1909: The Great White Fleet returns to Hampton Roads, Virginia. US President Theodore Roosevelt sent 16 Navy battleships along with a larger contingency of ancillary vessels on a world tour, circumnavigating the globe. They left on December 16, 1907 with their hulls painted white, the Navy’s peacetime color. The ships were decorated with gold scrollwork and there was a red, white, and blue banner on the bows of the ships. In 1891, after decades of conflict, France sent a fleet of ships to Kronstadt, Russia. The mission was peaceful and threatening. The large contingency of ships and the implied threat of more to come was not lost on Tsar Nicholas II and a treaty was soon signed.
Roosevelt theorized a fleet this size simply sailing around the world would increase goodwill toward America, striving to become a world power. The ability to muster such a fleet to visit many countries and harbors during peacetime would also serve as an indication of the growing importance of the nation’s powerful armed forces. The triumph of America in the Spanish-American War had the US now in possession of Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. This was not the first time Roosevelt had sent an impressive US naval presence. He sent eight battleships to the Mediterranean Sea during a diplomatic crisis between France and Germany in their dispute over Morocco. Europe may have already taken notice of the US, but Roosevelt was also hoping to impress Japan, after their defeat of the Russian fleet in 1905.
The President wished to let the world know the US Navy was able to be anywhere. This seemed to have worked, at least in part. Another benefit of showcasing this massive peacetime endeavor was to help the ships and men practice both sea and battle worthiness as a fleet and to use that practice in developing later classes of ships for the upgrading Navy. The trip around the world was to help the ships with all manner of at sea experience including navigation, communication, power supply, and fleet maneuvering. There was, of course, some dissention. The Navy brass was worried about deploying ships for so long and so far away from home. The long voyage would also take a toll on the ships themselves which would need maintenance when they reached the west coast.
At the time of the trip, the Panama Canal was not yet operational and the ships had to pass through the Straits of Magellan. This was an as yet, unprecedented operation for the US Navy. The ships had to sail from a variety of points before coalescing into the Great White Fleet. However, all the planning was worth it as thousands came to see the ships anytime they entered any port city. The 14-month voyage covered 43,000 nautical miles and made twenty port calls on six continents. The 14,000 sailors brought their Fleet safely around the world, impressing both foreign nationals and the folks back home.
It follows then as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious. – John Paul Jones
A good Navy is not a provocation to war. It is the surest guaranty of peace. – Commodore George Dewey
The Navy has both a tradition and a future–and we look with pride and confidence in both directions. – Admiral Arleigh Burke
In my opinion, any navy less than that which would give us the habitual command of our own coast and seas would be little short of useless. – John C. Calhoun