A Great White Fleet…and a new base!

The agreeable monotony of Roosevelt’s schedule for late June 1907 was interrupted on the twenty-seventh by a captain from the General Board of the Navy and a colonel from the Army War College. They accompanied Victor H. Metcalf, the Secretary of the Navy, and Postmaster General George von L. Meyer, who had definitely not come to discuss rural free delivery. Meyer’s presence, indeed, helped explain his real role in the Cabinet, which was to advise the President on questions of extreme diplomatic delicacy.

Five weeks before, after returning to Washington from Pine Knot, Roosevelt had been exasperated to hear that anti-immigrant riots had broken out in San Francisco. “Nothing during my Presidency has given me more concern than these troubles,” he wrote Kentaro Kaneko. He argued that what was happening in California was nothing new. Nor was it essentially racial: it had plenty of precedents in European history over the last three centuries. France’s Huguenots, for example, had been as white as their coreligionists in Great Britain, but when they immigrated there, they had excited “the most violent hostility,” indistinguishable from what had happened at the Golden Gate. Then as now, mobs of workmen caused most of the trouble, expressing labor’s chronic fear of being devalued by competition. Now as not then, hope lay in the increased ability of “gentlemen, all educated people, members of the professions, and the like” to visit one another’s countries and “associate on the most intimate terms.” This was the particular responsibility of elected representatives. “My dear Baron, the business of statesmen is to try constantly to keep international relations better, to do away with the causes of friction, and to secure as nearly ideal justice as actual conditions will permit.”

Meyer himself could not have put the case with more finesse. But the fact remained that coolies were still coming, and having their faces beaten in. The Immigration Act was still not working as it should, the San Francisco Police Board had taken up where the school board had left off, reactionary newspapers were screaming, and Japanese opposition leaders were calling for war.

Elihu Root did not take the last threat seriously. He wrote Roosevelt to say that alarmists had their own agenda, but “this San Francisco affair is getting on all right as an ordinary diplomatic affair.… There is no occasion to get excited.”

Roosevelt was not so sure. Japan had behaved with commendable restraint during the early months of the crisis. Recently, however, he had begun to detect “a very, very slight undertone of veiled truculence” in her communications concerning the Pacific coast. He heard from members of his secret du roi that the Japanese war party really did think the United States was beatable. The Office of Naval Intelligence reported evidence of Japanese war preparations, including purchase orders for nearly eighty thousand tons’ worth of armored vessels from Europe, and a twenty-one-thousand-ton dreadnought from Britain. (So much for any chance of a disarmament agreement at the Second Hague Peace Conference, now in session.)

His responsibility as Commander-in-Chief was to look to the nation’s defenses. Hence the arrival at Sagamore Hill of two top military strategists. He had asked them to bring him contingency plans, “in case of trouble arising between the United States and Japan.”

Colonel W. W. Wotherspoon and Captain Richard Wainwright proved to be little more than messengers, delivering a somewhat obvious finding by the Joint Board of the Army and Navy. The board stated that because Japan’s battleships were all in the Pacific, and those of the United States in the Atlantic, the latter power should “take a defensive attitude” in any confrontation, until its heavy armor could be brought around Cape Horn.

Roosevelt said, for the record, that he did not believe there was any real chance of a war with Japan. Then he approved the only controversial aspect of the Joint Board’s report: a recommendation by Admiral Dewey that “the battle fleet should be assembled and despatched for the Orient as soon as practicable.”

The idea was not new. For at least two years, the Navy had considered transferring the fleet from one ocean to the other as a tactical exercise, but had never managed to decide the extent of the move, or the logistics of support. Fuel supplies were a particular problem, and the West Coast of the United States was short on bases. Dewey calculated that it would take at least ninety days to mount an emergency battle presence in the Pacific. “Japan could, in the meantime, capture the Philippines, Honolulu, and be master of the sea.”

Roosevelt considered the options, and his own as President and Commander-in-Chief. He had just seventeen months left in office, and wanted to make a grand gesture of will, something that would loom as large historically in his second term as the Panama Canal coup had in his first. What could be grander, more inspirational to the Navy, and to all Americans, than sending sixteen great white ships halfway around the world—maybe even farther? And what better time than now, when positive news was in such short supply? Wall Street’s stock slide in March had caused many brokerage houses to fail and bank reserves to drop. Foreign markets had also begun a steady decline, with stocks plummeting in Alexandria and Tokyo, Frenchmen hoarding more gold than usual, and even the Bank of England low on cash. Jacob Schiff had said that “uncertainty” lay at the bottom of all distrust. All the more reason, then, to make one highly visible arm of the United States government look quite certain of itself, as it moved from sea to shining sea.

The massive deployment appealed to Roosevelt as diplomacy, as preventive strategy, as technical training, and as a sheer pageant of power. There was also the enormity of the challenge. He had private information that neither British nor German naval authorities believed he could do it. Well, he would prove them wrong. “Time to have a show down in the matter.”

He issued a series of orders to Secretary Metcalf. The Subic Bay coal stockpile in the Philippines must be enlarged at once. Defense guns must be moved there from Cavite. Four armored cruisers of the Asiatic Fleet were to be brought back to patrol the West Coast. And finally—Roosevelt’s operative order, climaxing ninety minutes of talk—the Atlantic fleet would set sail from Hampton Roads, Virginia, in October, destination San Francisco.

When someone asked how many battleships would make the trip, Roosevelt said that depended on how many there were in service at the time. If fourteen, he would send fourteen; if sixteen, then sixteen. He wanted them “all to go.”

Metcalf was authorized to announce the dispatch of the “Great White Fleet”—as it soon became known—appropriately on the Fourth of July. But the news was too big to hold, in view of the tense state of American-Japanese relations. By the time the Secretary issued his statement, Ambassador Aoki had already moved defensively to say that Japan did not regard Roosevelt’s gesture as “an unfriendly act.”

His Excellency thus avoided sounding overjoyed at the prospect of an enormous alteration in the balance of naval power in the Pacific. And Roosevelt, by intimating that San Francisco would be the fleet’s farthest port of call, encouraged Californian alarmists to think it was being dispatched for their protection. They would have been less comforted if they had known that he was privately talking to Henry Cabot Lodge about sending it on “a practice cruise around the world.”


Monday, 16 December, broke sunny, sharp, and clear over the James River estuary after a weekend of heavy rain. All sixteen ships of the battle fleet lay waiting for him, blindingly white in the eight o’clock light, as the Mayflower creamed into the Roads and proceeded past each gold-curlicued bow. The air drummed with 336 cannon blasts, not quite dividing into twenty-one-gun strophes.

“By George!” Roosevelt exulted to Secretary Metcalf. “Did you ever see such a fleet and such a day?”

When the presidential yacht came to anchor, gigs and barges brought aboard “Fighting Bob” Evans—a surprisingly small, fierce-faced man, limping with rheumatism—four rear admirals, and sixteen commanding officers. Roosevelt made no speech after shaking all their hands, only drawing Evans aside for a few minutes and muttering to him with earnest, snapping teeth. Bystanders watched the admiral’s cocked hat bobbing like a gull as Roosevelt bit off sentence after sentence. What scraps of dialogue floated on the breeze were mostly banal: “I tell you, our enlisted men … perfectly bully … best of luck, old fellow.”

Less audibly, the President was giving Evans secret orders to stay in the Pacific for several months, then proceed home via the Indian Ocean and Suez Canal. Cameras clicked as the two men bade each other farewell. The commanders returned to their ships, and, as the Mayflower got under way for Cape Henry, one by one the battleships weighed anchor and hauled around in stately pursuit. They overtook Roosevelt at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay and ground past him in a perfectly spaced, three-mile-long column. He watched with intent seriousness, periodically doffing his top hat, until the Kentucky, the last unit of the Fourth Division, moved by in a vast white wall, all its sailors saluting.


On 7 February, the Great White Fleet, dispatched toward unknown possibilities by an allegedly deranged (William James preferred the term dynamogenic) Commander-in-Chief, entered the Strait of Magellan. Since leaving Hampton Roads, it had become a diplomatic phenomenon, attracting worldwide press attention and spreading as much goodwill as foam along the Brazilian and Argentine coastlines. Even Punta Arenas, Chile, a windswept wood-and-iron outpost near the extreme tip of the continent, welcomed Admiral Evans and his sailors with elaborate hospitality and specially hiked prices.

For twenty-two hours, the Chilean destroyer Chacabuco led Evans’s flagship Connecticut through the misty Strait—a surreal Doppelgänger of the waterway being carved across Panama—while fifteen other coal-heavy ships wallowed behind at four-hundred-yard intervals. No more than three men-of-war had ever performed this maneuver in convoy, and the going was hazardous even for single units. But the fleet steamed steadily through. It veered off course only once, when a sudden turbulence proclaimed the conflicting levels of two oceans. By the time the last vessel emerged into open sea, the first was already steaming toward Valparaiso, and the Pacific theater had received its largest-ever infusion of battleships.

Roosevelt had still not announced his intention to send the fleet around the world—its official destination remained San Francisco. But Japan was aware that another war scare in the United States could quickly alter the fleet’s course; Admiral Dewey’s “ninety-day lag” no longer applied. This knowledge, combined with mounting diplomatic pressure from Elihu Root, now forced the conclusion of the “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” on which Tokyo had been politely stalling for nearly a year.

Throughout 1907, the influx of Japanese coolies into the United States had continued to pour unabated, making a mockery of the new immigration law. Root had tired of pointing out that the flow had to be restricted at its source, as per Tokyo’s verbal promise. Instead, he had taken advantage of the publicity attending the dispatch of the Great White Fleet to warn Ambassador Aoki that unless there was “a very speedy change in the course of immigration,” the Sixtieth Congress was certain to pass an exclusion act, greatly to the detriment of Japanese-American relations.

By 29 February, as the fleet headed north from Callao, Peru, the Gentlemen’s Agreement was finally implemented. Coolies were no longer permitted to immigrate to Hawaii, passport restrictions were tightened, and illegal agencies were being prosecuted by Japanese authorities. And at last, the monthly “Yellow Peril” index compiled by the State Department began to decline.

Roosevelt celebrated by confirming that the Great White Fleet, now en route to the Golden Gate, would proceed around the world after a couple of months’ rest and refitting. Its itinerary would include Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Japan (about two weeks before the presidential election), China, Ceylon, the Suez Canal, Egypt, the Mediterranean, and Gibraltar. Its due date for return to Hampton Roads was 22 February 1909, ten days before he was to leave the White House.


Pulverizing as the President’s Special Message had been to the boomlet for Governor Hughes, and however revealing of Roosevelt’s own changing ideology, it merely increased the opposition of congressional conservatives against him. Joseph Cannon in the House and Nelson Aldrich in the Senate vied with each other to deny him the reforms he had begged with such eloquence. However, a small band of progressive Republicans and a larger one of moderate Democrats (who had applauded repeatedly during the reading of the Message) helped him win at least three new laws: a re-enacted Federal Employers’ Liability Act, the Workman’s Compensation Act for federal employees, and the Child Labor Act for the District of Columbia.

He also won, on 10 March, a nonlegislative victory with fruits that tasted distinctly sour. The Senate Committee on Military Affairs concluded its thirteen-month investigation of the Brownsville affair and found, by nine votes to four, that Roosevelt had justifiably dismissed without honor the soldiers of the Twenty-fifth Infantry. Three thousand pages of testimony, and the congruent opinions of virtually all Army authorities from the Commander-in-Chief on down, were enough to convince five Democrats and four Republicans that the men were guilty. The dissenting members were all Republican, but they were themselves divided, in a way that paradoxically compromised the majority vote. Two found the testimony to be contradictory and untrustworthy, reflecting irreconcilable antipathies between soldiers and townspeople. Senators Foraker and Morgan G. Bulkeley insisted that “the weight of the testimony” showed the soldiers to be innocent.

So did the weight of the only hard evidence in the case: thirty-three spent Army-issue cartridges found at the scene of the crime. Ballistics experts had testified that, while the shells had definitely been fired by Springfield rifles belonging to the Twenty-fifth, the actual firing had occurred during target practice at Fort Niobrara in Nebraska, long before the battalion was ordered to Texas. The mystery of the translocation of the shells to Brownsville was simply explained. Army budget officers frowned on waste of rechargeable ordnance, so 1,500 shells had been recovered from the range, sent south, and stored in an open box on the porch of a barracks hut at Fort Brown, available for any soldier—or passing civilian—to help himself.

Such technical information, however, could not explain away the “wooden, stolid look” that Inspector General Garlington had seen on the faces he interviewed. It was a look so evocative of Negro complicity that the War Department had briskly dispensed with the formality of allowing every soldier his day in court.

Roosevelt’s other major legislative request, unsatisfied through the first weeks of spring, was for four new battleships. The House followed the recommendation of its Committee on Naval Affairs and appropriated funds for only two. Unappeased by an extra appropriation to build a naval base at Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt put his hopes in the Senate. Debate there began on 24 April, none too favorably. Senators seemed more inclined to question the legality of his battle-fleet cruise order than to double the battleship quota of the House bill. But they also had to take into account his still phenomenal popularity, and the hold the Great White Fleet had taken of the public imagination. Three days later, Roosevelt won a modified victory: two battleships plus a guarantee that two more would be funded before he left office.

Sounding rather like a small boy, he claimed not to have expected four all at once, but had asked for them only because he wanted to be sure of getting two.

Pearl Harbor 1900

During the reign of King Kalākaua the United States was granted exclusive rights to enter Pearl Harbor and to establish “a coaling and repair station.”

Although this treaty continued in force until August 1898, the U.S. did not fortify Pearl Harbor as a naval base. As it had for 60 years, the shallow entrance constituted a formidable barrier against the use of the deep protected waters of the inner harbor.

The United States and the Hawaiian Kingdom signed the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 as supplemented by Convention on December 6, 1884, the Reciprocity Treaty was made by James Carter and ratified it in 1887. On January 20, 1887, the United States Senate allowed the Navy to exclusive right to maintain a coaling and repair station at Pearl Harbor. (The US took possession on November 9 that year). The Spanish–American War of 1898 and the desire for the United States to have a permanent presence in the Pacific both contributed to the decision.

Following the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the United States Navy established a base on the island in 1899.