The Great White Fleet Marks
Centennial of Historic Voyage
By DAVID F. WINKLER
With the American victory in the Spanish-American
War, the United States suddenly possessed overseas territories in the Pacific and, with them, requirements to provide for their defense during an age when
other powers were aggressively seeking to expand their
influence in the region. One of those powers, Japan, had
triumphed in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and
then went on to destroy two Russian fleets during the
Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. The rapid rise of
Japanese seapower became even more pronounced when
European powers reduced their naval forces in Asia to
concentrate their battle fleets in home waters.
Japanese-American relations had been amiable.
President Theodore Roosevelt brokered the Treaty of
Portsmouth that ended the war between Russia and
Japan, and Secretary of War William Taft had positive
discussions with Premier Taro Katsura during a visit to
Japan in 1905. However, in 1906 and 1907 discrimination against Japanese immigrants on the U.S. West Coast
created tension between the two countries. When anti-Japanese riots broke out in San Francisco and elsewhere
in May 1907, the press began to speculate about war.
Though Roosevelt did not believe war was pending,
in early June 1907 he queried the military about contingencies. The Joint Board — the 1907 version of
today’s Joint Chiefs of Staff — recommended a series of
precautionary moves, including sending a battle fleet
to the Pacific. At a meeting held at his Sagamore Hill
home on Long Island June 27, the president concurred
with the recommendation. On July 4, Navy Secretary
Victor Metcalf announced that the Navy would dispatch the battle fleet to the West Coast that fall.
The announcement of the cruise did raise some eyebrows. For perspective, it would be as if President George
W. Bush decided to suddenly deploy all of the Navy’s current aircraft carriers at the same time. Consequently, the
merits and reasoning of the decision were well debated in
the press and in Congress, where the chairman of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee, Sen. Eugene Hale, R-Maine,
threatened to withhold appropriations. Indeed, historians
are still debating the rationale behind the decision.
The deployment left the East Coast exposed as
European nations engaged in a naval arms race spurred
by the introduction of HMS Dreadnought into the U.K.
Royal Navy a few months earlier. However, with some
irony, the sudden appearance of the all-big-gun
Dreadnought and similar warships in other European
fleets in close proximity inhibited European admiral-ties from deploying their capital ships overseas.
Thus, on Dec. 16, 1907, the U.S. Navy dispatched 16
battleships from Hampton Roads, Va., for what was
advertised as a deployment to the West Coast. Ashore,
thousands watched the grand spectacle of the great
steel ships belching black smoke. Steaming in a column
into the Atlantic Ocean, each ship rendered honors to
President Roosevelt, who observed the pageantry of the
departure from the weather deck of the presidential
yacht Mayflower. With their white painted hulls and
gilded bows, the battleship flotilla would earn its place
in history as “The Great White Fleet.”
Many opponents feared Roosevelt intended to keep
the fleet on the West Coast as a ploy to force Congress to
appropriate funds for a new fleet for the East Coast. In
reality, West Coast homeports were not possible because
the naval infrastructure there could sustain the battle
fleet for only a short period. Thus, before the battle fleet
departed Hampton Roads, Roosevelt directed that the
fleet would return by way of the Pacific Ocean, Indian
Ocean, Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.
As the battleships headed south that first evening, the
battle fleet commander, Rear Adm. Robley D. Evans, who
was embarked in USS Connecticut, sent a wireless
announcement to the crews of the other battleships
announcing the intent to circumnavigate the globe. If it
was Evans’ intent to keep the message secret, he failed.
The wireless message was picked up ashore. The next day,
newspapers told the nation the news. The epic journey
now had captured the nation’s attention, and would continue to do so for the duration of the 14-month, 43,000-
mile journey, which concluded Feb. 22, 1909. ■
Source: James Reckner’s “Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White
Fleet,” Annapolis, Md., Naval Institute Press, 1988.
Additional details of the voyage and ships of the Great White
Fleet can be found on the the Naval Historical Center’s Web
site at www.history.navy.mil. Visit “Great White Fleet” in the
FAQ section. The photo archive section also contains digital
images of the ships and cruise.
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical