The man who Mencken referred to as “Roosevelt the First,” sent sixteen aging white-painted battleships on an around the world cruise in 1907 for little more than a boost in his administration’s prestige and a reelection ploy. Mark Twain wrote in his essay “The President as Advertiser” that “The excursion will make a great noise and this will satisfy Mr. Roosevelt.” Admiral Robley D. Evans mentioned below was a longtime navy man, and wounded in the Northern attack on Fort Fisher in January 1865.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org
Roosevelt’s American Religion of Supremacy
“A voyage around the world was Theodore Roosevelt’s own idea. “I determined on the move without consulting the Cabinet precisely as I took Panama without consulting the Cabinet.” The idea had come to him in 1905, when Russia’s long cruise ended in disaster. For two years he shaped his plans secretly . . . By 1907, several excuses were available.
Roosevelt’s standard explanation . . . was that the Navy needed practice in navigation, communication, coal consumption, crew stamina and fleet maneuvering. Navy professionals had trouble hiding their contempt for such reasoning [and obviously] the fleet could practice better in home waters, free from diplomatic diversions. Even Rear Admiral Evans, who was to command the excursion, later admitted that he never understood its purpose.
Roosevelt’s adversaries criticized his “other motives.” The voyage was timed to influence the election of 1908. It was a scheme to make Congress so proud that it might vote a dozen or so new battleships. The President was “in” with steel tycoons who wanted a new boom in shipbuilding. A foreign adventure would take people’s minds off their own troubles in the depression which had begun in 1907.
America’s new apprehension [toward the Japanese after defeating Russia] was noticeable at the Portsmouth Conference in 1905 when Roosevelt blocked Japan’s demands for a cash indemnity from Russia. This inspired anti-American demonstrations in Tokyo, repeated on a larger scale in 1906 after San Francisco announced that Japanese children could no longer attend regular public schools.
Jingoes prodded Roosevelt with hundreds of letter. A Chicagoan wrote: “We must send the fleet and sink them. Show no mercy, teach tm a lesson that will inform them of our power and majesty . . . Seize Korea, Formosa and Manchuria . . . the idea is to overwhelm them with our power suddenly.”
California papers . . . saved their best insults for Japan. They were joined by the yellow press, which mounted an assault upon public sanity just as it had done a decade in the war against Spain. Books about the “Yellow Peril,” “the Japanese menace,” and “the coming struggle” were popular in 1907. In May and June the New York Times and Collier’s Weekly published serials which described the future fighting around the Philippines and Hawaii.
The French press called Roosevelt a demagogue, imperialist and militaristic megalomaniac. The old American of freedom, democracy and peace was no more, having given away to violence, chauvinism, and the religion of supremacy.
Roosevelt muzzled the Navy. On threat of court-martial, officers could not criticize the cruise no matter how they scorned it as a waste of time. They were warned not to belittle the battleships, no matter how many improvements they thought the ships needed. The President also gave careful attention to the selection of the men who would tell the story to the public. Only “acceptable” correspondents were allowed to make the cruise. Everything must be “subject to censorship,” Roosevelt warned Admiral Evans.
All sixteen battleships had entered Hampton Roads by December 12 and anchored in neat rows near the spot where, on a night forty-five years before, a wooden United States Navy had awaited almost certain destruction by a crude iron ancestor known as the [CSS Virginia].
Riding at anchor, the battleships looked powerful as well as beautiful. The fleet was” one huge bluff . . . of little service in battle.” The appearance of such discordant notes brought bursts of indignation from the patriotic majority. A critic was a traitor, a saboteur, planting a kind of bomb that could destroy a quest for glory.”
(The Great White Fleet, Its Voyage Around the World, 1907-1909, Robert A. Hart, Little, Brown and Company, pp. 23-24; 31-32; 40-43; 52)