Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Great White Fleet and the Great War

The decade following the Spanish-American War gave the generation of American officers destined to serve in command positions during the Great War a remarkable number and variety of missions to perform. For the Army and Marine Corps there were deployments all over the Pacific Basin and in the Caribbean. The Navy, of course, gained great experience in supporting all of these operations. But the Navy got its greatest preparation as a global force with one of the most unforgettable peacetime extravaganzas in American history — the round-the-world voyage of the 16 pre-dreadnought (and arguably already obsolete) battleships of the Great White Fleet. 

Near the end of his second term in the White House, President Theodore Roosevelt felt he needed to demonstrate in some concrete way America's know-how and growing military power to other nations. With the memory of the poor transit of the Russian Baltic Fleet to the Pacific and its subsequent annihilation by the Japanese still fresh in people's minds, Roosevelt chose to make a dramatic naval demonstration. Fleet pageants were a popular form of mass entertainment in those days, so the cruise was intended to win goodwill in foreign lands as well.

The flotilla's 43,000-mile voyage, which lasted from December 1907 to February 1909, was a spectacular public relations success. Although the American battleship fleet would play only a peripheral role in the Great War, many veterans of the cruise would become important officers in both World Wars, including future admirals Chester Nimitz, Raymond Spruance, John McCain (grandfather of the senator), Husband Kimmel of the Pearl Harbor disaster, and William Halsey. As a preparation for naval operations in the Great War, the cruise helped educate the Navy on the special problems of maintenance, resupply, and refueling during long periods at sea and the need for specialized combat and service vessels. That the Navy's accomplishment of its most important mission in 1917 and '18 — conveying the American Expeditionary Force to France — was a tremendous success was in part due to the experience gained with the Great White Fleet.