11 Feb 21
Posted by: Andrew Lambert

This fascinating overview of the relationship between a transformational politician and a navy has much to offer those who wish to see contemporary governments and ministers engaged more effectively with the needs of their Navy. It follows a conference hosted by the US Naval War College at Newport RI and the local university, outstanding contributors examine key aspects of the career of historian, adventurer, traveller, politician, soldier and President Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt, who held the highest office between 1901 and 1909, and made the American navy a force of global significance, at a time when the American Army was a small, domestic force slowly stretching out to operate in the Philippines. Little wonder the United States’ Navy looks back on the man and his era with nostalgia.

Roosevelt used the Navy to leverage diplomacy, secure Panama and build the canal, and finally sent his ‘Great White Fleet’ of battleships around the world to demonstrate American power and deter Japanese expansion in the Pacific. Roosevelt’s naval interests were sparked his maternal uncles, James and Irvine Bulloch, Confederate naval heroes, while his university degree resulted in a compelling history The Naval War of 1812. The book opened doors, he lectured at the Naval War College, and befriended Mahan. Roosevelt worked the political system to secure the office of Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1897-8, helping prepare the Navy for war with Spain in 1898. Elected Vice President in 1900 he moved to the top job six months later, when President McKinley was assassinated. As President he expanded the fleet, improved bases, officer education, and professional skills, promoting progressive, professional officers from the younger generation. When Mahan opposed the Dreadnought, Roosevelt took the advice of gunnery expert Commander William Sims, and followed the British lead. Roosevelt forced through the unified generalist education programme for officer, the one ‘Jacky’ Fisher favoured, saw the importance of naval power to support American commercial expansion, and understood that battleship to be the ideal representation of both national power and technological prowess, using them as his ‘Big Stick’ to back his forceful, indeed brusque diplomacy. It should be noted that the chapter on the ‘Great White Fleet’ and Japan was written by an expert on the contemporary naval stand-off with China. The global voyage revealed some serious problems, not least complete dependence on British coal and British colliers.

The return of the fleet in spring 1909 was the swansong of Roosevelt’s Presidency, and of the USN’s central role in national policy. Most Americans did not share Teddy’s obsession. The former President found retirement tedious, and among his many roles served as President of the American Historical Association, the professional gatekeepers of the academic standards. Mahan had been similarly honoured a decade before. Both men recognised that the seapower message must be sustained by history and spectacle if it was to survive in an age of universal suffrage and economic anxiety. Roosevelt loved a naval pageant: he had John Paul Jones dug up from an obscure Paris cemetery, and re-interred as the central figure in a new naval pantheon. He is the original ‘Teddy’ of bear fame – he loved shooting wild animals, and today a Nimitz class carrier carries his name. The final chapter links Roosevelt’s career with that of his distant cousin Franklin, who also began his political career as Assistant Navy Secretary, and developed a strong interest in naval history, including the War of 1812. FDR’s decision to use ‘New Deal’ economic reconstruction funds to reinforce the Navy reflected his personal engagement. It is no exaggeration to say that the Roosevelts’ were the most navally minded leaders of any western democracy. It is unlikely that distinction will ever be challenged.