US NAVY BATTLESHIPS 1895–1908: THE GREAT WHITE FLEET AND THE BEGINNING OF US GLOBAL NAVAL POWER

Reviewed by: Andrew Lambert

America’s rise to global power was intimately associated with the steel battleship, and Alfred Thayer Mahan’s concept of sea power as the strategy that would secure the United States against the threat of naval or amphibious attack by another Great Power, the only strategic level risk it faced. Both appeared in the 1890s, just as American steel and engineering output began to seek new markets in South America and Asia. In 1895 the American Navy had been outdated, without a single battleship, ranked 12th in the world, behind China, Sweden, and Chile. Between 1895 and 1908 the United States commissioned 27 pre-dreadnought battleships, which made the Republic a Great Power. Navalist President Theodore Roosevelt had a ‘big stick’ to back American diplomacy. The first six battleships, which served during the Spanish-American War of 1898, feature in a previous volume in this familiar series. This book focuses on the 21 pre-dreadnoughts commissioned after 1898. All 21 participated in the Great White Fleet cruise, a full circumnavigation of the world that heralded US political, military, and technological power. In 1908, the USN ranked second only to Britain. The United States’ meteoric rise from naval embarrassment to world-class maritime power had taken just over a decade. The voyage was also an appropriate final curtain call for the pre-dreadnought battleship: long before they returned to America, HMS Dreadnought had rendered them obsolescent.

Mahan and other naval officers secured public support, greatly reinforced by wartime success in 1898, that persuaded Congress to fund the new force. Mahan had argued that the decisive weapon at sea was not the individual battleship, but the entire battle fleet, concentrated for a single ‘decisive’ action. While this military focus met the strategic needs of the United States it was not applicable to British conditions, which demanded a large cruiser force to secure oceanic trade, as Julian Corbett demonstrated. Newly commissioned cover art showing the Great White Fleet steaming out of the Straits of Magellan into the Pacific underscores the hemispheric/global/imperial ambitions that shaped this potent fleet. America wanted a share of global trade, a big share, and was prepared to pay for the privilege. Roosevelt used the fleet to create an impressive American world position, and he did so in the absence of a significant army… a lesson that has been forgotten in the United States, and elsewhere.

By 1908 the USN owned the world’s second largest modern battlefleet, a good distance behind the Royal Navy, and was building facilities in the Philippines and Hawaii to operate in Asia. Roosevelt’s Panama Canal, started in 1904, completed in 1914, would enable America to concentre the fleet in the Atlantic or the Pacific, but it had no bases in Europe or Africa.

These ships are often overlooked, but this handy guide combines a rich haul of contemporary images with new art and well-informed analysis. The new fleet fulfilled Mahan’s strategic vision, and although the ships that made this possible saw no serious action, they deserve to be remembered as the progenitors of the modern USN, the first floating symbols of a new world power. They also provided a major outlet for American steel production, engineering and technology.