When the fleet sailed out of Norfolk, Va., on Dec. 16, 1907, it was simply the Atlantic Fleet beginning a globe-circling voyage. But trust writers to coin a flashy marquee name: the Great White Fleet.
This week marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of that peacetime naval expedition -- which still has historic resonance.
President Theodore Roosevelt sent the fleet of 16 white-painted battleships on the 14-month cruise for a number of reasons. I doubt the headline "TR PR" appeared in 1907, but it would have been accurate, as well as succinct. The Great White Fleet's journey certainly served as a global public relations event.
In a recent interview, naval historian Dr. A.A. Nofi agreed with that assessment. "The voyage was an announcement," Nofi said. "America had been quietly building up the second-largest navy in the world, and no one was paying attention. The Great White Fleet said, 'Hey, we're here.'"
Nofi said, however, there was another reason to send the fleet, one that had less to do with showoff bravado and more to do with calculated geostrategic signaling in the wake of Japan's victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. An Asian power had defeated a European power in a major naval engagement that featured the movement of the Russian fleet from European waters to East Asia. "In the immediate political context (of the early 20th century)," Nofi said, "the fleet's voyage was a message to Japan that said that unlike Russia, if America has to cross the ocean to fight you, its navy will be there in force and ready."
Having mediated the peace negotiations between Japan and Russia, Roosevelt was acutely aware of Japan's military capabilities. In 1906, TR received the Nobel Peace Prize for his successful mediation. The Great White Fleet embodied TR's dictum, "Talk softly and carry a big stick." The fleet was a "big stick" behind a man with a peace prize.
A big stick indeed -- peace through strength, a later generation would call it -- "but the Great White Fleet also garnered an extraordinary amount of good will for the U.S.," Nofi added, a different kind of publicity payoff. The fleet generated positive buzz; its arrival in a port of call was good PR for the port. Elements of the fleet also assisted in the Messina (Sicily) earthquake of 1908. "Some of the fleet's ships were in the vicinity," Nofi said, "and responded, similar to the way U.S. military forces aided victims of the terrible tsunami of 2005 (which smashed Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka)."
The voyage provided the U.S. Navy with operational insights that would prove useful during the next 100 years, especially in terms of exposing U.S. Navy planners to the problem of truly global logistics. A huge battleship squadron steaming around the planet in peacetime is impressive, however, wartime combat requires sustaining the fleet with fuel and ammunition.
The Navy hired private colliers from around the world to support the voyage. "In effect," Nofi said, "the USN was using contractors for global support. So using contractors like KBR isn't a new idea." However, Nofi pointed out, the Navy ultimately decided it was a bad idea, or at least an inadequate answer. "It took the Navy until the 1930s to convince Congress to purchase sufficient support ships -- fleet auxiliaries so the Navy could support its warships" in transoceanic combat operations.
The Great White Fleet's voyage took place in peacetime, when contractors (the privately owned colliers) were eager and available. "Upon analyzing extended naval movements (such as the Great White Fleet)," Nofi said, "the question the Navy faced was would these privately owned support ships be available in wartime? Moreover, would their crews be willing to sail with battle fleets in hostile waters?" The Navy concluded if it had to fight a global war, it needed its own auxiliaries manned by Navy personnel who knew that fighting in wars was their job.
The same question confronts contemporary war planners. In the 1990s, the Pentagon decided to cut military support structure and hire private contractors.
The Great White Fleet returned to Norfolk on Feb. 22, 1909, after a journey of 43,000 miles. Go to www.history.navy.mil/library/online and click on "gwf cruise" for a detailed article on the voyage, as well as an excellent bibliography.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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