list of potential combatants included the United States. The British government decided to play both sides of the political fence with the intent of moderating any Japanese-American friction that might arise.

Experience gained by the cruise led to improvements in formation steaming, coal economy and morale. Gunnery exercises doubled the fleet’s accuracy. However, the mission also underlined the fleet’s dependence on foreign colliers and the need for coaling stations and auxiliary ships for coaling and resupply.

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