When the Navy Sailed, America Became an Empire

Article excerpt


After winning a war, great democracies tend to relax and let their defenses down.

Soldiers return to their families, and their brightest sons take up civilian professions. The hardware of war, if it is not abandoned entirely after hostilities cease, is maintained only casually. New military technology is rejected as too expensive or not well-enough proved. And those who worry publicly about their nation's military decline are parodied and scorned.

During the Civil War, the U.S. Navy had 700 ships. Twenty years later the fleet was virtually gone, and the few ships still remaining in service were no match for the navies of such nations as Chile or Italy, let alone England or France. Some American ships carried "Quaker guns" - dummy cannons made of wood. The Navy itself, wrote one officer, to the outrage of his superiors and the detriment of his career, had become a Quaker Navy, deceiving no one except perhaps the American public.

Yet in another short generation, all that had changed utterly. In the five years beginning in 1898, the United States became a global empire. It defeated Spain and ended the colonial regime in Cuba, securing the Caribbean as an American puddle. It acquired the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. It developed coaling stations all across the Pacific. And it prepared for the construction of an interocean canal by prying Panama away from Colombia.

All this was made possible by the nation's reemergence as a naval power. In 1907, Theodore Roosevelt dispatched the Great White Fleet ! 16 state-of-the-art battleships ! on a two-year cruise around the world. As much as any other event, that display of muscle-flexing inaugurated what has been often called the American Century.

The story of this national resurgence is readably told by Warren Zimmermann in "First Great Triumph." A career foreign service officer, Mr. Zimmermann describes it as the culmination of a political and intellectual movement, revolutionary in its impact, led by Roosevelt and a few other strong-willed men who shared his vision.

Four of the most prominent were Henry Cabot Lodge, the bellicose Boston Brahmin; John Hay, Lincoln's private secretary and TR's secretary of state; Elihu Root, the top-level corporate lawyer and Roosevelt's secretary of war; and, perhaps most important of all, the naval strategist Alfred T. Mahan. Before and during his presidency, Roosevelt and those four key allies drew on one another's strengths and experiences as they worked, not always in harmony and not always amiably, to make their country a world power.

A century later, this development may appear in hindsight to have been inevitable, the result of America's geographical good fortune and booming industrial economy. But in fact world leadership was not achieved without domestic conflict. As is the case today, there was powerful and principled opposition to imperialism from many quarters.

Harvard, perhaps unsurprisingly, was even then an anti-imperial nerve center. …