February 22 1909 – The Great White Fleet Returns from a Journey Around the World

*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
February 22 1909 – The Great White Fleet Returns from a Journey Around the World
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In the early years of the 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt, the President of the United States and former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, sought to raise the military profile of his nation. Near the end of his time in office, he had an idea: send US ships out on a worldwide expedition. Following 14-months at sea with stops on every continent but Antarctica, the Great White Fleet — so named for its trademark “peacetime white” paint scheme — arrived at Hampton Roads, Virginia on February 22, 1909.

A little more than ten years before, the US gained a vast amount of influence throughout the Caribbean and Southeast Asia after the Spanish-American War. Taking advantage of the Monroe Doctrine, a policy laid out in 1823 by President James Monroe that guaranteed the US would prevent further colonial expansion into the Western Hemisphere by European nations, the US military engaged the armies of Spain in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.

Roosevelt, a fervent supporter of American involvement, particularly in Cuba, resigned his position as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and joined the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry. Second-in-command of these “Rough Riders,” he and his men played a role in victories at Las Guasimas, San Juan Hill and Santiago. Returning to his home of New York state as a hero, not least due to an adept use of the press for his benefit, Roosevelt found his confidence in the strategic importance of the Navy he helped oversee proved. In his own mind — and, indeed, that of modern historians — the US announced is strength to potential adversaries with its performance in the four-month battle against Spain.

Catapulted to fame, Roosevelt gained the governor’s seat and became Vice President under William McKinley within three years. With McKinley assassinated in September 1901, the fiery Roosevelt ascended to the highest office in the land, focusing on the Republican Party platform of high protective taxes on foreign goods and a drive for solidifying an imperial role on the world stage. As part of his belief one should “walk softly and carry a big stick,” he stressed a continued expansion of the Navy, certain it would allow the US to secure its interests abroad.

By 1906, the possibility of a new war on the seas seemed to be shifting toward a likelihood. Japanese officials, stinging from the perception Roosevelt robbed them of the spoils of war in negotiating a truce to end the conflict between themselves and the Russians, began to make noise about asserting the strength of their warships throughout the Pacific.

Eager to avoid war but determined to demonstrate the capability of the US Navy, Roosevelt came up with the idea of a world tour. At the time, most of the ships under his command were stationed along the nation’s Atlantic coast, which left American assets in the Philippines and Guam — only then paying dividends after the Spanish-American War — vulnerable to attack from Japan’s Pacific Fleet. Further, since the operation would take place during peacetime, it would allow the US an unprecedented opportunity to test the seaworthiness of its new steel warships while building relationships with other countries and instilling pride at home.

Members of Congress were not so certain about the mission’s importance. Though Roosevelt assured them it was “far from being in any way a provocation to war,” Senator Eugene Hale from Maine still offered to prevent funding the 16-ship tour. With characteristic stubbornness, Roosevelt replied he already had the money and that Hale, the Chairman of the Naval Appropriations Committee, should “try and get it back.”

On December 16, 1907, the 16 battleships set aside for the cruise left Hampton Roads, Virginia with more than 14,000 sailors aboard and the USS Connecticut in the lead. When Roosevelt’s administration announced the true scope of the mission, nations all over the world extended invitations for the Great White Fleet — visible for miles floating atop blue waters — to make a stop in their harbors. Rear Admiral Robley Evans guided the flotilla to Trinidad before stops in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and a sail through the Straits of Magellan, a major feat for a convoy of that size.

A further five stops along the Pacific coast of the Americas were completed by the middle of 1908, with the Fleet turning west from San Francisco under the command of Rear Admiral Charles Sperry on July 7th. In the next six months, American ships would be greeted heartily by fascinated crowds in New Zealand and Australia, the Philippines and, perhaps most importantly, Yokohama, Japan. Beyond being an imposing symbol of American military might, the ships represented the tremendous industrial capacity of the US — all of them were constructed in the ten years after the Spanish-American War.

As 1909 began, the ships arrived in Egypt, where reports arrived of a massive earthquake at Messina on the Italian island of Sicily. Crews were immediately dispatched to provide aid to the American ally, with the USS Illinois transporting the bodies of the US consul and his wife home. Following the somber task, the Fleet stopped in Naples, Italy and at the British territory of Gibraltar before making its way toward Hampton Roads for the final leg of the 43,000-nautical-mile journey that touched some 20 destinations on six continents.

Near the shores of the Virginia port, Roosevelt inspected the procession of ships from his place aboard the presidential yacht Mayflower, pleased it would be one of his final responsibilities as President — his term would end just 11 days later. With thousands standing in the rain to welcome the sailors home, Roosevelt addressed the officers and men simply: “Other nations may do what you have done, but they’ll have to follow you.”

Satisfied with the outcome of the voyage, Roosevelt’s primary goal had been met — the US achieved a new level of respect amongst the world community, setting the country up for an expanded role in international affairs less than a decade before World War I.

Also On This Day:

1371 – Robert II becomes King of Scotland and establishes the Stuart dynasty

1632 – Galileo Galilei publishes Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems

1732 – George Washington is born in Westmoreland, Virginia

1942 – President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt orders General Douglas MacArthur to abandon the Philippines

2006 – A group of at least six men make off with $92.5 million from a banking facility in Tonbridge, Kent, one of the largest robberies in history

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