The US Navy Comes of Age
The Great White Fleet
By James “Ski” Schiaffino Post 1814
During the Civil War the American Navy (both Union and Confederate) were the first to develop iron hulled ships. However, they had failed to capitalize on their development. In the ensuing years they had fallen behind in the actual development of that kind of ship. By the 1880’s one third of the Navy’s 90 ships were still wooden hulled and those that weren’t were ungainly if not obsolete when compared to other navies around the world. Although the Americans were victorious in the Spanish-American War (1898) it accented some serious deficiencies in the ‘modern’ American Navy.
This fact was not lost on the Republican president Theodore Roosevelt. At this time the Germans were developing a fleet that would eventually challenge the British for control of the oceans. The Japanese had also developed a sizable ocean fleet and had defeated the Russian fleet in the Sino-Japanese war. In 1906 President Roosevelt negotiated a peaceful end to that war. It gave him international prestige, a Nobel Peace Prize and a strong insight into Japanese aspirations in the Pacific. Japan, however, was greatly disappointed in the settlement.
Roosevelt knew the Japanese had designs on many Pacific Islands, not the least of which was the Philip
pines. He realized that most of our naval assets were stationed in the Atlantic Ocean with only a handful of armored cruisers on duty in the Pacific. If the Japanese attacked not only would we have to abandon the Philippines, but most of our newly won Pacific outposts would be in jeopardy, not the least of which was the Hawaiian Islands.
Since the construction of the Panama Canal by the United States had only commenced in 1904 (it wasn’t finished until 1914) this meant that to redeploy some of our Atlantic assets to the Pacific, the fleet would have to sail around South America simply to get to the Pacific. Then there would be several more thousands of miles before it reached the Hawaiian Islands or the Philippines. The trip alone would take almost half a year and the fleet would scarcely be prepared for battle as the Russians discovered in the Battle at Tsushima.
There were already serious anti-American protests in Japan and a rising anti-Japanese feelings were sweeping California. The San Francisco Board of Education ordered the segregation of all immigrant and descendent Japanese school children. Roosevelt managed to get San Francisco to recant but it caused further deterioration of Japanese-American relations.
Faced with this reality, President Roosevelt ordered that the fleet be replaced by ‘modern, steel hulled warships. Their first deployment was to the Mediterranean Sea. In 1906 President Roosevelt ordered eight battleships to be stationed in the Mediterranean during the Algeciras Conference as a sign that America too had a powerful navy.
With an eye towards the tense relationship the US had with Japan, in a further display big stick diplomacy (Roosevelt’s motto was speak softly but carry a big stick) In 1907 President Roosevelt ordered 16 US Navy battlecruisers on a fourteen month tour to circumnavigate the world as a showpiece of American goodwill and also announce to the world that the United States had also become a major sea power. The fleet consisted of 16 Battle Cruisers, 7 Destroyers, 2 Store Ships, 1 Repair Ship, 1 Tender and 1 Hospital Ship.
The hulls of the ships 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’. President Roosevelt’s stated intent was to give the Navy practice in navigation, communication, coal consumption management and fleet maneuvering. One limiting factor was that even though the United States had acquired a presence in the Pacific Ocean as a result of the Spanish American war, it still lacked an adequate number of coal refueling stations like those of Great Britain. This trip would give the