The Great White Fleet

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The visits of the Great White Fleet were a display of American goodwill.

Everyone thought that, but 93 years later the Australian Government revealed doubts.

The Great White Fleet was an impressive American convoy of 16 battleships plus escorts, staffed by 14,000 sailors, sent by President Theodore Roosevelt on a peaceful circumnavigation of the world in 1908–9. They visited 20 ports in six continents with a disarming display of goodwill combined with a very public demonstration of America’s growing military strength.

In 2001, the government of Australia’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Group revealed that in the context of international politics in 1908, ‘goodwill’ wasn’t the only purpose of the Fleet:

In the event of a crisis between the US and Japan, Britain’s ally, Australia and New Zealand, as loyal dominions of the British Empire would be potential enemies of the United States. Roosevelt felt it necessary to ascertain the sentiments of Australia and New Zealand.

On a more practical level, Rear Admiral Sperry, the commander-in-chief of the fleet ordered that during the fleet’s visits intelligence be gathered to compile war plans for the capture of New Zealand and Australian ports.

And:

Thus, when the fleet arrived in each Australian port to a tumultuous welcome, its intelligence team went to work compiling detailed reports on the defences and infrastructure of each city as part of invasion plans. The hospitality of the local population undoubtedly made it easier for the fleet’s officers to gain insight into Australia’s strengths and weaknesses, and probably direct access to the information necessary to prepare plans to capture the new nation’s major cities.

The resulting reports, having been lodged with the American Department of the Navy, then went into storage. While it is clear that the extremely hospitable reception the Fleet received in the Pacific was a clear demonstration of the friendliness of people in this area towards America, the report concludes:

However, the mere compilation of the plans was an acknowledgment of what US national interest might dictate could happen to Australia in the event of hostilities between the US and Japan.

Parliament of Australia, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade.

Report on ANZUS after 50 years (28 August 2001)

After the victory of the Japanese over the Russian fleet at Tsushima Strait on 27 May 1905, the West Australian claimed the Imperial Japanese Navy was a threat to White Australia: ‘After Tsushima, the British withdrew their battleships from the East and Australians were, to put it in Billy Hughes’ words, worried ‘‘that we should now rely on the Japanese for the maintenance of British naval supremacy in Eastern seas’’’. Japan was now seen as a credible threat to Australia. This made the American fleet visit crucial. The Age took the lead in suggesting the messages that would be conveyed and lessons that should be learned.

It is no less our proper business, while the Fleet is here, to use the object lesson of patriotic effort and achievement it will furnish us to steel our resolution to obtain as soon as possible a navy that will not disgrace us in comparison. Australia is an island continent. Our destiny lies on the sea. No friend or enemy can reach us save by the sea. A friend is coming to us soon along the ocean highways; but who shall dare to say that almost as powerful an enemy may not one day steam into our waters in ironclad might to fight us for our heritage? Nothing is plainer than that we must have a navy. We must arm, and inasmuch as the sea while we possess no warships puts us at the mercy of any hostile Power possessing ships, it is our first duty to arm navily. That is the lesson of the forthcoming visit—that and the fact that without a navy we should be useless to the Motherland or to a friendly Power like America as an ally.

The sixteen white-painted American warships, dubbed the ‘Great White Fleet’, departed from Hampton Roads in Virginia in December 1907 for a fourteen-month cruise including 29 international ports of call. It attracted enormous attention during its visits to Sydney and Melbourne, which each hosted the fleet for one week. (After departing the eastern seaboard, the fleet also spent one week in Albany—with a population of 4000—while it took on fuel.) The Australian response to the visit was overwhelming. Public holidays were declared and funerals were delayed as a carnival spirit enveloped the host cities with balls, parades, receptions, concerts and parties for the 14 000 American sailors.

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The visit of the Great White Fleet was a clear indication that Britain was not the only nation possessing naval might and not the only nation which shared a ‘natural’ bond with Australia and its people. This notion of a ‘natural’ bond was central. As Rear Admiral Charles Sperry USN, the commander of the American fleet, told a crowd in Melbourne, the visit of his ships and men ‘bring on both nations a realisation of their close relationship and common interests, and foster sympathy and mutual understanding more binding than treaties’. The sentimental component of the relationship, an important motivator for building and sustaining the trans-Pacific friendship, was reflected in Prime Minister Deakin’s proposal of 1909 that the Monroe Doctrine be extended to all countries around the Pacific Ocean, supported by guarantees from Britain, Holland, France, China and the United States. Perhaps caught up in the euphoric aftermath of the Great White Fleet’s visit, the Age stated that people in Australia were ‘always cheered to know America is watching their efforts with more than a friendly interest and ready at a pinch to show that blood is thicker than water’.

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The visit of the Great White Fleet could not have been better timed to assist the Australian navalists in their campaign to create an Australian navy. There was a growing fear of both Japanese expansionism and German imperial aspirations in the Pacific. After the Colonial Conference, Deakin proposed a variation of the increasingly unpopular naval agreement. The Commonwealth offered to substitute the subsidy with the provision of 1000 Australian sailors for service on the Australia Station with the remainder of the subsidy to be applied to local naval construction. It was proposed that 400 sailors would man two P Class destroyers retained in Australia, notwithstanding prevailing strategic conditions elsewhere, while another two cruisers would be lent for training purposes at a cost of £60 000 per annum to the Commonwealth. On 20 August 1908, the Admiralty said that it ‘had difficulty in fully comprehending the extent of the scheme’ outlined by Deakin and pointed out that the cost of the Australian naval proposal consisting of six destroyers, nine sub- marines and two depot ships was £1 277 500. Their Lordships believed that this was beyond Australia’s means. Having given careful consideration to Deakin’s scheme, the Admiralty ‘could not see their way to accept the proposals as a basis for a new agreement’. The Admiralty waited for the Australians to respond.

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