Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Ascent of American Naval Power in the Progressive Era

A strong navy has been a vital factor of any powerful nation for as long as man has known how to navigate upon the open seas, both during conflict and maritime. Politically, economically, culturally, and militarily a countries navy is its first line of defense.[1] While the United States had previously contended in naval battles during its prior conflicts, after the Civil War it concentrated elsewhere, letting naval prowess fade. In the late eighteenth century a movement began to restore American sea power, and boost it to greatness. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt, and continual technological advancements all lead to developing a fleet that would become one of the greatest on the seas in size, strength, and importance well into the twentieth century.

The world’s various oceans have long been controlled by mighty fleets of countries such as the British, Spanish, French, and at times such as during the American Civil War, the United States of America. At the time, America’s naval fleet was made up of some 700 ships, the largest in the world at the time based upon size alone. The fleet’s ships included such technological innovations as the ironclad armored frigate and primitive torpedo boats which would later evolve into submarines; ships which paved the way into new ways of thinking in naval design. However, as a result of several factors in America and the world at the time, including growing industry, westward expansion, no direct threats geographically, and reconstructing America’s South, this fleet was brought down to only a fledging fifty-two ships in the early 1870s.[2] The United States’ naval efforts for the next two decades remained primarily focused on the “new navy”; cruisers and coastal defense boats. These cruisers were the Navy’s first steel ships and were known as the “ABCD” ships, due to their names, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, & Dolphin. The Dolphin, the first of the group, took two years to pass its sea trials, and when it finally did in 1886 it was dismissed as ‘a mere pleasure craft’ with ‘many structural weaknesses’ by Secretary of the Navy, William C. Whitney.[3] This “new navy” of the ABCD ships as well another which was later constructed went to Europe in 1891 to show off US maritime power.[4] During this time the British once again rose to naval superiority with their big-gunned battleships which soon became the standard of navies worldwide, but were simply too expensive to produce in the numbers Britain had.[5] In 1898, the United States fell into war with Spain when the battleship Maine, sent to protect Americans in Havana during Cuban riots, was blown up by an alleged Spanish mine.[6] This sparked the beginning United States’ climb back towards naval superiority, commissioning some eight battleships to be built.[7] Only one year after the Spanish-American War ended one of its heroes of the famed “Rough Riders” regiment and former secretary of Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, assumed the Presidency.

Theodore Roosevelt was always a strong advocate of the United States Navy and strong naval power. He was influenced in childhood by tales of his mother’s two uncles, James and Irvine Bulloch who both served in the Confederate Navy,[8] and in later life both by his own publication of a detailed account of the War of 1812’s naval battles, respectively named, The Naval War of 1812[9] and through reading Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783 which says, “production, shipping, and colonies,” are the main elements of sea power[10] and are impacted mainly by geography, population, and character of such a population.[11] Mahan’s power was based around consolidating fleets, bridging the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and the timeless importance of strategy.[12] Mahan’s theories on how navies were both military and commercial, “laid the foundations of U.S. naval doctrine,”[13] Roosevelt coming into office was the keystone on building the United States’ naval might, and not only served to strengthen the country’s navy, but also strengthens the country’s relationship within the international community and helps to legitimize its place as a world power well into the Progressive era and World War I.

Although Roosevelt looked to the past for naval theory, he was the epitome of a progressive commander in several other aspects of the War and Navy Departments. Viewing himself as, “the advocate of a new generation,”[14] he was known for employing men in their thirties and forties because he felt they were more, ‘imaginative and innovative.’ These new men were to replace officers left over from the Civil War who were considered old and perhaps didn’t fully comprehend military technology.[15] This can be seen when Rear Admiral Robley D. Evans must retire command of his fleet, and writes of his replacement saying, “Teddy’s insane ‘penchant’ for pushing young men to the front,”[16] Perhaps as a result of the industrialized country that had grown up in the decades leading to his Presidency, and the abundance of technology, communication, and ideas, Roosevelt was able to link all these areas together[17] in terms of advancement of the forces of the military and the country’s relations with other nations. One thing Roosevelt did not see eye-to-eye with Mahan was when it came to building new classes of battleships. Mahan believed in a standard form and size for a ship to be built, while Roosevelt thought it was beneficial to make each class bigger and better than the previous class and opponent’s ship to outgun, outmaneuver, and outlast[18] the competition. However, as much as Roosevelt loved battleships, at the heart of the progressive movement was the idea of moving towards a peaceful solution, and Roosevelt did so by proposing a limitation on battleship production.[19] Ironically though, due to Mahan’s writings the battleship was now seen as a symbol of national power and foreign policy and nations such as Britain and Germany refused to give in to a regulation of Dreadnought-class battleships and Germany to go against their Flottengesetz[20]

Although at the beginning of his term, Roosevelt said, “no part of his policy was more important than naval expansion,”[21] as well as having the support of Congress, who through the backing from many ‘navalists,’ authorized ten additional battleships. The most notable navalists in Congress was Democrat Richmond Pearson Hobson who claimed America would, “hold the scepter of the sea,”[22] However, due to the public’s wariness of building up such a large fleet Roosevelt announced in 1905 only one battleship per year would be built as a replacement for outdated ships.[23] This would later serve to be a poor choice with the combination of the British Royal Navy’s Dreadnought-class battleships coming out a year later, and more importantly heightened tensions with Japan over the next several years; something needed to be done in case war broke out, as the United States currently held commercial assets in the Pacific ocean and viewed Asia as an ‘open door’ for commerce that was set to grow exponentially. As the U.S. Navy commanders had all become staunch advocates of Mahan’s theories, they took heed in how a hostile Pacific Ocean[24] would affect commerce.

The main problem of a naval conflict in the Pacific that Roosevelt realized, as Mahan had pointed out years before, was geographical position. Mahan warns, “The position of the United States upon the two oceans would be either a source of great weakness or a cause of enormous expense, had it a large sea commerce on both coasts,”[25] as well as cautioning against the all too real possibility of being undersupplied on coal,[26] something which devastated the Russian fleet in their naval war with Japan several years earlier. Depending on how well the Monroe Doctrine held up, and which South American countries would stay in good favor with the U.S. could do the exact same thing to the U.S. fleet.[27] Prior to the construction of the modern-day Panama Canal, the fastest way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean was heading 10,000 miles South from the U.S. fleet’s home at Hampton Roads, Virginia to the Magellan Strait, and then another 5,000 miles back North to California. With the fleet consuming some 1,500 tons of coal per day,[28] allies’ abilities to supply collier stops en route to the Pacific were not a question. Something of this magnitude had never been attempted before, but may very well need to be if a naval war in the Pacific and Philippines were to occur with the Japanese Empire. From this came the plan for the ‘Great White Fleet’, perhaps the most important aspect of Theodore Roosevelt’s Presidency.

The ‘Great White Fleet’ was a culmination of all things Mahan and Roosevelt had been envisioning, the ideas of naval commerce, preparedness, naval diplomacy, and sea power all formed into a trip around the entire globe en masse with the greatest compiled fleet the world had ever seen the likes of. The fleet was composed most importantly of sixteen battleships, all of which had hulls painted white accented with gold trim[29] (perhaps an unintentional reminder of the bygone Gilded Age) and various auxiliary ships and colliers, staffed by some 14,000 sailors. During the first leg of their journey they were also accompanied by a “flotilla” of six torpedo destroyers.[30] The ‘marine parade’ of naval might soon became a spectacle unlike anything on earth, and at nearly every stop they made people lined up in the hundreds of thousands to watch the ships pull into the different ports. While they didn’t always stop in every port city, their presence alone was enough to draw massive crowds, for instance in Valparaiso, Chile and San Francisco people lined the bay and watched in awe as the ships sailed by. Possibly the most warm welcome given by a foreign country was when the fleet pulled into Japan. To reiterate the notion that war between the two countries was not desired, the Japanese went out of their way and prepared for months for the arrival of the American fleet. People decorated their houses with American and Japanese flags, Japanese citizens sang patriotic American songs in English, elaborate fireworks displays, and Monday, October 19th was even declared “American Day” in Tokyo.[31] This amicable reception served to make the entire voyage worthwhile seeing that the threat in the Pacific was not anywhere near where fears had made it out to be. In places that they did stop they were welcomed with formal balls and dinners.[32] And surprisingly, even with all of the exotic locations visited and all of the ‘fleet-bitten girls’ left behind, the desertion rates were very low, and when they did lose men they were able to recruit others to take their place. The voyage’s diplomatic benefits are invaluable to America and the world, at a time when the tension was growing between the American-Japanese and British-German relationships. It also served to boost relations between the United States, an ex-British colony, and the two island colonies of Australia and New Zealand, which would go on to serve a strong alliance during the Second World War. As the fleet was in the Mediterranean they also offered a lending hand to Europe as they gave aid to Italy after a devastating earthquake. Upon return Roosevelt welcomed with the words letting them know how big of an accomplishment they had achieved, “Those who perform the feat again can but follow in your footsteps,”[33] leaving the sailors, the country, and the world with a lasting impression stating American Naval Power.

Ironically, as big of a step forward that the voyage of the Great White Fleet was for the United States in foreign policy and legitimizing itself in the world, the entire fleet was already obsolete and outdated by the British Dreadnought-class battleships at the time they set sail.[34] In the following years the U.S. Navy constructed new battleships that were able to contend with the top-of-the-line ships employed by the other world powers; however none of the pre-Dreadnought ships were deployed to war zones before the war was over. American naval involvement in the war was primarily as an accompaniment to the British Grand Fleet by the pre-Dreadnought battleships and smaller destroyers for submarine control as well as to provide escorts to troop ships and shipping channels.[35] However, the culmination of Mahan’s theories and Roosevelt’s embracement of technology and naval diplomacy evolved the United States naval fleet throughout the twentieth century into a formidable power on the seas.


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[1] Reynolds, Clark G. Navies in History. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1998. pp. 3-8
[2] Reynolds, pp. 136-138
[3] Despite Whitney’s negative view, the ABCD ships would go on to serve for several decades, Boston made it all the way to World War II.
[4] Wimmel, Kenneth. Theodore Roosevelt and the Great White Fleet: American Sea Power Comes of Age. Washington: Brassey's, 1998 pp. 19-25
[5] Reynolds, pp. 143: 12-14 inches of steel armor, 2 main battery turrets equipped with two 12-inch guns and gyroscopes for stability when aiming. Rule of thumb: 1 inch of gun caliber = 1 inch of armor. The Royal Navy would stay far ahead of the other navies of the world for years to come, pioneering the famed Dreadnought class.
[6] Reynolds, pp. 145
[7] Sprout, Harold & Margaret. The Rise of American Naval Power. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1998
[8] Hendrix, Henry J. Theodore Roosevelt's Naval Diplomacy. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2009. pp. 3: Rear Admiral James Bulloch designed, and Midshipman Irvine Bulloch served on the CSS Alabama. Both moved to England after Lee’s surrender…
[9] Roosevelt’s book is still regarded to be one of the best works on the naval battles of the war.
[10] Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1600-1783. Library: Library, 1935 pp. 26-89: Mahan essentially says the main elements of sea power are protection of “production, shipping, and colonies”
[11]Mahan, pp. 28-29: Sea Power is then affected by “geographical position, physical conformation, extent of territory, number of population, character of the people, and character of the government.”
[12] Mahan, pp. 88: “the old foundations of strategy so far remain, as though laid upon a rock,”
[13] Jones, Jerry W. U.S. Battleship Operations in World War I. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1998 pp. 3
[14] Ovos, Matthew M. “Theodore Roosevelt and the Implements of War.” The Journal of Military History 60, No. 4 (1996): 631-655 pp. 655
[15] Oyos, pp. 634
[16] Reckner, James R. Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet. Annapolis: Bluejacket Books - Naval Institute Press, 1988 pp. 54: When Evans retired command, there was confusion over the senior officer would replace him or a younger officer as many expected. The older Rear Admiral Thomas was given a ‘token command’ for a week and then command was turned over to Rear Admiral Sperry
[17] Oyos, pp. 633
[18] Oyos, pp. 645-646
[19] Leiner, pp. 174
[20] Reckner, pp. 2: German naval law which committed to building a first-class navy.
[21] Roosevelt, pp. 135: State Papers as Governor and President, 1899-1909.
[22] Hobson, R.P. "America Mistress of the Seas." The North American Review, Vol. 175, No. 551, 1902: pp. 544-557 pp. 4: “America, Mistress of the Sea,” 557.
[23] Reckner, pp. 5: Roosevelt’s 5th Annual Message to Congress, 5 December 1905
[24] Mahan, pp. 27: “As a nation, with its unarmed and armed shipping, launches forth from its own shores, the need is soon felt of points upon which the ships can rely for peaceful trading, for refuge and supplies.”
[25] Mahan, pp. 29
[26] Mahan, pp. 31: “The necessity of renewing coal makes the cruiser of the present day even more dependent than of old on his port.”
[27] Mahan, pp. 31: “[America’s] geographical position is therefore singularly disadvantageous for carrying on successful commerce-destroying, unless she find bases in the ports of an ally.”
[28] Reckner, pp. 30
[29] Hendrix, Henry J. Theodore Roosevelt's Naval Diplomacy. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2009 pp. 155: Only a few of the battleships were worthy of the Dreadnought class, and it must be noted that the main reason for the hulls being white was its cooling effect as to keep the engines of the ships cool.
[30] Reckner, pp. 29
[31] Reckner, pp. 113-115 it was even said that children lined up along the major roads and waved American flags at the officers going by to the formal banquets.
[32] Note that not all enlisted seamen were allowed liberty at each port, even in San Diego only 3,000 enlisted were allowed liberty.
[33] Reckner, pp. 125
[34] Jones, pp. 109-125
[35] Jones, pp. 22-39