Sea History 104 - Spring 2003

Page 8


From Two-Ocean Navy to All-Ocean Navy by Peter Stanford merican attitudes toward the wider wo rld were stirring with new life as the nation stepped onto the world stage in the Spanish-American W arofl 898. T he simplistic view so widespread in academia today, that the encounter was an act of unbridled American aggression and dominance, does nor march either people's beliefs at the rime or the outcomes of the war. T hose outcomes included freedom fo r subj ect peoples in the Spanish colonies of C uba and , half a world away, the Philippines-results integral to the Am erican purpose, which did not aim at co nquest. And the strengthened US presence in the Caribbean led to rebuff of a threatened German invasion of Venezuela, while US ships in the Far East stabilized America's Open Door policy in China, then threatened with dismemberment by European powers. T he idea of a strengthened world presence by sea was new to a nation whose navy had avoided the ride "admiral" because of its imperial ove rtones, until rhe vasr expansion called for by the Civil War had made the senior rank necessary. And in the US naval expansion of the 1890s, designed to deter European military intervention in the Americas, the first battleships of the New Navy- as it was rightly called-were designated "coast defense battleships" to disclaim overseas ambitions. By what to the suspicious-minded might well seem a plot of a vast right-wing conspiracy, the decade of the '90s also saw th e publication of The Influence of Sea Power upon H istory, a weigh ty bur eminen rly readable tract setting fo rth the viral role of seafaring in securing the wealth and freedom of Britain, the most powerful nation in the wo rld. T his was wri tte n by 50-yearold Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, USN, who had a poetic gift of reaching pas t the everyday push-and-shove of international rivalries to a vision of how the Pax Britanni ca, under which the US Navy had come of age, had come about. What it rook to build wo rld trade and securi ty was what Mahan called "sea power. " By this he meant nor just wa r-maki ng naval power, bur the positive use of the sea lanes that generated wealth and hum an interco urse, backed by naval power to ass ure safe passage of the seas. Appearing in 1890, the book and its catch phrase "sea power" propelled Mahan



into unwonted international recognition , first in Britain, naturall y e nou gh , bur soon also in Britain's increasingly aggressive rival Germany. Before the decade was out the Kaiser ordered copies placed in the libraries of all warships in the rapidly exp andin g Germ an navy. And with Presiden r Theodore Roosevel r's accession as President of the U nited Stares, the rolling cadences of Mahan ' s tract virtually became Well might Commander Sims smile, happy in his work as Naval Aide to President Theodore Roosevelt. H ere they are seeing off the US naval policy-a Great White Fleet on its round-the-world cruise in 1908. policy that looked nor to passive coast defense bur active control of the sea by a building hi s career on a strikingly similar mix of concerns.) seagoing barrlefleer. Teddy Roosevelt believed that the US Fortunately for America and the world, this outlook did not end wi th an activist had a mission in the wo rld. He had worked president and visionary naval historian, for wonders to help C uba gain the infrastruca new generation of naval officers began to ture needed by a modern state after its think in terms of oceans ro be mastered liberation in the Spanish-American W ar. As President, he warded off German m ilira ther than coas tlines to be guarded . tary incursion close to home in South Sims: The "Cheer Up" Captain America, as noted above, and he negotiated When Theodore Roosevelt was Assistant the peace that ended the Russo-Japanese Secretary of the Navy in the late 1890s, W ar on the other side of the world. Bu r hi s grea t contribution to the reports from a yo ung naval attache in Europe showing Bri rish, French and G erman strengthened wo rld presence of the United gunnery to be more accu rate than rhar of States at sea was to send sixteen US warUS Navy ships caught his eye. Both were ships aro und the wo rld in 1908-09. T his in their late 30s when Roosevelt wrote a fo rce, which became famous as the G reat congratulato ry note to the naval attache, W hite Fleer, established that there was a Lieutenant William Sowden Sims, thus strong junior par tner rising within rhe Pax Britannica, one welcomed with enthusilaunching a remarkable friendship . Teddy Roosevelt (as he was uni ve rsally as m by the British Empire countries visited known) became President in 1901 , follow- by the fl eer, as it was by the omnipresent ing the assassination of President M cKinley. Royal Navy. Historians have tended to play down H e promptly made the US Navy a top priority-along with restraining predato ry this voyage as mere showmanship. But the business combin es and fos tering measures powerful new ships we re real, and so was to ass ure the welfare of the dispossessed in the Ameri can message they carried . T he American society. U naffected by doctri- voyage expanded American horizons and naire disputes, he saw social progress and the world's awareness ofwhatkind of co unnational defense as two sides of the coin of try Am erica was, perhaps more than any American purpose. (In Britain in the same single act before the outbreak of the world decade a young Winston Churchill was wars that would soon ravage the globe.