Bret Stephens: Why TR Claimed the Seas





[Mr. Stephens is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board. His column appears in the Journal Tuesdays.]

On Dec. 16, 1907, the 16 battleships of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet sailed from Hampton Roads, Va., on a 43,000-mile journey around the world. The occasion was immediately understood as Teddy Roosevelt's way of declaring that the United States, already an economic superpower, was also a military one. Unnoticed by most Americans, this past Sunday marked its centennial.

There is an enduring, bipartisan strain in American politics (think Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich) that wishes to forgo the military role. As wonderfully recounted by Jim Rasenberger in "America 1908," the voyage of the Great White Fleet, as it was popularly known, was energetically opposed by members of Congress, who sought to cut off its funding when it was halfway around the world. Sound familiar? Mark Twain considered the venture as further evidence that TR was "clearly insane . . . and insanest upon war and its supreme glories."

In fact, Roosevelt had sound strategic reasons for putting the fleet to sea. A year earlier, the British had commissioned their revolutionary Dreadnought battleship, setting off an arms race with Germany that helped set Europe on a course to World War I. Labor riots against Japanese immigrants in California had strained relations with Japan, whose dramatic naval victory over Russia at the battle of Tsushima had made the rest of the world keenly aware of this rising Asian power.

"Nearly every day fresh bulletins of sinister Japanese maneuvers appeared in the European and American press," writes Mr. Rasenberger, including rumors of thousands of Japanese troops disguised as Mexican peasants, "preparing to attack America." Roosevelt himself later explained that he had "become uncomfortably conscious of a very, very slight undertone of veiled truculence" from the Japanese. "It was time for a show down."

The voyage itself was fraught with risk. By shifting the bulk of America's naval might to the Pacific, Roosevelt left the Eastern seaboard largely undefended. Slight miscalculations on the first leg of the journey nearly left the fleet without enough coal to reach South America. The transit through the Straits of Magellan (the Panama Canal would not open until 1914) could have crippled any one of the ships and sunk the entire enterprise. There were serious worries the Japanese would sink the fleet at anchor in Yokohama. The fear was compounded by the discovery that the armor belt of the battleships, fully laden with men and stores, dropped several inches below the waterline.
The fears turned out to be misplaced. Journalists embedded in the fleet used primitive wireless devices to report rapturous public receptions everywhere from Rio de Janeiro to Sydney to Marseilles. The fleet crowned itself in further glory when it provided disaster relief in Messina, Sicily, after a devastating earthquake. The tradition would live on in U.S. Navy relief operations, most recently in Indonesia and Bangladesh....

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