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."
Precisely. Theodore Roosevelt, much like Ronald Reagan, understood that if there was to be war, the United States needed to be ready. To that end, he was a strong supporter of the nation's armed forces, and particularly the Navy- a favoritism that rubbed off on his cousin Franklin as well. And although his muscular (and largely personal) diplomacy was replaced by the muddle-headed do-gooding of Woodrow Wilson, he laid the groundwork for the US Navy's successful performance in World War I. The United States Navy's site provides additional information on the 1907 cruise. According to the Navy, as recorded by Mike McKinley,
The cruise provided the officers and men of the fleet with thorough at-sea training and brought about improvements in formation steaming, coal economy, gunnery and morale. It also stressed the need for overseas bases that could provide better coaling and supply services along with more auxiliary ships. Foreign coaling ships or ports were used 90 percent of the time for coaling and resupply.
For the sailors who participated in this historic once-in-a-lifetime adventure, the cruise reinforced their pride in service and country. They had been the ambassadors of good will and the vehicles through which others perceived and judged America and the Navy. The results were gratifying. But even more concretely, the sailors saw their individual roles and the role of the Great White Fleet as providing the muscle behind US foreign policy.
As one sailor succinctly put it, "We just wanted to let the world know we were prepared for anything they wanted to kick up. We wanted to show the world what we could do."
Taken as a whole, the cruise did indeed provide invaluable experience to the men of the Fleet as well as the master planners in Washington. It opened the world's eyes to the growing power of the upstart republic. And it opened America's eyes to the fact that they had truly arrived on the global stage and that the world was beginning to be our stage. Finally, the cruise and his successful arbitration of the Russo-Japanese War provided Roosevelt and his Administration with two valuable public relations coups, overshadowing anything that the opposition (in those days a mostly loyal opposition, it must be said) could do to submarine his Administration.
Pity that today's Press and many of our political so-called 'leadership' has neither the intestinal fortitude nor the love of country to repeat such an experience. I would hope that some mainstream press organ might pick up on this story. But since even they cannot find anything in the story of the Great White Fleet to shame current President George W. Bush, I doubt that they will waste any of their precious newsprint on a story that holds only glory and praise for this great country and our wonderful Navy.