On 16 December 1907 Rear Admiral Robley D. "Fighting Bob" Evans, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Fleet, the Navy's senior officer and a veteran of the Civil War and Spanish-American War, stood on the flag bridge of the USS Connecticut , leading a column of 16 battleships from Hampton Roads, Virginia, out to the Atlantic Ocean. He was taking the fleet from the Atlantic around the southern part of South America to the Pacific, in the first leg of what would later be known as the ‘round-the-world cruise by the Great White Fleet. As the ships steamed by the presidential yacht Mayflower , the President waved his hat as the band played "The Girl I Left Behind Me."
This was Roosevelt's fleet. More than anyone, he was responsible for its creation. As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, then as Vice President and President, he had fought and lobbied for legislation to build a world-class navy. At the start of his presidential administration, the U.S. Navy ranked fifth in the world, largely because of Roosevelt's previous efforts in the Navy Department. When he left the presidency seven-and-a-half years later, the U.S. Navy was second only to the British Royal Navy.
Some critics and politicians were concerned that shifting the fleet to the Pacific would leave the U.S. East Coast vulnerable and undefended. This encouraged legislation for the construction of new warships and also demonstrated the value of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama, another Roosevelt project then under construction. When asked how the Navy would pay for fuel to bring the fleet back to the Atlantic, Roosevelt suggested that if Congress wanted the fleet back on the East Coast, it could appropriate funds for fuel. Although the fleet's voyage to California was all that had been announced publicly, Roosevelt had a much longer trip in mind.
The British Royal Navy, while still the largest in the world, was being reduced in the early 20th century. As part of that reduction, British ships no longer maintained a continuous presence in the Pacific and Indian oceans. This and the rapid rise of Japan as a world power caused Asian discomfort and European economic concern. Lessening of British influence in the Pacific left the area vulnerable to Japanese exploitation. By moving the U.S. fleet to California, Roosevelt wanted to demonstrate that the United States could influence events in the Pacific and that it had the resources and the will to use them. Even so, many critics doubted this resolve and the prospect that the fleet could influence events in the Western Pacific—or anywhere else.
Another of Roosevelt's purposes was to impress on the American people, and the world, that the U.S. fleet could operate in any ocean, and that its presence was not an indication of hostility. Roosevelt directed the movement of the fleet without consultation with his Cabinet or Congress.
The fleet stopped at Trinidad, Brazil, Chile, Peru, and Mexico before arriving in San Diego. At every port, coal was the major consideration, as it would be for the entire voyage. The ships burned a great deal of fuel and required frequent replenishment. Huge crowds everywhere it stopped received the fleet warmly.
San Francisco welcomed the 16 battleships on 6 May 1908. Newspapers reported that more than a million people came to see the fleet, making it the greatest movement of people the Pacific coast had ever seen, for the greatest display of naval strength ever to be assembled in the West. The cruiser force had been operating in the Pacific and was at San Francisco to welcome the battleships.
The city opened its arms to the sailors of the Great White Fleet. It also had to welcome a large number of animals, because wherever they had visited, sailors were given pets as mascots—pigs, goats, monkeys, cats, dogs, birds and especially bears, Teddy Bears, in honor of President Roosevelt. While in San Francisco, Evans retired, turning over command of the U.S. Fleet to Rear Admiral Charles M. Thomas, who retired a week later, placing Rear Admiral Charles S. Sperry in command.
From Washington came an announcement that the President had ordered the fleet to return to the Atlantic by way of the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea—essentially by going around the world. These ships comprised the most powerful naval force ever to make such a voyage. Some critics and naval analysts declared that it could not be done, because available coal was insufficient, the ships would break down, and the men could not take it. But Roosevelt's battle fleet did embark, showing the flag and reinforcing that the United States was no longer just an energetic former colony; it was a major power, able to influence events anywhere in the world. Roosevelt was aware that officials of other leading navies, including the British, did not believe that their fleets could go around the world, and even more they doubted that a U.S. fleet could do so.
After leaving San Francisco, the fleet stopped at Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia. Because the British Royal Navy had left the Pacific and Indian oceans, the people of New Zealand and Australia felt abandoned, particularly with what they perceived as a growing Japanese threat. They welcomed the presence of a powerful U.S. fleet in the Western Pacific.
Japan had been rising rapidly from a backward, distant, archaic country to becoming a world power. Because of this, Roosevelt as well as his critics were concerned with how Japan would receive the fleet, how the battleship sailors would behave, and how diplomatic events would unfold.
The visit could not have been more successful, from every aspect. Even the Japanese Emperor himself greeted the visitors and received them with warmth, hospitality, and appreciation. It was high achievement, a worthy cause, and the Great White Fleet had dared to accomplish what cold and timid critics had doubted. All this was particularly satisfying to Roosevelt, especially since he had been the first American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906, for having a direct involvement with ending the Russo-Japanese War.
After visiting China, the fleet assembled at Manila Bay in the Philippines in November and conducted annual gunnery battle practice. It then departed on 1 December 1908, flying "homeward bound" pennants more than 200 feet long. The fleet stopped at Ceylon as it crossed the Indian Ocean, then transited the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. In the Mediterranean Sea some of the ships helped with disaster relief following an earthquake in Italy before assembling at Gibraltar.
The supply ship Yankton sent a message with arrival plans from Rear Admiral Sperry to a radio station on Fire Island, New York. A milestone event in communications, this message was transmitted from a ship at sea, over 2,000 miles, received at a shore station and acknowledged, allowing authorities in the United States to make plans for the return of the Great White Fleet. Radio communication was in its infancy between 1907 and 1909, and the Navy was trying to solve problems of radio transmitter power, antennae length, and frequency selection for long-distance high-frequency use. U.S. Army Signal Corps personnel embarked for the voyage were helping with radio communications.
Four additional battleships and five cruisers joined the fleet at sea, 1,000 miles from home. On Washington's Birthday, 22 February 1909, in spite of rain, huge crowds lined the shores of Hampton Roads as 20 battleships, 5 cruisers, and 3 supply ships steamed majestically through the channel. Each ship fired a 21-gun salute while passing the Mayflower ; a simultaneous 21-gun salute by all ships followed. President Roosevelt, in the last few days of his presidency, was moved deeply, and in later years he evaluated this as one of his greatest achievements and the most important service he had rendered to world peace.
The ships remained at Hampton Roads long enough to send contingents of sailors to march in President William Howard Taft's inaugural parade in Washington, then returned to their home ports. Soon after, the ships' scrollwork was removed, their masts replaced with lattice works, their white paint covered with gray. After steaming more than 42,000 miles in 14 months, the Great White Fleet had come to an end. But it represented the beginning of a new century of naval development. This is still the most powerful fleet ever to circumnavigate the globe.
Over the past 90 years, the United States has fought in two world wars and has used military and naval force in more than 300 crises, contingencies, and conflicts influencing events all over the world and evolving into the most powerful nation with the most powerful Navy.
As the 21 st century begins, it not only is appropriate, but essential, that the United States send a battle fleet around the world again. It should be called Theodore Roosevelt's Fleet, after the President who recognized Thomas Jefferson's mistake, corrected it, displayed the strength of the United States to the world, and led the way to greatness. A new great fleet—Theodore Roosevelt's Fleet—of aircraft carriers, cruisers, submarines, destroyers, and amphibious warfare ships with embarked Marines should open the 21st century by showing U.S. strength and resolve with a voyage around the world.
Captain Landersman is employed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory as fleet representative on the staff of Commander, Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, San Diego, California.