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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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Chapter 2

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p3  Chapter I

The United States a World Power

Theodore Roosevelt's two terms in the White House were among the busiest in American history. He is justly famous for a range of accomplishments from trust-busting to conservation. Most of these have received adequate attention and been widely publicized. Today more than ever, however, it seems important to consider in greater detail than has been attempted up to this time his part in the development of the modern United States Navy.

Thinking in terms of a projected seven-ocean Navy, it is hard to realize that just a few decades ago America was one of the less important naval powers. Yet that is what America was when Roosevelt assumed the Presidency in 1901. Eight years later this country had one of the world's most powerful battle fleets. The changes wrought during those two administrations laid the groundwork upon which our Navy is building today. While air power in the future may eliminate sea power as an important weapon of war, the strength which we have so far obtained as a result of our modern naval might dates clearly from the eight years while Roosevelt was President.

The international scene against which Theodore Roosevelt developed American naval and foreign policy in the opening years of the twentieth century was essentially dynamic in comparison with the situation that had prevailed since 1815. The remarkable stability of that earlier era of the Pax Britannica was fast disappearing. This trend had been clearly evident from about 1890. It was a result in part of the rise of centers of power in the Western Hemisphere and the Far East.

 p4  The spread of the Industrial Revolution to these countries made them independent of British factories and gave them the power potential necessary to maintain a great fleet. The same was true of Germany. There, however, the need for land armaments and British control of the ocean approaches to German ports made the Kaiser's bid for sea power less dangerous for Great Britain. On the other hand, this German threat, coming as it did at the same time as the rise of the independent naval powers in North America and Eastern Asia, was an important factor in destroying British control of the seas. It necessitated the withdrawal of large naval forces from the Pacific, the western Atlantic-Caribbean and the Mediterranean areas to bolster the Home Fleet against the German force in the North Sea.

By 1900 the United States, therefore, found itself supreme in the waters of North America. America even received British encouragement, for the Mother Country saw that the only way to maintain its influence in the western Atlantic or Caribbean was to keep on friendly terms with the American Navy. Similarly in the Far East, the Japanese Fleet had no serious rival. Great Britain recognized this in 1902 by signing the Anglo-Japanese Naval Alliance, by means of which Britain hoped to preserve its power in the Pacific.

This picture as seen from America was most happy, at least for purposes of defensive naval strategy. In the Atlantic the only possible rivals were the Germans and the British, and these were holding each other at bay across the North Sea. The German Fleet could never hope to get past the British Isles and reach North America. England was unable to wage war in Europe if America was hostile, because England had to keep open the Atlantic supply  p5 lines. The western Atlantic and Caribbean were thus safe. The eastern Pacific was likewise under the indisputable control of the American Navy because of the tremendous distances of that ocean, because of the advance bases acquired by the United States in 1898 and because Japan and Russia were holding each other in check in Manchuria. Furthermore, the coasts of the United States were absolutely safe from naval blockade due to the overwhelming technical difficulties involved in such an operation.1

On the other hand, there were two major weaknesses in America's naval situation. In the first place the United States had two widely separated seaboards, so far apart, in fact, that our Pacific Coast for all strategic purposes might have been a colony half‑way around the world. By way of Cape Horn it was 13,000 miles from the Atlantic Coast to San Francisco. The U. S. S. Oregon broke all records when she made the trip in 68 days during the Spanish-American War.​2 This situation admitted of only two solutions: a two‑ocean navy or an isthmian canal. The latter would create the further problem of the defense of the canal.

The second major problem of American naval strategy was the defense of our outputs in the western Pacific. These island possessions had become part of the American empire only a few years before as a result of the war with Spain. They had not been fortified at all but were still potential threats to Japan. The dilemma was this: "An American Fleet, strong enough to guarantee security to the Philippines, could destroy the Japanese Navy and blockade  p6 Japan. On the other hand, a fleet that could defend the Japanese homeland against the United States would constitute a standing menace to the security of the Philippines."3

Roosevelt always feared such an attack on Hawaii and the Philippines but felt that Japan, if not irritated too much, would prefer not to take such a step.​4 In case war actually did break out, as was threatened in 1906 and 1907, he planned to withdraw the Asiatic Fleet to the Pacific Coast, for it was too weak to resist Japanese Navy and too strong to be thrown away.​5 He hoped then to gain eventual victory by utilizing America's tremendous material resources in the creation of an overwhelming naval superiority.6

As a result of new international scene of the early 1900's and the keen interest taken in the Navy by the President, for the first time "naval policy . . . began to influence the spirit and direction of American foreign relations."​7 Roosevelt realized the necessity of backing up diplomacy with armed force. When Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1897 he made known his views favoring a strong Navy in an address before the Naval War College.​8 Such a policy was continually to be urged by him throughout  p7 his career both in public addresses and in private correspondence. In his first annual message to Congress in 1901 he said:

"We desire the peace which comes of right to the just man armed; not the peace granted to the craven and the weakling . . . the Navy offers the only means of making our insistence upon the Monroe Doctrine anything but a subject of derision to whatever nation chooses to disregard it. . . .

"The American people must either build and maintain an adequate Navy or else make up their minds definitely to accept a secondary position in international affairs, not merely in political, but in commercial matters."​9

On May 13, 1905, Roosevelt wrote to his great friend Cecil Spring-Rice:

"I have steadfastly preached a big navy, and I have with equal steadfastness seen that our navy is practised until I have reason to believe that ship for ship it is as efficient as any. I do not believe that as things are now in the world any nation can rely upon inoffensiveness for safety. Neither do I believe that it can rely upon alliance with any other nation for safety. My object is to keep America in trim so that fighting her shall be too expensive and dangerous a task to lightly be undertaken by anybody. . . .

". . . the Kaiser . . . respects us because . . . we have a pretty good navy with which to fight. I shall hope that on these terms I can keep the respect not merely of Berlin, but of St. Petersburg and Tokio. I know that except on  p8 these terms the respect of any one of the three cannot be kept."​10

Roosevelt realized the importance of the United States' power in the new world situation. He saw the necessity for maintaining the balance of power in both Europe and Asia. His actions during the Moroccan crisis and the Russo-Japanese War showed the effectiveness of American influence. In 1911 he remarked to Baron von Eckardstein that if England should fail to preserve the European balance of power the United States would be forced to step in to reestablish it, no matter against what countries our efforts would have to be directed. "In fact," he added, "we ourselves are becoming, owing to our strength and geographical situation, more and more the balance of power of the whole globe."11

Another important fact that did not escape Roosevelt's keen vision was that America's entrance into European politics would be through the Far East. He fully understood the significance of our position in the Pacific.​12 This was exactly the area where the United States was at the greatest strategic disadvantage. To overcome this would require the construction of a huge Navy, as Roosevelt clearly saw. He was further influenced in this direction by the great American naval theorist, Alfred Thayer Mahan. The President's "big stick" policy, for example, was closely related to Mahan's theories on battle-fleet concentration and national power. Both of these men were extreme nationalists, and many of their ideas were closely related to the old mercantilism.

 p9  At any rate Roosevelt was not alone in his fight for a larger and better navy. Besides the men in the service there was strong support for the President from both patriotic and economic interest groups. There was a large element genuinely interested in the growth of national power. The nation's shipowners, exporters and producers of export goods, as well as the shipbuilders, the men in the metallurgical industries and others who stood to make a profit out of the construction of a fleet, all advocated a big Navy. These groups, plus many politicians anxious to please their constituents by the expenditure of large naval appropriations in their districts, joined with disinterested patriots to form the Navy League in 1903.​13 This active organization proved to be of great help to the President in his fight to get his naval program accepted.

The naval program of the Roosevelt Administration falls into two parts. The first drive lasted from 1901 to 1905. At the time of President McKinley's death in September 1901, the United States ranked fifth among the world's naval powers. Our Navy had nine first-class battle­ships in commission with eight more authorized and building.​14 These ships, however, were scattered far and wide over the oceans of the world and in no sense did they form a united battle fleet. Furthermore, many of them could be used only for coast defense. All were undermanned and many incompetent officers and men were in positions of responsibility. On shore the Navy Department and the various yards and bases were suffering from long years of neglect, inefficiency  p10 and bureaucratic red tape. Roosevelt faced the task of transforming this organization into an efficient machine capable of facing the strategic problems inherent in the contemporary international scene. In carrying out such a program consideration for the revolutionary technical advances in all lines of warfare held a position of primary importance.

In the four years from 1901 to 1905 Congress authorized ten battle­ships, four armored cruisers and seventeen other ships, all totalling 250,000 tons.​15 In 1905 the President decided that further expansion was unnecessary. In March of that year he wrote to General Leonard Wood (then in Manila):

". . . I have now reached my mark and we have built or provided for twenty-eight battle­ships and twelve armored cruisers. This Navy puts us a good second to France and about on a par with Germany; and ahead of any other power in point of material, except, of course, England. For some years now we can afford to rest and merely repair the ships that are worn out or become obsolete, while we bring up the personnel."​16

To Congress that same year he said that "probably the result would be obtained by adding a single battle­ship to our Navy each year."17

The second part of Roosevelt's naval program began the following year, when he asked Congress for two battle­ships. This sudden shift in opinion was largely due to the crisis with Japan over the status of Japanese subjects in California. Up until the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905  p11 Japanese-American relations had been very intimate. With the blossoming of both of these countries into world powers as a result of the Spanish-American and Russo-Japanese Wars, their attitude toward one another changed from one of close friendship to one of rivalry.​18 While the war scare in 1906 and 1907 was probably exaggerated, it did prove helpful to the President's program. On October 27, 1906, he wrote to Senator Hale, chairman of the Naval Affairs Committee, emphasizing the danger of war with Japan. While asserting that the United States should try not to irritate Japan unnecessarily, he wanted "to keep our Navy in such a shape as to make it a risky thing for Japan to go to war with us." Therefore we must lay down "two ships the equal of any laid down by any nation."​19 On December 19 he directed a similar appeal to the head of the House Naval Affairs Committee, George Foss of Illinois.20

Another reason for the new naval program was the completion of the Dreadnought by the British in 1906. While this event did not render useless all older battle­ships, it did make them obsolete and formed a new basis for measuring naval strength in the future. The failure of the Hague Conference of 1907 to adopt any plan for the limitation of naval armaments was also advanced as an argument in favor of further naval expansion. In December of that year Roosevelt said to Congress:

"It is evident, therefore, that it is folly for this nation to base any hope of securing peace on any international agreement as to the limitation of armaments. Such being the fact, it would be most unwise for us to stop the upbuilding  p12 of the Navy. To build one battle­ship of the best and most advanced type a year would barely keep our fleet up to its present force. This is not enough. In my judgment, we should this year provide for four battle­ships."​21

Although only one battle­ship was authorized in 1906 and one in 1907, this demand for four new ships resulted in the authorization of two in 1908. Roosevelt obtained two more in 1909 by means of the same tactics. Congress, which was by this time getting out of hand, refused to enact most of the rest of his program, except for submarines, twenty-seven of which were authorized from 1902 to 1909. Total appropriations were increased from $100,000,000 in 1907 to $140,000,000 in 1909. In spite of this fact, the study of the debates in Congress for the last two years of the Administration made by Harold and Margaret Sprout showed that the people as a whole were opposed to a program of naval expansion, although the press generally supported the President.22

With this brief general background of the international political and strategic scene and the domestic naval program in mind, the administration, organization and technical advances of the United States Navy from 1901 to 1909 will be considered. President Roosevelt dominated the scene so completely that it might almost be called his own personal naval policy rather than that of the United States.​23 It was the growth during these few years that laid the foundation for eventual American naval supremacy.

The Author's Notes:

1 George W. Melville, "Our Actual Naval Strength," North American Review, 176 (1903), p379.

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2 Harold and Margaret Sprout, The Rise of American Naval Power (Princeton University Press, 1939), p250.

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3 ibid., p256.

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4 Tyler Dennett, Roosevelt and the Russo-Japanese War (Doubleday, Page and Co., 1925), pp161‑3.

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5 Roosevelt to Secretary of the Navy Bonaparte in a letter of August 10, 1906, quoted in Thomas A. Bailey, Theodore Roosevelt and the Japanese-American Crises (Stanford University Press, 1934), p25.

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6 Roosevelt to Rear-Admiral Brownson, July 26, 1907, quoted in Bailey, op. cit., pp247‑8.

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7 Sprout, op. cit., p250.

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8 Joseph B. Bishop, Theodore Roosevelt and His Time (Scribner, 1920), vol. I, pp75 ff.

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9 Theodore Roosevelt, State Papers as Governor and President, 1899‑1909 (Scribner, 1926), pp113, 118. This will be cited hereafter as Roosevelt, State Papers.

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10 Dennett, op. cit., pp89‑90.

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11 Hermann Freiherr von Eckardstein, Die Isolierung Deutschlands, p175, quoted in Dennett, op. cit., p1.

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12 ibid., pp2‑3.

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13 Sprout, op. cit., p258.

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14 T. A. Brassey, The Naval Annual, 1902 (J. Griffin and Co., 1902), p64.

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15 For the complete naval program authorized 1900 to 1909, see Table II in Appendix A.

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16 Bishop, op. cit., Vol. I, p366.

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17 Roosevelt, State Papers, p309.

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18 Bailey, op. cit., pp5‑6.

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19 ibid., p82.

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20 ibid., p120.

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21 Roosevelt, State Papers, pp471‑2.

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22 Sprout, op. cit., pp267‑8.

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23 ibid., p250.

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