History Book Club
Wednesday, March 29, 2017
What Made the U.S. So Powerful?
Wednesday, March 29, 2017: What made America powerful? Was it our geography, size, natural resources, protection of two oceans, our choice of immigrants, our leaders? [Suggested by Janos Posfai]
As we stop to examine our country, and to find out what made America the most powerful economic engine in the world; the country that used its power to end the stalemated trench war in 1917 in World War I and then in 1941 dove in to fight a truly World War in the Pacific and the Atlantic, and then created a cold war balance of power with the Soviet Union… here in 2017 where are we?
Are we still the most powerful? Do we have the ingredients still to defend weak and oppressed countries? Do we have the will to be a force for good in the world?
We can congratulate ourselves that we “won” the cold war by wearing the Soviet Union down until it collapsed, and with it the specter of a communist world.
Now, here we are, with a tremendous nuclear arsenal and the mightiest defense establishment in the world. Since the USSR imploded, we have seen the rise of groups of bearded men in robes, appearing all over the Islamic world, but also popping up in our world to carry out acts of terrorism.
Will all the elements we have for becoming so powerful give us the capability to continue to be a world leader?
America has just elected a man who is so different from all the men who have led America since Franklin D. Roosevelt; who defies all the normal measures of presidential ability--- is he the secret weapon we need to carry on in the world today, or is he merely a sad example of the tendency of our “mature” democracy to pick a leader who is so much like so many of us?
How did the United States of America become so powerful?
Even before our industrial revolution had picked up momentum after the Civil War, Secretary of State William Seward pushed the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867, initiated a treaty with Hawaii that would bind the islands’ economy to that of the U.S., and attempted to buy naval bases in the Caribbean and a treaty with Colombia that would allow the U.S. to build a canal through the province of Panama, to connect the Caribbean with the Pacific Ocean.
The ingredients were all here--- a country rich in natural resources, and a growing work force which included many skilled workers from all over Europe. Three decades after the country was ripped apart by a Civil War, the Industrial Revolution was transforming America. This was a time when America’s industrial capacity was becoming too big for its domestic market, and the U.S. became eager for more overseas sales. This meant many more ships, sailing to many more ports in the world.
At this very time, several leading newspaper publishers were finding their way toward building circulation by creating a “Yellow Press” with sensational stories that stirred national pride and urged foreign adventures. One thing led to another, and American naval ships were steaming down to Cuba to right the wrongs of Colonial Spain, and then across the Pacific to “provide democracy” to another Spanish colony, the Philippine Islands.
Alfred Thayer Mahan was president of the Naval War College in Newport, RI in 1890 when he published “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History”. It was a book that arrived just at the right time when both merchant ships and warships were improving their mobility and endurance, shifting from coal to oil-fired boilers, from reciprocating engines to steam turbines; warships were gaining more powerful explosive ordnance and heavier and more protective armor.
Kings, emperors and presidents read Mahan’s book, and ordered their admirals to do so as well. The idea of creating coaling and then fueling bases around the world was catching on, in order for warships to respond to threats to merchant shipping wherever they occurred.
Japan had only recently come out of isolation and built a strong navy, which had defeated a fleet of the Russian Empire in a battle that caught the attention of the world. Japan had also defeated the Russians in land battles as both nations fought for territories in Manchuria and Korea. President Theodore Roosevelt offered his services to convene peace talks between Japan and Russia. Even though Japan was the winner of the war, both countries were exhausted and Russia was in turmoil with the Revolution of 1905. Roosevelt showed the world American leadership as he managed to get both sides to settle this dispute in a month of meetings in August 1905 at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, ME. The sides signed a peace treaty in September and both nations ratified it in October 1905. Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his work here.
Roosevelt’s solution did not satisfy the Japanese and created ill feelings which festered all the way to Pearl Harbor in 1941.
In 1906 the San Francisco School Board was making noise heard nationally about demanding segregated schools for Japanese students. Anti-Japanese sentiment was running high here, after Japan had just shown the world that its navy was powerful enough to defeat the Russians at Tsushima. Roosevelt, now acutely tuned in to the need for good relations with Japan, addressed the School Board decision directly, because he was concerned that this might provoke tensions with Japan.
JO2 [Journalist Second Class] Mike McKinley, Cruise of the Great White Fleet; Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC; April, 2015
Roosevelt decided on a dramatic show of American power, by sending a large fleet of American warships on a cruise around the world. There were plenty of voices at the time suggesting that this was a stupid trick that might leave the United States without adequate naval defenses in the Atlantic, but Teddy saw that the time was right to demonstrate American power, particularly to the Japanese. Off they went, leaving Hampton Roads, VA December 16, 1907.
This cruise was a wonderful move to gain the support of the American people for our Navy, and for building four more battleships that Teddy wanted.
After one day at sea the Great White Fleet commander, Rear Admiral Robley “Fighting Bob” Evans, announced that, instead of just sailing to San Francisco, as had been announced, the fleet would continue across the Pacific, into the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, and return home around the world.
The fleet was made up with newly constructed battleships, commissioned since the end of the Spanish-American War. They were USS Kearsarge (BB-5), USS Kentucky (BB-6), USS Illinois (BB-7), USS Alabama (BB-8), USS Maine (BB-10), USS Missouri (BB-11), USS Ohio (BB-12), USS Virginia (BB-13), USS Georgia (BB-15), USS New Jersey (BB-16), USS Rhode Island (BB-17), USS Connecticut (BB-18), USS Louisiana (BB-19), USS Vermont (BB-20), USS Kansas (BB-21) and USS Minnesota (BB-22).
People have compared Donald Trump to Teddy Roosevelt, because he is a self-promoting, aggressive man, impetuous, and believing in swift action. The difference, however, is that Teddy was a voracious reader (and writer) of history, had served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, where he had pushed to build a new fleet of battleships. He had also proven himself as the leader of a cavalry unit named “The Roughriders” in the war in Cuba.
A senator from Maine registered his disapproval of this round-the-world boondoggle by threatening to withhold the funds, but that didn’t bother Teddy. He replied that he already had the money and dared Congress to “try to get it back.”
Just before Christmas 1907 the fleet made their first port call in Port of Spain, Trinidad. It was not a hit with the sailors. All there was to do was “look at the flowers and visit a leper colony.” One sailor complained that the beer was so warm it tasted like boiler water.
On January 6, 1908 the fleet crossed the Equator, and 12,000 sailors became members of King Neptune’s honorable realm. Three days later the fleet pulled in to Rio de Janeiro, and the sailors found a liberty port that could handle 14,000 red-blooded young Americans. However, the first night ashore, in a bar filled with local longshoremen and American sailors, a longshoreman three a beer bottle at another local, but it hit a sailor from USS Louisiana, and all hell broke loose.
After that, the rest of the port visit was a fine example of how young Americans can be good ambassadors. The visit was not good for Admiral Evans, though. He came down with an attack of gout, and suffered with it until he was forced to turn over command of the fleet in San Francisco.
From Rio the fleet sailed down to the Strait of Magellan. A Chilean cruiser met them and escorted them through the treacherous, windy and foggy waters, without damage. They visited Chilean ports and then sailed on to Peru. There was plenty of work for the sailors on this cruise. Every two weeks they had to replenish the coal on board. A battleship carried 2000 tons of coal, and this took several days of hard labor to load, with sailors hoisting 500-lb. coal sacks. Then, it took two or more days to clean the ship, because the coal dust was everywhere.
There were also drills and exercises, and the fleet spent a month in Baja California conducting gunnery exercises. For their spare time, the ships had player pianos, phonographs, billiard tables, and they showed silent films.
The fleet arrived in San Francisco on May 6, 1908 and that was a spectacular celebration with many thousands lining the hills around the city to greet the ships. There was a 48-hour ball at the Fairmont Hotel, and parties everywhere. Two battleships were relieved by two others, USS Nebraska (BB14) and USS Wisconsin (BB9), and Maine and Alabama were sent home, because of their voracious appetite for coal.
On July 7th, the fleet, now commanded by Rear Admiral Charles Sperry, headed across the Pacific to Hawaii, where there were more parties. Next, on August 9th came Auckland, NZ, and then Sydney, Australia. Melbourne rolled out the red carpet as only the Aussies know how, so that many sailors would have liked to have stayed here for life.
The fleet then sailed to Manila in the Philippines, but there was a cholera epidemic, so no liberty. After that the fleet sailed through a typhoon on their way to Japan. The Japanese pulled out all the stops welcoming the Americans. Of all the stops around the world, the Japanese visits were the most important, and turned out very well for relations between the two countries.
Next came Amoy, China, then south again into the Indian Ocean. In Sri Lanka the fleet received a huge gift of tea from Sir Thomas Lipton. They celebrated Christmas 1908 at sea enroute the Red Sea. An earthquake had destroyed much of Messina, Italy, so two battleships were sent there to aid the survivors, while the other ships visited other Mediterranean ports for more celebrations.
The fleet arrived home in Hampton Roads on February 22, 1909, met by Teddy Roosevelt, who had only two weeks left before he turned over the government to William Howard Taft. The trip took 14 months, sailing over 42,000 miles.
The trip was a diplomatic success, particularly with Japan. The combination of U.S. industrial and economic power, combined with a President who knew how to apply that power, and Americans ready and able to play their part in demonstrating that power announced to the world that the United States was ready for a new role in the world.
HISTORY BOOK CLUB TOPICS FOR 2017
Wednesday, April 26, 2017: History of Class in America We’ve often bragged that Americans started out resisting the class structure, but our Founding Fathers included men like Thomas Jefferson, owners of much land and slaves. At the same time, indentured servants arrived in young America, to fill the bottom rungs of society. [Suggested by Sam Coulbourn]
Wednesday, May 31, 2017: Famines in the World. Famines have killed millions over the centuries. In modern times there have been disastrous famines in Somalia, Congo, South Sudan, all over West Africa. The Irish Potato Famine of 1845-49 killed over a million and sent many to America. Famines in Russia, Korea, China, Japan, Poland, England, Iceland, France, Italy, Sweden, Finland and India all have legends attached to them. [Suggested by Linda Burkell and Walt Frederick]
Wednesday, June 28, 2017: History of English/British Colonialism It started in the latter part of the 15th Century with plantations in Ireland. Read how the United Kingdom grew to become the greatest Empire in the history of the world. If you wish, home in on British slave trade, and how the U.K. colonized the New World, bringing slaves to grow sugar and cotton. Then Napoleonic Wars and Britain’s seizure of French Colonies. America and Canada. Colonization of Asia in Hong Kong, Malaya, Australia, New Zealand, India, Burma. Africa, and more for you to discover. [Suggested by Richard Heuser]
Wednesday, July 26, 2017: Treasure Hunts in History. This is your opportunity to find a treasure and discover the hunt for it, whether it is the quest for gold in California, diamonds in Africa, the hunt for the pharaohs buried in the pyramids, the hunt to discover a cure for polio or yellow fever, the terracotta army buried with Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, the search for the source of the Nile, the discovery of Neanderthal man… This topic is for you to imagine! [Suggested by Walt Frederick]
Wednesday, August 31, 2017: Gloucester and the Sea. Gloucester has throughout four centuries cast its lot with the North Atlantic, remaining a maritime port for better or worse. The maritime culture of Cape Ann is the mix of a noble maritime heritage; ubiquitous sea influences that reach as far as the quarries behind Rockport and into the haunted tracks of Dogtown Common; seductive but capricious natural splendors; and untidy independence that repels some but converts other visitors into lifetime devotees. We plan to invite Chester Brigham, author of Gloucester’s Bargain with the Sea, to join us. Read this or any other book about the maritime history of Gloucester. [Suggested by Richard Verrengia]