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First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Powerby Warren Zimmermann
Introduction: Rising Empire
For Theodore Roosevelt, February 22, 1909, was one of the most satisfying days of his presidency. He was only ten days away from turning over the presidential mandate to his chosen successor, William Howard Taft, and only two months away from departing on safari to Africa. What was occupying him on February 22 was the return of the Great White Fleet, the sixteen first-class battleships that he had sent around the world as a show of American power. He had seen them off on December 9, 1907, at Hampton Roads, Virginia, at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. Fourteen and a half months later he was back at Hampton Roads aboard the presidential yacht Mayflower to watch them come home from the longest cruise ever taken by any navy, nearly forty-five thousand miles.
The naval towns of Hampton and Norfolk were jubilant in expectation, their buildings arrayed with bunting and banners. Out in the bay, hundreds of steamers, yachts, and other pleasure boats of all sizes and varieties braved squalls to await the great ships. Emerging out of the mist and rain, they looked ghostly and strange in their brilliant white, set off by the black smoke from their three tall funnels. In fact, they were the navy's last white ships; while they were at sea, the Navy Department had begun the conversion to the less visible, more war-effective battleship gray. The white ships sailed in one by one in a column seven miles long, each flying three large ensigns. Simultaneously they fired a twenty-one-gun salute to the president, then each repeated the salute individually as it passed the Mayflower.
In top hat and frock coat, Roosevelt visited each divisionflagship in the harbor and addressed the crews. Aboard the Connecticut, the fleet's flagship, he told the assembled sailors:
Over a year has passed since you steamed out of this harbor, and over the world's rim, and this morning the hearts of all who saw you thrilled with pride as the hulls of the mighty warships lifted above the horizon. You have been in the Northern and the Southern Hemispheres; four times you have crossed the line; you have steamed through all the great oceans; you have touched the coast of every continent.
As a war machine the fleet comes back in better shape than it went out. In addition, you, the officers and men of this formidable fighting force, have shown yourselves the best of all possible ambassadors and heralds of peace. . . . We are proud of all the ships and all the men in this whole fleet, and we welcome you home to the country whose good repute among nations has been raised by what you have done.
In attendance on a navy yacht were members of the House and Senate Naval Affairs committees. Their presence was a quiet triumph for Roosevelt, since in 1907 the chairman of the Senate committee, Eugene Hale of Maine, had tried to block the cruise by withholding funds. East Coast congressmen feared that a Pacific mission for the fleet would undercut its primary objective of protecting America's Atlantic coast. President William McKinley, Roosevelt's predecessor, would undoubtedly have conciliated this point of view. But Roosevelt ignored it, telling the senators he had enough money to get the fleet into the Pacific; it would just have to stay there if they failed to appropriate funds to bring it home.
This episode, which Roosevelt relished telling in his memoirs, illustrated the growing power of the presidency over Congress, which had dominated American politics since the Civil War. Roosevelt did not customarily disregard Congress ? he relied heavily on his closest friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts ? but his two terms had marked the resurgence of a strong executive.
One important absentee at Hampton Roads was greatly missed by the president, Admiral of the Navy George Dewey, its only four-star, who had been planning to attend but was ill with sciatica. Roosevelt, as assistant secretary of the navy in the McKinley administration, had lifted Dewey from an obscure post to the command of the Asiatic Squadron. Dewey had thus been positioned to destroy the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay at the start of the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Another absentee was Admiral Robley "Fighting Bob" Evans, who had commanded the Great White Fleet at the outset but had to retire for health reasons before it crossed the Pacific. Evans also had a distinguished war record. In 1898 in the victorious Battle of Santiago Bay, off Cuba, he had skippered the Iowa, to which the Spanish commander, Vice Admiral Pascual Cervera, had been brought as a prisoner. Evans had given Cervera full honors, and his sailors had cheered the vanquished Spaniard, moving him to bow his head for a full minute in gratitude and surrender.
The itinerary of the fleet recapitulated the distance the United States had come in the decade since the Spanish-American War. From Chesapeake Bay the battleships had steamed south to the Caribbean, which had become an American lake with the ejection of Spain from Cuba and Puerto Rico. They had then moved down the east coast of South America, through the Strait of Magellan, and up the west coast, stopping along the way in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Mexico.
The call at Valparaíso, Chile, would have stirred memories for Admiral Evans. In 1891, as captain of the gunboat Yorktown, he had dealt with a near war between Chile and the United States over the killing of two American sailors in a Valparaiso bar. One reason that the Harrison administration decided to settle the incident by diplomacy was its fear that the Chilean Navy might be superior to the American one. But by the time of Evans's visit with the Great White Fleet, that shocking disparity had been erased. The naval buildup now guaranteed American hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. Elihu Root, first as the secretary of war in charge of administering Cuba and Puerto Rico, then as a secretary of state who took Latin America seriously, had given political solidity to that dominance. Because of Roosevelt's aggressive diplomacy in wresting Panama from Colombia, a canal was under construction that would make the Caribbean central in saving future fleets from the long voyage around the Horn.
Even without the canal, which was not to open until 1914, the United States already had a two-ocean navy, the second strongest in the world behind Great Britain's. The difference with 1898 was dramatic. The naval victory in Cuba had been won with only four first-class battleships; these all were now supplanted by twenty brand-new vessels of the most modern fighting class. The military strategist Alfred T. Mahan had convinced American policy makers that naval power was the supreme expression of military supremacy and the proof of a nation's greatness.
The fleet's cruise also demonstrated, as Roosevelt put it, that "the Pacific was as much our home waters as the Atlantic." The ships had visited Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, China, the Philippines, and Japan. Both Hawaii and the Philippines had become American colonies in 1898, the former by peaceful annexation, the latter by military victory. China was a growing focus of interest and the subject of the Open Door policy of John Hay, secretary of state under McKinley and Roosevelt. Japan, the emerging great power in Asia, was a principal reason for Roosevelt's dispatch of the fleet: He wanted to impress the Japanese with American strength while persuading them of his peaceful intentions. To his satisfaction, the reception in Yokohama had been friendly, warm, and highly respectful.
The fleet had left the Pacific for the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, passed through the Suez Canal, steamed across the Mediterranean (units of it stopping to assist victims of a major earthquake in Sicily), and come home across the Atlantic. The cruise not only impressed the world with America's newfound military strength but excited the imagination of Americans as well. A million people had turned out in San Francisco to welcome the ships before their voyage across the Pacific. This enthusiasm laid the basis for a cherished objective of Roosevelt's: steady congressional funding of new battleships. Most important of all, the circumnavigation of the Great White Fleet gave substance to Roosevelt's assertion: "We have definitely taken our place among the great world powers."
Roosevelt noted in his autobiography that the day the fleet returned to Hampton Roads was George Washington's birthday. The first president, though remembered for his warning against U.S. entanglement in European affairs, was, like Roosevelt, an advocate of empire. In 1783 he referred to the United States as a "new empire" and a "rising empire," and three years later he said: "However unimportant America may be considered at present . . . there will assuredly come a day, when this country will have some weight in the scale of Empires." That day came in 1898, when the United States burst upon the world scene with a spectacular series of conquests.
On April 25, 1898, two months after the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Bay, the United States went to war with Spain over Cuba. On May 1, some eight thousand miles away in the Philippines, Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet off Manila. On June 21 the U.S. Navy, a thousand miles to the east, seized the tiny Spanish-held island of Guam, with its fine harbor. The zigzag pattern of conquest continued from the Caribbean to the Pacific and back. On July 1, Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt, attired in a brass-buttoned uniform he had just bought from Brooks Brothers, led his Rough Riders in an exuberant charge ? on foot ? up San Juan Hill, in eastern Cuba. Routing an overmatched Spanish force, the American soldiers took the heights overlooking Santiago Bay, where, two days later, the U.S. Navy won the battle for Cuba by capturing Admiral Cervera's entire squadron. On July 7, President McKinley, exulting in the expansionist fervor, annexed Hawaii, which had been under the de facto control of American sugar planters since 1893. On August 13, Manila fell to Dewey. The next day, the U.S. Army took control of the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico after an efficient nine-day campaign launched almost as an afterthought to the action in Cuba.
On December 10, by the Treaty of Paris, Spain ceded to the United States the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico, none of which had been an important prewar objective for the United States. Spain also renounced sovereignty over Cuba, which had been the principal U.S. target, thus opening the island to American military rule. And so by force of arms the United States in only a few months gained territorial possessions on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of its continental mass.
Copyright © 2002 Warren Zimmermann
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