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Chapter 6

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of the Modern Navy

Gordon Carpenter O'Gara

published by
Princeton University Press 1943

The text is in the public domain.

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 p109  Chapter VII


Summing up Roosevelt's achievements in the reform of the Navy, we find a brilliantly successful record. Whereas he started out with a disorganized, motley collection of obsolete ships, none of whose officers and men had been adequately trained in modern naval tactics, he produced within eight years the second largest navy in the world. It was he who gave the United States the naval organization necessary to attain her present naval supremacy.

In the line of actual administration he was not so successful, but he did institute some reforms in the Navy Department and, what is more important, he breathed fresh life into the old organization and cleared away much of the lethargy which was enveloping the naval bureaucracy. The administration of the Navy yards and stations definitely improved and continued to do so in later years. Congress and politics, however, prevented their logical distribution and the concentration of work at a few important bases.

During these eight years naval construction saw such breathtaking advances that it was hard to keep up with them. The first eight American dreadnoughts were authorized in the later year of Roosevelt's Administration, and it was almost universally conceded that American capital ships had the heaviest offensive and defensive power in the world.1

Furthermore, these mighty ships were concentrated into one of the world's most powerful battle fleets, the Atlantic Fleet. This unit captured the attention of the entire world  p111 by circumnavigating the globe. No longer were American ships used in peacetime only to show the flag in foreign ports. On the contrary, the United States Navy was developed into a highly trained fighting force ready for actual combat service. Whereas our naval gunnery in 1901 had been a national disgrace, it was in 1909 upon a par with the very best achievements abroad.

Finally, Roosevelt nearly doubled the enlisted strength of the Navy and increased the number of officers by about twenty per cent. Actually he did more than that, for the enlarged classes at Annapolis provided a constantly increasing stream of new officers.

In addition to all this he succeeded in publicizing the Navy and making the people conscious of it and proud of its achievements. They were made to realize the technical difficulties involved in maintaining a modern fleet and the necessary provisions that must be made for it. Roosevelt's successors had a much easier job in expanding the Navy because of his extensive groundwork. They had only to add to an already working organization. It is hard to imagine an uninspired though capable man like Taft activating such an institution as Roosevelt found in 1901. It was the latter's personal touch more than anything that caused the Navy to advance so quickly.

The President's "large" foreign policy was due in great part to his interest in the Navy. Only by building up such a "big stick" was he able to intervene so widely in affairs abroad. He could use the Fleet to coerce the Caribbean countries. He could use it to make his influence felt during the Moroccan crisis and during the Russo-Japanese War. Because Great Britain and Germany were holding each  p112 other at bay in the North Sea, he aimed at attaining a Navy second only to Britain's so that he could use it to help preserve the European balance of power. He was especially anxious to prevent German aggression, and the close cooperation between the British North American Navies was shown when Sims was allowed to inspect the Dreadnought in 1907. At that time other foreign naval attachés would have given anything for even a glance at the mysterious new super-battleship.2

Besides maintaining the Monroe Doctrine in the Caribbean the new Navy was also necessary for the defense of the future Panama Canal. And perhaps most important overall was the effect which the Fleet had upon our relations with Japan. While Roosevelt did make some slight gestures to the Japanese so that they might save face, for instance, when he recognized their seizure of Korea, he did not back down on any of the major points of dispute between the two countries. California continued to discriminate against Japanese and their further entry into the United States was effectively barred, even though it was politely arranged by means of the famous "Gentlemen's Agreement." The trip of the Atlantic Fleet to the Pacific proved to be by far the most effective means of maintaining peace in that ocean.

However, an even more important task lay ahead of the new Rooseveltian Navy. In the eventual outbreak of war in Europe it was used first to protect American neutrality and then to help win the war. If the United States ever planned to develop a merchant marine of its own, a large Navy was clearly necessary. While Roosevelt saw this, he also saw that the Navy could protect our shipping both by  p113 its purely military threat and by its political importance, if correctly used, in the maintenance of the balance of power.

The significance of Roosevelt's Presidency in American naval history, then, lies chiefly in the fact that it witnessed the opening of the era of the massive steel war fleet designed to overwhelm the enemy by sheer weight. Modern technology made this possible. As a direct result the United States, by virtue of her new and rapidly increasing industrial wealth, attained a position of great advantage. She was better able to maintain such a fleet than any other nation of the world.

This new type of naval force — exemplified by H. M. S. Dreadnought and the U. S. S. Delaware — was the culmination of a trend obvious throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century. After 1909 the pattern did not change basically although many improvements were made as a result of experience and new knowledge. However, the all-big‑gun type of battleship proved to be the final step in the growth of two‑dimensional sea warfare. Just as armored warships began to approach their peak of development, the submarine and the airplane altered the whole strategic and tactical picture. The supremacy of the dreadnought began to fade away even as it matured.

At any rate, whatever may be the ultimate fate of sea power as it has been known, Theodore Roosevelt provided his country with the organization with which to build naval supremacy. For some time to come, and through at least one war, the blue-water Navy which he developed was to be our first line of defense. While he did not have to consider all the complicating factors we must face today, he understood thoroughly the naval problems of his day and  p114 realized the importance of an efficient Naval Establishment. As a result of that and of a purely personal love of the sea and the Navy, he prepared the United States to take an unforeseen part in the First World War and the international drama that ensued.

The Author's Notes:

1 Fred T. Jane, Fighting Ships, 1909, pp2‑3.

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2 Sims, "Roosevelt and the Navy," Part II, McClure's, 54 (1922), p62.

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