The Peaceful Sea

The Great White Fleet Visits Japan 1908

The first decade of the twentieth century was a time of heightened tension between Japan and the United States. The two nations were emerging as the dominant naval powers in the Pacific. Japan had devastated the Russian navy in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, surprising the world, Russia, and to some extent themselves. Likewise, victory in the Spanish-American War in 1898 served not only to bolster United States prestige as a world power, but gave the country tangible Pacific assets in the Philippines and Guam.

Picture Postcard memento of the Great White Fleet's visit to Japan. Made in an atmosphere of uncertainty, the visit was a great diplomatic success. The fleet was well received and treated to a tremendous welcome.

Against this backdrop were two major points of contention between the countries. Japan’s continued expansion in Asia was interfering with the United States’ own economic agenda in the region and in general fueling worries about Japan’s ambitions. California’s strict anti-immigration laws and other discriminatory practices were becoming a national embarrassment for Japan who above all wished to be taken seriously and respected as a peer on the global scene. Race riots and other unpleasantries in both the United States and Canada led to anti-American editorials in Japanese newspapers, political posturing and militaristic rhetoric. By 1907 Americans increasingly believed a confrontation with Japan was likely.

President Theodore Roosevelt who had been working to ease diplomatic tensions, knew as well as anyone that the United States was ill prepared for war with Japan. Roosevelt was a Spanish-American war veteran, former assistant secretary of the Navy, and a great believer in the need for a strong navy. Under his leadership United States shipyards turned out 11 new battleships between 1904 and 1907 dramatically expanding the country’s capabilities. However, the bulk of the United States naval forces were concentrated in the Atlantic, and in the event of hostilities realignment would take time. A defense study ordered by Roosevelt at the time provided a sobering assessment of the progress of an all-out war in the Pacific.

In a move of sweeping showmanship, and the epitome of his "big stick" philosophy, Roosevelt elected to deploy the Atlantic fleet on a round the world tour. The armada would come to be known as the Great White Fleet because the ships were painted white with gold trim. It was a massive assemblage of 16 battleships and their attending auxiliary ships manned by 14,000 sailors.

The mission itself was honestly multifaceted. Roosevelt wanted to test the seafaring mettle of the “new” Navy, and prove to the world that it could be relocated from the Atlantic to the Pacific intact and arrive ready for action. The tour was also one of good will and international outreach. The fleet made twenty port calls on six continents with stops including New Zealand, Australia, Ceylon, and Egypt. When news of an earthquake in Sicily reached the fleet, a detachment was immediately sent to Italy to give aid.

But mostly, of course, the move was aimed to send a message directly to Tokyo. It would be difficult to say exactly what Japanese officials thought in the face of this show of strength, but outwardly they chose the diplomatic high road. The fleet was invited to visit Japan where they were greeted enthusiastically. School children sang phonetically memorized versions of "Hail Columbia" and the "Star-Spangled Banner " as Japanese destroyers escorted the fleet into the bay.

Shortly after the Great White Fleet’s visit, the United States and Japan signed the Root-Takahira accord in which, among other things, both countries agreed to respect the other’s Pacific possessions. History would take many additional turns on the path toward World War II, but for the moment confrontation had been averted.


Great White Fleet (16 Dec 1907 - 22 Feb 1909), Global Security Org Accessed September 28, 2009

McKinley, Mike, Journalist Second Class, The Cruise of the Great White Fleet, Navy Department Library, Accessed September 28, 2009

McDougall, Walter A., Let the Sea Make a Noise, New York, HarperCollins, 1993, Print

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